Bacon’s works

Category

Bacon's essays: Of Youth and Age

At last, an essay that mostly makes sense right off the bat. Of Youth and Age is conventional wisdom, mostly, with that special Baconian twist.

I’ll pick quotes out of order for a change of pace, looking first at Youth, then at Age, and at some gentlemen who don’t quite fit either pattern.

The upside of youth

cosimo
Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence

“A man that is young in years, may be old in hours, if he have lost no time. But that happeneth rarely.” He means that a young man who knows how to buckle down and make the most of his time could be considered old in experience. But then where’s the fun? The lessons learned from youthful indiscretions?

Coat_of_arms_of_the_House_of_de’_Medici
Cosimo is OK, but dig this crazy coat of arms the House of de’ Medici devised for themselves!

“But reposed natures may do well in youth. As it is seen in Augustus Caesar, Cosimus Duke of Florence, Gaston de Foix, and others.”

 

“Young men are fitter to invent, than to judge; fitter for execution, than for counsel; and fitter for new projects, than for settled business.”

 

 

 

The downside of youth

“Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles, which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first; and, that which doubleth all errors, will not bucking_horseacknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn.”

Let me unpack this a little. “Stir more than they can quiet,” means set more things in motion than they can manage or bring to fruition. Similarly, “fly to the end, without consideration,” means getting ahead of yourself. Most things have a tedious middle section that has to be gotten through, in between the bright idea and the exciting finish.

Young people may not have the experience to avoid fruitless paths. “Care not to innovate,” I think means, “don’t mind innovating” even when that creates more inconveniences. I could be wrong on that one, but I don’t think it means, “don’t like to innovate,” because young people love to innovate. It saves having to learn stuff from the boring old past.

Not being willing to acknowledge your errors is one of the most annoying things for the people you work with. And Bacon is right: it totally makes things more difficult, either to go forward from the botch or to repair the thing. Own your mistakes, boys and girls. Say, “I screwed up. Let me fix it.”

The upside of age

septimius_Severus
Septimius Severus

“Natures that have much heat, and great and violent desires and perturbations, are not ripe for action, till they have passed the meridian of their years; as it was with Julius Caesar and Septimius Severus. Of the latter, of whom it is said, Juventutem egit erroribus, imo furoribus, plenam. [His youth was not only full of errors, but of frantic passions.] And yet he was the ablest emperor, almost, of all the list.”

Anyone recognize the name ‘Septimius Severus’? Severus Snape, perhaps? An able emperor, but a complex YA fantasy character.

Bacon is saying that passionate, wild-tempered, we might say hyper-active people, are going to be a hot mess in their youth, racketing from one thing to the next, getting into fights and bad affairs. Age slows them down enough for their reason to prevail. Then all that energy serves them well as they get older.

“…heat and vivacity in age, is an excellent composition for business.” 

“And certainly, the more a man drinketh of the world, the more it intoxicateth; and age doth profit rather in the powers of understanding, than in the virtues of the will and affections.”

Older people love the world more, in all its complicated weirdness. I’ve noticed that myself, now that I’m on the high side of sixty. Old people and middle-aged people look at things and laugh (not all couple-old-peoplethings, but ordinary life stuff), where young people are gaping in outrage and saying, “That should be stopped.” It’s perspective. You can’t make people stop being jerks or fools or whatever they are, so you might as well laugh.

I’m not sure about the “virtues of the will and affections.” Maybe he saying youth is more wilful, which might be true, somewhat. If he’s trotting out the old saw that youth loves more deeply than age, he’s wrong. Youth is just more single-minded about it.

Another thing he doesn’t note is the lessening of self-consciousness with age. There’s an old saying for that, apparently not as old as Bacon: In your twenties, you worry about what people think. In your forties, you don’t care what people think. In your sixties, you realize people haven’t been thinking about you at all.

The downside of age

“Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.”

Good enough to get along with; give it a lick and a promise.

old_women“…the errors of aged men, amount but to this, that more might have been done, or sooner.” This follows from consulting too long.

“A certain rabbin, upon the text, Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams, inferreth that young men, are admitted nearer to God than old, because vision, is a clearer revelation, than a dream.”

This old saying was old in Bacon’s day. Now I have to look it up. Oh! It’s from the Bible, Acts 2:17. Who’d’ve thunk it?

