How might Francis Bacon's essay "Of Truth" be analyzed?

Quick answer:

In Francis Bacon's essay "Of Truth," the author extols the value of truth and critically explains that there are many people who do not place much value on truth, as they find lies more interesting. Bacon asserts that truth comes straight from God, so our relationship with truth brings humans closer to God. Hence, we can derive pleasure from truth. As one of Bacon's most famous prose works, "On Truth" employs rhetorical questions and allegories as a means of persuasion.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Francis Bacon is a seventeenth-century philosopher and scientist generally considered an early founder of empiricism, which is a branch of philosophical thought in direct conflict with the theory of rationalism. It would seem logical that any analysis of his famous essay “Of Truth” should include a consideration of both...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

perspectives. Various views and opinions about the acquisition of knowledge and truth continually emerge and puzzle philosophical explorers of truth even to this day.

The rationalist school of thought (propounded by scholars like Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) argues that all knowledge and truth is innate in human beings, which could be discovered through deductive reasoning. In that view, logical thinking is the pathway to truth. The empiricist school of thought (followed by scholars like Berkeley, Hume, and Locke) suggests that all knowledge and truth is derived from experience. They favor inductive reasoning, claiming it is observation and reflection that leads to truth. In their view, sensory perceptions, not innate ideas, enable human beings to discover the truth.

Francis Bacon believed in scientific theory but gradually doubted that science alone is able to explain reality. He thought science offered manufactured explanations and argued that scientific theory stems from philosophical thought. Bacon is often credited with the discovery of the scientific method, and his point of view helped to ignite empiricist thought.

“Of Truth” might be analyzed by examining the language in the essay and determining how Bacon’s meaning reflects his empiricist point of view. In the essay, he concludes that truth comes from God, while many people spread lies. Therefore,

it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.

Consistent with empiricist philosophy, he explains that the “Inquiry of truth,” not lies, is the proper direction for humankind and brings people closer to God.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can you please discuss and explain Sir Francis Bacon's essay "On Truth"?

A helpful discussion of Sir Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Truth” might begin by simply paraphrasing the argument of the essay.  Essentially, Bacon argues as follows:

  • Although there are few philosophical skeptics left, many human beings still seem to prefer the freedom to adopt their own views over the hard work of pursuing truth, since they consider truth constricting.
  • Human beings seem to have a natural disposition to want to lie.
  • To many people, simple truth never seems as attractive as appealing falsehoods.
  • People seem to take pleasure in lying.
  • The worst lies are those that take deep root in people’s minds.
  • The pursuit of truth is, or should be, “the sovereign good of human nature.” After all,

The first creature of God . . . was the light of the sense; the last was the light of reason.

  • To possess truth is like standing on a tall hill and observing the follies and errors of mankind below.
  • Yet we should pity those who lack truth rather than being proud of our superiority to them. Love of our fellow creatures is the true companion of truth.
  • Truthfulness should especially be valued in daily conduct; no sin is more shameful than lying.
  • Those who lie to others show their fear of other humans but their misguided bravery and foolish defiance in dealing with God.

Bacon’s essay is a typical reflection of Renaissance thought in a number of ways, including the following:

  • It draws both on Christian scriptures and on classical literature and classical philosophy to make its points. Since one of the main purposes of the Renaissance was to reconcile Christian truth with truths also apparent in the classics, Bacon is here writing as a typical “Renaissance man.”
  • Bacon clearly assumes that "truth" should be identified with the "truths" of Christianity.
  • It emphasizes that reason is one of the earliest and most important of all the gifts God gave to man, and it implies that reason should be used properly – that is, as a means of discovering truth.
  • It assumes, as most Renaissance Christians did, that humans are corrupt by nature (ultimately as a result of the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden).
  • However, it also assumes that humans have a moral and spiritual obligation to struggle against that corruption in order to pursue truth and thus discover and love God.
  • It emphasizes another of the key Christian virtues: charity, or love of other creatures as creatures made and loved by God.
  • It doesn’t merely discuss truth in the abstract, as a simple philosophical concept, but also discusses the importance of truth-telling and truthful behavior in daily life.  In other words, a main purpose of the essay is an ethical purpose, so that truth is linked with practical goodness.
  • It ends by implying that the ultimate judge of human conduct is and will be God, and that humans should always think of God first in forming their thoughts and behavior.
Last Updated on