Francis Bacon, "Of Delays"

...the logic behind promoting practical, effective action in any and all cases has become a wasteland for powerful abusers and their craven, crank fanboys.

Francis Bacon, "Of Delays"

"I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser" – Taylor Swift, "Anti-Hero"

In memory of Glen Thurow, whose classes on Francis Bacon and Spinoza I will be thinking about my entire life.

Sometimes the thinkers we call the "early moderns" present these passages pregnant with meaning. It does feel like we're watching our world being born. The ideas underlying an embrace of technology, universal education, commerce, democracy, and secularism are brought forth in a form both recognizable and puzzling. One of the most famous of these ideas, Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" means to advance rationalism ("I think"), lending itself to individualism ("I am") while reaching toward existentialism. Of course, his age being what it is, Descartes himself pairs arguments related to cogito ergo sum with a proof of God's existence.

I want to look at a short essay of another early modern thinker, Francis Bacon. This essay, "Of Delays," needs to be chewed carefully. It should be approached as an artifact in the history of thought as well as advancing a pressing set of concerns. I argue that it flatly rejects the notion that patience is a virtue. Most of what follows tries to highlight the consequences of this sort of rhetoric. The frenetic, competitive nature of our world, a world where we're condemned to military language to explain ourselves, stems from talk like Bacon's. The big question is whether we are able to see beyond it.


I confess that I would not title an essay "Of Delays." I might title one "I Was Late to [Event] Because I Was Leveling Up in Elden Ring," but I would not be concerned with the proposition that delays in life are inherently suspect. Even our hustle culture, which often tries to persuade us that overwork and unemployment are actually acceptable, if not fun, does not always veer into this territory. It at least acknowledges that yes, there will be gaps in the resume.

So who finds all delays impossible to deal with? Well, in our lives, big babies who throw tantrums in order to speak to the manager or abuse their co-workers and families. In classical thought, the problem is different. Think about Socrates' interlocutors. They want to learn how he makes everyone who debates him look bad. They then want to take this ability and use it to do no less than rule the world. Alcibiades wanted Socratic rhetorical skills so he could dominate Athenian politics. With this dominance, the plan was to conquer Syracuse and thus start consolidating control of Mediterranean ports. Xenophon, a more direct pupil of Socrates, wanted to found his own city in Asia Minor. While many of us deal with petty tyrants who alienate any potential friends or allies, the ancients dealt with the children of aristocrats who had money, access, and–most galling of all–education. They didn't just believe they knew better and possessed a right to rule. Often, if something had to get done, they were the only game in town.

Delays, on my reading, are a specific problem for a class which considers themselves noble or gentlemanly. If this class has a certain education and a certain degree of power, then why should they ever wait? Shouldn't they have knowledge which enables effective action? The whole of society and politics is structured so they can act. If there are delays, something has gone wrong.

Of course, that's how a privileged/enabled class saw delays. Traditional moral thinking built defenses against this hubris. One defense is the concept of "fortune," luck. Since no action may work out 100% of the time, it was imperative to consult the gods before doing anything. This was not only a matter of piety, but also respect for those you led, especially if you were leading people into battle. Another defense came from notions of patience and hesitation. Since those who were patient reaped rewards from consistent, unspectacular work, and those who hesitated could avoid one of the worst outcomes (dying shamefully because of a lack of preparation), it could not be said delays were always bad.


Delays, then, lend themselves to a vision of another world, one in which we're not yelling at everyone because we are inconvenienced. You might say our world is broken and full of procrastination anyway. What good is saying things happen because of luck? What good are patience and hesitation? Don't these serve as excuses for even more incompetence?

My own thought is that the logic behind promoting practical, effective action in any and all cases has become a wasteland for powerful abusers and their craven, crank fanboys. You've got people threatening to disown their kids for not getting a so-called practical major and then screaming that the degree they insisted on was a waste of money in a tough market. Even if you get the job, you could end up working for some of the worst people on Earth, people whose products literally enable genocide when not destroying the planet.

We desperately need patience. But Bacon in the early 17th century sets the stage for rejecting patience by saying you will miss opportunities if you have it:

"Fortune is like the market; where many times, if you can stay a little, the price will fall. And again, it is sometimes like Sibylla's offer; which at first offereth the commodity at full, then consumeth part and part, and still holdeth up the price. For occasion (as it is in the common verse) turneth a bald noddle, after she hath presented her locks in front, and no hold taken; or at least turneth the handle of the bottle first to be received, and after the belly, which is hard to clasp."

Bacon hints that patience is unreliable because it depends on luck. "[I]f you can stay a little, the price will fall," but then again, maybe not. The Sibyl offered a Roman king a set of books. He refused, so she burned some of the volumes and offered it at the same price. He refused again and she burned still more volumes but keeping the price the same. When he finally bought them, he realized what was at stake. Books on religious practice are ultimately about fidelity to the law and the life of the regime. So not only might the price get worse if you wait, but because you are lacking, you won't even know what you need.

