2008 Elections: Three Quotes from Francis Bacon

February 12, 2008 at 4:57 PM

My morning bus ride reading (The Essays of Francis Bacon, available on Project Gutenberg) brought me these three quotes, all within a few pages of each other; they struck me as particularly pertinent given the ongoing elections:

Concerning boldness in civil business:

It is a trivial grammar-school text, but yet worthy a wise man's consideration. Question was asked of Demosthenes, what was the chief part of an orator? he answered, action; what next? action; what next again? action. He said it, that knew it best, and had, by nature, himself no advantage in that he commended. A strange thing, that that part of an orator, which is but superficial, and rather the virtue of a player, should be placed so high, above those other noble parts, of invention, elocution, and the rest; nay, almost alone, as if it were all in all. But the reason is plain. There is in human nature generally, more of the fool than of the wise; and therefore those faculties, by which the foolish part of men's minds is taken, are most potent. Wonderful like is the case of boldness in civil business: what first? boldness; what second and third? boldness. And yet boldness is a child of ignorance and baseness, far inferior to other parts. But nevertheless it doth fascinate, and bind hand and foot, those that are either shallow in judgment, or weak in courage, which are the greatest part; yea and prevaileth with wise men at weak times. Therefore we see it hath done wonders, in popular states; but with senates, and princes less; and more ever upon the first entrance of bold persons into action, than soon after; for boldness is an ill keeper of promise. Surely, as there are mountebanks for the natural body, so are there mountebanks for the politic body; men that undertake great cures, and perhaps have been lucky, in two or three experiments, but want the grounds of science, and therefore cannot hold out.

Concerning men of great place:

Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business. So as they have no freedom; neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times. It is a strange desire, to seek power and to lose liberty: or to seek power over others, and to lose power over a man's self. The rising unto place is laborious; and by pains, men come to greater pains; and it is sometimes base; and by indignities, men come to dignities. The standing is slippery, and the regress is either a downfall, or at least an eclipse, which is a melancholy thing. Cum non sis qui fueris, non esse curvelis vivere [When a man feels that he is no longer what he was, he has no reason to live longer].


As Solomon saith, To respect persons is not good; for such a man will transgress for a piece of bread. It is most true, that was anciently spoken, A place showeth the man. And it showeth some to the better, and some to the worse. Omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset [A man whom every body would have thought fit for empire if he had not been emperor], saith Tacitus of Galba; but of Vespasian he saith, Solus imperantium, Vespasianus mutatus in melius [He was the only emperor whom the possession of power changed for the better]; though the one was meant of sufficiency, the other of manners, and affection.

That "boldness is an ill keeper of promise" has been proven again and again. In their attempts to achieve positions of greatness, candidates extend themselves boldly and without care. Once bound to an office, one is tested and proven; the results of which are often saddeningly dissimilar to the bold promises asserted during campaigns.

So we ought to weigh carefully during the election: Of which elected officials can we say that "the possession of power changed [them] for the better"? And whom do we consider "fit for the empire"? I hope that we learn to discern fickle boldness from legitimate promises; that the foolish, base, and ignorant part of our minds may be keen and sharp; in short, that we would be a nation of wisdom and discernment.