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Bacon's essays: Of Prophecies

Happy birthday, Lord Verulam! Francis Bacon would be 457 years old today.

“I mean not to speak of divine prophecies; nor of heathen oracles; nor of natural predictions; but only of prophecies that have been of certain memory, and from hidden causes.”

In Of Prophecies, Bacon only considers confirmed cases of prognostication, in the OED’s second sense of the word: “a prediction of a future event or outcome.” He believed in prognostication; this is his exploration of the idea. Verification is crucial for Francis Bacon. You can’t just fling prophecies out there without following up on them to see if they really did come to pass.

Empires and new continents

Norse discovery of America

Bacon attributes his first quote to Homer. The lines come from the Aeneid, which was written by Virgil, but OK. “At domus Aeneae cunctis dominabitur oris, Et nati natorum, et qui nascentur ab illis.” Our good friend Richard Whateley translates: “Over every shore the house of Aeneas shall reign; his children’s children, and their posterity likewise.” Bacon says this was considered a prediction of the spread of the Roman Empire.

Seneca got credit for predicting the discovery of America:

“–Venient annis
Saecula seris, quibus Oceanus
Vincula rerum laxet, et ingens
Pateat Tellus, Tiphysque novos
Detegat orbes; nec sit terris
Ultima Thule:”

(There shall come a time, in later ages, when Ocean shall relax his chains, and a vast continent appear; and a pilot shall find new worlds, and Thule shall be no more Earth’s bound.)

That is actually kind of cool. Of course, Bacon would have been thinking of Christopher Columbus, not the Norsemen, but he supported the overturning of old ideas upon the discovery of new facts.

Degustabis imperium

galba
Galba

The next section contains a stream of supposed predictions of persons becoming great rulers. I like the sound of this one: “Tu quoque, Galba, degustabis imperium,” (Thou also, Galba, shall taste of empire.)

In my variety of English, that’s ambiguous. Galba may taste like empire or he may get a taste of empire. I don’t find a regular thing called “empire cake,” but there’s a whole Wikipedia page for King cake, which I’d never heard of before. Who knew? Well, lots of people, apparently. These things are eaten all over the world for the festival of Epiphany at the end of the Christmas season. The kings in question are Biblical kings. Huh.

 

king-cake
King cake, Southern style

“Domitian dreamed, the night before he was slain, that a golden head was growing, out of the nape of his neck: and indeed, the succession that followed him for many years, made golden times.” I can’t find a picture of this, sadly. You’d think someone would’ve painted an image like that by now.

 

 

Catherine-de-medici
Catherine de’ Medici, ca. 1555

Bacon reminisces, “When I was in France, I heard from one Dr. Penal that the Queen Mother, who was given to curious arts, caused the King her husband’s nativity to be calculated, under a false name; and the astrologer gave a judgment, that he should be killed in a duel; at which the Queen laughed, thinking her husband to be above challenges and duels: but he was slain upon a course at tilt, the splinters of the staff of Montgomery going in at his beaver.” (Don’t be vulgar! That means his hat.)

Bacon was in France for about three years in his late teens, so between about 1576-1579. The King of France during those years was Henri III. The Queen Mother — his mother — was the infamous Catherine de’ Medici. “Given to curious arts,” indeed!

“The trivial prophecy, which I heard when I was a child, and Queen Elizabeth was in the flower of her years, was, “When hempe is spun, England’s done.” whereby it was generally conceived, that after the princes had reigned, which had the principal letters of that word hempe (which were Henry, Edward, Mary, Philip, and Elizabeth), England should come to utter confusion; which, thanks be to God, is verified only in the change of the name; for that the King’s style, is now no more of England, but of Britian.”

We can see that interpreting prophecies requires a certain amount of artistic license.

Hints about fleets

armada
English ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588

“There was also another prophecy, before the year of ’88, which I do not well understand.

“There shall be seen upon a day,
Between the Baugh and the May,
The black fleet of Norway.
When that that come and gone,
England build houses of lime and stone,
For after wars shall you have none.” 

It was generally conceived to be meant, of the Spanish fleet that came in ’88: for that the king of Spain’s surname, as they say, is Norway.”

I don’t well understand this one either. Apart from the whole Spanish Armada thing, the English didn’t get seriously into building houses of stone until the 17th century. Lots of timber and plaster before that, or so it seems to me.

Johannes_Regiomontanus
Johannes Regiomontanus

 

“The prediction of Regiomontanus, “Octogesimus octavus mirabilis annus,” (Eighty-eight, a wonderful year) was thought likewise accomplished in the sending of that great fleet, being the greatest in strength, though not in number, of all that ever swam upon the sea.

I think Johannus Regiomontanus could have been talking about his garden, for all anyone knows. He was a mathematician and astronomer who died in 1476. He was the grand-teacher of Nicolaus Copernicus, but not generally famous for prognostication.

 

 

Jests, with dragons

“As for Cleon’s dream, I think it was a jest. It was, that he was devoured of a long dragon; and it Hokusai_Dragonwas expounded of a maker of sausages, that troubled him exceedingly.”

Man, I hate these philosopher’s jests. I totally don’t get it. But look at what a wonderful dragon I found for you! The expression on his face is priceless. He is “Dragon, by Hokusai,” Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849.)

Turns out Bacon thinks these prophecies are all hogwash!

“My judgment is, that they ought all to be despised; and ought to serve but for winter talk by the fireside.” Entertainment value only, although sometimes the causes of much mischief.

There are three things that give prophecies what credit they possess: “First, that men mark when they hit, and never mark when they miss; as they do generally also of dreams.”

“The second is, that probable conjectures, or obscure traditions, many times turn themselves into prophecies; while the nature of man, which coveteth divination, thinks it no peril to foretell that which indeed they do but collect.” Obvious predictions or odd little bits of obscure poetry, as we have seen, get turned into prophecies after the fact, because humans love to attribute things to the supernatural. What’s that about, anyway? It’s true, though.

map_world_43ad
Map of the known world in 43 A.D.

Bacon supports this assertion by taking another look at Seneca’s supposed prophecy about the New World, which impressed even skeptical me for a while there. “As that of Seneca’s verse. For so much was then subject to demonstration, that the globe of the earth had great parts beyond the Atlantic, which mought be probably conceived not to be all sea: and adding thereto the tradition in Plato’s Timaeus, and his Atlanticus, it mought encourage one to turn it to a prediction.”

I didn’t know there was speculation about lands beyond the sea in ancient times, but it’s plausible that there would be, especially with Vikings splashing about all over. (Kidding. They didn’t go that early.) But the ancients knew Africa was a large land mass beyond a sea. They could certainly have posited more of that nature.

Bacon’s last rather dry word on the subject: “The third and last (which is the great one) is, that almost all of them, being infinite in number, have been impostures, and by idle and crafty brains merely contrived and feigned, after the event past.”

So don’t be fooled, y’all!

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!