Nonfiction > Francis Bacon > Of the Wisdom of the Ancients

Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.
X. Actæon and Pentheus
Or Curiosity
THE CURIOSITY and unhealthy appetite of man for the discovery of secrets, is reproved by the ancients in two examples: one of Actæon, the other of Pentheus. Actæon having unawares and by chance seen Diana naked, was turned into a stag and worried by his own dogs. Pentheus having climbed a tree for the purpose of seeing the secret mysteries of Bacchus, was struck with madness; and the form of his madness was this: he thought everything was double; saw two suns, and again two cities of Thebes: insomuch that when he set out towards Thebes, he presently saw another Thebes behind, which made him go back; and so was kept continually going backwards and forwards without any rest.
        As to distracted Pentheus there appear
Furies in troops, and in the sky two suns,
And on the earth two several Thebes at once.
  The first of these fables seems to relate to the secrets of princes, the other to the secrets of divinity. For whoever becomes acquainted with a prince’s secrets without leave and against his will, is sure to incur his hatred: and then, knowing that he is marked and that occasions are sought against him, he lives the life of a stag; a life full of fears and suspicions. Often too it happens that his own servants and domestics, to curry favour with the prince, accuse and overthrow him. For when the displeasure of the prince is manifest, a man shall scarcely have a servant but will betray him; and so he may expect the fate of Actæon.  2
  The calamity of Pentheus is of a different kind. For the punishment assigned to those who with rash audacity, forgetting their mortal condition, aspire by the heights of nature and philosophy, as by climbing a tree, to penetrate the divine mysteries, is perpetual inconstancy, and a judgment vacillating and perplexed. For since the light of nature is one thing and the light of divinity another, they are as men that see two suns; and since the actions of life and the determinations of the will depend upon the intellect, it follows that they are perplexed in will no less than in opinion, and cannot be consistent with themselves: in which sense they in like manner see two Thebes; for by Thebes is meant the ends and aim of our actions; Thebes being Pentheus’s home and resting-place. And hence it comes that they know not which way to turn, but being uncertain and fluctuating as to the sum and end of all, they are carried round and round from one thing to another, according to the impulse of the moment.  3

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