Bacon's Essays: Of Death

Dance_of_Death_wikicomThis one is chock-full of Latin quotes. Sigh. We can get translations, fortunately, from Richard Whately’s 1868 annotations.

It starts off simply enough: “Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark…” That is, we fear the unknown. Bacon goes on to discuss the fear of the pain of death. “You shall read, in some of the friars’ books of mortification, that a man should think with himself, what the pain is, if he have but his finger’s end pressed, or tortured, and thereby imagine, what the pains of death are, when the whole body is corrupted, and dissolved…”

I’ll skip those books of mortification, thanks. I get enough torture pruning my roses every February. Bacon assures us, however, that “many times death passeth, with less pain than the torture of a limb; for the most vital parts, are not the quickest of sense.” Whew!

“Pompa mortis magis terret, quam mors ipsa.” Well said, says Bacon. Whately gives us, “The pomp of death

What happens to people who don't use their turn signals.

What happens to people who don’t use their turn signals.

is more terrible than death itself.” Meaning the death-obsessed medieval imagery a person in Bacon’s day would have seen absolutely everywhere. The scarier, the better. They dreamed up lavish visions of what happens to you after you die, when you go to hell, which you will because you lied to your mother and cheated on your taxes and probably coveted thy neighbors ass. Or arse. This woodcut tells you what to expect.

I don’t think Bacon believed in Hell or demons or any of the imaginary beings that populate the spiritual world. He never said it in so many words, because that would be an invitation to trouble, but his life work was squarely aimed at defeating the ungrounded fantasism and irrational speculations of the middle ages.

He observes that death has is admirers. “Revenge triumphs over death; love slights it; honor aspireth to it; grief flieth to it; fear preoccupateth it.” (Say ‘preoccupateth it’ three times in the morning to limber up your tongue. Whately says it means ‘anticipate’ here.)

Seneca thinks you might wish for death out sheer boredom. Cogita quamdiu eadem feceris; mori velle, non tantum fortis aut miser, sed etiam fastidiosus potest, “Think how long thou hast done the same thing; not only a valiant man or a miserable man, but also a fastidious man is able to wish for death.” Translation from Bartleby. There’s Bacon all over the information highway!)

Bacon takes the long view, reminding us that death is part of Nature. “Stoics bestowed too much cost upon death, and by their great preparations, made it appear more fearful. Better saith he qui finem vitae extremum inter munera ponat naturae.” Whately tells us this ‘he’ is Juvenal: “He who accounts the close of life among the boons of nature.”

From ASAP Science.

From ASAP Science.

 Bacon advises that it’s best to die with your boots on. “He that dies in an earnest pursuit, is like one that is wounded in hot blood; who, for the time, scarce feels the hurt; and therefore a mind fixed, and bent upon somewhat that is good, doth avert the dolors of death.”

Finally, he tells us that all’s well that ends well. “But, above all, believe it, the sweetest canticle is, Nunc dimittis (now letteth thy servant depart); when a man hath obtained worthy ends, and expectations. Death hath this also; that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envy. –Extinctus amabitur idem. (The same man shall be beloved when dead.)

Well, Bacon certainly was. His friends, of whom there were many, hastened to gather up his letters and writings after his death to preserve them for the ages. They had a monument made for his tomb in Gorhambury. Alas, we have no sketches of his desk. Picture Einstein’s, but with more papers in rolls, quills in an inkstand, and diamond-paned windows where the blackboard is, for the light.

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