A couple of guys that just couldn’t make it happen

“There be some, have an over-early ripeness in their years, which fadeth betimes.” Like a child star who never gets an adult part.

“These are, first, such as have brittle wits, the edge whereof is soon turned; such as was Hermogenes the rhetorician, whose books are exceeding subtle; who afterwards waxed stupid.” 

I would never want to hear Francis Bacon say I had waxed stupid! This is Hermogenes of Tarsus, surnamed The Polisher. What did he polish, we wonder? Arses? He flourished in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180).

Waxing stupid isn’t the worst thing that’s been said about this poor shlub. Here’s Wikipedia: “His precocious ability secured him a public appointment as teacher of his art while he was only a boy, attracting the note of the emperor himself; but at the age of twenty-five his faculties gave way, and he spent the remainder of his long life in a state of intellectual impotence.” Ouch!

I like the method of having one’s faculties grow stronger with age, except of course the knees and the eyes.

Bacon's essays: Of Usury

usurer
Usurer with a tearful woman, 1654, Gabriël Metsue

Of Usury is a hard one! Not just the Latin, of which there is an abundance; also the shifts in meanings of words having to do with financial dealings. And my general ignorance about financial stuff. Ah, well! We can but soldier on, with the aid of our friend Richard Whateley.

Rude words about money-lenders

Bacon gives us a few choice examples: “[T]he usurer is the greatest Sabbath-breaker, because his plough goeth every Sunday.” “That the usurer breaketh the first law, that was made for mankind after the fall, which was, in sudore vultus tui comedes panem tuum (in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread); not, in sudore vultus alieni (in the sweat of another’s face.)”

“That it is against nature for money to beget money.” I wonder at this one. What else would money beget?

But usury is necessary, Bacon rightly observes, so why fuss? “[U]sury is a concessum propter duritiem cordis (a concession on account of hardness of heart); for since there must be borrowing and lending, and men are so hard of heart, as they will not lend freely, usury must be permitted.”

Given the realities of the world we live in, let us take usury as a given and spend our time more fruitfully laying forth its advantages (commodities) and disadvantages (discommodities.)

The discommodities of usury

“First, that it makes fewer merchants. For were it not for this lazy trade of usury, money would not be still, but would in great part be employed upon merchandizing (trading); which is the vena porta (great vein) of wealth in a state.” 

merchant
A merchant, possibly from Venice

I don’t understand this. Don’t usurers (banks, nowadays) lend money so that merchants can engage in more trade? Like, buy more stuff to sell somewhere else? Maybe Bacon means that usurers would spend their money on trade, instead of lazily lending it out to others.

“The second, that it makes poor merchants. For, as a farmer cannot husband his ground so well, if he sit at a great rent; so the merchant cannot drive his trade so well, if he sit at great usury.”

This one I understand: paying interest on loans takes a big bite out of your income.

“The third is incident to the other two; and that is the decay of customs of kings or states, which ebb or flow, with merchandizing.” I guess he means that usury inhibits trade among nations?

“The fourth, that it bringeth the treasure of a realm, or state, into a few hands. For the usurer being at certainties, and others at uncertainties, at the end of the game, most of the money will be in the box; and ever a state flourisheth, when wealth is more equally spread.”

That’s the money quote for me: “ever a state flourisheth, when wealth is more equally spread.” We’re living in a time of great concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few, with disastrous consequences for nations and peoples. I’m surprised to see Bacon expressing this clear statement, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. He may have loved money, or rather the luxuries money buys, but he could see the negative effects of great disparities of wealth clearly in his own time.

“The fifth, that it beats down the price of land; for the employment of money, is chiefly either merchandizing or purchasing; and usury waylays both.”

hogarth-prison-scene
The Prison Scene — A Rake’s Progress. (Debtor’s prison) 1732, William Hogarth.

Uh… do interest rates interact with real estate prices? I suppose they do… buyers and sellers do better with lower rates, I think. I’m really not the person to be explaining financial matters.

“The sixth, that it doth dull and damp all industries, improvements, and new inventions, wherein money would be stirring, if it were not for this slug.”

We seem to think the opposite way. We rely on venture capitalists – money lenders – to provide capital for the launching of new enterprises.

