The Essays, by Francis Bacon

Of Custom and Education

Men’s thoughts, are much according to their inclination; their discourse and speeches, according to their learning and infused opinions; but their deeds, are after as they have been accustomed. And therefore, as Machiavel well noteth (though in an evil-favored instance), there is no trusting to the force of nature, nor to the bravery of words, except it be corroborate by custom. His instance is, that for the achieving of a desperate conspiracy, a man should not rest upon the fierceness of any man’s nature, or his resolute undertakings; but take such an one, as hath had his hands formerly in blood. But Machiavel knew not of a Friar Clement, nor a Ravillac, nor a Jaureguy, nor a Baltazar Gerard; yet his rule holdeth still, that nature, nor the engagement of words, are not so forcible, as custom. Only superstition is now so well advanced, that men of the first blood, are as firm as butchers by occupation; and votary resolution, is made equipollent to custom, even in matter of blood. In other things, the predominancy of custom is everywhere visible; insomuch as a man would wonder, to hear men profess, protest, engage, give great words, and then do, just as they have done before; as if they were dead images, and engines moved only by the wheels of custom. We see also the reign or tyranny of custom, what it is. The Indians (I mean the sect of their wise men) lay themselves quietly upon a stock of wood, and so sacrifice themselves by fire. Nay, the wives strive to be burned, with the corpses of their husbands. The lads of Sparta, of ancient time, were wont to be scourged upon the altar of Diana, without so much as queching. I remember, in the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s time of England, an Irish rebel condemned, put up a petition to the deputy, that he might be hanged in a withe, and not in an halter; because it had been so used, with former rebels. There be monks in Russia, for penance, that will sit a whole night in a vessel of water, till they be engaged with hard ice. Many examples may be put of the force of custom, both upon mind and body. Therefore, since custom is the principal magistrate of man’s life, let men by all means endeavor, to obtain good customs. Certainly custom is most perfect, when it beginneth in young years: this we call education; which is, in effect, but an early custom. So we see, in languages, the tongue is more pliant to all expressions and sounds, the joints are more supple, to all feats of activity and motions, in youth than afterwards. For it is true, that late learners cannot so well take the ply; except it be in some minds that have not suffered themselves to fix, but have kept themselves open, and prepared to receive continual amendment, which is exceeding rare. But if the force of custom simple and separate, be great, the force of custom copulate and conjoined and collegiate, is far greater. For there example teacheth, company comforteth, emulation quickeneth, glory raiseth: so as in such places the force of custom is in his exaltation. Certainly the great multiplication of virtues upon human nature, resteth uponsocieties well ordained and disciplined. For commonwealths, and good governments, do nourish virtue grown, but do not much mend the deeds. But the misery is, that the most effectual means, are now applied to the ends, least to be desired.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31