Of Adversity, Francis Bacon: Line by Line Explanation

1. It was an high speech of Seneca (after the manner of the Stoics), that the good things, which belong to prosperity, are to be wished; but the good things, that belong to adversity, are to be admired. Bona rerum secundarum optabilia; adversarum mirabilia. 2. Certainly if miracles be the command over nature, they appear most in adversity. 3. It is yet a higher speech of his, than the other (much too high for a heathen), It is true greatness, to have in one the frailty of a man, and the security of a God. Vere magnum habere fragilitatem hominis, securitatem Dei.

In this passage, Bacon reflects on the Stoic perspective regarding the value and significance of adversity. He discusses the contrasting viewpoints on the desirability of good things in prosperity versus the admiration of virtues cultivated through adversity.

Explanation:

1. Seneca, influenced by Stoic philosophy, presents the idea that while people may wish for the benefits that come with prosperity, the virtues and qualities developed in times of adversity are more worthy of admiration. He uses the Latin phrases "Bona rerum secundarum optabilia; adversarum mirabilia" to express this concept.
2. Bacon suggests that if miracles are a demonstration of command over nature, they are most evident in moments of adversity. This notion aligns with the idea that adversity provides opportunities for extraordinary and unexpected occurrences that showcase human resilience and divine intervention.
3. Bacon introduces another profound statement attributed to Seneca. This statement emphasizes a higher level of greatness, one that combines the vulnerability of human frailty with the security and strength associated with divine protection. The Latin phrase "Vere magnum habere fragilitatem hominis, securitatem Dei" encapsulates this concept, portraying the union of human vulnerability and divine security as a mark of true greatness.

In Short:

  • Seneca asserts that virtues developed in adversity are more admirable than the benefits of prosperity.
  • Miracles, as demonstrations of command over nature, are most evident in times of adversity.
  • Seneca's statement highlights true greatness as the fusion of human frailty and divine security.
  • Adversity provides the opportunity to showcase resilience and divine intervention.
4. This would have done better in poesy, where transcendences are more allowed. 5. And the poets indeed have been busy with it; for it is in effect the thing, which figured in that strange fiction of the ancient poets, which seemeth not to be without mystery; nay, and to have some approach to the state of a Christian; that Hercules, when he went to unbind Prometheus (by whom human nature is represented), sailed the length of the great ocean, in an earthen pot or pitcher; lively describing Christian resolution, that saileth in the frail bark of the flesh, through the waves of the world.

In this passage, Bacon discusses how certain concepts may be better suited for poetic expression due to their transcendent nature. He references the use of allegorical figures in ancient poetry, drawing parallels between a mythological tale and Christian ideals.

Explanation:

4. Bacon contemplates the suitability of certain concepts for poetic treatment, as poetry allows for the exploration of transcendental ideas that go beyond the confines of prose.
5. He observes that poets have indeed engaged with such concepts, and he points to a particular instance involving ancient poets creating a peculiar allegorical story. This tale bears resemblance to Christian principles and involves Hercules embarking on a voyage in a fragile vessel across the vast ocean to unbind Prometheus, who symbolizes human nature. Bacon interprets this myth as a representation of Christian resolve, depicting the journey of Christians navigating the challenges of life within the frailty of their bodies. The story vividly portrays the determination and perseverance of Christians as they confront the uncertainties of the world.

In Short:

  • Poetic expression better suits transcendent concepts.
  • Ancient poets used allegorical tales with hidden meanings.
  • The myth of Hercules sailing in an earthen vessel symbolizes Christian determination.
  • The story mirrors the journey of Christians facing life's challenges with resolve.
  • Christian perseverance is depicted through Hercules' voyage in the frail vessel of the flesh.
6. But to speak in a mean. The virtue of prosperity, is temperance; the virtue of adversity, is fortitude; which in morals is the more heroical virtue. Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; adversity is the blessing of the New; which carrieth the greater benediction, and the clearer revelation of God’s favor. 7. Yet even in the Old Testament, if you listen to David’s harp, you shall hear as many hearse–like airs as carols; and the pencil of the Holy Ghost hath labored more in describing the afflictions of Job, than the felicities of Solomon.

Bacon contrasts virtues associated with prosperity and adversity, highlighting the significance of fortitude and exploring the contrast between blessings in the Old and New Testaments.

Explanation:

6. Bacon introduces the comparison between virtues cultivated in prosperous and adverse circumstances. He notes that temperance is a virtue often practiced in times of prosperity, while fortitude emerges as a more heroic virtue in times of adversity. He presents the idea that facing challenges with courage and resilience holds greater moral value. Additionally, he draws a distinction between the blessings found in the Old and New Testaments. Prosperity is linked to the Old Testament, while adversity is associated with the blessings of the New Testament, carrying a more significant sense of divine favor and blessing.

7. Bacon remarks that even within the Old Testament, there is an acknowledgment of the prevalence of sorrowful themes alongside joyful ones. He refers to the Psalms of David, which contain both mournful and celebratory tones. He also points out that the Book of Job, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, devotes more attention to describing Job's afflictions than Solomon's moments of happiness. This reinforces the idea that the exploration of adversity and the human response to it holds a significant place in religious and moral narratives.

In Short:

  • Temperance is a virtue associated with prosperity, while fortitude is linked to adversity.
  • Fortitude is considered a more heroic moral virtue.
  • Adversity is presented as a blessing in the New Testament, carrying greater divine favor.
  • The Old Testament features a mix of sorrowful and celebratory themes.
  • The Book of Job emphasizes afflictions, reflecting the significance of adversity in moral and religious narratives.
8. Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes; and adversity is not without comforts and hopes. We see in needle–works and embroideries, it is more pleasing to have a lively work, upon a sad and solemn ground, than to have a dark and melancholy work, upon a lightsome ground: judge therefore of the pleasure of the heart, by the pleasure of the eye. Certainly virtue is like precious odors, most fragrant when they are incensed, or crushed: for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue.

Bacon discusses the nuanced aspects of prosperity and adversity, drawing analogies with artistic embroidery and highlighting how adversity can reveal the true nature of both vice and virtue.

Explanation:

8. Bacon observes that prosperity is accompanied by various fears and discontents, while adversity can offer moments of comfort and hope. To illustrate his point, he uses the metaphor of needlework and embroideries. He suggests that it is more aesthetically pleasing to have intricate designs on a somber background than on a bright one, implying that contrasts enhance the overall beauty. He then draws a parallel between the pleasure of the eye in art and the pleasure of the heart in life.

He introduces the idea that virtue is like precious odors that release their most pleasing scent when they are burned or crushed. In a similar way, virtue shines brightest when tested by adversity. While prosperity can expose vice due to its indulgent nature, adversity reveals the depth of virtue within an individual. Adversity tests one's character and provides a clearer understanding of a person's moral qualities.

In Short:

  • Prosperity comes with fears and discomforts; adversity holds comforts and hopes.
  • Needleworks analogy: Lively designs on a somber background are more pleasing.
  • Compare the pleasure of the heart to the pleasure of the eye.
  • Virtue is most fragrant when tested by adversity.
  • Prosperity exposes vice, while adversity reveals virtue.

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