by Francis Bacon
Complete explanation of the essay alongside the original text
Fortune is like the market; where many times, if you can stay a little, the price will fall. And again, it is sometimes like Sibylla’s offer; which at first offereth the commodity at full, then consumeth part and part, and still holdeth up the price. For occasion (as it is in the common verse) turneth a bald noddle, after she hath presented her locks in front, and no hold taken; or at least turneth the handle of the bottle first to be received, and after the belly, which is hard to clasp.
Francis Bacon was a very practical man. He understood that there is very few absolute black or white situations in the world. Mostly, we see different shades of grey.
We all know how prices fall when there is excess supply, and prices rise when demand exceeds supply. This is the age-old economic truth. When a buyer enters a just-opened market to buy a commodity, he shouldn’t rush to make the purchase. Showing haste and eagerness makes the seller to quote a higher price. as the day progresses, the vendors become relaxed, and the prices dip. If it a village hat, or an exhibition where traders come from far and wide to sell their wares, a certain degree of nervousness grips the sellers. They become anxious to sell off their merchandize, so that they don’t have to ferry back the unsold stuff. Because of these factors, prices generally fall with time in a market. This is the reason why Francis Bacon advises us not to rush with our purchases.
It is also true that sellers sometimes destroy their merchandize to create a degree of scarcity in the market. This helps to curb the fall of prices due to excess supply. We all know, in the 60’s and earlier, the United States used to dump shiploads of wheat in the sea to arrest the fall of international wheat prices. The tactics appears quite irksome, but this is the hard truth. A stable price regime necessitates a balance between demand and supply.
Sibyl of Cumae in Italy was a lady of profound scholarship and sagacity. She had in her possession, nine priceless books that contained rare knowledge of great value. She came to Taraquin, the Proud to offer the ni ne books on sale. Tarquin’s interest was lukewarm, and no books were sold. Sibyl didn’t give up. She burnt three of the nine books, and renewed her offer to sell them to Taraquin, keeping the price same as that quoted for the nine books. To the dismay of Sibyl, Tarquin evinced no interest in any of the rest six books. Sibyl, in her wisdom, decided to curtail the availability of her books. She burnt another three of the books, and went to Taraquin to sell the last three books. The clever Sibyl, however, quoted the same price that she had asked for the nine books initially. Taraquin couldn’t quite realize why the invaluable books were so destroyed. Somewhat puzzled, he bought the last remaining three books virtually paying three times higher price.
To the great amazement of Tarquin, the books he bought had detailed instructions about the way god was to be worshipped, and the policy of the Romans. The books were preserved with great reverence. They became the reference books for guiding the Senate during times of confusion. Decades later, in 8 BC, a deadly fire consumed the library that had the books.
Bacon has illustrated the relation of price with supply position of any item. This is why he advises a buyer to hold back a little till the market reaches a point where there are more goods available than the buyers.
In his characteristic style, he also cautions that the delay must not be overdone, lest the opportunity slip away. He gives this example.
A woman had a head with a large bald patch in the back. The woman had long hairs in the front. To avoid lecherous attention, she hung the hair in the front so as to conceal her face. The onlookers were fooled by this. They waited till they had a good glimpse of her. But, after a while, the woman had stepped well forward. The bystanders couldn’t see her face. They saw the bald patch only.
Through this symbolic example, Francis Bacon demonstrates that too long a wait might lead to an opportunity slipping away. So, one must be judicious enough to wait just enough to strike a deal, make a purchase, or grab an opportunity. Delay is desirable, only when its duration is optimally decided.
There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things. Dangers are no more light, if they once seem light; and more dangers have deceived men than forced them. Nay, it were better to meet some dangers half way, though they come nothing near, than to keep too long a watch upon their approaches; for if a man watch too long, it is odds he will fall asleep. On the other side, to be deceived with too long shadows (as some have been when the moon was low and shone on their enemies’ back), and so to shoot off before the time; or to teach dangers to come on, by over early buckling towards them; is another extreme.
Arriving at the most opportunity for starting a venture, or setting out to do something calls for discerning judgment. Those who have this ability are gifted indeed. A risk in any new effort or action may appear less, but, in fact, it could be quite grave. Risks and dangers lurk everywhere. Unless spotted and avoided effectively, they can mar a person’s wellbeing or fortune quite grievously. One must be able to foresee a danger or risk when it is just rearing its head. One must move swiftly to nip the danger in the bud. Some move to preempt such dangers is called for.
If one waits too long for the danger to appear real and worrisome, it might be too late. The delay in taking remedial action to counter the risk might lead to the risk spiraling out of control and harming the person seriously.
Bacon proceeds to give a counterview here to add balance to his advice. He says that a person should not be on the edge and begin to panic at the first sight of a risk or a danger. Over reaction might lead to waste of effort and a botched attempt to neutralize the danger. As the Sun begins to set, the shadow of a tree lengthens. The shadow might appear frighteningly long, where as the tree generating it might be considerably shorter. Bacon mentions this example to drive home his argument against needless anxiety at the first sighting of danger. Another example Bacon cites is that of the enemy forces standing with their back towards the moon. In such an instance, the enemy garrison looks far more ominous than it actually is. Before swinging in to action to take offensive action, one must factor this possibility of misreading a situation.
However, discretion is the key here. If a person waits too long waiting for the danger to become a full-blown crisis, he would be erring to his great detriment. The situation could be too worse for him to face.
The ripeness or unripeness of the occasion (as we said) must ever be well weighed; and generally it is good to commit the beginnings of all great actions to Argos with his hundred eyes, and the ends to Briareus with his hundred hands; first to watch, and then to speed. For the helmet of Pluto, which maketh the politic man go invisible, is secrecy in the counsel and celerity in the execution. For when things are once come to the execution, there is no secrecy comparable to celerity; like the motion of a bullet in the air, which flieth so swift as it outruns the eye.
The propitiousness of any action has to be carefully assessed weighing all factors that have a bearing on it. Argos was a Greek mythological giant with one hundred eyes. He never allowed all his eyes to close, because he wanted to be alert all the time against possible dangers. Since some eyes were open at any given moment, he could see what danger was coming, and he could move quickly to counter it. So, Bacon argues, one should always be vigilant against rising dangers. Briareus, of Homer’s Illiad, was like Ravana of the Ramayana. He had fifty heads and hundred hands making him a very formidable person. He, using his humongous physical prowess, could stave off any inimical element.
Bacon wants his readers to have the brawn and brain of Briareus. He could sense a danger quite early, and then move to fight it off with his awesome might. The helmet of Pluto is an imaginary device that many characters in Greek mythology wore to make themselves invisible to their foes. This enabled the wearer to turn on his enemy surreptitiously. The helmet provided the element of surprise to the attacker and enabled to vanquish his enemy. Therefore, Bacon argues, stealth is a weapon that one must use to attack the adversary. Like a bullet flies at lightening speed leaving no chance for interception, one should learn to attack the enemy without giving him any sort of forewarning. Such a tactics greatly enhances one’s offensive capacity.
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