« PreviousContinue »
'I mean not to speak of divine prophecies.'
There was a prediction not noticed by Bacon, but which is perhaps more remarkable than any of those he does record: that concerning the duration of the Roman empire.
It is recorded that Romulus, when looking out for omens from birds, preparatory to the founding of his city, saw a flight of twelve vultures; which the soothsayers interpreted as a sign that the empire should last twelve centuries. Now whatever may be believed or disbelieved as to the vultures, the facts are undeniable, (i) that the prophecy was a current tradition among the Romans for ages, and (2) that it was fulfilled: the empire coming to an end under Augustulus just twelve hundred years from the foundation of the city.
'The spreading or publishing of them is in no sort to be despised; for they have done much mischief'
A political prediction, publicly uttered, will often have had, or be supposed to have had, a great share in bringing about its own fulfilment. Accordingly, when a law is actually passed, and there is no reasonable hope of its repeal, we should be very cautious in publicly uttering predictions of dangers and discontents, lest we should thus become the means of engendering or aggravating them. He who gives out, for instance, that the people will certainly be dissatisfied with such and such a law, is in this doing his utmost to make them dissatisfied. And this being the case in all unfavourable, as well as favourable, predictions, some men lose their deserved credit for political sagacity, through their fear of contributing to produce the evils they apprehend; while others, again, contribute to evil results by their incapacity to keep their anticipations locked up in thenown bosoms, and by their dread of not obtaining deserved credit. It would be desirable to provide for such men a relief like that which the servant of King Midas found; due care, however, being taken that there should be no whispering reeds to divulge it.
In another 'New Atlantis,' entitled The Southlanders, a Prediction-office is supposed to exist in several of the States; namely, an establishment consisting of two or three inspectors, and a few clerks, appointed to receive from any one, on payment of a trifling fee, any sealed-up prediction, to be opened at a time specified by the party himself. His name is to be signed to the prediction within; and on the outer cover is inscribed the date of its delivery, and the time when the seal is to be broken. There is no pretence made to supernatural prophetic powers; only to supposed political sagacity.
Unless in some case in which very remarkable sagacity has been evinced, the predictions are not made public. But previously to the appointment of any of the authors to any public office, the inspectors are bound to look over their register, and produce, as a set-off against a candidate's claims, any unsuccessful prediction he may have made. Many a man there is to whom important public trusts are committed, who, wherever such an institution had been established, would be found to have formally recorded, under the influence of self-conceit, his own incapacity.
'Probable conjectures many times turn themselves into
Yet there have been some which will hardly admit of this explanation. Such is that concerning the Empress Josephine, which is said to be well-attested. She had her fortune told, it is said, in the West Indies, when a girl, by an Obi-woman (as the negroes call them), who told her that she would rise to be greater than a queen, but would die in an hospital. After her divorce, she lived and died at Malmaison, a house which had formerly been an hospital.
'Men mark when they lut, and never mark when they miss.'
This remark, as well as the proverb, 'What is hit is history; what is missed is mystery,' would admit of much generalization. The most general statement would be nearly that of the lawmaxim, 'De non apparentibus et non existentibus, eadem est ratio;' for in all matters, men are apt to treat as altogether nou-existent, whatever does not come under their knowledge or notice.
No doubt, if all the pocket-books now existing could be inspected, some thousands of memoranda would be found of dreams, visions, omens, presentiments, &c., kept to observe whether they are fulfilled; and when one is, out of some hundreds of thousands, this is recorded; the rest being never heard of. So Bion, when shown the votive offerings of those who had been saved from shipwreck, asked, 'Where are the records of those who were drowned in spite of their vows?'
Mr. Senior has remarked in his Lectures on Political Economy, that the sacrifice of vast wealth, on the part of a whole people, for the gain—and that, comparatively, a trifling gain—of a handful of monopolists, is often submitted to patiently,1 from the gain being concentrated and the loss diffused. But this would not have occurred so often as it has, were it not that this diffusion of the loss causes its existence—that is, its existence as a loss so incurred—to be unperceived. If a million of persons are each virtually taxed half-a-crown a year in the increased price of some article, through the prohibition of free-trade, perhaps not above a shilling of this goes to those who profit by the monopoly. But this million of shillings, amounting to £50,000 per annum, is divided, perhaps, among fifty persons, who clearly perceive whence their revenue is derived; and who, when an income of £1000 is at stake, will combine together, and use every effort and artifice to keep up the monopoly. The losers, on the other hand, not only have, each, much less at stake, but are usually ignorant that they do lose by this monopoly; else they would not readily submit to pay half-a-crown, or even one shilling, as a direct pension to fifty men who had no claim on them.
