Nonfiction > Francis Bacon > Of the Wisdom of the Ancients

Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.
XXII. Nemesis
Or the Vicissitude of Things
NEMESIS, according to the tradition, was a goddess, the object of veneration to all, to the powerful and fortunate of fear also. They say she was the daughter of Night and Ocean. She is represented with wings, and a crown: an ashen spear in her right hand; a phial, with Ethiops in it, in her left; sitting upon a stag.  1
  The parable may be understood thus. The very name Nemesis plainly signifies Revenge or Retribution: for it was the office and function of this goddess to interrupt the felicity of fortunate persons, and let no man be constantly and perpetually happy, but step in like a tribune of the people with her veto; and not to chastise insolence only, but to see also that prosperity however innocent and moderately borne had its turn of adversity: as if no one of human race could be admitted to the banquets of the gods, except in derision. And certainly when I have read that chapter of Caius Plinius in which he has collected the misfortunes and miseries of Augustus Cæsar,—him whom I thought of all men the most fortunate, and who had moreover a certain art of using and enjoying his fortune, and in whose mind were no traces of swelling, of lightness, of softness, of confusion, or of melancholy—(insomuch that he had once determined to die voluntarily),—great and powerful must this goddess be, I have thought, when such a victim was brought to her altar.  2
  The parents of this goddess were Ocean and Night; that is, the vicissitude of things, and the dark and secret judgment of God. For the vicissitude of things is aptly represented by the Ocean, by reason of its perpetual flowing and ebbing; and secret providence is rightly set forth under the image of Night. For this Nemesis of the Darkness (the human not agreeing with the divine judgment) was matter of observation even among the heathen.
                    Ripheus fell too,
Than whom a juster and a truer man
In all his dealings was not found in Troy.
But the gods judged not so.
  Nemesis again is described as winged; because of the sudden and unforeseen revolutions of things. For in all the records of time it has commonly been found that great and wise men have perished by the dangers which they most despised. So was it with M. Cicero; who when warned by Decimus Brutus to beware of Octavius Cæsar’s bad faith and evil mind towards him, only answered, I am duly grateful to you, my dear Brutus, for giving me that information, though it is but folly.  4
  Nemesis is distinguished also with a crown; in allusion to the envious and malignant nature of the vulgar; for when the fortunate and the powerful fall, the people commonly exult and set a crown upon the head of Nemesis.  5
  The spear in her right hand relates to those whom she actually strikes and transfixes. And if there be any whom she does not make victims of calamity and misfortune, to them she nevertheless exhibits that dark and ominous spectre in her left: for mortals must needs be visited, even when they stand at the summit of felicity, with images of death, diseases, misfortunes, perfidies of friends, plots of enemies, changes of fortune, and the like; even like those Ethiops in the phial. It is true that Virgil, in describing the battle of Actium, adds elegantly concerning Cleopatra:—
        Midmost the Queen with sounding timbrel cheers
Her armies to the fight; nor dreams the while
Of those two aspics at her back.
But it was not long before, turn which way she would, whole troops of Ethiops met her eyes.
  Lastly, it is wisely added that Nemesis is mounted on a stag: for the stag is a very long lived animal; and it may be that one who is cut off young may give Nemesis the slip; but if his prosperity and greatness endure for any length of time, he is without doubt a subject of Nemesis, and carries her as it were on his back.  7

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