Nonfiction > Francis Bacon > Of the Wisdom of the Ancients
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Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.
 
VII. Perseus
Or War
 
PERSEUS 1 was sent, it is said, by Pallas to cut off the head of Medusa, from whom many nations in the westernmost parts of Spain suffered grievous calamities:—a monster so dreadful and horrible that the mere sight of her turned men into stone. She was one of the Gorgons; and the only one of them that was mortal, the others not being subject to change. By way of equipment for this so noble exploit, Perseus received arms and gifts from three several gods. Mercury gave him wings for his feet; Pluto gave him a helmet; Pallas a shield and a mirror. And yet though so well provided and equipped, he did not proceed against Medusa directly, but went out of his way to visit the Grææ. These were half-sisters to the Gorgons; and had been born old women with white hair. They had but one eye and one tooth among them, and these they used to wear by turns; each putting them on as she went abroad, and putting them off again when she came back. This eye and tooth they now lent to Perseus. Whereupon, judging himself sufficiently equipped for the performance of his undertaking, he went against Medusa with all haste, flying. He found her asleep; but not daring to face her (in case she should wake) he looked back into Pallas’s mirror, and taking aim by the reflection, cut off her head. From the blood which flowed out of the wound, there suddenly leaped forth a winged Pegasus. The severed head was fixed by Perseus in Pallas’s shield; where it still retained its power of striking stiff, as if thunder or planet stricken, all who looked on it.  1
  The fable seems to have been composed with reference to the art and judicious conduct of war. And first, for the kind of war to be chosen, it sets forth (as from the advice of Pallas) three sound and weighty precepts to guide the deliberation.  2
  The first is, not to take any great trouble for the subjugation of the neighbouring nations. For the rule to be followed in the enlarging of a patrimony does not apply to the extension of an empire. In a private property, the vicinity of the estates to each other is of importance; but in extending an empire, occasion, and facility of carrying the war through, and value of conquest, should be regarded instead of vicinity. We see that the Romans, while they had hardly penetrated westward beyond Liguria, had conquered and included in their empire eastern provinces as far off as Mount Taurus. And therefore Perseus, though he belonged to the east, did not decline a distant expedition to the uttermost parts of the west.  3
  The second is that there be a just and honourable cause of war: for this begets alacrity as well in the soldiers themselves, as in the people, from whom the supplies are to come: also it opens the way to alliances, and conciliates friends; and has a great many advantages. Now there is no cause of war more pious than the overthrow of a tyranny under which the people lies prostrate without spirit or vigour, as if turned to stone by the aspect of Medusa.  4
  Thirdly, it is wisely added that whereas there are three Gorgons (by whom are represented wars), Perseus chose the one that was mortal, that is, he chose such a war as might be finished and carried through, and did not engage in the pursuit of vast or infinite projects.  5
  The equipment of Perseus is of that kind which is everything in war, and almost ensures success; for he received swiftness from Mercury, secrecy of counsel from Pluto, and providence from Pallas. Nor is the circumstance that those wings of swiftness were for the heels and not for the shoulders without an allegorical meaning, and a very wise one. For it is not in the first attack, so much as in those that follow up and support the first, that swiftness is required; and there is no error more common in war than that of not pressing on the secondary and subsidiary actions with an activity answerable to the vigour of the beginnings. There is also an ingenious distinction implied in the images of the shield and the mirror (for the parable of Pluto’s helmet which made men invisible needs no explanation) between the two kinds of foresight. For we must have not only that kind of foresight which acts as a shield, but that other kind likewise which enables us (like Pallas’s mirror) to spy into the forces and movements and counsels of the enemy.  6
  But Perseus, however provided with forces and courage, stands yet in need of one thing more before the war be commenced, which is of the highest possible importance,—he must go round to the Grææ. These Grææ are treasons; which are indeed war’s sisters, yet not sisters german, but as it were of less noble birth. For wars are generous; treasons degenerate and base. They are prettily described, in allusion to the perpetual cares and trepidations of traitors, as old and white from their birth. Their power (before they break out into open revolt) lies either in the eye or the tooth; for all factions when alienated from the state, both play the spy and bite. And the eye and tooth are as it were common to them all: the eye because all their information is handed from one to another, and circulates through the whole party; the tooth, because they all bite with one mouth and all tell one tale,—so that when you hear one you hear all. Therefore Perseus must make friends of those Grææ, that they may lend him their eye and tooth,—the eye for discovery of information, the tooth to sow rumours, raise envy, and stir the minds of the people.  7
  These matters being thus arranged and prepared, we come next to the carriage of the war itself. And here we see that Perseus finds Medusa asleep; for the undertaker of a war almost always, if he is wise, takes his enemy unprepared and in security. And now it is that Pallas’s mirror is wanted. For there are many who before the hour of danger can look into the enemy’s affairs sharply and attentively; but the chief use of the mirror is in the very instant of peril, that you may examine the manner of it without being confused by the fear of it; which is meant by the looking at it with eyes averted.  8
  The conclusion of the war is followed by two effects: first the birth and springing up of Pegasus, which obviously enough denotes fame, flying abroad and celebrating the victory. Secondly the carrying of Medusa’s head upon the shield; for this is incomparably the best kind of safeguard. A single brilliant and memorable exploit, happily conducted and accomplished, paralyses all the enemies’ movements, and mates malevolence itself.  9
 
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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