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The style of Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays is indebted to a number of sources, both literary and otherwise. Like most Renaissance Christians, especially the well-educated, Bacon was very familiar with the Bible and took its teachings quite seriously. He was also familiar with many of the Greek and Latin classics, and his style was especially influenced by such writers as Seneca and Tacitus (rather than Cicero). Seneca and Tacitus favored a kind of writing often called “curt.” Cicero's writing, by contrast, was often long, complicated, and highly patterned. Phrases in the "curt" style were short; grammar was unconventional; and ideas often whizzed by quickly. Bacon liked lists, antitheses, and phrases involving three elements. Yet writers such as Tacitus and Seneca were only two significant influences on his style. He was familiar, for instance, with the essays of Montaigne and sometimes alluded to them, but his own essays were less personal, more abrupt, and less informal.
The brief essay “Of Revenge,” chosen more or less at random, illustrates many of the traits and influences just discussed, as well as some others. Consider its opening sentence:
Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.
Here, in the first phrase, we see Bacon’s frequent brevity, as well as his tendency to use aphorisms and his sometimes vivid language. In the phrasing that follows the semicolon, we see his love of balance. Meanwhile, Bacon’s tendency to think in terms of threes is evident in the following sentence:
Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince's part to pardon.
In the immediately following sentence, we see Bacon’s familiarity with scripture, as well as his tendency to use what we would term “sentence fragments”:
And Solomon, I am sure, saith, It is the glory of a man, to pass by an offence.
Bacon’s wide reading in history (another important influence) allowed him to cite more recent examples to support his arguments, as when he says,
Cosmus, duke of Florence, had a desperate saying against perfidious or neglecting friends . . . .
Yet Bacon could also easily cite examples from his reading of the classics, as he does here:
Public revenges are for the most part fortunate; as that for the death of Caesar; for the death of Pertinax . . . .
Scripture, however, was always the most persuasive source to quote in Bacon’s culture, as he proves again when he writes,
But yet the spirit of Job was in a better tune: Shall we (saith he) take good at God's hands, and not be content to take evil also?
As these quotations suggest, Bacon’s style was compounded of a wide variety of influences, but perhaps the writers who had the most important impact on his phrasing per se were Seneca, Tacitus, and other Roman writers who favored the “curt” style.
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