Home  »  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients  »  XXXI. The Sirens Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.

Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.

XXXI. The Sirens

XXXI. The Sirens Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.

THE FABLE of the Sirens is truly applied to the pernicious allurements of pleasure; but in a very poor and vulgar sense. For I find the wisdom of the ancients to be like grapes ill-trodden: something is squeezed out, but the best parts are left behind and passed over.  1
  The Sirens were daughters (we are told) of Achelous and of Terpsichore, one of the Muses. Originally they had wings; but being beaten in a contest with the Muses which they had rashly challenged, their wings were plucked off, and turned by the Muses into crowns for themselves, who thenceforward all wore wings on their heads, except only the mother of the Sirens. These Sirens had their dwelling in certain pleasant islands, whence they kept watch for ships; and when they saw any approaching, they began to sing; which made the voyagers first stay to listen, then gradually draw near, and at last land; when they took and killed them. Their song was not all in one strain; but they varied their measures according to the nature of the listener, and took each captive with those which best suited him. So destructive the plague was, that the islands of the Sirens were seen afar off white with the bones of unburied carcasses. For this evil two different remedies were found; one by Ulysses, the other by Orpheus. Ulysses caused the ears of his crew to be stopped with wax; and himself (wishing to make trial of the thing without incurring the danger) to be bound to the mast; at the same time forbidding any one at his peril to loose him even at his own request. Orpheus, not caring to be bound, raised his voice on high, and singing to his lyre the praises of the Gods, drowned the voices of the Sirens, and so passed clear of all danger.  2
  The fable relates to Morals, and contains an elegant though obvious parable. Pleasures spring from the union of abundance and affluence with hilarity and exultation of mind. And formerly they carried men away at once, as if with wings, by the first view of their charms. But doctrine and instruction have succeeded in teaching the mind, if not to refrain altogether, yet to pause and consider consequences; and so have stripped the Pleasures of their wings. And this redounded greatly to the honour of the Muses—for as soon as it appeared by some examples that Philosophy could induce a contempt of Pleasures, it was at once regarded as a sublime thing, which could so lift the soul from earth, and make the cogitations of man (which live in his head) winged and ethereal. Only the mother of the Sirens still goes on foot and has no wings; and by her no doubt are meant those lighter kinds of learning which are invented and applied only for amusement; such as those were which Petronius held in estimation; he who being condemned to die, sought in the very waiting-room of death for matter to amuse him, and when he turned to books among other things for consolation, would read (says Tacitus) none of those which teach constancy of mind, but only light verses. Of this kind is that of Catullus,
        Let’s live and love, love, while we may;
And for all the old men say
Just one penny let us care;