Bacon's Essays: Of Dispatch

Dispatch is one of those delightful words whose meanings have clung close to their origin, in both theirpony-express nominal and verbal forms. It’s about sending things quickly, so we can dispatch a dispatch with dispatch. Bacon is talking about business: getting things done.

Be thou not hasty!

“Affected dispatch is one of the most dangerous things to business that can be.” He means that pretending to get things done quickly, merely for the sake of appearances, is a terrible idea. This must have happened a lot in Bacon’s day, because he spends a whole paragraph arguing against it.

“Therefore measure not dispatch, by the times of sitting, but by the advancement of the business.” This is the quote used in the OED definition of one of dispatch’s sub-meanings, “Prompt settlement or speedy accomplishment of an affair.” Prompt; not hasty.

cecil-court-of-wardsBacon served in Parliament most of the years of his life (from 1885 – 1607.) He must have served on a lot of committees with a lot of men whose efforts were aimed at something other than the task at hand. (Self-aggrandizement, pushing Puritan ideology, etc.) Many men must also have simply gotten bored with the increasing focus on detail resulting from a century of Tudor monarchs and their university-bred ministers.

But haste makes waste, of everyone’s time and effort. “And business so handled, at several sittings or meetings, goeth commonly backward and forward in an unsteady manner. I knew a wise man that had it for a byword, when he saw men hasten to a conclusion, Stay a little, that we may make an end the sooner.”

Those rooms are chilly, clammy, and stuffy, in my observation as a tourist, although ruffs are more comfortable than you might think.


Neither shalt thou dally

“On the other side, true dispatch is a rich thing. For time is the measure of business, as money is of wares…” An important thing to remember.


Philip II, by Titian

Here’s an example of the hazards of sluggishness: “The Spartans and Spaniards have been noted to be of small dispatch; Mi venga la muerte de Spagna; Let my death come from Spain; for then it will be sure to be long in coming.”

Spain had created a global empire in the sixteenth century. It took several months for a ship to travel to the Americas and back; nevertheless, all major decisions had to be made by King Philip personally. You can imagine what his to-do looked like! Decisions took forever.

This next whole paragraph is useful. “Give good hearing to those, that give the first information in business; and rather direct them in the beginning, than interrupt them in the continuance of their speeches; for he that is put out of his own order, will go forward and backward, and be more tedious, while he waits upon his memory, than he could have been, if he had gone on in his own course. But sometimes it is seen, that the moderator is more troublesome, than the actor.”

Anyone who has ever been in a meeting has seen this. The moderator (or bad teacher) keeps interrupting the poor speaker to hurry them along, succeeding only in getting them more muddled. I can feel a parody of this tickling at my memory, from some movie, a 40’s movie maybe…. Jimmy Stewart? Or one of those great character actors? Dick Van Dyke?

Avoid those long and curious speeches

running-ina-dress“Long and curious speeches, are as fit for dispatch, as a robe or mantle, with a long train, is for race.” Maybe a man couldn’t do it, but women could hike up their skirts and run with the best of them.

Bacon was also well-acquainted with the type we call the Gasbag. The Elizabethan word for self-display was ‘bravery.’ “Prefaces and passages, and excusations, and other speeches of reference to the person, are great wastes of time; and though they seem to proceed of modesty, they are bravery.”

This next analogy needs explanation; at least, I had to look up a word. “Yet beware of being too material, when there is any impediment or obstruction in men’s wills; for pre-occupation of mind ever requireth preface of speech; like a fomentation to make the unguent enter.”

You have to allow some amount of digression, especially to help set up the context. A fomentation is something warm, like a pad of flannel soaked in hot water, that helps the unguent be absorbed by the skin. Now that I understand it, I find the analogy a little creepy.

Make that list

Efficient time managers — people who get things done — make lists. Sorry, non-list-makers; it’s a fact of life. Bacon knew it. He probably made a list every morning, augmenting the weekly list he’d made on Monday morning. Did he check things off or strike them through? History doesn’t tell us, of that I am certain. History rarely tells us this sort of thing, so I am free to make it up in my stories.

“Above all things, order, and distribution, and singling out of parts, is the life of dispatch.”

On the other hand, “he that doth not divide, will never enter well into business; and he that divideth too much, will never come out of it clearly.” Be complete, but don’t split hairs!

“There be three parts of business; the preparation, the debate or examination, and the perfection.” The perfection means the conclusion. 

“Whereof, if you look for dispatch, let the middle only be the work of many, and the first and last thePhoenix_rising_from_its_ashes work of few.” I’ve read this notion somewhere else in his writings. Bacon strongly believed that important matters should be thoroughly discussed by everyone in such a way that everyone knows that everyone knows what everyone knows.

I agree. This is the part that many managers (dictators) want to rush through, impatient to get to the perfection. But consensus, at least of understanding, is important. And it’s crucially important to the ultimate success of the enterprise for everyone to know that they have been heard. Otherwise, they’re more likely to thwart progress than assist it.

He ends this essay atypically with a knotted construction, not the least bit quotable. “The proceeding upon somewhat [something] conceived in writing, doth for the most part facilitate dispatch: for though it should be wholly rejected, yet that negative is more pregnant of direction, than an indefinite; as ashes are more generative than dust.”

It’s a good idea to base your meeting on a written proposal. That will speed things up, because even though the proposal may be rejected, you’ll at least know exactly what it was. You’ll at least get a clear sense of what is not wanted.

I got nothing about ashes being more generative than dust, except that the phoenix arises from its own ashes. Bacon might have been thinking about this. His mind tended to leap first to the classical for analogies, like most well-educated Elizabethans.


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