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Francis Bacon: The Essays

“I doe now publish my Essayes; which, of all my other works, have been most Currant: For that, as it seems, they come home, to Mens Businesse, and Bosomes.” This is how Francis Bacon prefaces The Essays: or Counsels, Civil and Moral, published in 1597. I love the form of the book, which is, simply, a series of short essays: Of Truth, Of Death, Of Unity in Religion, Of Revenge, Of Adversity, Of Simulation and Dissimulation, Of Parents and Children, Of Marriage and Single Life, Of Envy, Of Love and so on and on it goes. And I love the tone of it. It’s clever and lyrical, but also quite matter-of-fact; he’s stating truths as he believes them, and he makes the truths sound incontrovertible, but we also feel that he hasn’t arrived at them lightly. Bacon is credited with having invented or contributed to the evolution of the essay, as well as the scientific method, and inductive reasoning. It’s clear that these essays are the result of a questioning and methodical approach to each subject. He’s thought and read about them, and considered all of the facets and vagaries of them with a skeptical mind. He’s tested each before he finds what connects them. And though he sounds sure of himself, he hasn’t sealed his mind on any of these ideas. He’s thinking on them still. We feel that he would agree with James Baldwin (and with me) that “…all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.”

When my son was in grade school, we were called to a teachers’ conference in which they asked him if he could define the word “essay.” They were looking for the obvious answer–something with a beginning a middle and an end, showing work and providing examples. I wanted to tell them about my understanding of the word “essay,” which means to try something, and not to be crippled by fear of failure. In fact the word “essay” comes from the word “to try.” You shouldn’t think about a grade, you shouldn’t think about succeeding (or failing). You’re collecting your thoughts and other peoples’ thoughts and you’re seeing where they take you. You’re observing and questioning and tracing connections. And the “try” in “essay” doesn’t just mean “attempt.” It also means “test,” or “weigh.” As in “I tried the strength of the rope bridge before I commenced my journey upon it.” An essay is sort of a living creature, which might alter as it alteration finds. Francis Bacon, as the father of the essay, seems to have followed this approach, and this collection of essays is a joy to read, and a delight to trace for the pattern of ideas leading from one to another.

This image of teenage Francis Bacon painted by Nicholas Hilliard is one of my absolute favorite paintings. The inscription reads Si tabula daretur digna animum mallem, Latin for “If one could but paint his mind.” (And that blue!)

“Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds, they ever fly by twilight.”

Although Bacon has broken this collection of his thoughts into separate subjects, he finds affinities and similarities between them as he writes. It’s clear that he’s thinking about the whole of humanity and our place in the whole of the world, as he understands it at that time. When he speaks of travel, for instance, he’s also thinking about education, language, government, diet, exercise, and the smaller rituals of daily life. He speaks of recording and observing everything so that you don’t go through life “hooded.” “It is a strange thing that, in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen but sky and sea, men should make diaries; but in land travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part they omit it, as if chance were fitter to be registered than observation. Let diaries, therefore, be brought in use.” When he speaks On Empire, he’s also discussing human nature, history ancient and near, families and philosophy. “It is a miserable state of mind to have few things to desire, and many things to fear; and yet that commonly is the case of kings, who, being, at the highest, want matter of desire, which makes their minds more languishing; and have many representations of perils and shadows, which makes their minds the less clear.” And this ties into his essay On Suspicion, which opens with the beautiful line, “Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds, they ever fly by twilight.” This concern with the workings of the mind extends to his essay on bodily health. He speaks of diet and exercise, of course, but he understands as well the connection between thoughts, feelings, and physical well-being. He speaks of feeding the mind as well as the body. “As for the passions and studies of the mind, avoid envy, anxious fears, anger fretting inwards, subtle and knotty inquisitions, joys, and exhilarations in excess, sadness not communicated. Entertain hopes, mirth rather than joy, variety of delights, rather than surfeit of them; wonder and admiration, and therefore novelties; studies that fill the mind with splendid and illustrious objects, as histories, fables, and contemplations of nature.”

“Yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.”

My favorite essay is the first, On Truth. You can tell that he loves truth as a thing, almost as a person. He loves the search for truth, “…yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.” And just as a hope is a place, so is truth, “It is a pleasure, to stand upon the shore, and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure, to stand in the window of a castle, and to see a battle, and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors, and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling, or pride. Certainly, it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.” He describes poetry as the shadow of a lie, which adds some beauty to the truth, and he talks about lies such as “vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like,” as saving men’s minds from becoming “poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition.” In just this way he mixes wild, poetical language with the more staid and scholarly, and helps us to see not just the matter of his text, but his passion for it as well.

Many of Bacon’s ideas, of course, are strange or even troubling to us as we know the world now. Some we recognize as being xenophobic, sexist, classist, born of ignorance. But it’s a hopeful thing to read through them and understand that he questions even these ideas. His practice of observing, questioning, and understanding all aspects of human life as well as our relation to nature and to each other resulted in works that slowly eroded the ignorance that produces prejudice. As the arc of history struggles to bend towards justice, people who ask questions and seek truth, skeptically and passionately, will help it to stretch there.

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