Of Wisdom for a Man’s Self
By Francis Bacon
AN ANT is a wise creature for itself, but it is a shrewd thing in an orchard or garden. And certainly men that are great lovers of themselves waste the public. Divide with reason between self-love and society; and be so true to thyself, as thou be not false to others; specially to thy king and country.
Meaning … An ant lives in a well-knit community where every one of the ants assiduously works to ensure security, food availability, and welfare for all members. This is why the inside of an anthill has such intelligently designed passages, rooms, and common spaces. All this becomes possible because the ant works hard, with great discipline and dedication. Despite this, an ant’s contribution to the garden or orchard in which it lives is negligible. Because, it is so self-centered, it finds no time or motivation to work for the common good of the other inhabitants or the orchard itself.
It is a poor centre of a man’s actions, himself. It is right earth. For that only stands fast upon his own centre; whereas all things that have affinity with the heavens move upon the centre of another, which they benefit. The referring of all to a man’s self is more tolerable in a sovereign prince; because themselves are not only themselves but their good and evil is at the peril of the public fortune.
Meaning …. Concentrating all your creative energy for your own good is obviously undesirable. As a simile, one can look at the earth. The earth stands on itself, with no prop or foundation. All creatures living on it, who look towards the Heavens, have their foothold on Earth. Self-indulgence is, however, tolerable on the part of kings and emperors. There is reason why such relaxation has to be given to the supreme rulers. First, they occupy very exalted positions at the zenith of the society. So, luxury is their natural entitlement. Secondly, keeping them unhappy or craving for certain happiness will impair the welfare of the subjects.
But it is a desperate evil in a servant to a prince, or a citizen in a republic. For whatsoever affairs pass such a man’s hands, he crooketh them to his own ends; which must needs be often eccentric to the ends of his master or state. Therefore let princes, or states, choose such servants as have not this mark; except they mean their service should be made but the accessory.
Meaning …. When a public servant or a close confidant of the sovereign takes a cut of the revenue illicitly, he commits a grave crime. Using his access to the source of funds and privileges, he begins to steal them for his own use. This is nothing but corruption of the vilest nature. He steals from the king and from the state treasury by siphoning off small chunks of the revenue / resources meant to be passed on untouched to the exchequer. Therefore, the kings and modern day rulers must choose people of impeccable honesty as civil servants. These bureaucrats must be dedicated to their duty and to their masters.
That which maketh the effect more pernicious is that all proportion is lost. It were disproportion enough for the servant’s good to be preferred before the master’s; but yet it is a greater extreme, when a little good of the servant shall carry things against a great good of the master’s.
Meaning ….. When a civil servant becomes corrupted and begins to steal, he becomes a slave of his greed. He digs his hand deeper and deeper into the revenue and resource stream of his state. In due course, he becomes a bloated and selfish official. The state’s coffers diminish in the process. The welfare measures for the citizens thus get hit.
And yet that is the case of bad officers, treasurers, ambassadors, generals, and other false and corrupt servants; which set a bias upon their bowl, of their own petty ends and envies, to the overthrow of their master’s great and important affairs. And for the most part, the good such servants receive is after the model of their own fortune; but the hurt they sell for that good is after the model of their master’s fortune.
And certainly it is the nature of extreme self-lovers, as they will set an house on fire, and it were but to roast their eggs; and yet these men many times hold credit with their masters, because their study is but to please them and profit themselves; and for either respect they will abandon the good of their affairs.
Meaning …. These corrupt and self-serving officers have little regard for the interests of the state. Like an arsonist setting a house afire to roast his egg, these corrupt officers put their own interest well above the collective interest of the state. Curiously, these officers are often seen to be the favourites of the sovereign. Using their intelligence and cunning minds, they work their way up to the proximity of the unsuspecting monarch who confides in them willingly. Such high position facilitates more looting.
Wisdom for a man’s self is, in many branches thereof, a depraved thing. It is the wisdom of rats, that will be sure to leave a house somewhat before it fall. It is the wisdom of the fox, that thrusts out the badger, who digged and made room for him. It is the wisdom of crocodiles, that shed tears when they could devour.
Meaning ….. Wisdom of a human being is not necessarily a noble gift. At times, it can lead the man to do many utterly hideous acts. A rat deserts his house when it is on fire. In the same way, a fox evicts the badger from the hole although the badger has dug the hole himself with his labour. The crocodile sheds his tears to attract its prey to come within his reach.
But that which is specially to be noted is, that those which (as Cicero says of Pompey) are sui amantes, sine rivali [lovers of themselves without a rival] are many times unfortunate. And whereas they have all their times sacrificed to themselves, they become in the end themselves sacrifices to the inconstancy of fortune, whose wings they sought by their self-wisdom to have pinioned.
Meaning …. Relentless pursuit of self-interest is not always the guarantee for permanent affluence and access to luxury. These self-centered individuals often suffer from a cursed fate. Wealth does not stay with its possessor permanently. Quite often it is squandered or stolen or is frittered away. So, the possessor suffers ignominy, hear-break, and deprivation. Nothing can be sadder than this.