Many Fiddlers, Few Flourishers to Our MisFortune

In his essay “Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” Francis Bacon explores the question of how leaders help a nation to its greatness or harm it to its destruction. Though he lived in Elizabethan & Jacobean England, his words are just as relevant to us today, especially as the prospect of a (Canadian) federal election looms.

“The speech of Themistocles the Athenian, which was haughty and arrogant, in taking so much to himself, had been a grave and wise observation and censure, applied at large to others. Desired at a feast to touch a lute, he said, He could not fiddle, but yet he could make a small town, a great city. These words (holpen a little with a metaphor) may express two differing abilities, in those that deal in business of estate. For if a true survey be taken of counsellors and statesmen, there may be found (though rarely) those which can make a small state great, and yet cannot fiddle; as on the other side, there will be found a great many, that can fiddle very cunningly, but yet are so far from being able to make a small state great, as their gift lieth the other way; to bring a great and flourishing estate, to ruin and decay. And certainly whose degenerate arts and shifts, whereby many counsellors and governors gain both favor with their masters, and estimation with the vulgar, deserve no better name than fiddling; being things rather pleasing for the time, and graceful to themselves only, than tending to the weal and advancement of the state which they serve. There are also (no doubt) counsellors and governors which may be held sufficient, negotiis pares, able to manage affairs, and to keep them from precipices and manifest inconveniences; which nevertheless are far from the ability to raise and amplify an estate in power, means, and fortune… To conclude: no man can by care taking (as the Scripture saith) add a cubit to his stature [ed. Matthew 6:2], in this little model of a man’s body; but in the great frame of kingdoms and commonwealths, it is in the power of princes or estates, to add amplitude and greatness to their kingdoms; for by introducing such ordinances, constitutions, and customs, as we have now touched, they may sow greatness to their posterity and succession. But these things are commonly not observed, but left to take their chance.”[1]

1. Bacon, Francis. “Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates.” Essays and New Atlantis. Roslyn, NY: Walter J. Black, 1942, pages 121-122, 133.

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