Bacon's Essays: Of the Vicissitude of Things

In times of turmoil, we can turn to Francis Bacon, who lived through some tumults in his own time, on the small scale and the large. He rose through hard work, persistence, and an unwavering faith in reason and moderation. He was Lord Chancellor, the highest judicial position in the land, for five years, appointed by King James I. He performed admirably by all accounts (his contemporaries and historians through the ages agree), but was cast down by envious, angry men who didn’t dare blast at their real targets, so they blasted Bacon instead. It hurt him horribly, but he accepted the loss, went quietly home, and laid the foundations of the Enlightenment.

I’m writing this on Nov. 9 and I’m too dismayed to write about the next essay in line, Of Cunning. Ouch! The one after is Of Wisdom for a Man’s Self, which is about not being self-centered, but about focusing on how you can serve others. Again, ouch! So I’m jumping all the way to the end to write about the penultimate essay, Of the Vicissitude of Things. On days like today, it helps to take the long view.

There is no new thing upon the earth

cosmic historyThat’s what Solomon said. It seems like an odd statement for a prophet. Talk about undercutting yourself. “Beware! Beware! Things are going to remain more or less the same most of the time!”

He’s right, of course. Wherever we are, we as a species have been here before, except for climate change, which is strictly post-industrial.

Bacon found two things that are constant — “that the fixed stars ever stand a like distance one from another” and “that the diurnal motion perpetually keepeth time.”

Well, shucks! That first one is gone, thanks to the Big Boom and the perpetual motion of all things everywhere always. In Bacon’s time, they were still laughing at the absurd idea that the earth might actually rotate around the sun. Even smarty-pants like Francis Bacon thought it just too unlikely. The sun does still keep time for us, by definition, regardless of which revolves around what.

If we’re going to let in things that are fixed by definition, we have vastly more of them than Bacon hadmeter. The currencies may rise and fall in response to current events, but the meter remains the same. Phew! Weights and measures generally, worldwide — the opposite of Bacon’s day, in which your mileage could vary from town to town,. Except for essentials like wool and money. Here’s an effort from England in the 12th century: “By the Consent of the whole Realm of England, the measure of our Lord the King was made; that is to say, That the English Peny, called a Sterling, round and without clipping, shall weigh xxxii Wheat Corns in the midst of the Ear.” It’s wise to carry a few representative wheat corns around with you, for comparison.

captain kirk

Battered, but not beaten


Unicode (the international character set) can also be relied upon through thick and thin. Electricity still flows. Volts and amperes retain their values. So my TV still works and so does the internet. Things that were still are, mostly, so I can stream all five Star Trek series in the evening, every evening, until I feel better.

Solomon also said, “That all novelty is but oblivion.” Meaning, it’s only new because we forgot about it, like timeworn vaudeville jokes being recycled in Disney movies.

Bacon explains it less cartoon-dependently: “Whereby you may see, that the river of Lethe runneth as well above ground as below.” Big wheel keep on turning.



The vicissitude of mutations in the superior globe

copernican-systemThis is from one short paragraph that Bacon treats as a slight digression, but I totally dig that phrase. Put it on a t-shirt; it’d be a real conversation starter. The superior globe is the super-lunary sphere — the universe as known in the sixteenth century, to all but a fringe group of astronomers.

Bacon mentions Plato’s Great Year, which turns out still to be a working concept. NASA defines it thus: “The period of one complete cycle of the equinoxes around the ecliptic, about 25,800 years […] also known as [a] Platonic Year.”

And to think I had never heard of it! I haven’t got a thing to wear.

Bacon mostly laments the lack of knowledge in his time — a constant theme for him (and us.) He says, “Comets, out of question, have likewise power and effect, over the gross and mass of things; but they are rather gazed upon, and waited upon in their journey, than wisely observed in their effects.” You can’t know what things actually do unless you keep track of their actual effects, he said over and over again.

A few people were already keeping track in his time (like Tycho Brahe), but not in England. In England, they were too busy bickering about religion. Good thing we’ve gotten past that one, huh?

The vicissitude of sects and religions

Having contemplated the stability or otherwise of the natural world, we move on to the logical next topic: humans and their endless conflict. Bacon believed there was one true religion — his: “The true religion is built upon the rock; the rest are tossed, upon the waves of time.”

We can relate this section of the essay to our times by substituting something like “the rule of law” for “the one true religion.” That’s more appropriate for the multicultural world we live in.

Bacon writes, “When the religion formerly received, is rent by discords; and when the holiness of the professors of religion, is decayed and full of scandal; and withal the times be stupid, ignorant, and barbarous; you may doubt [expect] the springing up of a new sect.”

I’m just going to let that lie there.


The sect of the ultra-voluptuous.

Some of this long paragraph reveals how different our worlds are. He writes, “If a new sect have not two properties, fear it not; for it will not spread. The one is the supplanting, or the opposing, of authority established; for nothing is more popular than that. The other is the giving license to pleasures, and a voluptuous life.”

To the first part — well, yes. If it doesn’t oppose the old authority, it wouldn’t count as a new sect. Self-evident! Circular argument! Error! Error!

The second part is more peculiar. He may include things like righteous anger, self-indulgent ranting and chanting, burning other people’s barns and cutting down their maypoles under the heading “voluptuous.” Any kind of emotional over-indulgence would count under that heading for the cool-tempered, rational Francis Bacon.

I can’t think of a single revolutionary sect that has fought for softer couches and more snacks. It sounds terrifying though, doesn’t it? The Rise of the Labradors! Fear ye, all ye who value– Zzzzzzzz.

Ending on a up note

carouselThere are three long paragraphs about the vicissitudes caused by war and about weapons that I just can’t dwell on today — or any day. War tears things to bits, we all know that. In fact, wars trash things so badly nowadays it’s hard to tell if anyone ever wins.

But here’s the Francis Bacon I love: “Surely there is no better way, to stop the rising of new sects and schisms, than to reform abuses; to compound the smaller differences; to proceed mildly, and not with sanguinary persecutions; and rather to take off the principal authors by winning and advancing them, than to enrage them by violence and bitterness.”

You know that’s right.

And his parting shot: “But it is not good to look too long upon these turning wheels of vicissitude, lest we become giddy. As for the philology of them, that is but a circle of tales, and therefore not fit for this writing.”

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