What is the message in "Of Youth and Age"?

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Francis Bacon's essay "Of Youth and Age," like many of his other essays, explores two sides of the same coin, that is, the benefits and detriments of youth as opposed to those of "age," by which he means those who are past the "meridian" of their age. In the...

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Francis Bacon's essay "Of Youth and Age," like many of his other essays, explores two sides of the same coin, that is, the benefits and detriments of youth as opposed to those of "age," by which he means those who are past the "meridian" of their age. In the sixteenth century in England, the average life expectancy was about 35, with men living longer than women because so many women died in childbirth. So, when Bacon refers to men of "age," he is most likely thinking of men in their 40s and early 50s, and "youth" applies to men under 25.

Bacon argues that men under the "meridian" of their age (perhaps 25-28), especially those who are subject to "violent desires and perturbations," are completely unfit to take significant actions, and he alludes to a comment on the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus to the effect that he spent his youth in folly and madness. Bacon extends his criticism to all young men, however, when he says that they

... embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees ... care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first, and, that which doubleth all errors.

In other words, young men move too quickly and without planning to accomplish a goal, creating double the errors they might otherwise make. On the other hand, Bacon points out, young men are "fitter to invent, than to judge, fitter for execution than for counsel," and better suited to take on "new projects than settled business." You would not go to a young man for investment advice, but you would ask him to start a new company for you.

Although Bacon acknowledges that "heat and vivacity" in older men are effective attributes in conducting the business of the world, older men carry as many negative qualities as the young:

Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but commit themselves with a mediocrity of success.

In general, youthful men take too many risks, and older men take too few risks and are satisfied with reasonable, but not stunning, success. Bacon creates a dichotomy that seems unresolvable if there is no achievable reconciliation between the impetuousness of youth and the caution of age.

Bacon, who is well known for his instruction in how to get along in the world, quickly presents a solution:

Certainly it is good to compound employments of both [youth and age], for that will be good for the present because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both; and good for succession, that young men may be learners while men of age are actors.

If we were to look at other Bacon essays—for example, "Of Studies" or "On Writing"—we would see that uppermost in Bacon's thoughts is how one can successfully live and thrive in sixteenth-century England, and this essay presents a workable solution to the negative consequences of youthful recklessness and the equally poor results of older men's unwillingness to take risk.

At the essay's end, Bacon acknowledges that older men have an advantage in understanding and navigating politics but young men have a stronger claim on morality or ethical behavior. He quotes "a certain Rabbi" who, in turn, is quoting from the New Testament (Acts 2:17)—"Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams." Bacon sees this as an indication that "young men are admitted nearer to God than old because vision is a clearer revelation than a dream." Older men, because they have more experience in the world, understand the world better, but that experience takes them further from the source of ideal morality, which comes from God to the young through visions.

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To my mind, the most prominent message in Bacon's essay, "On Youth and Age," is that the young and the elderly, by virtue of the number of their years, enjoy distinct strengths and weaknesses which, on their own will only ever be half as useful as when combined with those of the other group. The strengths of the young are offset by their weaknesses, but those weaknesses can be remedied, or negated in combination with the strengths of the elderly. In this sense, the young and the elderly are like the yin and the yang in the Chinese philosophical concept of dualism. Two seemingly opposite forces are in fact complementary, and interdependent. As Bacon puts it, "the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both."

For example, the young, Bacon says, "have much heat and great and violent desires and perturbations . . . not ripe for action," whereas the elderly "doth profit rather in the powers of understanding, than in the virtues of the will." In other words, the young have the passion for action but not the "powers of understanding" to fully or properly execute the action. And one can reverse the formula to the same effect. The elderly have the "powers of understanding" but not the "heat" of desire to carry through the act.

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This essay argues that the typical traits of youth and age complement each other. He states, for example:

Young men are fitter to invent than to judge; fitter for execution than for counsel; and fitter for new projects than for settled business.

Throughout the essay, Bacon goes back and forth between the attributes and deficits of youth and age. A fault of youth, he says, is that it is too impulsive. Youth rushes into action heedless of consequences and tends to go to extremes. A fault of age, however, is the opposite tendency to be too cautious and hesitant and to therefore to settle for mediocrity rather than greatness.

On the positive side of youth and age, youthful people tend to be popular, while older people tend to have authority. Youth has enthusiasm and a fire for life; old age, on the other hand has experience and better judgment.

Bacon does use stereotypes about youth and age, but, to his credit, is generous to both. He does not say one is altogether superior to the other, but that both have different kinds of value to offer.

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Bacon's essay contrasts the imagination, energy, and willingness to take risks of young men with the opposite traits found in the aged: caution, indecision, and understanding.

Bacon recognizes that both age groups have strengths and weaknesses, evident in this quotation:

Certainly it is good to compound employments of both; for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both.

Bacon observes that the capacity of the young to learn perhaps exceeds that of their elders, and that they also have the passion and fire to support their desires, but notes that postponing action until acquiring the wisdom that comes with age served both "Julius Cæsar and Septimius Severus."

Bacon admits that in some ways this argument is a zero sum game; for example, young men tend to act boldly and heedlessly and earn the errors they make, while old men's actions are marked by hesitations and half measures that also bring unsatisfactory results, but more opposite reasons.

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