Last Updated on September 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552
Sir Francis Bacon first published Essays in 1597. Bacon released a second expanded version of Essays in 1625, and it is this publication that most scholars read today. Consisting of fifty-eight short essays, Bacon's book explores an eclectic mix of philosophical, political, moral, and social questions. Bacon wrote at the dawn of the essay form and, along with his French contemporary Michel de Montaigne, is considered one of its inventors. Although each of Bacon's essays explores a different theme, there are broad patterns that can be used to summarize Bacon's work.
In Essays, the title of each composition is succinct and defines the topic of the essay. All except one of Bacon's titles begin with the preposition "Of," followed by the topic under examination in the essay. For example, "Of Truth" explores the objective nature of truth, as "Of Youth and Age" explores the dichotomies between the elderly and the young. "Of Empire" similarly probes the utility and morality of England's burgeoning empire. This makes it easy for a casual reader to select an essay of interest to them.
It is impossible to read Bacon without being impressed by his extensive knowledge on such a wide variety of topics. Bacon alludes to dozens of other influential philosophers, theologians, and political thinkers in his writing. For example, in his composition "Of Beauty," Bacon issues a caveat for one of his points with a variety of allusions:
But this holds not always: for Augustus Cæsar, Titus Vespasianus, Philip le Belle of France, Edward the Fourth of England, Alcibiades of Athens, Ismael, the sophy of Persia, were all high and great spirits, and yet the most beautiful men of their times.
Bacon assumes that his audience will be familiar with a wide cast of classical and medieval figures and regularly employs them as examples to illustrate his points.
Another common factor for Essays is that Bacon uses Latin extensively in his work. With a few exceptions, each of the fifty-eight compositions includes at least one use of a Latin phrase or a direct quote from a Roman philosopher or historian. For example, in the piece "Of Seeming Wise," Bacon writes,
Some are never without a difference and commonly by amusing men with a subtilty blanch the matter; of whom A. Gellius saith "hominem delirum, qui verborum, minutiis rerum frangit pondera."
Bacon presumes that his audience will have at least a rudimentary understanding of Latin. (The footnotes and endnotes usually provide translations in modern editions.)
One of the most interesting aspects of reading Essays in its entirety is the tonal shift from essay to essay. Bacon swings from deadly serious to jocular as he jumps from subject to subject. For example, his tone in "On Truth" is philosophical and academic. In "Of Marriage and Single Life," Bacon opens his essay with a lighthearted jab at family life:
He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.
Bacon's understated humor is partly why Essays remains so popular. These tonal shifts from subject to subject are important to bear in mind: not every essay is intended to be gravely serious. Bacon's essay anthology explores a variety of topics but never fails to raise insightful commentary on the social, political, and philosophical issues of his day.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535
Francis Bacon had many accomplishments. He was a scientist, a philosopher, and a politician, and he was adept, too, at taking bribes; for this he had been imprisoned. It is, however, as a literary man that he is perhaps best remembered, a writer so competent with the pen that for decades there have been some persons willing to argue that Bacon wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.
The essay form is rare in the modern age, although there are some faint signs of its revival. As Bacon used it, the essay is a carefully fashioned statement, both informative and expressive, by which a person comments on life and manners, on nature and its puzzles. The essay is not designed to win people to a particular cause or to communicate factual matter better put in scientific treatises. Perhaps that is one reason why it is not so popular in an age in which the truth of claims and their practical importance are always questioned.
The Essays first appeared, ten in number, in 1597. They were immediately popular because they were brief, lively, humane, and well-written. Perhaps they were effective in contrast to the rambling, florid prose written by most writers of the time. A considerable part of their charm lay in their civilized tone. In these essays, Bacon reveals himself as an inquisitive but also an appreciative man with wit enough to interest others. The first edition contained the following essays: “Of Studies,” “Of Discourse,” “Of Ceremonies and Respects,” “Of Followers and Friends,” “Of Suitors,” “Of Expense,” “Of Regiment of Health,” “Of Honour and Reputation,” “Of Faction,” and “Of Negociating.”
By 1612, the number of essays had been increased to thirty-eight, the earlier ones having been revised or rewritten. By the last edition, in 1625, the number was fifty-eight. Comparison of the earlier essays with those written later shows not only a critical mind at work but also a man made sadder and wiser, or at least different, by changes in fortune.
The essays concern themselves with such universal concepts as truth, death, love, goodness, friendship, fortune, and praise. They cover such controversial matters as religion, atheism, “the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” custom and education, and usury, and they consider such intriguing matters as envy, cunning, innovations, suspicion, ambition, praise, vainglory, and the vicissitudes of things.
