The Wisdom of the Ancients/4

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The Wisdom of the Ancients by Francis Bacon
Chapters XIX-XXV

Chapter XIX[edit]

Dædalus, or Mechanical Skill Explained of Arts and Artists in Kingdoms and States


THE ancients have left us a description of mechanical skill, industry, and curious arts converted to ill uses, in the person of Dædalus, a most ingenious but execrable artist. This Dædalus was banished for the murder of his brother artist and rival, yet found a kind reception in his banishment from the kings and states where he came. He raised many incomparable edifices to the honour of the gods, and invented many new contrivances for the beautifying and ennobling of cities and public places, but still he was most famous for wicked inventions. Among the rest, by his abominable industry and destructive genius, he assisted in the fatal and infamous production of the monster Minotaur, that devourer of promising youths. And then, to cover one mischief with another, and provide for the security of this monster, he invented and built a labyrinth; a work infamous for it’s end and design, but admirable and prodigious for art and workmanship. After this, that he might not only be celebrated for wicked inventions, but be sought after, as well for prevention, as for instruments of mischief, he formed that ingenious device of his clue, which led directly through all the windings of the labyrinth. This Dædalus was persecuted by Minos with the utmost severity, diligence, and inquiry; but he always found refuge and means of escaping. Lastly, endeavouring to teach his son Icarus the art of flying, the novice, trusting too much to his wings, fell from his towering flight, and was drowned in the sea.


EXPLANATION. - The sense of the fable runs thus. It first enotes envy, which is continually upon the watch, and strangely prevails among excellent artificers; for no kind of people are observed to be more implacably and destructively envious to one another than these.

In the next place, it observes an impolitic and improvident kind of of punishment inflicted upon Dædalus, that of banishment; for good workmen are gladly received everywhere, so that banishment to an excellent artificer is scarce any punishment at all; whereas other conditions of life cannot easily flourish from home. For the admiration of artists is propagated and increased among foreigners and strangers; it being a principle in the minds of men to slight and despise the mechanical operators of their own nation.

The succeeding part of the fable is plain, concerning the use of mechanic arts, whereto human life stands greatly indebted, as receiving from this treasury numerous particulars for the service of religion, the ornament of civil society, and the whole provision and apparatus of life; but then the same magazine supplies instruments of lust, cruelty, and death: For, not to mention the arts of luxury and debauchery, we plainly see how far the business of exquisite poisons, guns, engines of war, and such kind of destructive inventions, exceeds the cruelty and barbarity of the Minotaur himself.

The addition of the labyrinth contains a beautiful allegory, representing the nature of mechanic arts in general; for all ingenious and accurate mechanical inventions, may be conceived as a labyrinth, which, by reason of their subtilty, intricacy, crossing, and interfering with one another, and the apparent resemblances they have among themselves, scarce any power of the judgment can unravel and distinguish; so that they are only to be understood and traced by the clue of experience.

It is no less prudently added, that he who invented the windings of the labyrinth, should also show the use and management of the clue; for mechanical arts have an ambiguous or double use, and serve as well to produce as to prevent mischief and destruction; so that their virtue almost destroys or unwinds itself.

Unlawful arts, and indeed frequently arts themselves, are persecuted by Minos, that is, by laws, which prohibit and forbid their use among the people; but notwithstanding this, they are hid, concealed, retained, and everywhere find reception and sculking-places; a thing well observed by Tacitus of the astrologers and fortune-tellers of his time. "These," says he, "are a kind of men that will always be prohibited, and yet will always be retained in our city."

But lastly, all unlawful and vain arts, of what kind soever, lose their reputation in tract of time; grow contemptible and perish, through their over-confidence, like Icarus; being commonly unable to perform what they boasted. And to say the truth, such arts are better suppressed by their own vain pretensions, than checked or restrained by the bridle of laws.[1]



Chapter XX[edit]

Ericthonius, or Imposture Explained of the Improper Use of Force in Natural Philosophy


THE poets feign that Vulcan attempted the chastity of Minerva, and impatient of refusal, had recourse to force; the consequence of which was the birth of Ericthonius, whose body from the middle upwards was comely and well-proportioned, but his thighs and legs small, shrank, and deformed, like an eel. Conscious of this defect, he became the inventor of chariots, so as to show the graceful, but conceal the deformed part of his body.


