Nonfiction > Francis Bacon > Of the Wisdom of the Ancients
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Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.
 
XXVI. Prometheus
Or the State of Man
 
TRADITION says that Man was made by Prometheus, and made of clay; only that Prometheus took particles from different animals and mixed them in. He, desiring to benefit and protect his own work, and to be regarded not as the founder only but also as the amplifier and enlarger of the human race, stole up to heaven with a bundle of fennel-stalks in his hand, kindled them at the chariot of the sun, and so brought fire to the earth and presented it to mankind. For this so great benefit received at his hands, men (it is said) were far from being grateful; so far indeed, that they conspired together and impeached him and his invention before Jupiter. This act of theirs was not so taken as justice may seem to have required. For the accusation proved very acceptable both to Jupiter and the rest of the gods; and so delighted were they, that they not only indulged mankind with the use of fire, but presented them likewise with a new gift, of all others most agreeable and desirable,—perpetual youth. Overjoyed with this, the foolish people put the gift of the gods on the back of an ass. The ass on his way home, being troubled with extreme thirst, came to a fountain; but a serpent, that was set to guard it, would not let him drink unless he gave in payment whatever that was that he carried on his back. The poor ass accepted the condition; and so for a mouthful of water the power of renewing youth was transferred from men to serpents. After mankind had lost their prize, Prometheus made up his quarrel with them; but retaining his malice, and being bitterly incensed against Jupiter, he did not scruple to tempt him with deceit, even in the act of sacrifice. Having slain (it is said) two bulls, he stuffed the hide of one of them with the flesh and fat of both, and bringing them to the altar, with an air of devotion and benignity offered Jupiter his choice. Jupiter, detesting his craft and bad faith, but knowing how to requite it, chose the mock bull; then bethinking him of vengeance, and seeing that there was no way to take down the insolence of Prometheus except by chastising the human race (of which work he was extravagantly vain and proud), ordered Vulcan to make a fair and lovely woman. When she was made, each of the gods bestowed upon her his several gift; whence she was called Pandora. Then they placed in her hands an elegant vase, in which were enclosed all mischiefs and calamities; only at the bottom there remained Hope. With her vase in her hand she repaired first of all to Prometheus, to see if he would take and open it, which he, cautious and cunning, declined. Thus rejected she went away to Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother, but of a character entirely different, who opened it without hesitation; but as soon as he saw all the mischiefs rushing out, growing wise when it was too late, he struggled to get the lid on again as fast as possible; but it was all he could do to keep in the last of the party, which was Hope, that lay at the bottom. In the end Jupiter seized Prometheus, and upon many and grave charges,—as that of old he had stolen fire, that he had made a mock of Jupiter’s majesty in that deceitful sacrifice, that he had scorned and rejected his gift, together with another not mentioned before, that he had attempted to ravish Minerva,—threw him into chains and condemned him to perpetual tortures. For by Jupiter’s command he was dragged to Mount Caucasus, and there bound fast to a column so that he could not stir. And there was an eagle which gnawed and consumed his liver by day; but what was eaten in the day grew again in the night, so that matter was never wanting for the torture to work upon. Yet they say that this punishment had its end at last; for Hercules sailed across the ocean in a cup that was given to him by the Sun, came to Caucasus, shot the eagle with his arrows, and set Prometheus free. In honour of Prometheus there were instituted in some nations games called torch-races, in which the runners carried lighted torches in their hands; and if any went out the bearer stood aside, leaving the victory to those that followed; and the first who reached the goal with his torch still burning received the prize.  1
  This fable carries in it many true and grave speculations both on the surface and underneath. For there are some things in it that have been long ago observed, others have never been touched at all.  2
  Prometheus clearly and expressly signifies Providence: and the one thing singled out by the ancients as the special and peculiar work of Providence was the creation and constitution of Man. For this one reason no doubt was, that the nature of man includes mind and intellect, which is the seat of providence; and since to derive mind and reason from principles brutal and irrational would be harsh and incredible, it follows almost necessarily that the human spirit was endued with providence not without the precedent and intention and warrant of the greater providence. But this was not all. The chief aim of the parable appears to be, that Man, if we look to final causes, may be regarded as the centre of the world; insomuch that if man were taken away from the world, the rest would seem to be all astray, without aim or purpose, to be like a besom