Bacon on habits

In his essay “Of Nature in Men,” Francis Bacon presents some unusual ideas about the formation and maintenance of habits.

Let not a man force a habit upon himself with a perpetual continuance, but with some intermission. For both the pause reinforceth the new onset; and if a man that is not perfect be ever in practice, he shall as well practise his errors as his abilities, and induce one habit of both; and there is no means to help this but by seasonable intermissions.

It’s hard to see how seasonable intermissions do anything to solve the problem. If practice strengthens both one’s errors and one’s abilities, it would seem that the cessation of practice would likewise weaken both equally. Intermissions would be helpful only if unpracticed errors faded away more rapidly than unpracticed abilities, which seems unlikely to be the case. After all, a habit is a habit, and its status as an “ability” or an “error” is a function of the value we impute to it, not of anything in the nature of the habit itself.

One possible way to make sense of Bacon’s statement is this: When we practice a particular skill, we learn ability by design but error by accident. Therefore, if a number of people practice the same skill independently, they would be expected to develop similar abilities but dissimilar errors — just as, in biology, conspecifics tend to be similar in their adaptive features but dissimilar in their deleterious mutations.

If a person returns to the practice of a particular skill after a sufficiently long intermission, such that he has to relearn everything more-or-less from scratch, it is almost as if a different person were learning the skill. He is dealt a new hand of good and bad habits relative to that skill. But the good habits will be mostly the same as the good habits he learnt before, while the bad habits (conceptualized as mutation-like copying errors) will be mostly new. Thus the good habits, which are being learnt for the second time, will come more naturally, being reinforced by traces of those long-dormant former habits, while the bad ones will not. If I were to pick up my old banjo again after these 20 years, according to this theory, I would quickly relearn a fluent forward-reverse roll but would be less likely to pick up my old “bad” habit of resting two fingers on the head when picking.*

That’s the best I can do with what Bacon has written, but I’m not at all sure that it would really work. Nor am I at all sure that it’s really what Bacon had in mind. It seems unlikely that he was recommending taking such a long break that you forget everything and have to start over from scratch.


Elsewhere in the same essay, Bacon writes:

But let not a man trust his victory over his nature too far; for nature will lay buried a great time, and yet revive upon the occasion or temptation. Like as it was with Aesop’s damosel, turned from a cat to a woman; who sate very demurely at the board’s end, till a mouse ran before her. Therefore let a man either avoid the occasion altogether; or put himself often to it, that he may be little moved with it.

Here Bacon’s counterintuitive advice is to actively seek out frequent temptation if one is not able to avoid temptation altogether — and who, in the real world, is ever able to do the latter? This strikes me as extraordinarily bad advice, though I seem to remember reading that Gandhi did something of the kind, regularly sleeping with beautiful women — “sleeping” in the literal, not the euphemistic, sense — in order to inure himself to their charms and strengthen his chastity. I can see the logic behind the method, but I suspect it would usually do more harm than good. Each individual temptation would become weaker and easier to withstand, it is true, but that benefit would seem to be offset by the increased number of temptations.

If you want to minimize your number of skiing accidents, what is the optimal frequency with which you should go skiing? Well, never, obviously — but assume that’s not an option. Assume the minimum is once a year. If you keep to that minimum, you’ll only have one opportunity a year to have an accident — but the odds of having an accident in any given year will be relatively high, since you won’t be a very good skier. If you go skiing every week, on the other hand, you’ll become a good skier with a much lower chance of having an accident during any given skiing trip — but you’ll also have 52 times as many ski trips as the once-a-year skier. There surely is some number of ski trips per year which is the optimum, but it’s impossible to know in advance what that optimum is, or whether you ought to ski more often or less often than you currently do.

Thus Bacon’s advice — Lead us into temptation so as to deliver us from evil — doesn’t seem very practical. In trying to follow it, most people would probably end up just using it as an excuse to expose themselves to greater-than-optimal temptation in the subconscious hope of slipping up and yielding.


*My old banjo teacher, Lee Ruff, considered this an error. Apparently not all pickers would agree. According to this site, “There has been a particular furor among banjoists over whether to plant the ring, the little or both of the fingers on the head to stabilize the hand as a picking platform.”

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