Nonfiction > Francis Bacon > Of the Wisdom of the Ancients

Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.
XXV. Atalanta
Or Profit
ATALANTA, who was remarkable for swiftness, was matched to run a race with Hippomenes. The conditions were that if Hippomenes won he was to marry Atalanta, if he lost he was to be put to death; and there seemed to be no doubt about the issue, since the matchless excellence of Atalanta in running had been signalised by the death of many competitors. Hippomenes therefore resorted to an artifice. He provided himself with three golden apples, and carried them with him. The race began. Atalanta ran ahead. He seeing himself left behind bethought him of his stratagem, and rolled forward one of the golden apples, so that she might see it,—not straight forwards, but a little on one side, that it might not only delay her but also draw her out of the course. She, with a woman’s eagerness, attracted by the beauty of the apple, left the course, ran after it, and stooped to take it up. Hippomenes in the meantime made good way along the course and got before her. She however by force of her natural swiftness made good the loss of time and was again foremost; when Hippomenes a second and a third time interrupted her in the same way, and so at last by craft not speed won the race.  1
  The story carries in it an excellent allegory, relating to the contest of Art with Nature. For Art, which is meant by Atalanta, is in itself, if nothing stand in the way, far swifter than Nature and, as one may say, the better runner, and comes sooner to the goal. For this may be seen in almost everything; you see that fruit grows slowly from the kernel, swiftly from the graft; you see clay harden slowly into stones, fast into baked bricks: so also in morals, oblivion and comfort of grief comes by nature in length of time; but philosophy (which may be regarded as the art of living) does it without waiting so long, but forestalls and anticipates the day. But then this prerogative and vigour of art is retarded, to the infinite loss of mankind, by those golden apples. For there is not one of the sciences or arts which follows the true and legitimate course constantly forth till it reach its end; but it perpetually happens that arts stop in their undertakings half way, and forsake the course, and turn aside like Atalanta after profit and commodity,—
        Leaving the course the rolling gold to seize.
And therefore it is no wonder if Art cannot outstrip Nature, and according to the agreement and condition of the contest put her to death or destroy her; but on the contrary Art remains subject to Nature, as the wife is subject to the husband.
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