without a binding, as the saying is, and to be leading to nothing. For the whole world works together in the service of man; and there is nothing from which he does not derive use and fruit. The revolutions and courses of the stars serve him both for distinction of the seasons and distribution of the quarters of the world. The appearances of the middle sky afford him prognostications of weather. The winds sail his ships and work his mills and engines. Plants and animals of all kinds are made to furnish him either with dwelling and shelter or clothing or food or medicine, or to lighten his labour, or to give him pleasure and comfort; insomuch that all things seem to be going about man’s business and not their own. Nor is it without meaning added that in the mass and composition of which man was made, particles taken from the different animals were infused and mixed up with the clay; for it is most true that of all things in the universe man is the most composite, so that he was not without reason called by the ancients the little world. For though the Alchemists, when they maintain that there is to be found in man every mineral, every vegetable, &c., or something corresponding to them, take the word microcosm in a sense too gross and literal, and have so spoiled the elegance and distorted the meaning of it, yet that the body of man is of all existing things both the most mixed and the most organic, remains not the less a sober and solid truth. And this is indeed the reason it is capable of such wonderful powers and faculties; for the powers of simple bodies, though they be certain and rapid, yet being less refracted, broken up, and counteracted by mixture, they are few; but abundance and excellence of power resides in mixture and composition. Nevertheless we see that man in the first stage of his existence is a naked and defenceless thing, slow to help himself, and full of wants. Therefore Prometheus applied himself with all haste to the invention of fire; which in all human necessities and business is the great minister of relief and help; insomuch that if the soul be the form of forms and the hand the instrument of instruments, fire may rightly be called the help of helps and the mean of means. For through it most operations are effected, through it the arts mechanical and the sciences themselves are furthered in an infinite variety of ways.  3
  Now the description of the manner in which the theft of fire was accomplished is apt and according to the nature of the thing. It was by applying a stalk of fennel to the chariot of the Sun. For fennel is used as a rod to strike with. The meaning therefore clearly is that Fire is produced by violent percussions and collisions of one body with another; whereby the matter they are made of is attenuated and set in motion, and prepared to receive the heat of the celestial bodies, and so by clandestine processes, as by an act of theft, snatches fire as it were from the chariot of the Sun.  4
  There follows a remarkable part of the parable. Men, we are told, instead of gratulation and thanksgiving fell to remonstance and indignation, and brought an accusation before Jupiter both against Prometheus and against Fire; and this act was moreover by him so well liked, that in consideration of it he accumulated fresh benefits upon mankind. For how should the crime of ingratitude towards their maker, a vice which includes in itself almost all others, deserve approbation and reward? and what could be the drift of such a fiction? But this is not what is meant. The meaning of the allegory is, that the accusation and arraignment by men both of their own nature and of art, proceeds from an excellent condition of mind and issues in good; whereas the contrary is hated by the gods, and unlucky. For they who extravagantly extol human nature as it is and the arts as received; who spend themselves in admiration of what they already possess, and hold up as perfect the sciences which are professed and cultivated; are wanting, first, in reverence to the divine nature, with the perfection of which they almost presume to compare, and next in usefulness towards man; as thinking that they have already reached the summit of things and finished their work, and therefore need seek no further. They on the other hand who arraign and accuse nature and the arts, and abound with complainings, are not only more modest (if it be truly considered) in their sentiment, but are also stimulated perpetually to fresh industry and new discoveries. And this makes me marvel all the more at the ignorance and evil genius of mankind, who being overcrowed by the arrogance of a few persons, hold in such honour that philosophy of the Peripatetics, which was but a portion, and no large portion either, of the Greek philosophy, that every attempt to find fault with it has come to be not only useless, but also suspected and almost dangerous. Whereas certainly in my opinion both Empedocles and Democritus, who complain, the first madly enough, but the second very soberly, that all things are hidden away from us, that we know nothing, that we discern nothing, that truth is drowned in deep wells, that the true and the false are strangely joined and twisted together, (for the new academy carried it a great deal too far,) are more to be approved than the school of Aristotle so confident and dogmatical. Therefore let all men know that the preferring of complaints against nature and the arts is a thing well pleasing to the gods, and draws down new alms and bounties from the divine goodness; and that the accusation of Prometheus, our maker and master though he be, yea sharp and vehement accusation, is a thing more sober and profitable than this overflow of congratulation and thanksgiving: let them know that conceit of plenty is one of the principal causes of want.  5
