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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,437 words.)