“The last, that it is the canker and ruin of many men’s estates; which, in process of time, breeds a public poverty.” Interest payments can bring a person down, that’s for sure, especially at the lower end of the economic scale where the interest rates are the highest. You can never get out of debt, because you can’t get past the interest payments.

The commodities of usury

“[F]irst, that howsoever usury in some respect hindereth merchandizing, yet in some other it advanceth it; for it is certain that the greatest part of trade is driven by young merchants, upon borrowing at interest; so as if the usurer either call in, or keep back, his money, there will ensue, presently, a great stand of trade.”

That’s the way we see it. You have to be able to borrow money in order to go into business, but we don’t want those interest rates getting out of control.

money-lenders
The moneychanger and his wife, 1538, Marinus van Reymerswaele

“The second is, that were it not for this easy borrowing upon interest, men’s necessities would draw upon them a most sudden undoing; in that they would be forced to sell their means (be it lands or goods) far under foot; and so, whereas usury doth but gnaw upon them, bad markets would swallow them quite up.”

Again, still true. If you couldn’t borrow, you’d have to put your principle assets at risk, like your house. Losing that would ruin you. You couldn’t risk it, so you wouldn’t do the business thing you had in mind. But professional money lenders can sustain that loss as part of their normal costs of doing business.

“The third and last is, that it is a vanity to conceive, that there would be ordinary borrowing without profit; and it is impossible to conceive, the number of inconveniences that will ensue, if borrowing be cramped. Therefore to speak of the abolishing of usury is idle. All states have ever had it, in one kind or rate, or other. So as that opinion must be sent to Utopia.”

Get over it, Bacon says. We need money-lending, everyone everywhere always has, so stop railing about these simple facts of life. I really like that last expression: send that opinion to Utopia!

utopia
Utopia? Happy Arcadia, 1889, Konstantin Makovsky.

 

The reiglement of usury

I’ve never seen that word before, but it’s easy enough to guess it’s meaning: regulation.

teeth
Three grotesque old men with awful teeth. Engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier, 1773.

“It appears, by the balance of commodities and discommodities of usury, two things are to be reconciled. The one, that the tooth of usury be grinded, that it bite not too much; the other, that there be left open a means, to invite moneyed men to lend to the merchants, for the continuing and quickening of trade.”

This is the main job of our modern Federal Reserve Bank, isn’t it? Regulating interest rates so that they stimulate the economy by making it easy enough to borrow what you need while providing a fair profit to the money lenders. That’s my simple-minded view anyway.

Bacon proposes a two-tier system: “That there be two rates of usury: the one free, and general for all; the other under license only, to certain persons, and in certain places of merchandizing.”

By ‘free’ he doesn’t mean ‘without charge.’ I think he means, ‘accessible to everyone.’

Then he gets into specific numbers, leaving me in the dust. He must have dealt with such numbers, especially with respect to real estate transactions, all the time as a lawyer. Then as now, who owes what to whom is a big part of legal disputes.

“This will, in good part, raise the price of land, because land purchased at sixteen years’ purchase will yield six in the hundred, and somewhat more; whereas this rate of interest, yields but five.”

Here I am, in that dust again.

“Secondly, let there be certain persons licensed, to lend to known merchants, upon usury at a higher rate…” I think he’s proposing that the state allow an unlimited number of licensed money-lenders in principal cities only, allowing them to lend money at a higher rate to a certain class of established merchants.” Prime, sub-prime?

CastingoutMoneyChangers
Jesus casting out the money changers at the temple, 1800s, Carl Bloch.

Here’s a longish paragraph of specifics that I just can’t face. Sorry, y’all. He’s basically proposing some degree of state involvement in the money-lending business, at least to the extent of establishing a tier of interest rates for specified classes of borrowers and thereby in some sense authorizing specified classes of lenders.

“If it be objected that this doth in a sort authorize usury, which before, was in some places but permissive; the answer is, that it is better to mitigate usury, by declaration, than to suffer it to rage, by connivance.”

Does this mean the state officially approves the heinous act of usury? Well, yes. And get over it, Bacon says, which we have. In our time, we don’t even debate the validity of the whole idea of usury (charging interest for loans). It’s an essential thread in the fabric of our economic lives.

This website uses cookies for basic features such as contact or blog comments, but not for anything else. For more information, read my Privacy Policy.