EXPLANATION. - This strange fable seems to carry this meaning. Art is here represented under the person of Vulcan, by reason of the various uses it makes of fire; and nature under the person of Minerva, by reason of the industry, employed in her works. Art, therefore, whenever it offers violence to nature, in order to conquer, subdue, and bend her to its purpose, by tortures and force of all kinds, seldom obtains the end proposed; yet upon great struggle and application, there proceed certain imperfect births, or lame abortive works, specious in appearance, but weak and unstable in use; which are, nevertheless, with great pomp and deceitful appearances, triumphantly carried about, and shown by impostors. A procedure very familiar, and remarkable in chemical productions, and new mechanical inventions; especially when the inventors rather hug their errors than improve upon these, and go on struggling with nature, not courting her.



Chapter XXI[edit]

Deucalion, or Restitution Explained of Useful Hint in Natural Philosophy


THE poets tell us, that the inhabitants of the old world being totally desytroyed by the universal deluge, excepting Deucalion and Pyrrha these two, desiring with zealous and fervent devotion to restore mankind, received this oracle for answer, that "they should succeed by throwing their mother's bones behind them." This at first cast them into great sorrow and despair because, as all things were levelled by the deluge, it was in vain to seek their mother's tomb; but at length they understood the oracle to signify the stones of the earth, which is esteemed the mother of all things.


EXPLANATION. - This fable seems to reveal a secret of nature, and correct an error familiar to the mind; for men's ignorance leads them to expect the renovation or restoration of things from their corruption and remains, as the phoenix is said to be restored out of its ashes; which is a very improper procedure, because such kind of materials have finished their coarse, and are become absolutely unfit to supply the first rudiments of the same things again; whence, in cases of renovation, recourse should be had to more common principles.



Chapter XXII[edit]

Nemesis, or the Vicissitude of Things Explained of the Reserves of Fortune


NEMESIS is represented as a goddess venerated by all, but feared by the powerful and the fortunate. She is said to be the daughter of Nox and Oceanus She is drawn with wings, and a crown; javelin of ash in her right hand; a glass containing Ethiopians in her left; and riding upon a stag.


EXPLANATION. - The fable receives this explanation. The word Nemesis manifestly signifies revenge, or retribution; for the office of this goddess consisted in interposing, like the Roman tribunes, with an "I forbid it," in all courses of constant and perpetual felicity, so as not only to chastise haughtiness, but also to repay even innocent and moderate happiness with adversity; as if it were decreed, that none of human race should be admitted to the banquet of the gods, but for sport. And, indeed, to read over that chapter of Pliny wherein he has collected the miseries and misfortunes of Augustus Cæsar, whom of all mankind one would judge most fortunate, - as he had a certain art of using and njoying prosperity, with a mind no way tumid, light, effeminate, confused, or melancholic, - one cannot but think this a very great and powerful goddess, who could bring such a victim to her altar.[2]

The parents of this goddess were Oceanus and Nox; that is, the fluctuating change of things, and the obscure and secret divine decrees. The changes of things are aptly represented by the Ocean, on account of its perpetual ebbing end flowing; and secret providence is justly expressed by Night. Even the heathens have observed this secret Nemesis of the night, or the difference betwixt divine and human judgment.[3]

Wings are given to Nemesis, because of the sudden and unforeseen changes of things; for, from the earliest account of time, it has been common for great and prudent men to fall by the dangers they most despised. Thus Cicero, when admonished by Brutus of the infidelity and rancour of Octavius, coolly wrote back, "I cannot, however, but be obliged to you, Brutus, as I ought, for informing me, though of such a trifle."[4]

