Bacon's essays: Of Adversity

You might wonder what an upper crust intellectual could possibly know of adversity? More than you might think, although when he wrote this essay, Bacon had not yet endured his most severe trials. Queen Elizabeth forced him to prosecute his patron, the Earl of Essex, for treason in 1601, and he was trounced out of the Lord Chancellor’s office — his lifelong dream — in 1621. (He retired to the country and invented the modern world.)

Too much Latin (but no Greek)

There’s a couple of juicy quotes from Seneca in this one. These translations are from Conrad Geller, who has rewritten all of Bacon’s essays in modern English.

Epistle 66: Bona rerum secundarum optabilia; adversarum mirabilia; The benefits that come from prosperity are desirable, but the benefits that come from adversity are wonderful.

These days we like to say, That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

Epistle 53: Vere magnum habere fragilitatem hominis, securitatem Dei; It is true greatness to have in one person human fragility and divine strength.

Without Kryptonite, would we love Superman quite so much?

Some strikingly odd imagery

Davids harpFirst we have Hercules sailing in an earthen pot, which I’m sorry to say could not work. Then we have David’s harp, on which “you shall hear as many hearse-like airs as carols.” Last and far from least, we have “the pencil of the Holy Ghost hath labored more in describing the afflictions of Job, than the felicities of Solomon.”

I worried for many whole minutes about introducing a pencil to Tom’s toolkit in Death by Disputation. Now here’s the Holy Ghost, whom I always supposed was a completely abstract entity, scribbling away.A broken pencil Do you suppose he (or she or it) chewed on the said instrument whilst thinking what to write? 




The take-home messages

* The virtue of prosperity, is temperance; the virtue of adversity, is fortitude.

* Certainly virtue is like precious odors, most fragrant when they are incensed, or crushed: for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue.

Like athelas, or kingsfoil, a common herb until crushed and tossed into hot water.


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