  Now for the gift which men are said to have received as the reward of their accusation, namely the unfading flower of youth; it seems to show that methods and medicines for the retardation of age and the prolongation of life were by the ancients not despaired of, but reckoned rather among those things which men once had and by sloth and negligence let slip, than among those which were wholly denied or never offered. For they seem to say that by the true use of fire, and by the just and vigorous accusation and conviction of the errors of art, such gifts might have been compassed; and that it was not the divine goodness that was wanting to them therein, but they that were wanting to themselves; in that having received this gift of the gods, they committed the carriage of it to a lazy and slow-paced ass. By this seems to be meant experience; a thing stupid and full of delay, whose slow and tortoise-like pace gave birth to that ancient complaint that life is short and art is long. And for my own part I certainly think that those two faculties—the Dogmatical and the Empirical—have not yet been well united and coupled; but that the bringing down of new gifts from the gods has ever been left either to the abstract philosophies, as to a light bird; or to sluggish and tardy experience, as to an ass. And yet it must be said in behalf of the ass, that he might perhaps do well enough, but for that accident of thirst by the way. For if a man would put himself fairly under the command of experience, and proceed steadily onward by a certain law and method, and not let any thirst for experiments either of profit or ostentation seize him by the way and make him lay down and unsettle his burthen in order that he may taste them,—such a man I do think would prove a carrier to whom new and augmented measures of divine bounty might be well enough entrusted.  6
  As for the transfer of the gift to serpents, it seems to be an addition merely for ornament; unless it were inserted in shame of mankind, who with that fire of theirs and with so many arts, cannot acquire for themselves things which nature has of herself bestowed on many other animals.  7
  The sudden reconciliation of men with Prometheus after the frustration of their hope, contains likewise a wise and useful observation. It alludes to the levity and rashness of men in new experiments; who if an experiment does not at once succeed according to wish, are in far too great a hurry to give up the attempt as a failure, and so tumble back to where they were and take on with the old things again.  8
  Having thus described the state of man in respect of arts and matters intellectual, the parable passes to Religion; for with the cultivation of the arts came likewise the worship of things divine; and this was immediately seized on and polluted by hypocrisy. Therefore under the figure of that double sacrifice is elegantly represented the person of the truly religious man and the hypocrite. For in the one there is the fat, which is God’s portion, by reason of the flame and sweet savour, whereby is meant affection and zeal burning and rising upward for the glory of God. In him are the bowels of charity; in him wholesome and useful meat. In the other is found nothing but dry and bare bones, with which the skin is stuffed out till it looks like a fair and noble victim: whereby are signified those external and empty rites and ceremonies with which men overload and inflate the service of religion: things rather got up for ostentation than conducing to piety. Nor is it enough for men to offer such mockeries to God, but they must also lay and father them upon himself, as though he had himself chosen and prescribed them. It is against such a kind of choice that the prophet in God’s person remonstrates, when he says, Is this such a fast as I have CHOSEN, that man should afflict his soul for one day and bow his head like a bulrush?  9
  After touching the state of Religion, the parable turns to morals and the conditions of human life. Pandora has been generally and rightly understood to mean pleasure and sensual appetite; which after the introduction of civil arts and culture and luxury, is kindled up as it were by the gift of fire. To Vulcan therefore, who in like manner represents fire, the making of Pleasure is imputed. And from her have flowed forth infinite mischief upon the minds, the bodies, and the fortunes of men, together with repentance when too late; nor upon individuals only, but upon kingdoms also and commonwealths. For from this same fountain have sprung wars and civil disturbances and tyrannies. But it is worth while to observe how prettily and elegantly the two conditions and as it were pictures or models of human life are set forth in the story, under the persons of Prometheus and Epimetheus. The followers of Epimetheus are the improvident, who take no care for the future but think only of what is pleasant at the time; and on this account it is true that they suffer many distresses, difficulties, and calamities, and are engaged in a perpetual struggle with them; and yet in the mean time they