Nemesis also has her crown, by reason of the invidious and malignant nature of the vulgar, who generally rejoice, triumph, and crown her, at the fall of the fortunate and the powerful. And for the javelin in her right hand, it has regard to those whom she has actually struck and transfixed. But whoever escapes her stroke, or feels not actual calamity or misfortune, she affrights with a black and dismal sight in her left hand; for doubtless, mortals on the highest pinnacle of felicity have a prospect of death, diseases, calamities, perfidious friends, undermining enemies, reverses of fortune, &c., represented by the Ehtiopians in her glass. Thus Virgil with great elegance, describing the battle of Actium, says of Cleopatra, .that, "she did not yet perceive the two asps behind her;"[5] but soon: after, which way soever she turned, she saw whole troops of Ethiopians still before her.

Lastly, it is significantly added, that, Nemesis rides upon a stag, which is a very long-lived creature; for perhaps some, by an untimely death in youth, may prevent or escape this goddess, yet they who enjoy a long flow of happiness and power, doubtless become subject to her at length, and are brought to yield.



Chapter XXIII[edit]

Achelous, Or Battle Explained Of War By Invasion


THE ancients relate, that Hercules and Achelous being rivals in the courtship of Deianira, the matter was contested by single combat; when Achelous having transformed himself, as he had power to do, into various shapes, by way of trial; at length, in the form of a fierce wild bull, prepares himself for the fight; but Hercules still retains his human shape, engages sharply with him, and in the issue broke off one of the bull's horns; and now Achelous, in great pain and fright, to redeem his. horn, presents Hercules with the cornucopia.


EXPLANATION. - This fable relates to military expeditions and preparations; for the preparation of war on the defensive side, here denoted by Achelous, appears in various shapes, whilst the invading side has but one simple form, consisting either in an army, or perhaps a fleet. But the country that expects the, invasion is employed infinite ways, in fortifying towns, blockading passes, rivers, and ports, raising soldiers, disposing garrisons, building and breaking down bridges, procuring aids, securing provisions, arms, ammunition, &c. So that there appears a new face of things every day and at length, when the country is sufficiently fortified and prepared; it represents to the life the form and threats of a fierce fighting bull.

On the other side, the invader presses on to the fight, fearing to be distressed in an enemy's country. And if after the battle he remains master of the field, and has now broke, as it were, the horn of his enemy, the besieged, of course, retire inglorious, affrighted, and dismay, to their stronghold, there endeavouring to secure themselves, and repair their strength; leaving, at the same time, their country a prey to the conqueror, which is well expressed by the Amalthean horn, or cornucopia.



Chapter XXIV[edit]

Dionysus, or, Bacchus.[6] Explained of the Passions


THE fable is, that Semele, Jupiter's mistress, having bound him by an inviolable oath to grant her an unknown request, desired he would embrace her in the same form and manner he used to embrace Juno; and the promise being irrevocable, she was burnt to death with lightning in the performance. The embryo, however, was served up, and carried in Jupiter's thigh till the complete time of its birth; but the burthen thus rendering the father lame, and causing him pain, the child was thence called Dionysus. When born, he was committed, for some years, to be nursed by Proserpina; and when grown up, appeared with so effeminate a face, that his sex seemed somewhat doubtful He also died, and was buried for a time, but afterwards revived. When a youth, he first introduced the cultivation and dressing of vines, the method of preparing wine, and taught the use thereof; whence becoming famous, he subdued the world, even to the utmost bounds of the Indies. He rode in a chariot drawn by tigers. There danced about him certain deformed demons called Cobali, &c. The Muses also joined in his train. He married Ariadne, who was deserted by Theseus. The ivy was sacred to him. He was also held the inventor and instructor of religious rites and ceremonies, but such as were wild, frantic and full of corruption and cruelty. He had also the power of striking men with frenzies. Pentheus and Orpheus were torn to pieces by the frantic women at his orgies; the first for climbing a tree to behold their ceremonies, and the other for the music of his harp. But the acts of this god are much entangled and confounded with those of Jupiter.


