Bacon's Philosophy of Hope
From his book,
Shakespeare Studies in Baconian Light
" Hope is a good breakfast, but a bad supper." -Francis Bacon
I do not think that this chapter will be less valuable or less acceptable, because it will contain very little of my own. My object will be obtained if by the grouping and comparison of various passages from Bacon and Shakespeare I can show in another striking instance how remarkably their ideas correspond. If I can do this both the prose and the poetry will be illustrated. The philosophy becomes more poetical and the poetry more philosophical, as the two are brought together.
Those who have raised the objection against the Baconian theory , that the Author of the Essay of "Love" could not have written, or even understood, the love scenes of Shakespeare, might with even greater plausibility have urged that the genial dramatic poet, who saw the world of men and nature always arrayed in the rich colouring and the radiant glow of poetry and imagination , cannot be the hard-headed, matter-of-fact, somewhat cynical statesman and philosopher, who dilated with such pitiless logic on the uselessness of Hope, and even contended that it is for men both delusive, mischievous, and injurious. In truth, Bacon's language about Hope is one of the most curious features of his philosophy, and startles even such a devoted admirer and sympathetic commentator as Mr. James Spedding. In the preface to the Meditationes Sacrae Mr. Spedding refers especially to the meditation De Spe Terrestri, as a singular and characteristic sample of Bacon's outlook on life at the age of 37, and thus comments upon it :
"The aphorism attributed to Heraclitus that Dry light is the best soul* was indeed at all times a favourite with him."
__________*footnote -Bacon often refers to dry light: i.e., knowledge which is a pure and accurate reflection of fact, not "infused or drenched" by the personal qualities of the mind that receives it. " This same lumen sicum," he says, "doth parch and offend most men's watery and soft natures." (Advancement of Learning II. xii. 2)
The use of the word watery may account for and explain its use in Shakespeare :
The imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense: what will it be
When that the watery palate tastes indeed
Love's thrice repured nectar?(Tro. Cressida. III. ii. 20)
Bacon being accustomed to associate purity and dryness, thinks of that type of taset which is not accustomed to pure nectar as soft and watery. Spedding continues :
"But I do not think he has anywhere else made so resolute an attempt to translate it into a practical precept for the regulation of the mind, and fairly to follow to its legitimate consequences the doctrine that absolute veracity and freedom from all delusion is the only sound condition of the soul. Upon this principle a reasonable expectation of good to come founded upon a just estimate of probabilities, is the only kind of hope which in the things of this life a man is permitted to indulge; all hope that goes beyond this being reserved for the life to come. The spirit of hope must have some been strong in Bacon himself, if at the age of 37 he could still believe it possible for man to walk by the light of reason alone. I suppose it did not hold out much longer. His own experience must have taught him, that had he never hoped to do more than he succeeded in doing, he would never have had the spirt to proceed; and that to reduce hope within the limits of reasonable expectation would be to abjure the possunt quia posse videntur, and to clip the wings of enterprise; and he learned before he died to recommend the 'Entertaining of hopes' as one of the best medicines for the preservation of health."
Mr. Spedding refers to the Essay of "The Regimen of Health,"
originally published in 1597 (the same time as the Meditationes
Sacrae), and again in 1612. But not till 1625 was the precept
"Entertain hopes" included among those for the regulation of
The whole subject is most interesting, and the Meditation, in which it is most amply expounded is worth reproducing, especially as we shall find that Bacon's very characteristic idea, in its scope and also in its limitations, is best reproduced by combining the didactic expositions of the Philosophy of Hope in the prose with Shakespeare's dramatic presentation of the same subject. Moreover, this special feature of Bacon's philosophy is very little known, and its remarkable coincidence with Shakespearean thought has not, so far as I know, been noticed.
The text for Bacon's Meditation, De Spe Terrestri is, Melior est oculorum visio quam animi progressio :
" Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire."
And the sermon which follows begins as follows :
"The sense, which takes everything simply as it is, makes a better mental condition and estate than those imaginations and wanderings of the mind. For it is the nature of the human mind, even in the gravest wits, the moment it receives an impression of anything, to sally forth and spring forward, and expect to find everything else in harmony with it; if it be an impression of good, then it is prone to indefinite hope; if of evil, to fear; whence it is said,"By her own tales is Hope oft deceived.
