Bacon's essays: Of Fortune

Uh-oh! I can see at a glance that this essay, Of Fortune, is loaded with Latin. Sigh. What would we do without our good friend Richard Whateley’s fine translations and commentaries?

Destiny is in your hands

“It cannot be denied, but outward accidents conduce much to fortune; favor, opportunity, death of others, occasion fitting virtue. But chiefly, the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.”


Titian, Cupid with the wheel of fortune, ca. 1520. Larger than usual because it’s so awesome!

Faber quisque fortunae suae, saith the poet.” (Every man is the artificer of his own fortune, and the poet is either Appius or Plautus.)

One man’s folly…

“And the most frequent of external causes is, that the folly of one man, is the fortune of another. For no man prospers so suddenly, as by others’ errors.” 

Serpens nisi serpentem comederit non fit draco.” (Unless the serpent devours the serpent, it does not become a dragon.) Say what? I did not know this was where dragons came from! It’s obviously Therefore if a man look sharply and attentively, he shall see Fortune: for though she be blind, yet she is not of those metaphors that doesn’t really quite make sense, but it sounds so cool you can’t resist it. Nice to know Bacon suffered from that mild writer’s ailment sometimes too.

“Overt and apparent virtues, bring forth praise; but there be secret and hidden virtues, that bring forth fortune.” Modern American business people will be praised for being extroverted and energetic, but often just being patient and observant are the skills that really pay off.


Graceful ease

“The Spanish name, desemboltura (graceful ease), partly expresseth them; when there be not stonds (stops) nor restiveness in a man’s nature; but that the wheels of his mind, keep way with the wheels of his fortune.” Keep steadily working toward your destiny, neither stopping still nor bustling fruitlessly about. Or we might say, be on the qui vive; keep your eyes open for the main chance.

Livy described Cato Major as a man in tune with Fortune: In illo viro tantum robur corporis et animi fuit, ut quocunque loco natus esset, fortunam sibi facturus videretur. (In that man there was so much strength of body and mind, that it seems that in whatever place he had been, he would have made fortune his own.)

Be alert to Fortune: “Therefore if a man look sharply and attentively, he shall see Fortune: for though she be blind, yet she is not invisible.”

Small virtues

“The way of fortune, is like the Milken Way in the sky; which is a meeting or knot of a number of Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_Nevadasmall stars; not seen asunder, but giving light together. So are there a number of little, and scarce discerned virtues, or rather faculties and customs, that make men fortunate.” A long-winded way of saying God is in the details.

When the Italians “speak of one that cannot do amiss, they will throw in, into his other conditions, that he hath Poco di matto.” (A little of the fool.) Maybe because fools are lucky, beloved of the gods?

More likely because Fortune favors the bold, a quote from Virgil that Bacon surely knew. You have be a little foolish – a little reckless – to leap into Fortune’s path sometimes.

Fortune’s daughters

“Fortune is to be honored and respected, and it be but (if only for) for her daughters, Confidence and Reputation. For those two, Felicity breedeth; the first within a man’s self, the latter in others towards him.”

The family metaphor falls apart here, but he doesn’t seem to care. Felicity is an interesting word. Its basic meaning has been “happiness” since Chaucer’s time (origins clearly French). That meaning naturally extends to things that create happiness, like good fortune and success. From there, we move merrily on to human factors in success, like “A happy faculty in art or speech; admirable appropriateness or grace of invention or expression” and “A happy inspiration, an admirably well-chosen expression.” I like that word!

So happiness and the abilities that produce it breed confidence and reputation. Sounds right to me. Bacon notes that confidence lies within a man’s self, while reputation defines other’s opinions of him.

Felix, not magnus

“All wise men, to decline the envy of their own virtues, use to ascribe them to Providence and Felix_the_CatFortune; for so they may the better assume them: and, besides, it is greatness in a man, to be the care of the higher powers.” Nobody likes a guy (or gal) who goes around saying, “It’s all me, baby. I did everything perfectly all by myself.” Humble-bragging is a whole art form, these days, isn’t it?

So Caesar said to the pilot in the tempest, Caesarem portas, et fortunam ejus (You carry Caesar and his fortunes.) So Sylla chose the name of Felix (lucky), and not of Magnus (great).

“And it hath been noted, that those who ascribe openly too much to their own wisdom and policy, end infortunate.” This sounds daringly like paganism to me. Hubris means presumption of the gods’ prerogative in defining your Fate. You tempt the gods by claiming responsibility for your own successes, or at least by bragging too much. 

“Certainly there be, whose fortunes are like Homer’s verses, that have a slide and easiness more than the verses of other poets; as Plutarch saith of Timoleon’s fortune, in respect of that of Agesilaus or Epaminondas. And that this should be, no doubt it is much, in a man’s self.

This is a fairly lame ending. He’s just saying that some people have an easier time of it than others, and it must be more or less due to their nature.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Timoleon: “Timoleon, who had earlier saved his brother’s life in battle, became involved in the assassination of Timophanes. Public opinion approved his conduct as patriotic; however the curses of his mother and the indignation of some of his kinsfolk drove him into an early retirement for twenty years.”


Epaminondas, an idealized figure in the grounds of Stowe House.

Agesilaus was a king of Sparta “whom Xenophon respected greatly, considering him as an unsurpassed example of all the civil and military virtues.”

As for Epaminondas, “the Roman orator Cicero called him “the first man of Greece”, and Montaigne judged him one of the three “worthiest and most excellent men” that had ever lived.”

So he must have been pretty well favored by Fortune’s daughters.

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