A Shortfall of Bacon

 

A Shortfall of BaconI WAS meditating, as I often do after breakfast, on the shortfall in the overall throughput of bacon, when my hand happened to light on the works of Lord Verulam.

This man, Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam, Viscount St Albans, passed in his day for a person of considerable states- manlike sagacity. He was made Keeper of the Great Seal in 1617 and Lord Chancelor of England in 1618; though he ran into trouble and lost both these jobs in time. But he must have had something. I thought.

The essay I lighted on, after finishing my healthy breakfast of toast and tea, was called Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms. I approached it with reverence; but I was soon astonished by the wealth of wrong thinking contained in it. There is hardly a single statement made by the Sage of St Albans that has not since been proved wholly incorrect.

TAKE HIS views on fiscal matters.

‘No people overcharged with tribute’ [he declares roundly], ‘is fit for empire. Neither will it be, that a people overlaid with taxes should ever become valiant and martial.’

Now, the simplest backwoods Baron of our time would hardly make such a gross error as this. People may argue about a shilling more here or a shilling less there; but everybody knows that the only way to make people valiant and martial is to tax them nearly out of existence.

On rearmament Bacon is equally unsound.

‘Walled town, stored arsenals and armouries, goodly races of horse, chariots of war, elephants, ordnance and the like: all this is but a sheep in a lion’s skin, except the breed and disposition of the people be stout and warlike.’

Such is Bacon’s view; and it is easy to see that he is barking up the wrong tree. We are all agreed now that the essential thing is to pile up the chariots of war and the ordnance; the breed and disposition of the people can look after itself and, on the whole, the less stout and warlike it is, the more convenient for the painstaking administrators who have to deal with it. Nobody wants a world full of stout and warlike people, kicking up trouble in the queues and storming the Food Offices.

THERE IS no end to the follies and misconceptions of this lamentable Chancellor. ‘For empire, and greatness,’ says he, still obsessed with his antique militarism, ‘it importeth most, that a nation do profess arms as their principal honor, study and occupation. No nation, which doth not directly profess arms, may look to have greatness fall into their mouths.’

It is old-fashioned. It is very old-fashioned. In these days we do not look for empire at all; we find our greatness in a more noble fashion by giving our empire away and look for greatness to fall into our mouths as a result of doing so. If it does not fall into our mouths, at least we have a most delightful sense of self-righteousness to compensate for the lack of it. Such a sense goes a long way to wake up for the shortfall of bacon, which, in any case, as enlightened economists have proved, does not depend in any way on empire and greatness.

THE LAST slice of Bacon I have to offer to a curious though scandalized public is one I hardly dare to quote at all at the present time. Nevertheless, I make so bold as to put it down, knowing that nobody would accuse any writer, in a progressive paper such as this, of taking it seriously.

‘As for the wars’ [says this ineffably misguided man], ‘which were anciently made on the behalf of a kind of party, I do not see how they may well be justified; as when the Romans made a war for the liberty of Graecia; or when the Lacedaemonians and Athenians made wars to set up or pull down democracies and oligarchies; or when wars were made by foreigners, under the pretence of justice or protection, to deliver the subjects of others from tyranny and oppression; and the like.’

I had to read this outrageous paragraph three times before I could credit it. Well, really, Bacon, I thought. Is there any respectable justification for war except to set up or pull down democracies and oligarchies and the like? One might as well suggest to people that they should set up and pull down their own democracies and oligarchies, and be hanged to them.

If there are any among you who have thought of going to Bacon for wisdom, I counsel you to eschew him: to stick to toast and tea: and to enjoy the shortfalls in your overall throughputs, while you have them.

TIME AND TIDE 11 APRIL 1953

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