According to Bacon, what are the three main benefits of study, and what danger can result from each benefit?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Francis Bacon's The Essays, or Counsels Civill & Morall, the definitive collection of essays he wrote from 1597 to 1620, was published in 1625 and contains essays on practical, religious, and moral subjects that he thought would guide a man to a successful and useful life in business and politics.  In most essays dealing with how a man should behave, Bacon's constant theme is moderation in all things--in other words, too much, or too little, of almost any behavior could lead to an unbalanced individual, with disastrous results.

In his essay "Of Studies," Bacon describes both the benefits and drawbacks of studying, of learning, of reading books. The benefits he describes succinctly:

Studies serve for Delight, for Ornament, and for Ability.  Their chiefe use for Delight is in privateness and retiring; for Ornament, is in discourse; & for Ability, is in the judgement and disposition of Businesse.

He urges study for one's delight because study allows a man to be comfortable when he is alone with himself--study is, in effect, a way to relax when one is away from the business of life.  Study is also useful because it makes one able to discuss a variety of subjects in a skillful way and, more important, study allows one to convince others with the force of argument ("discourse").  In the context of business, which, for Bacon, also includes politics, study increases one's judgment and ability to handle all elements of public life.

At the same time, however, Bacon argues that study has several pitfalls if one studies too excessively or, even more important, with the wrong goals:

To spend too much time in Studies, is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgement wholly by their rules is the humour of a Scholler.

Bacon's practical nature is clear in this passage.  A man of business--and Bacon believes that a man should be concerned with public and private business--cannot, and should not, spend too much time studying because then he is in danger of neglecting his business (sloth).  Likewise, if a man studies merely in order to be able to show people how articulate he is, then he is guilty of affectation or showing off.  From Bacon's perspective, affectation is not only a waste of time but a moral failing because a well-rounded man would never need to show off.  His last danger is the most important: if all one does is study and obtains no "real world" experience to help guide his thinking, the result is what we would now call a person who is "book smart" but not "street smart."  In other words, study, without the added knowledge that comes only from actual experience, is useless to the man of business.  

Bacon wrote the essays to guide people as they live in the world, not in schools or in the church, and his goal in "Of Studies," is to encourage studying for its practical uses, not as an end in itself.

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