A collaborative search for wisdom, at Middle Tennessee State University and beyond...
"The pluralistic form takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of, being essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of 'co'"-William James
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
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.
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).
look at any of his essays in detail, I want to show you some of his marvelous
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.
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
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.
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