What are Francis Bacon's main arguments in his discussion "Of Discourse"?

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

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In "Of Discourse," Bacon, one of the most important rhetoricians in the early seventeenth century, argues that

The honorablest part of talk is to give the occasion; and again to moderate and pass to somewhat else; for then a man leads the dance.

Bacon advocates, in other words, a kind of master-of ceremonies who begins a conversation but then lets it take its natural course and guides it with "arguments . . .with reasons . . . asking of questions . . , and jest with earnest. . . ."  The ideal discourse, then, is not a speech made up of one mode or subject but a blend that engages as many possible speakers as possible.  

The ideal discourse has some seriousness and some humor, but Bacon is very clear on what subjects cannot be made fun of:

. . . religion, matters of state, great persons, any man's present business of importance, and any case that deserveth pity.

Although these forbidden subjects for humor are constantly subjects of humor in the 21stC., we need to keep in mind that Bacon's advice here is very practical for the 17thC.  Joking about the King and matters of state could get one imprisoned and executed, so Bacon's advice is both politically correct for the period and practical.

Bacon was nothing if not a practical man, and he advises the ideal speaker to

. . . questioneth much [because he shall] learn much, and content much . . . and himself shall continually gather knowledge.  But let not his questions be troublesome; for that is fit for a poser.

This advice gets to the heart of Bacon's understanding of what constitutes ideal discourse--one of its principal goals is to learn about other men and their beliefs.  As part of that process, one should not ask questions that might bring up a "sore point" for the person being questioned.  

The person guiding the discourse has a duty, according to Bacon, to "be sure to leave other men their turns to speak," and if someone is taking up too much time, the guide should find a way to get others talking.

Bacon concludes the essay by noting that good discourse is more than just eloquence.  A good speech is a blend of reason, appropriate argument, questions, and one's reply to a good speech is a mirror image of the original speech--an appropriate response, using reason and arguments and responsive questions.  In Bacon's writings on rhetoric in general, he argued that how one spoke was less important than what one said, so the ideal discourse is one that is rich in content as opposed to eloquence.  In other words, eloquence without substance is not proper discourse.

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