The Essays of Francis Bacon/XXI Of Delays

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XXI. Of Delays.

Fortune is like the market; where many times, if you can stay a little, the price will fall. And again, it is sometimes like Sibylla's[1] offer; which at first offereth the commodity at full, then consumeth part and part, and still holdeth up the price. For occasion (as it is in the common verse) turneth a bald noddle, after she hath presented her locks in front, and no hold taken;[2] or at least turneth the handle of the bottle first to be received, and after the belly,[3] which is hard to clasp. There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things. Dangers are no more light, if they once seem light; and more dangers have deceived men than forced them. Nay, it were better to meet some dangers half way, though they come nothing near, than to keep too long a watch upon their approaches; for if a man watch too long, it is odds he will fall asleep. On the other side, to be deceived with too long shadows (as some have been when the moon was low and shone on their enemies' back), and so to shoot off before the time; or to teach dangers to come on, by over early buckling[4] towards them; is another extreme. The ripeness or unripeness of the occasion (as we said) must ever be well weighed; and generally it is good to commit the beginnings of all great actions to Argos[5] with his hundred eyes, and the ends to Briareus[6] with his hundred hands; first to watch, and then to speed. For the helmet of Pluto,[7] which maketh the politic man go invisible, is secrecy in the counsel and celerity in the execution. For when things are once come to the execution, there is no secrecy comparable to celerity; like the motion of a bullet in the air, which flieth so swift as it outruns the eye.

  1. Bacon alludes to the Sibyl of Cumae in Italy, the most celebrated of the wise women. According to story, she appeared before Tarquin the Proud and offered him nine books for sale. He declined to buy them, whereupon she burned three and offered the remaining six at the original price. On being again refused, she destroyed three more and offered the remaining three at the price she had asked for the nine. Tarquin, unable to understand her importunity and her bargaining, bought the three books, which were found to contain directions as to the worship of the gods and the policy of the Romans. The Sibylline books were kept with great care at Rome, and were consulted from time to time under direction of the senate. They were burned in the fire which destroyed the temple of Jupiter, in 83 B.C.
  2. Spenser describes Occasion as an old woman lame of one leg. Her hair hangs down before her face, so that no one may know her, till she is past; at the back of her head she is bald, so that when once she is past, no one may grasp her from behind. She personifies the truth that an opportunity once missed never returns. Read The Faery Queene. Book II. Canto iv. Stanza 4. A Latin proverb, from a distich of Dionysius Cato, runs:

    "Fronte capillata, post est occasio calva.
    Time hath a Lock before, but 's bald behind."

    Catonis Distichorum de Moribus Liber II. 26.

  3. Belly. That part of a thing, here a bottle, which swells out.
  4. Buckle. To gird one's self; to apply one's self resolutely to.

    "And buckling soone himselfe, gan fiercely fly
    Upon that carle, to save his friend from jeopardy."

    Spenser. The Faery Queene. Book VI. Canto viii. Stanza 12.

  5. Argos, surnamed Panoptes (the all-seer), had one hundred eyes, some one of which was always awake. Hera (Juno) set him to guard Io, and Hermes killed him. After his death Hera transferred his eyes to the tail of the peacock. Spenser alludes to "Great Junoes golden chaire," which was

    "Drawne of faire pecocks, that excell in pride,
    And full of Argus eyes their tailes dispredden wide."

    The Faery Queene. Book I. Canto iv. Stanza 17.

  6. Briareus or Aegaeon, a giant with fifty heads and one hundred hands. Homer mentions him in Iliad. I. 403.
  7. The helmet of Pluto, made by the Cyclops, had the peculiar property of rendering the wearer invisible. Mercury wore it in the battle with the giants, and Perseus in his contest with the Gorgons. Minerva puts it on when she is helping Diomede against Mars on the plain of Troy. Homer. Iliad. V. 845. For Bacon's version of the fable of Perseus, see Perseus; or War, in the Wisdom of the Ancients.