As usual with Bacon's essays on the difference between attributes and people that serve the public best, in "Of Marriage and Single Life," he explores the difference between married and unmarried men and women with such objectivity that his preference is subtly stated rather than obvious. Most of Bacon's essays center on attributes, personality traits, and moral and ethical behaviors that either allow men and women to live successfully and profitably in sixteenth-century England or cause them to fail miserably both on a personal and societal level. In other words, a good subtitle for Bacon's essays is "How to Succeed in Life By Really Trying." In Bacon's view, marriage and single life have positive and negative attributes, but we can reasonably conclude that Bacon favors marriage to produce those men most likely to benefit society in the long run.
Bacon argues that married men with wives and children "hath given hostages to fortune" who are "impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief." By this, he means that married men cannot do either much good or harm because married life takes up so much of their time and effort. At the same time, however, Bacon extols single men's ability make society better:
certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and endowed the public.
This is another way of observing that some men are "married to their jobs" and that the society benefits from this "marriage" rather than a single family.
Married men, on the other hand, because they have children who will be affected by future conditions, "have greatest care of future times." They want a better future for their children. Single men, because they may have no concern for the future of society, "end with themselves, and account future times impertinences"—the future has no importance to them and is therefore not worth worrying about.
Continuing his argument that a single life is not conducive to the public's advancement—but it is good for the clergy, who can use their empathy to help the public rather than a family—Bacon notes that
wife and children are a kind of discipline of humanity; and single men, though they may be many times more charitable, because their means are less exhaust [exhausted], yet...they are more cruel and hardhearted...because their tenderness is not so often called upon.
In order to understand the importance of this observation, we need to consider Bacon's frame of reference. In sixteenth-century England, women and children were believed to exert a civilizing influence upon men, a concept that still exists today (as often expressed in the phrase, "He'll settle down when he gets married"). Bacon acknowledges the widespread belief that marriage is a way to moderate what people at the time thought were the natural aggressive and self-interested attributes of men.
Bacon confirms this preference when he argues that
Grave natures, led by custom, and therefore constant, are commonly loving husbands, as was said of Ulysses, [who preferred his revered wife to immortality].
When he uses the phrase "grave natures," Bacon means "serious," and his reference to Ulysses (Odysseus) is not random. As a well-educated man of his times, Bacon knew the Homeric epics well, and in both the Iliad and Odyssey, Odysseus, who has several moral failings, is depicted as an intelligent man who is also ultimately loyal to his wife, Penelope.
Bacon ends the essay with a short analysis of women, in which he argues that "chaste women," those who are yet to marry, "are often proud and forward." In Bacon's view, they do not know their place. Married women, however, can have a positive effect even on bad husbands because, if a woman marries a bad man against the advice of family and friends, she will make sure the bad man reforms in order for her to be seen as having made a good marriage decision.
Even though Bacon gives a nod to the positive attributes of unmarried men, on balance, he prefers the "grave natures" and moderation of the married man, as he does the civilizing influences of women and children.