Bacon's Essays: Of Riches

Francis Bacon writing of riches; how rich is that? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the guy had no sense of money. He spent freely and gave generously to friends and servants, without any real notion of where the money came from. He left tens of thousands of pounds of debt when he died. But we can observe things we can’t perform ourselves.

Money vs virtue

“I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue.” He means he can’t say anything better about Baggage_Carrierwealth, other than that it is something that follows along behind virtue.

“The Roman word is better, impedimenta. For as the baggage is to an army, so is riches to virtue. It cannot be spared, nor left behind, but it hindereth the march; yea, and the care of it, sometimes loseth or disturbeth the victory.”

Wealth can prevent you from achieving virtue, he’s saying.

“Of great riches there is no real use, except it be in the distribution; the rest is but conceit. So saith Solomon, Where much is, there are many consume it; and what hath the owner, but the sight of it with his eyes?”

All you can do with money is spend it or sit around looking at your sacks of coins and chests of jewels. That’s even less interesting these days, when wealth is basically a series of positive and negative electrons.

What’s it really worth?

debtors_prison2
The Pickwick Papers, Mr. Pickwick wakes up in debtor’s prison, by Hablot Knight Browne, ca. 1837

“Do you not see what feigned prices, are set upon little stones and rarities? and what works of ostentation are undertaken, because there might seem to be some use of great riches? But then you will say, they may be of use, to buy men out of dangers or troubles.”

“As Solomon saith, Riches are as a strong hold, in the imagination of the rich man. But this is excellently expressed, that it is in imagination, and not always in fact. For certainly great riches, have sold more men, than they have bought out.”

First, profits are always bigger in the mind than in reality. Second, seeking riches is more likely to get you into trouble than out of it. And ain’t that the truth?

 

Neither seek riches nor scorn them

“Seek not proud riches, but such as thou mayest get justly, use soberly, distribute cheerfully, and leave contentedly. Yet have no abstract nor friarly contempt of them.”

beggar-and-rich-man
The beggar and the rich man

This is solid Bacon, the man whose family crest says, “Moderate things are surest.” Don’t seek money out of pride — to make yourself seem important. But don’t scorn money either, like some poverty-loving monk. Be thou neither Gatsby nor Thoreau.

Cicero said, “In studio rei amplificandae apparebat, non avaritiae praedam, sed instrumentum bonitati quaeri.” Our good friend Richard Whately translates for us: “In his desire of increasing his riches, he sought not, it was evident, the gratification of avarice, but the means of beneficence.” 

Good advice, Cicero! My personal take on this is that you want enough money to be secure from want and pay your health insurance, so your whole family doesn’t get taken down by some disaster. But once you get there, wherever that is for you, the rest is gravy. Share it! Be like J.K. Rowling, who gives away great sacks of her Wizard’s Treasure.

Don’t get rich quick

“Harken also to Solomon, and beware of hasty gathering of riches; Qui festinat ad divitias, non erit insons.” Whatley translates, “He that maketh haste to be rich, shall not be innocent.”

“[R]iches gotten by good means, and just labor, pace slowly; but when they come by the death of others (as by the course of inheritance, testaments, and the like), they come tumbling upon a man. But it mought be applied likewise to Pluto, taking him for the devil. For when riches come from the devil (as by fraud and oppression, and unjust means), they come upon speed.”

“The ways to enrich are many, and most of them foul. Parsimony is one of the best, and yet is not innocent; for it withholdeth men from works of liberality and charity.” Thrift can easily turn to stinginess.

stuartdrill
A century later, by the clothes, but a cool picture

“The improvement of the ground, is the most natural obtaining of riches; for it is our great mother’s blessing, the earth’s; but it is slow. And yet where men of great wealth do stoop to husbandry, it multiplieth riches exceedingly. I knew a nobleman in England, that had the greatest audits of any man in my time; a great grazier, a great sheep-master, a great timber man, a great collier, a great corn-master, a great lead-man, and so of iron, and a number of the like points of husbandry. So as the earth seemed a sea to him, in respect of the perpetual importation.”

In Bacon’s day, most agriculture was still done on the medieval plan. The Dissolution turned thousands of acres into private hands and stimulated a renaissance in farming practices. Many a hard-working yeoman hoisted his family into the middle class by draining marshes and managing his lands more intelligently. Forward-thinking gentlemen, like the one in the anecdote, grew very rich indeed. Bacon wouldn’t have considered that excessively speedy acquisition, nor greedy, since agriculture was the major employer in those days too. The well-managed farm would benefit everyone who worked on it.