"And, on the other hand,"In doubtful times Fear still forbades the worst.
"In fear however there is some advantage : it prepares endurance, and sharpens industry.
"The task can show no face that's strange to me:
Each chance I have pondered, and in thought rehearsed."
So far there is nothing very startling, and it is not surprising that we are on common ground also to Shakespeare. The resemblance is very exact. For Bacon's discourse at this point might be embellished with part of the dialogue between Troilus and Cressida ( III. ii. 74).
Tro.Fear makes devils of cherubims, they never see truly.
Cres.Blind fear, that seeing reason leads, finds safer footing than blind reason, stumbling without fear. To fear the worst oft cures the worse.
And in the lowest levels of misfortune the victim may say:
Yet better thus, and known to be contemn'd,
Than still contemn'd and flatter'd. To be worst,
The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,
Still stands in esperance, lives not in fear.
The lamentable change is from the best:
The worst returns to laughter.
(Lear IV. i. 1)
Bacon continues his sermon; and now surprises us :
"But in hope there seems to be no use. For what avails that anticipation of good? If the good turns out less than you hoped for, good though it be, yet because it is not so good, it seems to you more like a loss than a gain, by reason of the over-hope. If neither more or less but so,"
an expression, it may be parenthetically noticed, which has a singular resemblance to Kent's language addressed to Cordelia ( Lear IV. vii. 5)
All my reports go with the modest truth:
Nor more, nor clipp'd, but so.
"the event being equal and answerable to the hope, yet the flower of it having been by that hope already gathered, you find it a stale thing and almost distasteful. If the good be beyond the hope, then no doubt there is a sense of gain. True; yet, had it not been better to gain the whole by hoping not at all, than the difference by hoping too little? And such is the effect of hope in prosperity. But in adversity it enervates the true strength of the mind. For matter of hope cannot always be forthcoming; and if it fail, though but for a moment, the whole strength and support of the mind goes with it. Moreover, the mind suffers in dignity, when we endure evil only by self-deception and looking another way, and not by fortitude and judgment. And therefore it was an idle fiction of the poet's to make Hope the antidote of human diseases, because it mitigates the pain of them; whereas it is in fact an inflammation and exasperation of them, rather multiplying and making them break out afresh. So it is nevertheless that most men give themselves up entirely to imaginations of hope, and these wanderings of the mind; and, thankless for the past, scarce attending to the present, ever young, hang merely upon the future.
I beheld all that walk under the sun, with the next youth that shall rise after him, which is a sore disease and a great madness of the mind.
You will ask, perhaps, if it be not better, when a man knows not what to expect, that he should divine well of the future, and rather hope than distrust, seeing that hope makes the mind more tranquil. Certainly in all delay and expectation, to keep the mind tranquil and steadfast, by the good government and composure of the same, I hold to be the chief firmament of human life; but such tranquility as depends upon hope I reject, as light and unsure. Not but it is fit to forsee and pre-suppose upon sound and sober conjecture good things as well as evil, that we may the better fit our actions to the probable event; only this must be the work of the understanding and judgment, with a just inclination of the feeling. But who is there, whose hopes are so ordered, that when once he has concluded with himself out of a vigilant and steady consideration of probabilities that better things are coming, he has not dwelt upon the very anticipation of good, and indulged in that kind of thought as a pleasant dream? And this it is which makes the mind light, frothy, unequal, wandering. Therefore, all hope is to be employed upon the life to come in heaven; but here on earth by how much purer is the sense of things present, without infection or tincture of imagination, by so much wiser and better is the soul.
"Long hope to cherish in so short a span
Befits not man."
The idle fiction of the poets here referred to is still further expounded in the discourse on Prometheus. Pandora is a fair and lovely woman, made by Vulcan, by order of Jupiter, in order to chastise the insolence of Prometheus. She carried an elegant vase in which were enclosed all mischief and calamities, only at the bottom was Hope. This was rejected by Prometheusthe type of foresightbut accepted by his incautious brother, Epimetheus, the type of improvidence. His followers "amuse their minds with many empty hopes, in which they take delight, as in pleasant dreams, and so sweeten the miseries of life."
