Monday, August 8, 2011
Bacon as a Writer of Essays
Monday, August 8, 2011 by Faizan Bhatti
Tags: M.A. English
Question: “They come home to men’s business and bosoms.” How far is this an apt description of the essays of Bacon? Illustrate your answer.
Question: Account for the great appeal of Bacon’s essays.
Question: Write a general note on Bacon as a writer of essays.
Answer: A glance at the titles of Bacon’s essays shows that, although quite a number of these essays were written for the benefit of kings, rulers courtiers, and statesmen, a fairly large number of them were written on subjects of popular interest. Essays Of Seditions and Troubles, Of Empire, Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estatus, Of Suitors and Of Judicature belong to the former variety. But essays like Of Truth, Of Death, Of Revenge, Of Adversity, Of Parents and Children, Of Marriage and Single Life, Of Travel, and Of Friendship, deal with familiar subjects which make an immediate appeal to the average reader. Essays of this category certainly come home to men’s business and bosoms.
One important reason for the popular appeal of Bacon’s essays is that the ideas which he expresses are by no means deeply philosophical or abstruse. If the ideas were of an abstract or metaphysical nature, the average reader would not respond to them. But these are ideas which might be expressed by any man of ripe wisdom and vast experience of the world.
Secondly, Bacon illustrates and reinforces his ideas and arguments with appropriate similes, metaphors and quotations. These similes, metaphors and quotations naturally add to the popular appeal of the essays. Thirdly, Bacon frequently speaks in his essays as a moralist. Although people do not generally like too much of sermonising and preaching, yet judicious doses of morality are not only willingly accepted by readers but are positively welcome to them. Moral precepts and maxims embodying wisdom give the readers a feeling that they are becoming wise and morally nobler. They may not act upon the ethical principles which Bacon enunciates in his essays, but they derive a certain moral satisfaction by reading them and by appreciating their soundness.
Lastly, Bacon’s essays come home to men’s business and bosoms because of the condensed and pithy state in which he mostly writes. Again and again, the reader comes upon an aphoristic or epigrammatic sentence which startles and arrests him by its neatness and pregnancy. These are many gems of thought clothed in language that is effective because of its compactness and terseness.
Take the essay, Of Truth. It contains several ideas which immediately appeal to the reader because of their obvious truth to human nature. The reader quickly responds to such ideas because he at once recognises their validity. For instance, Bacon here tells us that human beings are generally attracted by lies. Lies told by poets in their poetry please the imagination; lies told by traders bring them financial gain; but why people should tell lies for the sake of lies is not clear. Bacon then goes on to say that truth gives greater pleasure when a lie has been added to it. If a man were to be deprived of his false opinions, false hopes, and false judgments, he would feel miserable.
Having expressed these views, Bacon speaks like a moralist and says that much harm is done by lies which sink into the mind and settle down there. Truth is the supreme good for human beings, he says. He quotes Lucretius who said that the greatest pleasure for a man was the realisation of truth. Continuing this moralising tone, Bacon says that truth is important not only in theological and philosophical fields, but also in the sphere of ordinary daily life. Falsehood, he says, brings nothing but disgrace. Now such ideas are bound to appeal even to a reader who, in his actual dealings, does not give a high place to truth.
Then there is the essay, Of Friendship. Who would not be interested in this subject? Bacon tells us some of the uses of friendship, illustrating his ideas with historical references to Sulla, Julius Caesar; Augustus Caesar, Tiberius Caesar, and Septimius Severus. He utters a psychological truth when he says that a man’s joy is greatly increased when he speaks about it to a friend and that his grief is greatly diminished when he imparts it to a friend. This essay also contains useful advice. For instance, Bacon asks us not to take counsel “by pieces” from all and sundry but to take it only from a friend who has been found to be sincere. An essay on the subject of friendship is bound to come home to men’s bosoms especially because the ideas expressed by Bacon confirm the reader’s own ideas on this subject.
The essay, Of Great Place, does not have the same popular appeal as the two essays mentioned above, Of Great Place appeals chiefly to men in high places. It is very useful for persons of this category. Bacon offers very sound advice to those occupying high positions, and warms them against the chief vices of authority. Here, too, Bacon lends weight to his argument with reference to two Roman emperors—Galba and Vespasian. Bacon gives advice that is practical when he says that a man may take side when he is still struggling to rise but that, having risen to a high position, he should become neutral. This essay, too, throws much light on human nature whereby it greatly adds to our knowledge. Here, again, Bacon appears as a moralist.
The essay, Of Studies, is extremely interesting. Here, again Bacon deals with a subject of popular interest. Bacon not only indicates the principal uses of studies but also tells us why and how we should read. Who can fail to appreciate Bacon’s remark that the wisdom gained from books is not enough but that it should be supplemented with practical experience of life?
Of Marriage and Single Life deals with the advantages and disadvantages of both the married and the single life. Here is an essay which cannot fail to interest either the married man or the single man. Bacon makes some interesting observations about the nature and behaviour of women in this essay. A chaste woman, he rightly says, feels proud of her chastity. A wife is faithful and obedient to her husband if she is impressed with his wisdom. No jealous husband can command his wife’s respect. It would be difficult for any reader to find fault with such observations. Indeed, the ideas expressed in this essay can be understood and appreciated even by the most ordinary reader. Bacon’s analysis of human nature here, as in his other essays, corresponds to well-known facts.
The essay, Of Suitors, pertains chiefly to conditions which prevailed in Bacon’s day. In spite of that, this essay has its value in our time also. It is full of worldly wisdom. It contains useful advice for those who undertake suits, for suitors, and for patrons. Bacon does not preach any ideal morality here. He is concerned only with how to achieve success in the undertaking of suits or in the promoting of suits. However, he does not show a complete disregard of morality. That is the kind of thing most readers want.
Much of the popularity of Bacon’s essays, as has already been indicated above, is due to his compact style. Many are the sentences in his essays that have the character of proverbs because such sentences express wisdom neatly in a pithy manner. A few examples of Bacon’s epigrammatic style will illustrate the great charm which his essays possess because of this particular quality of style.
1. “Certainly it is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the roles of truth.” (Of Truth)
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