Them that’s got, gets

“It was truly observed by one, that himself came very hardly, to a little riches, and very easily, to great riches. For when a man’s stock is come to that, that he can expect the prime of markets, and overcome those bargains, which for their greatness are few men’s money, and be partner in the industries of younger men, he cannot but increase mainly.”

Hard work and fair dealing

“The gains of ordinary trades and vocations are honest; and furthered by two things chiefly: by diligence, and by a good name, for good and fair dealing.” That’s plain enough.

But be wary of bargains. “But the gains of bargains, are of a more doubtful nature; when men shall wait upon others’ necessity, broke by servants and instruments to draw them on, put off others cunningly, that would be better chapmen, and the like practices, which are crafty and naught.”

Chapmen are merchants or brokers. I don’t get the middle part “…broke by servants…” Impressionistically, it means false bargains might be created by servants and deception, shaving off a little here and a little there, slapping paint on a shoddy product…

churn
The Butter Churn, Ralph Hedley, 1897

Churning stocks is also bad. “As for the chopping of bargains, when a man buys not to hold but to sell over again, that commonly grindeth double, both upon the seller, and upon the buyer.”

“Sharings do greatly enrich, if the hands be well chosen, that are trusted.” Going into partnerships is good, provided that the partners trust each other.

“Usury is the certainest means of gain, though one of the worst; as that whereby a man doth eat his bread, in sudore vultus alieni (in the sweat of another’s brow); and besides, doth plough upon Sundays.”

Lending money at interest had a dubious status in Bacon’s day. It was necessary then as now for growing a new enterprise, but it had all those unsavory Biblical connotations, like forcing the investor, in some sense, to work on Sunday.

Invention is the mother of money

“The fortune in being the first, in an invention or in a privilege, doth cause sometimes a wonderful overgrowth in riches; as it was with the with the first sugar man, in the Canaries. Therefore if a man can play the true logician, to have as well judgment, as invention, he may do great matters; especially if the times be fit.”

The story of the Internet age.

“He that resteth upon gains certain, shall hardly grow to great riches; and he that puts all upon adventures, doth oftentimes break and come to poverty: it is good, therefore, to guard adventures with certainties, that may uphold losses.”

A lot of people lost a lot of money gambling on New World adventures. The Earl of Cumberland, who was hopelessly addicting to piracy, once said, “I have thrown my lands into the sea.” He meant he’d sold his vast inherited estates to fund his seafaring adventures.

“Monopolies, and coemption of wares for re-sale, where they are not restrained, are great means to enrich; especially if the party have intelligence, what things are like to come into request, and so store himself beforehand.” Bacon doesn’t say anything negative about this. Monopolies were normal, gifts of the king to favorites, in his day. A risky thing to object to in writing.

“Riches gotten by service, though it be of the best rise, yet when they are gotten by flattery, feeding humors, and other servile conditions, they may be placed amongst the worst.” Yep.

“As for fishing for testaments and executorships (as Tacitus saith of Seneca, testamenta et orbos tamquam indagine capi, “Wills and childless parents, taken as with a net”), it is yet worse; by how much men submit themselves to meaner persons, than in service.”

This is an odd thing for a lawyer to complain about! Surely most of his colleagues at Gray’s Inn made a substantial portion of their livings by serving as executors of wills.

Penny wise, pound foolish

“Believe not much, them that seem to despise riches for they despise them, that despair of them; and none worse, when they come to them.”

People without money who pretend to despise money can be insufferable when they get some.

“Be not penny-wise; riches have wings, and sometimes they fly away of themselves, sometimes they must be set flying, to bring in more.”

There was no such thing as an economist in Bacon’s day. They knew that prices rose throughout the period, but I don’t suppose there was a theory about it. The term “inflation,” applied to prices, didn’t come in until the nineteenth century. But that’s what he means here. Pile those pennies up in the corner and their value will leach away. Better to put the money into use by investing it. 

“Men leave their riches, either to their kindred, or to the public; and moderate portions, prosper best in both. A great state left to an heir, is as a lure to all the birds of prey round about, to seize on him, if he be not the better stablished in years and judgment.”

This is why rich people add conditions to their wills and make their children wait until they’re well into their twenties to inherit.

sepulchre
A painted sepulchre

“Likewise glorious gifts and foundations, are like sacrifices without salt; and but the painted sepulchres of alms, which soon will putrefy, and corrupt inwardly. Therefore measure not thine advancements, by quantity, but frame them by measure: and defer not charities till death; for, certainly, if a man weigh it rightly, he that doth so, is rather liberal of another man’s, than of his own.”

Bacon wants us to do good while we’re alive and not just pile up riches to do good after we’re dead. I can see his point, but it’s still good to leave your wealth to a good cause!

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