Francis Bacon Questions and Answers

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What is the difference between public envy and private envy?

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As your question suggests, Francis Bacon's essay "Of Envy," part of a series of essays published under the title Essays between 1597 and 1625, addresses what he considers one of the most dangerous "sins" man is subject to in both private and public life and argues that private and public envy have very different consequences.

Bacon's view of envy in general can be startling because he links it to both astrology and witchcraft, a not unexpected viewpoint considering he lives at a time when both were part of the belief system during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I:

. . . the Scripture calleth envy an evil eye, and the astrologers, call . . . evil aspects. (Paragraph 1)

Even though Bacon does not explicitly refer to the "seven deadly sins," which are the most serious sins in the Christian belief system, envy is the fourth, and Bacon would have that in mind as he formed his own, practical, conception of what two types of envy do within a society.

For Bacon, then, private and public envy are different in several respects, and his essay concentrates on private envy because in Bacon's view, it is the more dangerous of the two. Private envy, because it is experienced in secret, is destructive to both the envious and the envied:

A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others. For men's minds, will either feed upon their own good, or upon other's evil; and who wanteth the one, will prey upon the other. . . . (Paragraph 3)

The inherent danger of private envy is that it has instills in the envious person the desire to take virtue by "depressing another's fortune," and with private envy—which the envied person cannot perceive—the danger is neither recognized nor successfully countered by the victim.

Bacon makes explicit his view of public envy, which, he argues, is preferable to private envy:

There is yet some good in public envy, whereas in private, there is none. For private envy, is an ostracism, that eclipseth men, when they grow to great. And therefore it is a bridle also to great ones, to keep them within bounds. (Paragraph 15)

Bacon's essays are well known for their concentration on the relation between private and public good. Consistent with that view, Bacon argues here that public envy—by which he means "the name of discontentment"—can exercise a kind of control over those in power, and, perhaps more important, if public envy is so widespread that it encompasses "all the ministers of an estate," then the envy, the discontentment, "is truly upon the state itself." (Paragraph 17)

Bacon concludes the essay by noting that envy is both "importune and continual" and says (in Latin) that envy takes no holidays and therefore operates continuously upon the envious, so much so that it is the "most depraved." So, despite the public benefit of envy exercised against the state, Bacon still sees the condition as an enemy of society, more so in its private form, but also in its public expression, which has some benefits.

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