EXPLANATION. - This fable seems to contain a little system of morality, so that there is scarce any better invention in all ethics. Under the history of Bacchus is drawn the nature of unlawful desire or affection, and disorder; for the appetite and thirst of apparent good is the mother of all unlawful desire, though ever so destructive, and all unlawful desires are conceived in unlawful wishes or requests, rashly indulged or granted before they are well understood or considered, and when the affection begins to grow warm, the mother of it (the nature of good) is destroyed and burnt up by the heat. And whilst an unlawful desire lies in the embryo, or unripened in the mind, which is its father, and here represented by Jupiter, it is cherished and concealed, especially in the inferior part of the mind, corresponding to the thigh of the body, where pain twitches and depresses the mind so far as to render its resolutions and actions imperfect and lame. And even after this child of the mind is confirmed, and gains strength by consent and habit, and comes forth into action, it must still be nursed by Proserpina for a time; that is, it skulks and hides its head in a clandestine manner, as it were under ground, till at length, when the checks of shame and fear are removed, and the requisite boldness acquired, it either assumes the pretext of some virtue, or openly despises infamy. And it is justly observed, that every vehement passion appears of a doubtful sex, as having the strength of a man at first, but at last the impotence of a woman. It is also excellently added, that Bacchus died and rose again; for the affections sometimes seem to die and be no more; but there is no trusting them, even though they were buried, being always apt and ready to rise again whenever the occasion or object offers.

That Bacchus should be the inventor of wine carries a fine allegory with it; for every affection is cunning and subtile in discovering a proper matter to nourish and feed it; and of all things known to mortals, wine is the most powerful and effectual for exciting and inflaming passions of all kinds, being indeed like a common fuel to all.

It is again with great elegance observed of Bacchus, that he subdued provinces, and undertook endless expeditions, for the affections never rest satisfied with what they enjoy, but with an endless and insatiable appetite thirst after something further. And tigers are prettily feigned to draw the chariot; for as soon as any affection shall, from going on foot, be advanced to ride, it triumphs over reason, and exerts its cruelty, fierceness, and strength against all that oppose it.

It is also humorously imagined, that ridiculous demons dance and frisk about this chariot; for every passion produces indecent, disorderly, interchangeable, and deformed motions in the eyes, countenance, and gesture, so that the person under the impulse, whether of anger; insult; love, &c., though to, himself he may seem grand, lofty, or obliging, yet in the, eyes of others appears mean, contemptible, or ridiculous.

The Muses also are found in the train of Bacchus, for there is scarce any passion without its art, science, or doctrine to court and flatter it; but in this respect the indulgence of men of genius has greatly detracted from the majesty of the Muses, who ought to be the leaders and conductors of human life, and not the handmaids of the passions.

The allegory of Bacchus falling in love with a cast mistress, is extremely noble; for it is certain that the affections always court and covet what has been rejected upon experience. And all those who by serving and indulging their passions immensely raise the value of enjoyment, should know, that whatever they covet and pursue, whether riches, pleasure, glory, learning, or anything else, they only pursue those things that have been forsaken and cast off with contempt by great numbers in all ages, after possession and experience.

Nor is it without a mystery that the ivy was sacred to Bacchus, and this for two reasons: first, because ivy is an evergreen, or flourishes in the winter; and secondly, because it winds and creeps about so many things, as trees, walls, and buildings, and raises itself above them. As to the first, every passion grows fresh, strong, and vigorous by opposition and prohibition, as it were by a kind of contrast or antiperistasis, like the ivy, in the winter. And for the second, the predominant passion of the mind throws itself, like the ivy, round all human actions, entwines all our resolutions, and perpetually adheres to, and mixes itself among, or even overtops them.