The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, as they are called in the heading of the first essay, begins with an essay on truth entitled “Of Truth.” The title formula is always the same, simply a naming of the matter to be discussed, as, for example, “Of Death,” “Of Unity in Religion,” “Of Adversity,” “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.” One expects a sermon, and one is pleasantly surprised. Bacon uses his theme as a point of departure for a discussion of the charms of lying, trying to fathom the love of lying for its own sake. “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure,” he writes. This pleasure is ill-founded, however; it rests on error resulting from depraved judgment. Bacon reverses himself grandly: “ . . . truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.”
When it comes to death, Bacon begins by admitting that tales of death increase humanity’s natural fear of it, but he reminds the reader that death is not always painful. By references to Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, Vespasian, and others, Bacon shows that, even in their last moments, great men maintained their characters and composure. Death is natural, he concludes, and it has certain advantages: It opens the gate to good fame and puts an end to envy. The good man is in no fear of death because he has better things to do and think about, and, when he dies, he knows he has obtained “worthy ends and expectations.”
The essay “Of Adversity” is particularly interesting since it reflects Bacon’s own experience after imprisonment, the loss of friends and position, and enforced retirement. He writes, “Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; Adversity is the blessing of the New; which carrieth the greater benediction, and the clearer revelation of God’s favour.” Adversity puts life’s brighter moments into effective contrast, and it allows a person the chance to show his or her virtues.
Bacon is no casual essayist. One does not need the report of history to know that the essays as they are found are the product of numerous revisions. Sentences do not achieve a careful balance and rhythm accidentally, nor does a moment’s reflection provide apt allusions, pertinent Latin phrases, and witty turns of thought. The essay “Of Beauty” begins with a well-fashioned, complex statement: “Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set; and surely virtue is best in a body that is comely, though not of delicate features; and that hath rather dignity of presence, than beauty of aspect.” The essay continues by commenting on the sad fact that beauty and virtue are not always conjoined, but then Bacon remembers some noble spirits who were “the most beautiful men of their times”—Augustus Caesar, Titus Vespasianus, Philip le Bel of France, Edward the Fourth of England, Alcibiades of Athens, and Ismael the Sophy of Persia. Then he comes to a striking thought in a simple line: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”
Although appreciative of beauty, Bacon is modern in his appreciation of use. “Houses are built to live in,” he writes in the essay “Of Building,” “therefore let use be preferred before uniformity, except where both may be had.” He is aware of the importance of location; he warns the reader to be wary of an “ill seat” for his house and mentions in particular the discomfort that results from building a house in a hollow of ground surrounded by high hills. So aware is he of the mistakes that a builder can make that Bacon follows a catalog of dangers and difficulties with a charming and involved description of an ideal dwelling: a place for entertaining, a place for dwelling, and the whole a beautiful construction of rooms for various uses, courts, playing fountains—all of large, but proper dimensions, and built to take account of summer sun and winter cold.
Although there is a prevailing moral character to the essays so that, in retrospect, they seem to be a series of beautiful commands to erring spirits, there is enough of wisdom, education, humor, and common sense in them to save the author from the charge of moral arrogance. For example, Bacon does not begin his essay on anger by declaring how shameful anger is; he says instead, “To seek to extinguish Anger utterly is but a bravery of the Stoics.” He then gives practical advice. To calm anger there is no other way but to consider the effects of anger, to remember what it has done in the past. To repress particular angry acts, Bacon advises the reader to let time pass in the belief that the opportunity for revenge will come later, and he particularly warns against the bitterness of words and the doing of any irrevocable act.
In writing of atheism, Bacon combines philosophical argument with moral persuasion and intensity of expression. If it seems strange that a scientist, the father of induction, should so easily accept the teachings of traditional Christianity, it is only because one tends to think of people as playing single roles and as living apart from their times. In any case, Bacon’s philosophical skill was most at evidence in scientific matters, and there is no more reason to expect that he would be adept at philosophizing about religion than to expect that he should have anticipated Albert Einstein’s reflections about science. The essay contains the famous line: “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s mind about to religion.”
Although the essays naturally reflect a lifetime of experience, they do so in general, not in particular. One looks in vain for reports of adventures and misadventures at court—and Bacon had many of both. His ideas sound a bit like those of Niccolò Machiavelli in his essay on simulation and dissimulation, but there are no personal references to events in which he was involved and from which he acquired the knowledge imparted here. Nor would one suspect that Bacon was one of the leading scientific minds of his age; he discourses on friendship, parents and children, gardens, study, and the rest, as a gentle, humane scholar. One realizes that in the Essays Bacon gave up the roles that ambition made him play. In his contemplative moments, he sought to satisfy a twofold goal: to present the wisdom of his living, the wisdom that comes from experience and reflection on it, and to make this presentation by means of a style designed to be economical and ornamental at the same time.