Nonfiction > Francis Bacon > Of the Wisdom of the Ancients
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Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.
 
XXIV. Dionysus
Or Desire
 
THEY 1 say that Semele, Jupiter’s paramour, made him take an inviolable oath to grant her one wish, whatever it might be, and then prayed that he would come to her in the same shape in which he was used to come to Juno. The consequence was that she was scorched to death in his embrace. The infant in her womb was taken by its father and sewed up in his thigh, until the time of gestation should be accomplished. The burden made him limp, and the infant, because while it was carried in his thigh it caused a pain or pricking, received the name of Dionysus. After he was brought forth he was sent to Proserpina for some years to nurse; but as he grew up his face was so like a woman’s, that it seemed doubtful of which sex he was. Moreover he died and was buried for a time, and came to life again not long after. In his early youth he discovered and taught the culture of the vine, and therewithal the composition and use of wine, which had not been known before: whereby becoming famous and illustrious, he subjugated the whole world and advanced to the furthest limits of India. He was borne in a chariot drawn by tigers; about him tripped certain deformed demons called Cobali,—Acratus and others. The Muses also joined his train. He took to wife Ariadne, whom Theseus had abandoned and deserted. His sacred tree was the Ivy. He was accounted likewise the inventor and founder of sacred rites and ceremonies; yet such as were fanatical and full of corruption, and cruel besides. He had power to excite phrensy. At least it was by women excited to phrensy in his orgies that two illustrious persons, Pentheus and Orpheus, are said to have been torn to pieces; the one having climbed a tree to see what they were doing; the other in the act of striking his lyre. Moreover the actions of this god are often confounded with those of Jupiter.  1
  The fable seems to bear upon morals, and indeed there is nothing better to be found in moral philosophy. Under the person of Bacchus is described the nature of Desire, or passion and perturbation. For the mother of all desire, even the most noxious, is nothing else than the appetite and aspiration for apparent good: and the conception of it is always in some unlawful wish, rashly granted before it has been understood and weighed. But as the passion warms, its mother (that is the nature of good), not able to endure the heat of it, is destroyed and perishes in the flame. Itself while still in embryo remains in the human soul (which is its father and represented by Jupiter), especially in the lower part of the soul, as in the thigh; where it is both nourished and hidden; and where it causes such prickings, pains, and depressions in the mind, that its resolutions and actions labour and limp with it. And even after it has grown strong by indulgence and custom, and breaks forth into acts, it is nevertheless brought up for a time with Proserpina; that is to say, it seeks hiding-places, and keeps itself secret and as it were underground; until casting off all restraints of shame and fear, and growing bold, it either assumes the mask of some virtue or sets infamy itself at defiance. Most true also it is that every passion of the more vehement kind is as it were of doubtful sex, for it has at once the force of the man and the weakness of the woman. It is notably said too that Bacchus came to life again after death. For the passions seem sometimes to be laid asleep and extinguished; but no trust can be placed in them, no not though they be buried; for give them matter and occasion, they rise up again.  2
  It is a wise parable too, that of the invention of the Vine; for every passion is ingenious and sagacious in finding out its own stimulants. And there is nothing we know of so potent and effective as wine, in exciting and inflaming perturbations of every kind; being a kind of common fuel to them all. Very elegantly too is Passion represented as the subjugator of provinces, and the undertaker of an endless course of conquest. For it never rests satisfied with what it has, but goes on and on with infinite insatiable appetite panting after new triumphs. Tigers also are kept in its stalls and yoked to its chariot; for as soon as Passion ceases to go on foot and comes to ride in its chariot, as in celebration of its victory and triumph over reason, then is it cruel, savage, and pitiless towards everything that stands in its way. Again, there is humour in making those ridiculous demons dance about the chariot: for every passion produces motions in the eyes, and indeed in the whole countenance and gesture, which are uncomely, unsettled, skipping, and deformed; insomuch that when a man under the influence of any passion, as anger, scorn, love, or the like, seems most grand and imposing in his own eyes, to the lookers-on he appears unseemly and ridiculous. It is true also that the Muses are seen in the train of Passion, there being scarce any passion which has not some branch of learning to flatter it. For herein the majesty of the Muses suffers from the licence and levity of men’s wits, turning those that should be the guides of man’s life into mere followers in the train of his passions.  3
  And again that part of the allegory is especially noble which represents Bacchus as lavishing his love upon one whom another man had cast off. For most certain it is that passion ever seeks and aspires after that which experience has rejected. And let all men who in the heat of pursuit and indulgence are ready to give any price for the fruition of their passion, know this—that whatever be the object of their pursuit, be it honour or fortune or love or glory or knowledge, or what it will, they are paying court to things cast off,—things which many men in all times have tried, and upon trial rejected with disgust.  4
  Nor is the consecration of the Ivy to Bacchus without its mystery. For this has a double propriety. First because the Ivy flourishes in winter; next because it has the property of creeping and spreading about so many things,—as trees, walls, buildings. For as to the first, every passion flourishes and acquires vigour by being resisted and forbidden, as by a kind of antiperistasis; like the ivy by the cold of winter. As to the second, the master passion spreads itself like ivy about all human actions and resolutions, forcing itself in and mixing itself up with them. Nor is it wonderful that superstitious rites are attributed to Bacchus, since every insane passion grows rank in depraved religions; or if phrensies are supposed to be inflicted by him, seeing that every passion is itself a brief madness, and if it be vehement and obstinate ends in insanity. Again that circumstance of the tearing of Pentheus and Orpheus has an evident allegorical meaning; since curious inquisition and salutary and free admonition are alike hateful and intolerable to an overpowering passion.  5
  Lastly, the confusion of the persons of Bacchus and Jupiter may be well understood as a parable; inasmuch as deeds of high distinction and desert proceed sometimes from virtue and right reason and magnanimity, and sometimes (however they may be extolled and applauded) only from some lurking passion or hidden lust; and thus the deeds of Bacchus are not easily distinguished from the deeds of Jupiter.  6
 
Note 1. For an enlarged version of this fable, see Translation of the “De Augmentis,” Book the Second, Chap. XIII. [back]
 
 
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