Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, November 28, 2016

Francis Bacon's Essays

            I discovered Francis Bacon as a teenager at the Spring Hill Public library. I was in the throes of a beneficial nerding-out-over-classics stage, and decided to peruse the non-fiction classics section. I saw one book that said, Bacon’s Essays. With a name like that, who could pass up that book? Previous to reading these short essays, I had considered essays to be unpleasant assignments for people in school. Francis Bacon’s writings made it clear to me that essays can be enjoyable to read (I even prefer Bacon’s to Emerson’s).
I'm glad ruffles are no longer in style.
   Here is a short bio: Francis Bacon was a true renaissance man, living a varied life to match his varied interests. He lived from 1561-1626, through the reigns of Queen Elisabeth, and King James (of the King James Bible fame). He entered Parliament at twenty-three, became Keeper of the Great Seal, a knight, Solicitor General, Attorney General, and Lord Chancellor. He lost this last position because of charges of bribery; as a judge he took gifts from the litigants. This was a custom in the judiciary at the time, so Bacon was no more or less guilty than the other judges working beside him. His loss of position was for political reasons between two battling political factions, not for any personal reasons. After his loss of position, he spent his time on his intellectual pursuits.
            Bacon was a philosopher, an author, and a scientist (this last interest proved to be fatal: “After five years spent in retirement, he died of a chill caught while experimenting on refrigeration by stuffing a chicken full of snow.” That’s a new danger to the game of chicken).  His personal life was less successful than his public one; he married Alice Barnham when he was in his fifties, and she was fourteen. Large age disparities were common at the time; British tolerance for this continued into Dickens’ Bleak House, where the young main character is briefly engaged to her sixty-year-old guardian. The marriage ended as promisingly as it began; in the last years of his life, Bacon lived alone, and his wife remarried three weeks after he died.
            Bacon was an accomplished and respected judge, and his writings have been very influential. The two great works by Bacon are The Advancement of Learning and New Atlantis. Bertrand Russell considered The Advancement of Learning to be his most important work. If either of those are anything like his essays, they’ve got to be enjoyable reads.

Written when spelling was still fun.
        The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, were published in 1625. I enjoy them, because they are full of wisdom, oddities of seventeenth century thought, and peculiar inconsistencies. Randomly intermixed with each other, and communicated in the language of Shakespeare’s time, these essays cover a multitude of topics, from Of Truth, Of Gardens, to Of Seeming Wise.
            To give a taste of Bacon’s Essays, I’m including multible quotes. The difficulty is, of course, that I can’t simply copy and paste his entire essays into the post.  That would be the only way to truly experience and savor his words. What I can include in this post are a few fragments from only several of his essays (he wrote 58 Essays in total).
            Before we look at any of his essays in detail, I want to show you some of his marvelous aphorisms:
            Of Truth: “…a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave toward God and a coward from men.”
            Of Simulation and Dissimulation: “…Secrecy, it is indeed the virtue of a confessor. And assuredly, the secret man heareth many confessions… if a man be thought secret, it inviteth discovery; as the more close air sucketh in the more open…”
            Of Studies: “Read not to contradict, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
            Of Suspicion: “Suspicions are like bats amongst birds; they ever fly by twilight.”
            He is so fun! His phrases flow beautifully.
            In Of Unity in Religion, Bacon writes on a very hot topic for the time. The new Church of England had been formed by Queen Elizabeth’s father, and for a short time, her sister Queen Mary had made England Catholic again, burning Protestants at the stake. Queen Elizabeth, upon her rise to the throne, returned the nation to the protestant faith. This epochal breakaway from the unity of the Catholic faith was incredibly divisive, and Protestants split into many different groups. People who did not attend the Anglican Church were fined, dissenting Protestants as well as Catholics. Planning or saying the mass carried the death penalty. After Queen Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope in 1570, and many plots against her were formed by Catholics, fear and hatred of the Catholics increased dramatically. It was considered treasonous for subjects to be unallied to the Anglican church. Treason is a serious offense.
            In his essay on the topic of religion, Bacon urged that unity should be strived after, without falling into the extremes of faithless concession or stubbornness over detailed matters of opinion. Most importantly, at this time of violent religious persecution, massacres, and mobs, he wrote:

“Concerning the Means of procuring Unity, men must beware that… they do not dissolve and deface the laws of charity and of human society… to make the cause of religion to the cruel and execrable actions of murthering [sic]  princes, butchery of people, and subversion of states and governments…”

He spoke wisely, and against the trigger-happy persecution-mindset of his day. The times continued violently, but perhaps not so violently as they would have gone without his urgings for peaceful unity over chaotic fractiousness.                                                                 
            After that profound and timeless essay, I think it’s time for one of his more dated ones… on to Of Deformity! I think the first line of the essay will sum it all up quite nicely:

“Deformed persons are commonly even with nature; for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature, being for the most part (as the Scripture saith) ‘void of natural affection’: and so they have their revenge of nature.”

Yeah. Never saw that on a medical poster at the doctor’s office. The verses of scriptures he refers to by his quote are not about deformed people either; they’re simply about people who do bad things. Although I guess in his mind they’re one and the same.

Another progressive essay is his Of Superstition, which begins with the line, “It were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of him.” That line always cracked me up. I’m a Christian, and I’d have a much higher respect for a thoughtful atheist than a person who claimed to worship God… and thought that to avoid a curse they had to dance a jig every time they saw a sparrow.
The era Bacon lived in was very superstitious. Read a Shakespeare play and the superstitious references abound. Bacon, in the short little essay, points out that superstitions are silly, illogical, pay far too much attention to adhering to tradition, and they clutter sincere religious thought. Unfortunately, the lower classes of people living at that time, who were the greatest believers in and practicers of superstition, would not have been reading Bacon’s essays.
            Francis Bacon’s essays have aged delightfully, both to his detriment and his distinction. His mind was ahead of his time, but many of his thoughts were still bound by the cultural beliefs and constraints of his day. Read Bacon’s essays; where they do not edify, they amuse.

My sources were: 
Francis Bacon's Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral
Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy

Read Bacon's Essays. Seriously.

1 comment:

  1. Bacon's essays are fun indeed. I'll bet you'd also enjoy those of his near-contemporary Montaigne, who is commonly credited with inventing the personal essay.

    Speaking of fun: for more on that snow-stuffed chicken, see Simon Critchley's "Book of Dead Philosophers" - https://books.google.com/books?id=pgTDlLHAMekC&lpg=PA134&ots=2GRpnN1Q8X&dq=book%20of%20dead%20philosophers%20francis%20bacon&pg=PA134#v=onepage&q=book%20of%20dead%20philosophers%20francis%20bacon&f=false