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

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In "Of Studies," Francis Bacon argues that studies are useful for "delight," "ornament," and "ability." In Bacon's view, studies help enrich life for both enjoyment and practical purposes. However, Bacon also believes that moderation is necessary for studies to be most useful. One shouldn't study so much that it distracts them from actually applying their studies and living.

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Bacon begins this essay by arguing that studies are good for a number of reasons: "for delight, for ornament, and for ability." In other words, studying makes a man happy, enjoyable to be around, and competent to participate in the society of other educated men. Bacon is suggesting that a balanced program of study makes a person complete and well-rounded. He goes on to argue that books, and study more broadly, teach people not just to read, but to observe the world as a whole. He is not arguing that study should be pursued for its own sake alone. Rather, he claims that a balanced and critical approach to reading actually teaches people how to understand and learn about the world.

Employing a metaphor that characterizes books as food, Bacon writes that some books should be digested, others picked over, and still others simply "tasted." Nor does he claim that reading only in one area is useful—in fact, he sees it as harmful. One should read and study in accordance with one's own needs, to meet one's own deficiencies. Moreover, reading is not necessarily useful unless put into practice. Bacon writes that "reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man." Without conversing with others about one's studies, and without the ability to write about them, learning will not "stick." Studies are, then, an important part of a balanced life.

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While men who have worldly experience may be turned to for insight and plans pertaining to events that come up in the course of everyday affairs, men who have partaken of courses of study are invaluable when a broader perspective is needed. The benefit of studies, Bacon suggests, is that they afford the man who undertakes them (and, yes, Bacon does refer to "men" in this context, although it should be noted that his mother, Lady Anne Bacon, was a distinguished scholar herself) with the capacity to generalize in light of a longterm view of things.

At the same time, Bacon takes care to note that the broad, longterm view of things afforded by study needs to be supplemented by worldly experience. Here, he is thinking of the particular needs of the education suited for statesmanship.

Bacon's essay on studies gives only a partial glimpse of his ambitious plan for the advancement of human knowledge. It should be kept in mind that he wrote the essays not so much for scholars as for would-be statesmen, court officials, and the like; hence, he emphasizes the need to refrain from studying in excess and to correct study with the counteracting forces of experience and exercise.

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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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What is your personal opinion after reading Francis Bacon's essay "Of Studies"?

For a number of reasons, this is a difficult question to answer. For one thing, it is unclear what the “opinion” is supposed to be about?  Is it supposed to be about Bacon’s essay “Of Studies”? Or is it supposed to be about the topic of “study” in and of itself?  Finally, since you are supposed to express you own personal opinion, no one attempting to answer this question can do that for you.

If you are responding to “Of Studies” itself, you might consider such issues as the following:

  • How is the essay effectively written? For example, how and why is the opening sentence effective?
  • How does Bacon implicitly present himself in this essay?  Why should you believe him or find him a trustworthy advisor?
  • What kinds of evidence does he present in order to support his arguments? What kinds of sources does he draw on?
  • How is the essay organized? Does its organization have any effect on its success?
  • Is the style of the essay accessible?  In other words, can you easily understand what the essay is saying?
  • If you had to paraphrase the essay (that is, rewrite it in your own words), what would you write? What features of the essay might make the essay difficult to paraphrase?
  • What kind of studying does Bacon himself seem to have done? What is the evidence for such studying?
  • What, in Bacon’s opinion, is the ultimate purpose of studying?
  • What does Bacon mean, exactly, when he makes the following concluding statement?:

So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.

If you are responding to the topic of “studying” in its own right (or in response to Bacon), here are some issues you might consider:

  • How do your own views of studying resemble Bacon’s?
  • How do your own views of studying differ from Bacon’s?
  • How would you justify any differences between your views and his?
  • Are Bacon’s ideas still relevant, or are they relics of an earlier time?
  • How have methods of study changed since Bacon’s time?  What resources are available to us that were not available to him? How is studying easier today than it was in the seventeenth century?
  • What, in your opinion, is the ultimate purpose of studying?
  • Do you think that there are different ways of studying and that these different ways can be equally effective?
  • What are some problems with the ways we study today?
  • How can present-day studying be improved?
  • Do you agree or disagree (and why) with the following famous statement from the essay?:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested . . . .

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