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Francis Bacon Essays Revenge

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince's part to pardon. And Salomon, I am sure, saith, It is the glory of a man to pass by an offence.[1] That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that

labour in past matters. There is no man doth a wrong for the wrong's sake; but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honour, or the like. Therefore why should I be angry with a man for loving himself better than me? And if any man should do wrong merely out of ill-nature, why, yet it is but like the thorn or briar, which prick and scratch, because they can do no other. The most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy; but then let a man take heed the revenge be such as there is no law to punish; else a man's enemy is still before hand, and it is two for one. Some, when they take revenge, are desirous the party should know whence it cometh. This the more generous. For the delight seemeth to be not so much in doing the hurt as in making the party repent. But base and crafty cowards are like the arrow that flieth in the dark.[2] Cosmus,[3] duke of Florence, had a desperate saying against perfidious or neglecting[4] friends, as if those wrongs were unpardonable; You shall read (saith he) that we are commanded to forgive our enemies,[5]but you never read that we are commanded to forgive our friends.But yet the spirit of Job was in a better tune: Shall we (saith he) take good at God's hands, and not be content to take evil also?[6] And so of friends in a proportion. This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well. Public revenges[7] are for the most part fortunate; as that for the death of Cæsar;[8] for the death of Pertinax;[9] for the death of Henry the Third[10] of France; and many more. But in private revenges it is not so. Nay rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.[11]
  1. ↑"The discretion of a man deferreth his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression." Proverbs xix. 11.
  2. ↑"Thou shall not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day." Psalms xci. 5.
  3. ↑Cosimo de' Medici, pater patriae, 1389–1464, was a Florentine banker and statesman, and a munificent patron of literature and art. "Cosmos duke of Florence was wont to say of perfidious friends; That we read that we ought to forgive our enemies; but we do not read that we ought to forgive our friends."
    Bacon. Apophthegmes New and Old. 206 (92).

    Maréchal Pierre de Villars, 1623–1698, is said to have taken leave of Louis XIV. with the witticism, "Defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies."
  4. Neglecting. Negligent, neglectful.
  5. ↑"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Matthew vi. 12.
  6. ↑"What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" Job ii. 10.
  7. Revenges. Vindications. "And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." Shakspere. Twelfth Night, v. 1.
  8. ↑Julius Caesar, Roman general and dictator, born 100 b.c., was assassinated at a meeting of the Roman senate held on the Ides of March, 44 b.c. His great-nephew, Caius Octavius, then a youth of only nineteen, took it upon himself to avenge Caesar. With Mark Antony and Lepidus he formed the second triumvirate, which relentlessly pursued the assassins. When the republicans, Brutus and Cassius, fell upon their own swords after the defeat at Philippi, 42 b.c., most of them were gone. Philippi was the grave of the Roman republic.
  9. ↑The Emperor Pertinax was murdered by the Praetorian guards, March 28, 193 a.d., who then disposed of the crown at public auction to the highest bidder, Didius Julianus. Lucius Septimius Severus was the avenger of Pertinax. Gibbon says of his treatment of the Praetorian guards:

    "A chosen part of the Illyrian army encompassed them with levelled spears. Incapable of flight or resistance, they expected their fate in silent consternation. Severus mounted the tribunal, sternly reproached them with perfidy and cowardice, dismissed them with ignominy from the trust which they had betrayed, despoiled them of their splendid ornaments, and banished them, on pain of death, to the distance of a hundred miles from the capital." The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. I. Ch. V.
  10. ↑Henry III., of France, was assassinated August 1, 1589, by a Jacobin monk, Jacques Clément.
  11. ↑The spirit of resentment, which is a sudden passion, is much commoner than that of revenge, a prolonged feud. Revenge is barbaric; the civilized man has too much to think about and to do to nurse a feud. "The fact is, I cannot keep my resentments, though violent enough in their onset." Byron. Letter to Thomas Moore. March 6, 1822. The Works of Lord Byron. R. E. Prothero. Vol. VI. p. 35.

    "How happy might we be, and end our time with blessed days, and sweet content, if we could contain ourselves, and, as we ought to do, put up injuries, learn humility, meekness, patience, forget and forgive, (as in God's word we are injoyned), compose such small controversies amongst ourselves, moderate our passions in this kind, and think better of others (as Paul would have us) than of ourselves: be of like affection one towards another, and not avenge ourselves, but have peace with all men!" Robert Burton. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Partition 1. Section 2. Member 3. Subsection 8. Edited by Rev. A. R. Shilleto, M.A., with an Introduction by A. H. Bullen. London. 1893.

"On Revenge" (1625) is a typical, highly logical Bacon argument against private revenge and acknowledges that "public revenges are for the most part fortunate."  The language is direct and free of convoluted syntax.

Bacon's chief argument is that revenge is a perversion of the law--the first wrong is governed by the law (but it's offensive), but the act of revenge is outside the law.  Immediately appealing to a sense of moral superiority, Bacon points out...

"On Revenge" (1625) is a typical, highly logical Bacon argument against private revenge and acknowledges that "public revenges are for the most part fortunate."  The language is direct and free of convoluted syntax.

Bacon's chief argument is that revenge is a perversion of the law--the first wrong is governed by the law (but it's offensive), but the act of revenge is outside the law.  Immediately appealing to a sense of moral superiority, Bacon points out that ignoring a wrong makes a man superior to the person who committed the first wrong.  And, in an attempt to add common sense to the mix of reasons, Bacon points out that wise men have enough to do with the present and the future.  Since a wrong in the past cannot be made right, it's best to concentrate on trying to influence the present and future.

Bacon continues to appeal to common sense in his argument that no man seeks to do harm for its own sake (we can argue that one) and that getting mad at someone for trying to better himself is not a worthwhile exercise.  And if a man does harm because he's just bad, well, that's his nature, and his ill nature dictates his actions.

If, Bacon argues, one engages in revenge that has no lawful remedy, then that revenge might be tolerable, but he warns that the person seeking revenge should make sure there is no law that will punish him.  And it's only right that the person one is seeking revenge upon understands that he's the target because that knowledge may make him sorry for his original action.

Bacon ends the essay pointing out that public revenge on bad leaders is "for the most part fortunate" but reminds his reader that private revenge is "unfortunate."