Bacon's essays: Of seditions and troubles


A storm at sea. Ludolf Bakhuizen. 1702.

Seditions and troubles and libels, oh, my! I think Bacon may be writing about the 2016 US presidential campaigns here. “Libels and licentious discourses against the state, when they are frequent and open; and in like sort, false news often running up and down, to the disadvantage of the state, and hastily embraced; are amongst the signs of troubles.” Especially that “false news running up and down” part.

Bacon compares troubles of the state to tropical storms, curiously noting that they “are commonly greatest, when things grow to equality; as natural tempests are greatest about the Equinoctia.” More troubles in democracies? That’s the opposite of what he said in the last essay.

He loves the image so much, he gives it to us in Latin: “Ille etiam caecos instare tumultus
Saepe monet, fraudesque et operta tunescere bella.” [He oftens warns of fast-coming tumults, hidden fraud, and open warfare, swelling proud. Virgil, Georg. i, 465. Thank you, Robert Whateley!]

How much news would an Agnew choose?

(… if an Agnew could choose news. Laugh In, March 2, 1970.)

Francis Bacon well understood the problems of rumors and spread of ‘fames,’ by which he means ‘reputations’ or ‘scandals.’ “Tacitus saith; conflata magna invidia, seu bene seu male gesta premunt.” [Great envy being excited, they condemn acts, whether good or bad. Tacitus, Hist., i, 7.]

I think Bacon means that once you rise to a place where everything you do is remarked upon, you inspire envy, and then whatever you do will be despised. Although I’m not sure that fits the general theme, which has to do with seditious fames being both a cause and an effect of seditious tumults.

“Neither doth it follow, that because these fames are a sign of troubles, that the suppressing of them with too much severity, should be a remedy of troubles. For the despising of them, many times checks them best; and the going about to stop them, doth but make a wonder long-lived.”

He is so right! How many modern personages have risen to great fame by doing and saying outrageous things? If it were possible to ignore them, the way you ignore a yapping dog, they would eventually shut up and slink away. Given our culture of instant media circulation, that’s not possible. Now, moronic businessmen who make ugly, off-the-cuff, racist remarks, can actually rise on the tumult that whips up to the top of their political party.

Francis Bacon would not be at all surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. He would say, “Didn’t you read my essay?”

Too much Latin, Francis!

This is why we can’t learn from his excellent observations: we stopped basing our educations on Latin rhetoric more than a century ago. It’s a dead language, for pity’s sake!

I started making a list of the quotes from Tacitus and others, adding the translations, but they don’t make sense out of context and I’m not finding them that illuminating even in context. Heck with it. If you really want to slog through the many Latin quotations, read the essay in Whateley’s edition. He provides translations in the footnotes.

Shaking the pillars

“[W]hen discords, and quarrels, and factions are carried openly and audaciously, it is a sign thesamson reverence of government is lost.” True, and in my personal opinion, ultimately the biggest problem in raising buffoons to the highest level of political discourse. People lose faith in government. And when they see buffoonery attract thousands of followers, they lose faith in the fundamental processes of democracy.

“[W]hen any of the four pillars of government, are mainly shaken, or weakened (which are religion, justice, counsel, and treasure), men had need to pray for fair weather.”

Now we move on to the practical matters.”The surest way to prevent seditions (if the times do bear it) is to take away the matter of them… The matter of seditions is of two kinds: much poverty, and much discontentment.” 


“As for discontentments … let no prince measure the danger of them by this, whether they be just or unjust: for that were to imagine people, to be too reasonable; who do often spurn at their own good”

Oh, Francis! You are too wise!

“The causes and motives of seditions are, innovation in religion; taxes; alteration of laws and customs; breaking of privileges; general oppression; advancement of unworthy persons; strangers; dearths; disbanded soldiers; factions grown desperate; and what soever, in offending people, joineth and knitteth them in a common cause.”

That pretty much sums it up.

General preservatives

Bacon has a lot of advice about preventing sedition. He did live through troublous times, although they got troublous-er in the generation after his death. But he is spot on here: “The first remedy or prevention is to remove, by all means possible, that material cause of sedition whereof we spake; which is, want and poverty in the estate.”

He’s not really talking about income inequality per se, but he always pointed out to anyone who would listen that the first, best, foundation of a safe and stable society was that everyone in it have sufficient means to live comfortably and securely.

How do we achieve this laudable goal? “To which purpose serveth the opening, and well-balancing of trade; the cherishing of manufactures; the banishing of idleness; the repressing of waste, and excess, by sumptuary laws; the improvement and husbanding of the soil; the regulating of prices of things vendible; the moderating of taxes and tributes; and the like.”

OK, easier said than done. These are the issues our candidates debate, when they’re not just ranting. How to cherish manufacture? (Domestic, not outsourced.) How to repress waste, which in our century is actually crushing the life out of our planet?

(I realize this post is more political than my usual output. This essay is ringing bells for me this year!)

spreading-manureBacon warns about having in imbalanced population. You don’t want too many people and you especially don’t want too many people of great estate as compared to ordinary people. “Therefore the multiplying of nobility, and other degrees of quality, in an over proportion to the common people, doth speedily bring a state to necessity; and so doth likewise an overgrown clergy; for they bring nothing to the stock.”


Spread the wealth! Now he’s sounding like Bernie Sanders, which is just so improbable. But read this: “Above all things, good policy is to be used, that the treasure and moneys, in a state, be not gathered into few hands.”

And here’s the take-home quote: “Money is like muck, not good except it be spread.”

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