And no wonder that superstitious rites and ceremonies are attributed to Bacchus, when almost every ungovernable passion grows wanton and luxuriant in corrupt religions; nor again, that fury and frenzy should be sent and dealt out by him, because every passion is a short frenzy, and if it be vehement, lasting, and take deep root, it terminates in madness. And hence the allegory of Pentheus and Orpheus being torn to pieces is evident; for every headstrong passion is extremely bitter, severe, inveterate, and revengeful upon all curious inquiry, wholesome admonition, free counsel and persuasion.

Lastly, the confusion between the persons of Jupiter and Bacchus will justly admit of an allegory, because noble and meritorious actions may sometimes proceed from virtue, sound reason, and magnanimity, and sometimes again from a concealed passion and secret desire of ill, however they may be extolled and praised, insomuch that it is not easy to distinguish betwixt the acts of Bacchus and the acts of Jupiter.



Chapter XXV[edit]

Atalanta and Hippomenes, or Gain Explained of the Contest Betwixt Art and Nature


ATALANTA, who was exceeding fleet, contended with Hippomenes in the course, on condition that if Hippomenes won, he should espouse her, or forfeit his life if he lost. The match was very unequal, for Atalanta had conquered numbers, to their destruction. Hippomenes, therefore, had recourse to stratagem. He procured three golden apples, and purposely carried them with him: they started; Atalanta outstripped him soon; then Hippomenes bowled one of his apples before her, across the course, in order not only, to make her stoop, but to draw her out of the path. She, prompted by female curiosity, and the beauty of the golden fruit; starts from the course to take up the apple. Hippomenes, in the mean time, holds on his way, and steps before her; but she, by her natural swiftness, soon fetches up her lost ground, and leaves him again behind. Hippomenes, however, by rightly timing his second and third throw, at length won the race, not by his swiftness, but his cunning.


EXPLANATION. - This fable seems to contain a noble allegory of the contest betwixt art and nature. For art, here denoted by Atalanta, is much swifter, or more expeditious in its operations than nature, when all obstacles and impediments are removed, and sooner arrives at its end. This appears almost in every instance. Thus fruit comes slowly from the kernel, but soon by inoculation or incision; clay, left to itself, is a long time in acquiring a stony hardness, but is presently burnt by fire into brick. So again in human life, nature is a long while in alleviating and abolishing the remembrance of pain, and assuaging the troubles of the mind; but moral philosophy, which is the art of living, performs it presently. Yet this prerogative and singular efficacy of art is stopped and retarded to the infinite detriment of human life, by certain golden apples; for there is no one science or art that constantly holds on its true and proper course to the end, but they are all continually stopping short, forsaking the track, and turning aside to profit and convenience, exactly like Atalanta.[7] Whence it is no wonder that art gets not the victory over nature, nor, according to the condition of the contest, brings her under subjection; but, on the contrary, remains subject to her, as a wife to a husband.[8]



Endnotes[edit]

  1. ^  Bacon nowhere speaks with such freedom and perspicuity as under the pretext of explaining these ancient fables; for which reason they deserve to be the more read by such as desire to understand the rest of his works.
  2. ^  "As she also brought the author himself."
  3. ^  "________ cadit Ripheus, justissimus unus, Qui fait ex Teucris, et servantissimus æqui: Diis aliter visum." - Æneid, lib. ii.
  4. ^  Te autem mi Brute sicut debeo, amo, quod istud quicquid est nugarum me scire voluisti.
  5. ^  "Regina in mediis patrio vocat agmina sistro; Necdum etiam geminos a tergo respicit angues." - Æn. viii. 696.
  6. ^  Ovid's Metamorphoses, b. iii. iv. and vi.; and Fasti, iii. 767.
  7. ^  "Declinat cursus, aurumque volubile tollit."
  8. ^  The author, in all his physical works, proceeds upon this foundation, that it is possible, and practicable, for art to obtain the victory over nature; that is, for human industry and power to procure, by the means of proper knowledge, such things as are necessary to render life as happy and commodious as its mortal state will allow. For instance, that it is possible to lengthen the present period of human life; bring the winds under command; and every way extend and enlarge the dominion or empire of man over the works of nature.