Literature Week 12 Francis Bacon

Prompt: “Would any of Bacon’s essays have been more persuasive if he had talked about his own experiences? Which ones? Why?”

Francis Bacon was an influential English politician and philosopher. He served as Attorney General, Lord Chancellor, and the first Viscount of St Alban. Although he had gathered a decently large collection of wealth, he overspent and consequently also gathered a towering mountain of debt. Edward Coke, Bacon’s nemesis, charged Francis with 23 different accounts of corruption in 1621, and he was forced to leave Parliament. Bacon spent most of the rest of his studying and writing. You’d think that with so much experience in fortune and expense he would include some personal stories in his works Of Fortune and Of Expense, but if you read the prompt you know he did not.

In Bacon’s words of fortune he writes “Faber quisque fortunæ suæ”, which translates to “Every one is the architect of his own fortune.” This is the theme throughout most of the essay, and it still holds up today. But Bacon could have added much more authority to the claim if he had sited his personal experiences. If he had given to the audience a piece of his own life, explaining his path to fortune, it could have added an extra tier of wisdom as well as a splash of relatability. But he did not, instead he continued to make broad statements of general truth. In illo viro tantum robur corporis et animi fuit, ut quocunque loco natus esset, fortunam sibi facturus videretur, which translates to: “such was his strength of body and mind, that wherever he had been born he could have made himself a fortune.” Again it would have been nice for Bacon’s own experiences to come into play here, the story of an underdog beating the odds and becoming wealthy. But perhaps by not telling personal stories he was avoiding some of his more unsavory and exploitational means of gathering wealth. Serpens nisi serpentem comederit non fit draco, or in other words: “A serpent must have eaten another serpent before he can become a dragon.”

Bacon’s work Of Expenses is another example of how adding his personal experiences could have been a major plus to the essay. He suffered through enormous amounts of dept, dept was the bain of his political life, and dept nearly lost him his title. But despite this none of his personal life was documented. He wrote about the 17th century equivalent of budgeting, noting that ones expenses must be balanced in order not to gather dept. “As if he be plentiful in diet, to be saving in apparel; if he be plentiful in the hall, to be saving in the stable; and the like.” He said that if ones spending is not balanced it can lead to great financial loss. “For he that is plentiful in expenses of all kinds, will hardly be preserved from decay.”

To finish this off I want to talk about my personal favorite of Bacon’s essay: Of Envy. This essay demonstrates that clever writing and universal truth can override a need for personal experience. “A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others. For men’s minds will either feed upon their own good or upon others’ evil; and who wanteth the one will prey upon the other; and whoso is out of hope to attain to another’s virtue, will seek to come at even hand by depressing another’s fortune.” Envy is an emotion that every human has felt at one point or another. Its a feeling of discontentment in oneself, an emotion felt when comparing yourself to another that you deem greater. Usually we compare ourselves to those similar to us. We compare ourselves to friends who we see as more attractive, or to peers who overcome a problem quicker or more effectively than ourselves. “Near kinsfolks, and fellows in office, and those that have been bred together, are more apt to envy their equals when they are raised.”

We tend to envy that which is just out of our reach. We envy the beautiful golden apple that is only a few inches higher than we can grab, and we envy the man tall enough to grab it. We don’t envy the apples at the top of the tree, since they would be an unrealistic goal, just as we don’t usually envy celebrities. “Again, envy is ever joined with the comparing of a man’s self; and where there is no comparison, no envy; and therefore kings are not envied but by kings.” Envy is most prevalent in those that feel they must be perfect to be happy, or those that feel their pride must be expressed to others in order to feel it themselves. “Above all, those are most subject to envy, which carry the greatness of their fortunes in an insolent and proud manner; being never well but while they are showing how great they are, either by outward pomp, or by triumphing over all opposition or competition; whereas wise men will rather do sacrifice to envy, in suffering themselves sometimes of purpose to be crossed and overborne in things that do not much concern them.”

I find this particular essay to be very engaging not only in a psychological sense, but very true and needed on a worldwide basis. Envy is by far the most slippery sin, as its not only very powerful but it usually is accompanied by one or more other sins. It can easily mix with someones lust or greed, and can easily pop up as a result of wrath or pride. It can create spite and hatred that can bubble and grow in a persons heart, and it can be extremely difficult to disown. I have my own experiences with envy, but because Francis Bacon is this weeks theme i’m going to follow his example and not share those personal stories. Instead i’ll illustrate the difference between envy and the other sins. Envy is a constant, and if you allow even a drop of it into your mind it can become a constant focus. As Bacon puts it “Invidia festos dies non agit”, orEnvy keeps no holidays”. Lust can be satisfied, gluttony fed, greed and pride compensated, wrath calmed and sloth left to rest, but all envy can do is fester, belittle, and diminish any and all virtue it sinks its teeth into. The only thing that can offset its hatred is a heavy dose of envy’s opposite: love.

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