I think most of us can appreciate putting aside some patience and hesitation for the sake of making full use of an opportunity. Bacon's line about trying to grasp a bottle by a handle versus its "belly" is an excellent depiction of how opportunities slip away. We realize we need something a bit too late and put ourselves in a situation where the opportunity is no longer what it once was. If we wanted a bottle, we now are at risk of dropping and breaking it.

(CW: sexual violence) However, I do want to address the misogynistic violence of his exhortation to seize opportunity: "For occasion (as it is in the common verse) turneth a bald noddle, after she hath presented her locks in front, and no hold taken." This "common verse" was the depiction of Occasion as a woman with hair that covered her face but was bald in the back. Occasion could not be held if she passed by. This is a disgusting idea stemming from what we nowadays term rape culture. Machiavelli, another early modern, famously talks about Fortune as a woman who would be treated in similar ways. Rejecting the idea that one is always subject to luck does tie into gendered violence. If one is convinced that one can take control of any situation, dehumanization follows. What is responsible for failure, after all, if you know what you're doing and have done what you should do?


It is probably the case that wisdom does not exist in some absolute sense, except maybe for generic propositions like "do your best" and "be kind." But there are certainly wise people. Are wise people always good at predicting things? For Bacon, it isn't clear a wise person can be distinguished from a successful gambler:

"There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things. Dangers are no more light, if they once seem light; and more dangers have deceived men than forced them. Nay, it were better to meet some dangers half way, though they come nothing near, than to keep too long a watch upon their approaches; for if a man watch too long, it is odds he will fall asleep. On the other side, to be deceived with too long shadows (as some have been when the moon was low and shone on their enemies' back), and so to shoot off before the time; or to teach dangers to come on, by over early buckling towards them; is another extreme."

I call your attention to the first line of this passage: "There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things." Wait, what? If wise people have principles they believe in, or a certain vision of the world, they may not always be timely. Often, you have to see things play out–you have to see who is trustworthy, who stands for something–in order to make a decision. Patience is integral to observation. You're not obsessing over the right time to buy and sell like a day trader.

The rest of the passage is about getting the timing exactly correct. You might want "to meet some dangers half way," because otherwise you might fall asleep. Then again, if you attack too early, you miss with your arrow barrage or you provoke a more aggressive attack. This parodies Aristotle's "mean," the idea in ethics that courage, for example, is a midway point between cowardice and irrational exuberance. Instead of careful thinking about whether we are acting virtuously as opposed to cowardly or crazily, Bacon promotes the notion that you just need to get the timing exactly right.

If it feels like our modern world is profoundly unethical, in some ways it is. A way to make sure you get timings right, for example, is to be a billionaire and own everything. When a market gets "hot," you don't miss out! I don't want to say that patience and missing out on every opportunity make a better world, of course. I do think we can use the ethical ideas Bacon rejects, with careful consideration on our part. A little more patience and tolerance, a firm stance against dehumanization, and effective action for the sake of others are not bad things, no matter how much cable news wants to promote moral panic at the expense of decency.


I want to conclude by talking about Bacon's packed last lines. In them, he describes mythological power actually being transformed into the power he sees in his age. A bullet flies with the celerity of instantaneity. Is that not a power of the gods?

"The ripeness or unripeness of the occasion (as we said) must ever be well weighed; and generally it is good to commit the beginnings of all great actions to Argos with his hundred eyes, and the ends to Briareus with his hundred hands; first to watch, and then to speed. For the helmet of Pluto, which maketh the politic man go invisible, is secrecy in the counsel and celerity in the execution. For when things are once come to the execution, there is no secrecy comparable to celerity; like the motion of a bullet in the air, which flieth so swift as it outruns the eye."

You also can have the power of Argos "with his hundred eyes" and Briareus "with his hundred hands." To have it, focus on "secrecy in the counsel and celerity in the execution." You'll note that language is echoed by no less than Alexander Hamilton in describing the modern Presidency. Other ages would say we're crazy for thinking the power of the Presidency could possibly be secular. We're giving them godlike power over us–aren't other times more honest about their faith in the King? Aren't we delusional in thinking elections could be anything other than messianic?

No, we say. We believe everyone can act so efficiently. As a whole, we embrace technology, and no pagan god is prepared for the power of the bullets we cast. The origins of modernity are in dialogue with an older idea. Aren't the stories we tell about ourselves as potent, if not more potent, than any specific technology? Or any assumption of practicality? Do you actually believe you can replace the desire for believing a story matters with a guessing game about the exact right moment for action?

I guess I do have an answer for Francis Bacon, 400 years later. We've got all these people who don't read but proclaim themselves experts on when to get into anything. We've got an overabundance of prophets, you could say, precisely because of the logic that launched modernity.


"The Essays of Francis Bacon / XXI Of Delays." Wikisource. January 24, 2016. (credit to this for the discussion of the Sibyl, Occasion, and what the heck "buckling" meant)