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The treatise De Sapientia Veterum was first published in 1609, in a small duodecimo volume, carefully and beautifully printed in the elegant italic type then in use. It appears to have become speedily popular, and was once or twice reprinted during Bacon's life, and translated both into English and Italian. In 1623, he introduced three of the fables, revised and considerably enlarged, into the De Augmentis Scientiarum, as a specimen of one of the Desiderata. Two others he had designed for the foundation of an elaborate discussion of the philosophy of Democritus, Parmenides, and Telesius ; of which a considerable fragment has been preserved. See Preface to De Principiis atque Originibus. A year or two before his death he designed to include the whole volume among the Opera Moralia et Civilia, of which he was then preparing a collection, and in which it was afterwards published by Dr. Rawley, along with the Latin translations of the History of Henry VII., the Essays, the New Atlantis, and the Dialogue of a Holy War. There can be no doubt therefore that it was a work which he thought well of, and meant to live.
Of the history of it all I know further is, that four of the fables, — namely, Metis sive Consilium, Soror Gigantum sive Fama, Coelum sive Origines, and Proteus sive Materia, — are found in the same form in the fragment which I have entitled Cogitationes de Scientiâ Humanâ, and which I suppose to have been written before 1605. See Preface to the Philosophical Works, Part III.
The object of the work was probably to obtain a more favourable hearing for certain philosophical doctrines of Bacon's own; for it seems certain that the fables themselves could never have suggested the ideas, however a man to whom the ideas had suggested themselves might find or fancy he found them in the fables. But the theory on which his interpretation rests, namely that a period of high intellectual cultivation had existed upon the earth and passed out of memory long before the days of Homer, was, I suppose, seriously entertained by him; nor was it a thing so difficult to believe then as it seems now. When a new continent was first discovered, in which the savage inhabitants were found laden with golden ornaments, it was easy to believe in the rumours of El Dorado ; and when the buried fragments of Greek and Roman civilisation were first brought up for the examination of a new age, they might easily suggest to the imagination a world of wonders still unrecovered. But when voyage after voyage returned from America, bringing no confirmation of the first rumours, they ceased to be credible; and now that men have been employed for centuries in diligently collecting and discussing the monuments of antiquity, and yet no further evidence of that period of primeval wisdom has been discovered, the balance of probability turns against the speculation. Comparative philology, coupled with comparative mythology, teaches us to seek for an explanation of the ancient mythes in a new direction ; and from these sciences Bacon, though I think
he would have accepted them as the best guides in the inquiry, could have no help; for they could hardly be said to exist at all in his time. Regarded therefore as attempts to explain the true historical origin of these fables, his interpretations, however elegant and ingenious, may be set aside, as having lost their serious interest for us. And though they would furnish an editor possessed of the requisite learning, and so minded, with an opportunity of displaying a vast deal of erudition, it would, I think, be wasted in this place. In so far as the question could be settled by the light of common sense with such knowledge as Bacon had, little could be added probably on either side to what he has himself said in his prefatory disquisition. In so far as it depends upon the knowledge which has since been acquired concerning the ancient languages and literature of the East, it should be discussed without reference to Bacon, who had no such knowledge, and would in all probability, if it had been revealed to him, have given up his own conjecture as untenable.
The interest which the book still possesses for us (and it has always been a great favourite with me) is of quite another kind; nor has either change of times or increase of knowledge at all abated its freshness. It is an interest precisely of the same kind with that which in the Essays shows no symptoms of becoming obsolete. The interpretation of each fable is in fact an essay or counsel,” civil, moral, or philosophical ; embodying the results of Bacon's own thought and observation upon the nature of men and things, and replete with good sense of the best quality.
The great popularity of this book during the first half of the seventeenth century may have been partly
due to the reputation which it then had among scholars as a work of learning and authority; and if so, the decline of its popularity may be accounted for by the abatement of that reputation. Students of Greek naturally neglect it, because it passes no longer for an orthodox exposition of the meaning of the Greek fables. Students of nature and the business of modern life naturally pass it by, not expecting to find under such a title and in a dead language the sort of entertainment they are in search of. But I see no other reason why it should not be as great a favourite with modern readers and be found as amusing and instructive as the Essays are; the matter being of as good quality, and the form not less attractive.
Upon this view of its character, and having a due regard to my own qualifications, I have thought it best to leave points of learning to those who are more competent to handle them (for the most I could do in that way would be to report conclusions which I am not in a condition to verify), and content myself with endeavouring by means of a new translation to bring the book within reach of the less learned. For though three English translations of it have been published, one of which was once very popular, and all are extant and accessible, I do not find any of them much quoted or referred to now, as if they had obtained any real currency among English readers. Whether my attempt will fare better, remains to be seen; but if I have succeeded in putting into the translation so much of the life of the original, that those who are fond of the Essays may read it with something of the same feeling, I shall not regret the pains I have taken in the matter.