Study Guide

Essays

by Francis Bacon

Essays Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Francis Bacon had many accomplishments. He was a scientist, a philosopher, and a politician, and he was adept, too, at taking bribes; for this he had been imprisoned. It is, however, as a literary man that he is perhaps best remembered, a writer so competent with the pen that for decades there have been some persons willing to argue that Bacon wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

The essay form is rare in the modern age, although there are some faint signs of its revival. As Bacon used it, the essay is a carefully fashioned statement, both informative and expressive, by which a person comments on life and manners, on nature and its puzzles. The essay is not designed to win people to a particular cause or to communicate factual matter better put in scientific treatises. Perhaps that is one reason why it is not so popular in an age in which the truth of claims and their practical importance are always questioned.

The Essays first appeared, ten in number, in 1597. They were immediately popular because they were brief, lively, humane, and well-written. Perhaps they were effective in contrast to the rambling, florid prose written by most writers of the time. A considerable part of their charm lay in their civilized tone. In these essays, Bacon reveals himself as an inquisitive but also an appreciative man with wit enough to interest others. The first edition contained the following essays: “Of Studies,” “Of Discourse,” “Of Ceremonies and Respects,” “Of Followers and Friends,” “Of Suitors,” “Of Expense,” “Of Regiment of Health,” “Of Honour and Reputation,” “Of Faction,” and “Of Negociating.”

By 1612, the number of essays had been increased to thirty-eight, the earlier ones having been revised or rewritten. By the last edition, in 1625, the number was fifty-eight. Comparison of the earlier essays with those written later shows not only a critical mind at work but also a man made sadder and wiser, or at least different, by changes in fortune.

The essays concern themselves with such universal concepts as truth, death, love, goodness, friendship, fortune, and praise. They cover such controversial matters as religion, atheism, “the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” custom and education, and usury, and they consider such intriguing matters as envy, cunning, innovations, suspicion, ambition, praise, vainglory, and the vicissitudes of things.

The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, as they are called in the heading of the first essay, begins with an essay on truth entitled “Of Truth.” The title formula is always the same, simply a naming of the matter to be discussed, as, for example, “Of Death,” “Of Unity in Religion,” “Of Adversity,” “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.” One expects a sermon, and one is pleasantly surprised. Bacon uses his theme as a point of departure for a discussion of the charms of lying, trying to fathom the love of lying for its own sake. “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure,” he writes. This pleasure is ill-founded, however; it rests on error resulting from depraved judgment. Bacon reverses himself grandly: “ . . . 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.”

When it comes to death, Bacon begins by admitting that tales of death increase humanity’s natural fear of it, but he reminds the reader that death is not always painful. By references to Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, Vespasian, and others, Bacon shows that, even...

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Essays Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Bowen, Catherine D. Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Although this work is basically a biography of Bacon, Bowen includes some discussion of the publishing history of the essays and an analysis of Bacon’s style, concentrating particularly on his aphorisms and wit.

Bush, Douglas. English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660. 2d ed. rev. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Bush examines Bacon’s essays in the light of his other prose writings, noting particularly the limitations of Bacon’s understanding that led him to evaluate success in rather materialistic terms.

Matthews, Steven. Theology and Science in the Thought of Francis Bacon. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2008. Examines Bacon’s religious beliefs and how his theological ideas influenced his program to reform learning and the natural sciences.

Patrick, John Max. Francis Bacon. London: Longmans, Green, 1966. This short work is a general introduction to Bacon’s life and work. Patrick notes that the essays are not intended to be a personal expression and examines Bacon’s fondness for balance, antithesis, three-item series, and aphorism.

Quinton, Anthony. Francis Bacon. Edited by Keith Thomas. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. Quinton discusses the literary quality of the essays giving particular attention to their aphoristic style; he notes that their subjects range from public affairs to private life and frequently deal with abstractions such as truth or beauty. He also notes the cynical quality of Bacon’s thought.

Sessions, William A. Francis Bacon Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. A critical and historical analysis of Bacon’s writings, in which Sessions argues that Bacon’s works are both “contemplative inscriptions” and “instruments for the remaking of history.” Chapter 2, “The Essays: Reading Them as Dispersed Meditacions,” provides a detailed interpretation of those writings.

Williamson, George. The Senecan Amble: A Study in Prose from Bacon to Collier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. Williamson uses the essays, as well as the other prose, to examine Bacon’s style in detail, noting that Bacon considered the function of rhetoric to be the joining of imagination and reason. He considers the relationship between Bacon and the classics.