Bacon's essays: Of Goodness

Bacon doesn’t mince words when it comes to the importance of goodness, by which he means wild-rabbitsomething like philanthropy: working toward the good of humanity. “Without it,” he writes, “man is a busy, mischievous, wretched thing; no better than a kind of vermin.”

You can’t go wrong with goodness. “The desire of power in excess, caused the angels to fall; the desire of knowledge in excess, caused man to fall: but in charity there is no excess; neither can angel, nor man, come in danger by it.”

The scandal and the danger

Actually, it is possible to go too far in the exercise of goodness, or charity. “The Italians have an ungracious proverb, Tanto buon che val niente: so good, that he is good for nothing.” I suppose this means the good-for-nothing is too busy being virtuous to earn his own living.

“Seek the good of other men, but be not in bondage to their faces or fancies; for that is but facility, or softness; which taketh an honest mind prisoner.” I find this essay hard going, but I think that means give people what they truly need, not what they think they want or what they want to appease their vanity (their faces.) Don’t give Aesop’s cock a gem; what he really wants is a barley corn.

Be practical, for goodness’ sake!

fountainThis is the sort of advice we expect from the tirelessly pragmatic Francis Bacon: “Sell all thou hast, and give it to the poor, and follow me: but, sell not all thou hast, except thou come and follow me; that is, except thou have a vocation, wherein thou mayest do as much good, with little means as with great; for otherwise, in feeding the streams, thou driest the fountain.”

Giving everything you have to the poor will chiefly make you another poor person. Or maybe you could set up some kind of turn-taking operation… Bacon didn’t consider that, no doubt because it would be absurd and impractical.

The lighter sort of malignity

He spares a few sentences for the opposite of goodness, but this section makes the least sense of all. Bacon didn’t waste much time on people of whom he had a low opinion. “The lighter sort of malignity, turneth but to a crossness, or frowardness, or aptness to oppose, or difficulties, or the like; but the deeper sort, to envy and mere mischief.” This description fits ordinary, everyday malignity: those bitter office gossips and those grumpy, low-energy people who don’t think anything will ever function properly or do any good. They used to say, “Why bother?” Now they say, “Who has the time?” It means the same thing. Spiro Agnew called them “nattering nabobs of negativity,” which remains one of my favorite phrases. Surely Dr. Seuss drew them in some book or other.

Signs of goodness

These are many, and here we get our customary clarity and wit. “If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island, cut off from other lands, but a continent, that joins to them. If he be compassionate towards the afflictions of others, it shows that his heart is like the noble tree, that is wounded itself, when it gives the balm. If he easily pardons, and remits offences, it shows that his mind is planted above injuries; so that he cannot be shot. If he be thankful for small benefits, it shows that he weighs men’s minds, and not their trash.”

I especially like that part about not weighing other men’s trash. Don’t recycle it either!


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