Francis Bacon (15611626). Of the Wisdom of the Ancients. 1857.
PROTEUS, the poets tell us, was herdsman to Neptune. He was an old man and a prophet; a prophet moreover of the very first order, and indeed thrice excellent; for he knew all three,not the future only, but likewise the past and the present; insomuch that besides his power of divination, he was the messenger and interpreter of all antiquity and all secrets. His dwelling was under an immense cave. There it was his custom every day at noon to count his flock of seals and then go to sleep. And if any one wanted his help in any matter, the only way was first to secure his hands with handcuffs, and then to bind him with chains. Whereupon he on his part, in order to get free, would turn himself into all manner of strange shapesfire, water, wild beasts, &c., till at last he returned again to his original shape.
The sense of this fable relates, it would seem, to the secrets of nature and the conditions of matter. For under the person of Proteus, Matterthe most ancient of all things, next to Godis meant to be represented. Now matter has its habitation under the vault of heaven, as under a cave. And it may be called the servant of Neptune, inasmuch as all the operation and dispensation of matter is effected principally in liquids. The herd or flock of Proteus, seems to be nothing else than the ordinary species of animals, plants, minerals, etc. in which matter may be said to diffuse and use itself up; insomuch that having once made up and finished those species it seems to sleep and rest, as if its task were done; without applying itself or attempting or preparing to make any more. And this is what is meant by Proteus counting his herd and then going to sleep. Now this is said to take place not in the morning or in the evening, but at noon: that is to say, when the full and legitimate time has come for completing and bringing forth the species out of matter already duly prepared and predisposed; which is the middle point between the first rudiments of them and their declination. And this we know from the sacred history to have been in fact at the very time of the creation. For then it was that by virtue of the divine word producat matter came together at the command of the Creator, not by its own circuitous processes, but all at once; and brought its work to perfection on the instant, and constituted the species. And here the story is complete, as regards Proteus free and at large with his herd. For the universe with its several species according to their ordinary frame and structure, is merely the face of matter unconstrained and at liberty, with its flock of materiate creatures. Nevertheless if any skilful Servant of Nature shall bring force to bear on matter, and shall vex it and drive it to extremities as if with the purpose of reducing it to nothing, then will matter (since annihilation or true destruction is not possible except by the omnipotence of God) finding itself in these straits, turn and transform itself into strange shapes, passing from one change to another till it has gone through the whole circle and finished the period; when, if the force be continued, it returns at last to itself. And this constraint and binding will be more easily and expeditiously effected, if matter be laid hold on and secured by the hands; that is, by its extremities. And whereas it is added in the fable that Proteus was a prophet and knew the three times; this agrees well with the nature of matter: for if a man knew the conditions, affections, and processes of matter, he would certainly comprehend the sum and general issue (for I do not say that his knowledge would extend to the parts and singularities) of all things past, present, and to come.