All this is strange teaching, very logical, but vey unpalatable. Hope must be restrained like imagination: its anticipations are "light and unsure;" it is allied to madness; it raises pleasant dreams which sweeten life, but do not add to its strength and dignity. It keeps the mind steadfast, by the help of delusion. How does all this teaching look when it is applied to practice? This may be seen in the debate held between certain lords who are plotting insurrection against the fourth Henry. The Archbishop of York begins :
Thus have you heard our cause and known our means;
And, my most noble friends, I pray you all
Speak plainly your opinion of our hopes.
And then follows a comparison between their own forces and those of the Kinggiving grounds for hope derived from the "understanding and judgment." Lord Bardolph discourages action that is prompted only by hope, and his counsel is that their movements must be exactly proportioned to their ability, not to their expectations :
For in a theme so bloody-faced as this
Conjecture, expectation, and surmise
Of aids incertain, should not be admitted.
Arch.'Tis very true, Lord Bardolf; for indeed
It was young Hotspur's case at Shrewsbury.
L.Bard.It was my lord: who lined himself with hope,
Eating the air on promise of supply,
Flattering himself in project of a power,
Much smaller than the smallest of his thoughts.
And so, with great imagination,
Proper to madmen,led his powers to death,
And winking [i.e. with eyes shutdreaming] leap'd into
Here we find hope coupled with conjecture, surmise of aids uncertain (or unsure), with eating the air, flattery, imagination, and madness, and with eyes shut as in slumberall Baconian points of view. The discussion, however continues. Lord Hastings asks the same question that Bacon puts into the mouth of an objector, who wishes to know if it is not just as well to "divine well of the future:"
But by your leave, it never yet did hurt
To lay down likelihoods and forms of hope.
"Yes," replies Bardolf, vindicating the Baconian view
Yes; if this present quality of war,....
Lives so in hope as in an early spring
We see the appearing buds; which to prove fruit,
Hope gives not so much warrant, as despair
That frosts will bite them. When we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model.(2 Henry. IV. I.iii).
And then follows a moralizing similar to the "counting cost" of
the Gospelsa "sound and sober
conjecture" of probabilities.
The same attitude is more briefly described by the soldiers, who are plotting revolution against Macbeth.
Thoughts speculative their unsure hopes relate:
But certain issue strokes must arbitrate.(Macbeth V. iv. 19)
Evidently in Shakepeare's opinon, the proper attitude of a warrior is to keep hope altogether subordinate, and outside his calculations, following the guidance of reason and fact; he takes counsel of judgment and understanding, not of hope. Hope is as unsuitable for him as for the condemned prisoner, who is exhorted by his priestly counsellor
Prepare yourself to death: do not satisfy your resolution with hopes that are fallible(Measure for Measure III. i. 167)
The same teaching is shadowed in Agamemmon's speech to the Grecian warriors. He also declares that
The ample proposition that hope makes
In all designs begun on earth below
Fails in the promised largeness. Checks and disasters
Grow in the veins of actions highest reared.(Tro. Cres.I. iii. 3)
And then follows a discourse of matchless wisdom, beauty, and eloquence on the lessons to be drawn from failure and difficulty.......Equally frail are the hopes built on royal or human favour.
O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hopes in air of your good looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.(Richard III. III.iv.98)
The treachery of hope is also implied in the following
Oft expectation fails; and most oft there
Where most it promises: and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits.(All's Well. II. i. 145)
One of the baleful effects of witchcraft is the raising of hopes which are unreasonable. Macbeth was to be thus bewitched:
Shall raise such artificial sprites,
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion.
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear,
His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear:
And you all know, security
Is mortal's chiefest enemy.(Macbeth III. v 26)
Shakespeare as well as Bacon tells us that all hope that goes beyond reasonable calculation should refer to the life to come, not to the present stage of being.
Comfort's in heaven, and we are on earth,
Where nothing lives but crosses, cares and griefs.(Richard III, II, ii. 78)
And accordingly the fallen statesman
Gave his honours to the world again,
His blessed part to heaven , and slept in peace.(Henry VIII. IV, ii. 29)
This conception of Hope is fundamental in Bacon's writings; but
there are other sides worthy of contemplation.