Again, an English gentleman who lives on bis estate, is considered as a public benefactor, not only by exerting himself—if he docs so—in promoting sound religion, and pure morality, and useful knowledge in his neighbourhood, but also because his income is spent in furnishing employment to his neighbours, as domestics, and bakers, and carpenters, &c. J£ he removes and resides in France, his income is, in fact, spent on English cutlers and clothiers; since it is their products that are exported to France, and virtually exchanged—though in a slightly circuitous way,—for the services of French domestics, bakers, and carpenters. But the Sheffield cutlers are not aware even of his existence; while the neighbours of the resident proprietor trace distinctly to him the profits they derive from him.
1 See 'Annotations * on Essay XXIII.
Again, one who unprofitably consumes in feasts and fireworks, and fancy-gardens, &c., the labour of many men, is regarded as a public benefactor, in furnishing employment to so many; though it is plain, that all unproductive consumption diminishes by just so much the wealth of the country. He, on the contrary, who hoards up his money as a miser, is abused; though in fact he is (though without any such design) contributing to the public wealth, by lending at interest all he saves; which finds its way, directly or indirectly, to canals, commerce, manufactures, and other productive courses of expenditure. But this benefit to the Public no one can trace; any more than we can trace each of the drops of rain that find their way into the sea. On the other hand, the advantage to the individuals to whom the other is a customer, they distinctly trace to him.
Again, the increased knowledge of 'accidents and offences' conveyed through newspapers, in a civilized country, leads some to fancy that these evils occur more frequently, because they hear of them more, than in times of' primitive simplicity.' But 'there are no more particles of dust in the sunbeam than in the rest of the room; though we see them better.'
All these, and a multitude of other cases, come under the general formula above stated: the tendency to overrate the amount of whatever is seen and known, as compared with what is unknown, or less known, unseen, and indefinite.
Under this head will come the general tendency to underrate the preventive effects of any measure or system, whether for good or for evil. E. g. in the prevention of crime, it is plain that every instance of a crime committed, and of a penalty actually inflicted, is an instance of failure in the object for which penalties were denounced. We see the crimes that do take place, and the punishments; we do not see the crimes that would be committed if punishment were abolished.
ESSAY XXXVI. OF AMBITION.
AMBITION is like choler, which is a humour that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped; but if it be stopped, and cannot have its way, it becometh adust,1 and thereby malign and venomous; so ambitious men, if they find the way open for their rising, and still get forward, they are rather busy than dangerous; but if they be checked in their desires, they become secretly discontent,' and look upon men and matters with an evil eye, and are best pleased when things go backward; which is the worst property in a servant of a prince or State. Therefore, it is good for princes, if they use ambitious men, to handle it so as they be still progressive and not retrograde; which, because it cannot be without inconvenience, it is good not to use such natures at all; for if they rise not with their service, they will take order' to make their service fall with them. But since we have said, it were good not to use men of ambitious natures, except it be upra necessity, it is fit to speak in what cases they are of necessity. Good commanders in the wars must be taken, be they never so ambitious; for the use of their service dispenseth4 with the rest; and to take a soldier without ambition is to pull off his spurs. There is also great use of ambitious men in being screens to princes in matters of danger and envy; for no man will take that part except he be like a seeled5 dove, that mounts and mounts,
1 Adust. Fiery.
'The same adust complexion has impelled Charles to the convent, Philip to the field.'—Pope. - Discontent. Dwcontented.
'For e'en with goodness men grow discontent. Where states are ripe to fall, and virtue spent.'— Danid. 8 Order. Measures.
'While I take order for mine own affairs.'—Shakespere.
* Dispense with. To excuse.
'To save a brother's life, Nature dispinseth with the deed.'
* Seol. To seal up thr eyes; to hoodwink; to hlind. (A term of falconry.)
'To seel her father's eyes up, close as oak.'—ShaJsespere.