indulge their genius, and amuse their minds moreover, as their ignorance allows them to do, with many empty hopes, in which they take delight as in pleasant dreams, and so sweeten the miseries of life. The school of Prometheus on the other hand, that is the wise and fore-thoughtful class of men, do indeed by their caution decline and remove out of their way many evils and misfortunes; but with that good there is this evil joined, that they stint themselves of many pleasures and of the various agreeableness of life, and cross their genius, and (what is far worse) torment and wear themselves away with cares and solicitude and inward fears. For being bound to the column of Necessity, they are troubled with innumerable thoughts (which because of their flightiness are represented by the eagle), thoughts which prick and gnaw and corrode the liver: and if at intervals, as in the night, they obtain some little relaxation and quiet of mind, yet new fears and anxieties return presently with the morning. Very few therefore are they to whom the benefit of both portions falls,—to retain the advantages of providence and yet free themselves from the evils of solicitude and perturbation. Neither is it possible for any one to attain this double blessing, except by the help of Hercules; that is, fortitude and constancy of mind, which being prepared for all events and equal to any fortune, foresees without fear, enjoys without fastidiousness, and bears without impatience. It is worth noting too that this virtue was not natural to Prometheus, but adventitious, and came by help from without; for it is not a thing which any inborn and natural fortitude can attain to; it comes from beyond the ocean, it is received and brought to us from the Sun; for it comes of Wisdom, which is as the Sun, and of meditation upon the inconstancy and fluctuations of human life, which is as the navigation of the ocean: two things which Virgil has well coupled together in those lines:—
        Ah, happy, could we but the causes know
Of all that is! Then should we know no fears:
Then should the inexorable Fate no power
Possess to shake us, nor the jaws of death.
Most elegantly also is it added for the consolation and encouragement of men’s minds, that that mighty hero sailed in a cup or pitcher; lest they should too much mistrust the narrowness and frailty of their own nature, or plead it in their own excuse, as though it were altogether incapable of this kind of fortitude and constancy: the true nature of which was well divined by Seneca, when he said, It is true greatness to have in one the frailty of man and the security of God.
  10
  But I must now return to a part which, that I might not interrupt the connexion of what precedes, I have purposely passed by. I mean that last crime of Prometheus, the attempt upon the chastity of Minerva. For it was even for this offence,—certainly a very great and grave one,—that he underwent that punishment of the tearing of his entrails. The crime alluded to appears to be no other than that into which men not unfrequently fall when puffed up with arts and much knowledge,—of trying to bring the divine wisdom itself under the dominion of sense and reason: from which attempt inevitably follows laceration of the mind and vexation without end or rest. And therefore men must soberly and modestly distinguish between things divine and human, between the oracles of sense and of faith; unless they mean to have at once a heretical religion and a fabulous philosophy.  11
  The last point remains,—namely the races with burning torches instituted in honour of Prometheus. This again, like that fire in memory and celebration of which these games were instituted, alludes to arts and sciences, and carries in it a very wise admonition, to this effect,—that the perfection of the sciences is to be looked for not from the swiftness or ability of any one inquirer, but from a succession. For the strongest and swiftest runners are perhaps not the best fitted to keep their torch alight; since it may be put out by going too fast as well as too slow. It seems however that these races and games of the torch have long been intermitted; since it is still in their first authors,—Aristotle, Galen, Euclid, Ptolemy,—that we find the several sciences in highest perfection; and no great matter has been done, nor hardly attempted, by their successors. And well were it to be wished that these games in honour of Prometheus, that is of Human Nature, were again revived; that the victory may no longer depend upon the unsteady and wavering torch of each single man; but competition, emulation, and good fortune be brought to aid. Therefore men should be advised to rouse themselves, and try each his own strength and the chance of his own turn, and not to stake the whole venture upon the spirits and brains of a few persons.  12
  Such are the views which I conceive to be shadowed out in this so common and hacknied fable. It is true that there are not a few things beneath which have a wonderful correspondency with the mysteries of the Christian faith. The voyage of Hercules especially, sailing in a pitcher to set Prometheus free, seems to present an image of God the Word hastening in the frail vessel of the flesh to redeem the human race. But I purposely refrain myself from all licence of speculation in this kind, lest peradventure I bring strange fire to the altar of the Lord.  13
 
 
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