Hope, although based on illusion, as long as it is cherished, gives support and tranquility to the mind; this is one prime condition of physical health. Hence "Entertain Hopes," is one of the prescriptions of hte Regiment of Health. Hope prolongs life, by keeping off the corrosion of despair. In this point of view, that of physical advantage, Bacon's language changes. No longer does he say,
" In Hope there is no use";
"Hope is of all affections the most useful, and contributes most to prolong life, if it be not too often disappointed, but feed the imagination with the prospect of good. They, therefore, who get up and propose some definite end as their mark in life, and continually and gradually advance thereto, are mostly long lived; in so much that when they arrive at the summit of their hopes, and have nothing more to look forward to, they commonly droop, and do not long survive. So that hope appears to be a kind of leaf-joy, which may be spread out over a vast surface like gold" (History of Life and Death Works V. 279)
Also discoursing on the "affections and passions of the mind, which are prejudicial to longevity, and which are profitable," he says,
"Ruminations of joy in the memory, or apprehensions of them in hope or imagination are good" (History of Life and Death Works V. 279)
A French proverb in the Promus, 1472, reflects this sentiment,
"Commence a mourir qui abandonne son desir" (He who forsakes the object of livinghis desirebegins to die);
a sentiment most poetically expressed in the Essay of "Death:"
the sweetest Canticle is Nunc
dimittis, when a man hath attained worthy ends and
Bacon's language, "feed the imagination with the prospect of good", is not unlike Shakespeare's , already quoted, in Hotspur, who
Lined himself with hope,
Eating the air on promise of supply,
With great imagination, proper to madmen.
Curiously enough precisely the same conception of hope is found in the first play of the Parnassus trilogy,
" I fed so long upon hope till I had almost 'starved,' i. 621
The leaf-joy view may be reflected in the lines,
Their's [i.e. their travel] is sweetened with the hope to have
The present benefit which I possess;
And hope to joy is little less in joy
Than Hope enjoy'd.(Richard II. II iii. 15)
in which the word-play, hope to joy, less in joy, hope
enjoyedis peculiarly Baconian.
But perhaps the most remarkable of these correspondences in this part of the subjec is that in which Bacon's idea of hope as prolonging life is repeated by Shakespeare. Richard II., in his despair, is ready to welcome death, but cannot find it as long as hope remains,
I will despair, and be at enmity
With cozening hope: he is a flatterer
A parasite, a keeper back of death,
Who gently would dissolve the bands of life,
Which false hope lingers in extremity.(Richard II. II. ii.68)
So also when Lord Rivers brings to Elizabeth, Queen of Edward IV., "News full of grief," he suggests the conjectural hope that,
Warwick may lose, that now hath won the day.
a solace which the Queen accepts, because she desires to live that Edward's unborn son may also live,
Till then fair hope must hinder life's decay.
(3 Henry VI IV. iv. 13)
Claudio accepts the same prescription,
The miserable have no other medicine
But only hope.
(Measure for Measure, III. i. 2.).
The flattery of hope has been referred to in some of the passages already quoted, as well as the food it supplies to maintain health and prolong life.
"Doth any man doubt,"
says Bacon, in the first of his Essays, of "Truth,"
" That if there were taken out of men's minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false evaluations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor, shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves."
This kind of artificial feeding on hope is much to the taste of such dreaming speculators as the Alchemists.
"For the Alchemist nurses eternal hope,......and when among the chances of experiment he lights upon some conclusions either in aspect new, or for utility not contemptible, he takes these for earnest of what is to come, and feeds his mind upon them, and magnifies them to the most, and supplies the rest in hope." (Novum Organum.I. 85)
This sort of diet , Bacon notes, is useful for exiles, Spes alit exsules (Promus 561) and Gaunt prescribes it, with much detail of the dishes that furnish this diet, for his banished son, Bolingbroke. Quite a group of " flattering hopes, false valuations and imagination of things as one would" is collected in this homily for an exile. The passage is too long for quotation. (Richard II. iii.258-303).
When Valentine is banished, the same nourishment is offered to him by the treacherous Proteus :
Hope is a lover's staff; walk hence with that,
And manage it against despairing thoughts.(Two Gentlemen of Verona III. i. 246)
Bacon in one of his apophthegms tells a story, the moral of which is,
" Hope is a good breakfast, but a bad supper."
