What are Francis Bacon's views on studies in his essay "Of Studies"?

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

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Bacon's essay "Of Studies" is part of The Essayes or Counsels, Civil and Moral, of Francis Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Alban (London, 1625)

Bacon argues that studies "serve for Delight, for Ornament, and for Ability."  For delight, Bacon means one's personal, private education; for "Ornament," he means in conversation between and among others, which Bacon labels as "Discourse."  Studies for "Ability" lead one to judgment in business and related pursuits.  From Bacon's perspective, men with worldly experience can carry out plans and understand particular circumstances, but men who study are better able to understand important political matters and know how to deal with problem according to their severity ("Marshalling of Affairs").

At the same time Bacon encourages studies, he warns that 1) too much studying leads to laziness; 2) if one uses one's knowledge too often in conversation with others, then one is showing off; and 3) to be guided solely by one's studies one becomes a scholar rather than a practical man.  Bacon's argument about the value of studies is that moderation is the key to using studies appropriately: studies are wonderful only if influenced by experience because a person's natural abilities are enhanced by studies, but studies without experience, lead to confusion in dealing with the outside world.

According to Bacon, dishonest men condemn education; stupid men admire education; but wise men use education as their real world experience dictates.  He warns the educated man not to use his education to argument unnecessarily with people; not to assume that education always leads to the correct behavior or understanding; not to use education merely to focus on conversation with others.  Rather, Bacon argues, education ("some Bookes") should be read but their advice ignored; other books, ignored completely; and a few books are to be "Chewed and Digested," that is,  understood perfectly and used to guide behavior.  In addition, Bacon advises that some books can be read by others, who take notes, and the notes can substitute for reading an entire book--but these books should not be those that cover important subjects.

Bacon returns to addressing the effects of reading, conversation, and writing: reading creates a well-rounded man; conversation makes a man think quickly; and writing, by which Bacon usually means argument essay writing, makes a man capable of thinking with logic and reason.  Further, Bacon argues, if a man doesn't write very much, he has to have a good memory to compensate for what he doesn't write; if he doesn't exercise the art of conversation, he needs to have a quick wit; and if he doesn't read very much, he has to be able "to fake it," to pretend that he knows more than he does.

History, Bacon argues, makes men wise; poetry, clever; mathematics, intellectually sharp; logic and rhetoric, skilled in argument.  Further, Bacon believes that there is no problem in thinking that cannot be fixed by the appropriate study--just as the right physical exercise cures physical illnesses.  Every disorder of the mind has a cure--for example, if a man cannot use one set of facts to prove the truth of an un-related set of facts, Bacon advises the study of law.

Every defect in thinking can be cured by another form of study.

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