How might Francis Bacon's essay "Of Truth" be analyzed?
Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Truth” is one of the more famous of his works of prose. The essay begins by mocking those who refuse to admit that there is any certain, objective truth. Bacon argues that people have a natural love of lying, even when lying brings no obvious advantage. Truth, Bacon says, resembles light, but he suggests that many people prefer to flirt with darkness because they take some pleasure in lies and lying. Bacon, however, asserts that truth is the greatest good humans can possess. Truth comes from God and attaches us to God, and it is from truth that we derive our deepest pleasure.
Bacon’s essay is structured in various ways. It begins, for instance, by mentioning Pilate, a symbolic Christ-killer and enemy of God, but it ends by elaborately celebrating God’s goodness and creativity. Pilate (Bacon says) was dismissive of truth; God, on the other hand, created truth and celebrates truth and, in a sense, personifies truth. Thus the essay is framed by references especially relevant to Christians. Inside that frame, Bacon cites various classical authorities and discusses various classical opinions. He alludes to classical philosophical sects who doubted the existence of truth, but he also alludes to classical thinkers who agree with Christians that truth should be highly valued. As the essay continues to develop, Bacon discusses the attractiveness of lying – an attractiveness that coincides with Christian ideas about the fallen state (and natural sinfulness) of human nature. People lie, Bacon suggests, even when lying is of no practical use to them; they seem in fact to find pure truth boring. Poetry, he suggests, seems to appeal to this natural human interest in lies, although he implies that the lies told by poets are not especially harmful. By the conclusion of the essay, the structure comes full circle, concluding with a very heavy emphasis on standard Christian doctrine.
Stylistically, the essay employs a number of different techniques. One of the most important of these involves allusions to other texts and other authors, especially classical texts and classical authors. Bacon also uses questions effectively. He begins with Pilate’s short and famous question, which Bacon regards as frivolous, and then, throughout the essay, Bacon poses various, and quite serious, questions of his own, thus provoking readers to think for themselves and use the reason that he later says is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Besides using allusions and questions, the essay also uses imagery effectively, especially imagery of light and darkness and imagery involving various kinds of jewels:
Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights.
In short, Bacon’s essay is solid in its structure, intriguing in its stylistic and rhetorical methods, and (for many readers then and now) persuasive in the arguments in presents.
Francis Bacon is famous as an early empiricist, and what is notable about this essay is that he attempts to look at truth objectively. While he leans on the Bible to argue that God breathed the light of truth on humans, he also notes that this truth includes the light of reason: the ability of humans to think and discern for themselves what truth is.
Bacon makes some statements that may seem shocking from a strictly moral standpoint, such as
A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure
He also quotes the Roman poet Carus, who found a pleasure in observing the misconceptions ("errors") of others—but always from a vantage point of compassion, not pride. Bacon, thus, does not simply dismiss untruth as always evil, but he shows it can be a pleasure when we know it is a lie—as in a play or poem—or when we learn from it humbly.
With his interest in categorization—Bacon explores types of truth and lies—he notes that lies of the imagination do little harm because we know they are a fiction. It is the lie that we believe that causes the lasting damage.
Lies in "civil business" are distinct from lies in poetry: in this case, it is not permissible to be dishonest. These kinds of lies, Bacon states, come from the "serpent" and will be punished by God.
Bacon's careful distinctions used authority from both the Bible and the classical world to parse truth. In a short essay, Bacon demonstrates that the distinction between truth and lies is not black and white.