The visionary , imaginative quality of Hope brings it into relation with opiates, sleep and dreams. In the preface to the unwritten discourse on the Sympathy and Antipathy of things the following curious passage is found :
" This part of Philosophy is very corrupt; and (as is almost the case), there being but little diligence there has been too much hope. The effect of hope on the mind of man is very like the working of some soporific drugs, which not only induce sleep, but fill it with joyous and pleasing dreams. For first it throws the human mind into a sleep,.... and then it insinuates and infuses into it innumerable fancies like so many dreams." (Works, V. 203)
The hopes which centre about princes, heirs apparent, expectants of sovereignty, illustrates this. Bacon takes up this parable in of his discourses : he unfolds the hidden wisdom of Solomon' saying,
"I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child who shall arise in his stead."
This proverb remarks upon the vanity of men, who are wont to crowd about the appointed heirs of princes. The root hereof is in that madness, deeply implanted by nature in human minds, of being too fond of their own hopes. For there is scarcely anyone but takes more delight in what he hopes for than in what he has. Novelty also is very pleasing to man, and is eagerly sought for. Now in a prince's heir hope and novelty are combined. And this proverb implies the same as that which was said of old, first by Pompey to Sylla, and afterwards by Tiberius respecting Macro :
"That there be more who worship the rising than the setting sun.'
And yet princes are not much disturbed at this, nor do they care much for it, as neither Sylla nor Tiberius did; but they rather scorn the fickleness of mankind, and do not care to strive with dreams : "and hope, as was said, is but the dream of a waking man." (De Augmentis VIII. ii ; Works, V. 48).
Curiously enough the same sentiment , illustrated by the same allusion is uttered by the cynical misanthrope in Timon, Apemantus, who gives voice to sentiments such as must have haunted Bacon's mind after his fall:
We spend our flatteries to drink those men,
Upon whose age we void it up again.....
I should fear those that dance before me now
Would one day stamp upon me: 't has been done:
Men shut their doors against a setting sun.(Timon I., ii. 142)
The same tendency to listen to flatteries of hope is characteristic of love is one of its many follies. It is equally irrational whether it believes and hopes too much or too little:
O hard-believing love, how strange it seems
Not to believe, and yet too credulous!
Thy weal and woe are both of them extremes,
Despair and hope makes thee ridiculous :
The one doth flatter thee in thoughts unlikely;
In likely thoughts the other kills thee quickly.(Venus and Adonis 985)
Alonso, thinking his son has been drowned, abandons the hopes which have deceived him :
Even here I will put off my hope, and keep it
No longer for my flatterer.(Tempest III. iii.7.)
Bacon, however, not only admits, but sedulously cultivates that
kind of reasonable hope that is not conjectural or imaginative, but
rests on well ascertained facts.
In the Novum Organum I. 92-114, he dilates largely on the "grounds of hope" for the progress of science. He is, however, careful to put aside the "lighter breezes of hope," and "bring men to particulars." And these are discussed in the twenty-three Axioms referred to. The "lighter breezes of hope"(92) are evidently the same as " the tender leaves of hope," whose blighting by "a frost," a "killing frost" is so pathetically described in Henry VIII. IIII. ii. 353. Such failure of hope is described also in All's Well, the King having tried all known remedies for his apparently incurable disease.
"He hath abandoned his physicians, under whose practices he hath persecuted time with hope, and finds no other advantage in the process, but only the losing of hope by time." (All's Well, I .i.15)
It must be admitted that the echoes of Bacon's most singular and
original sentiments, which I have pointed out in Shakespeare, are
most remarkable. Vernon Lee's "Baconian thoughts in Baconian
language" are not to be mistaken, and the significance of this exact
and curious correspondence cannot fail to impress all fair minded and
The philosophy of "Hope," which is equally characteristic of Bacon and Shakespeare, is not a set of common place notions, floating in the air, any man's property who chooses to pick them up. They are so strange and individual, so peculiar and startling, that even James Spedding was half scandalized by them. Bacon's mind, and sureley also Bacon's hand is equally to be recognized in both the prose and poetry.