Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Essays of Francis Bacon

Source of book: I own this.

“If the Hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.” The earliest this proverb appears is in this work, Essays, by Francis Bacon. It is one of many that have entered the common knowledge - and yet the witticisms are not Bacon’s primary contribution to the world of thought. 

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban, was quite the polymath. He served as Attorney General under King James I (making him roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare), served in Parliament, and contributed to philosophy, science, and literature. During his lifetime, he was considered to be the one who established the essay form, although later generations have acknowledged his debt to Montaigne and Aristotle who also utilized the basic idea.

However, one can truthfully say that Bacon was the founder of the Scientific Method. It was he who advocated for the switch from science as “natural philosophy,” best advanced through logical thought, to an empirical discipline, where careful observation, experimentation, and testing were rigorously employed. To say that this was revolutionary would be to gravely understate the scope of the change.

The Aristotelian view of science as a purely intellectual pursuit, unsullied by the dross of experimentation, had prevailed for 2000 years, but it had let to a lot of error. To quote David Weintraub (How Old Is The Universe, reviewed here), “Aristotle’s logic and reasoning were elegant, sophisticated, powerful, and regrettably also wrong.”

To Bacon, one must use the senses, not just the intellect. One must test. One must ruthlessly eliminate biases. And thus would truth be discovered.

In addition to his scientific endeavors, Bacon also promoted a number of ideas which would become central to the Enlightenment and to the founding of the United States. (Jefferson named him, along with Locke and Newton as those who most influenced his ideas.)

Essays was Bacon’s first published book, the first edition coming out in 1597. He continued to add to the book through 1625, which is the final edition most of us know. He considered it a bit of a trifle compared with his other works and pursuits. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most important and influential books of its time - and indeed any time.

The essays cover a wide variety of topics, from musings on truth, fame, and friendship to practical ideas for statecraft and international policy. He intentionally keeps his ideas broad and widely applicable rather than specific to his time and circumstances.

To me, the collection was fascinating for the combination of ideas that sound impossibly archaic with ones that still resonate in the 21st Century. On the one hand, he casually accepts the inferiority of women and monarchy as the natural form of government. But he also advocates for reducing the number and power of wealthy nobles, freedom of speech and thought, and separation of religion from state power.

There are a number of quotes that really stood out to me.

In “Of Unity In Religion,” he warns against the use of temporal power in the name of religion. I found it interesting that, while he disliked the idea of the government using religion, he was equally or more appalled by the idea of religion becoming a weapon of the masses in revolution and in rage against those who do not share their beliefs.

It was great blasphemy, when the devil said, I will ascend, and be like the highest; but it is greater blasphemy, to personate God, and bring him in saying, I will descend, and be like the prince of darkness; and what it is better, to make the cause of religion to descend, to the cruel and execrable actions of murthering princes, butchery of people, and subversion of states and governments? Surely this is to bring down the Holy Ghost, instead of the likeness of a dove, in the shape of a vulture or raven; and set, out of the bark of a Christian church, a flag of a bark of pirates, and assassins.

It’s hard to find a better condemnation of  “in the name of God, harm” than the changing of the Spirit from a dove to a vulture. (This sure seems applicable today to both “Corporations WILL be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ or else” and to “LGBTQ people should be denied housing and employment and health care.” Vultures one and all.) As Bacon notes, the problem is the exercise of temporal power in service of this corrupted religion.

Bacon’s relationship to women was a bit, shall we say, complicated. While there has been speculation that he was gay, the evidence is sorely lacking. From what I can tell, a verdict of assexuality is better supported. Or, it could be that a couple of early experiences turned him sour on women altogether. The first was his first love, Elizabeth Hatton, a young widow who dumped him for a wealthier man. And not just any man, she married Edward Coke, Bacon’s mortal enemy throughout his life. Later, Coke would successfully drive Bacon from his public position. Bacon tried again at love later, marrying Alice Barnham. (Just an indication of the time he lived in: He was 45, she was 14.) It was not a happy marriage. She seems to have felt he didn’t make enough money to support the lifestyle she grew up in, and she eventually cheated on him. They never had children. So, not much positive there for Bacon.

So, with that in mind, here are some interesting lines from “Of Marriage and Single Life.”

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

“Hostages to fortune” is one of the lines that originated with Bacon, by the way. It is the second one, however, that I think has a real ring of truth about it.

Chaste women are often proud and froward, as presuming upon the merit of their chastity.

As a divorce attorney, I have to say heck yes! While violent marriages are the worst, the second worst is the one where the wife was a virgin on the honeymoon and has never let him forget it. I could write an entire post on the way that Purity Culture has conflated virtue in females with sexual purity, and lied to them that they are specially entitled to wealth, happiness, and service from their husbands because of their hymens.

One more line, quite sour:

Wives are young men’s mistresses; companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses.

Later, in “Of Love,” he expresses a general disdain for romantic love.

The stage is more beholding to love, than the life of man. For as to the stage, love is ever matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies; but in life it doth much mischief; sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury.

One final one comes from “Of Friendship,” which is generally quite good, musing on the need for a true confidant, an equal, to who one can unburden and also count on for unbiased advice. He captures the difficulty of kings (and indeed the powerful) in finding true friends, not those looking for advantage. But there is one problem, which is one that has been considered to be an unquestioned truth through most of human history:

A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.

It hardly need be said that my own experience contradicts this. Indeed, the idea of “but as a husband” is really meaningless. “Husband” to me does not mean superiority of station, higher authority, or - what was near-universally believed throughout history - a natural superiority in every way to a woman. Instead, husband means that we are equals, that we are friends, and that we may indeed speak freely with each other. Perhaps this is the most profound way in which Feminism has made my life immeasurably better.

I don’t want to create the impression that Bacon is all like this. The fact is, these are memorable lines, and they stand out because they are a bit dated.

The short essay “On Studies” is quite good. Here is the best part:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

That first clause is in fact why I really loathe the whole endeavor of apologetics: it is reading merely to contradict and refute someone else’s position, not to learn for learning’s sake. The second pretty much describes the way most people read political writing: to find confirmation of their biases. The third has perhaps fallen out of style along with discourse in general. And it is incredibly rare to find those who read truly to weigh and consider different points of view. That is, reading with an open mind to find truth, not to confirm one’s own opinion and arm oneself for battle against those with a different perspective.

The passage goes on to say:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

This too is true. I don’t necessarily read through every source for everything. I do seek out primary sources, but not everything requires a full study. I do not need, for example, all of Josephus to confirm one incident he writes about. The rest may be interesting, but not necessary. Other books are more for fun than study. I don’t look to P. G. Wodehouse for profundity, although he does have a sharp eye for human foibles. But there are others which require careful attention and full diligence. Might I recommend, for example, The Better Angels Of Our Nature by Steven Pinker as one that many people I know would be well advised to digest thoroughly before asserting badly uninformed opinions about the glories of the past.

Another great essay is “Of Riches.” It begins thus:

I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue. The Roman word is better, impedimenta. For as the baggage is to an army, so is riches to virtue. It cannot be spared, nor left behind, but it hindereth the march; yea, and the care of it, sometimes loseth or disturbeth the victory. Of great riches there is no real use, except it be in the distribution; the rest is but conceit.

So many good things here. Riches do indeed impede the development of virtue. Sadly, our modern American belief is that riches are evidence of virtue, which is pretty much the opposite of how Christ (and the prophets) appeared to view them. As evidence of oppression of others and an impediment to entering the Kingdom of God. But we prefer to worship wealth - and the wealthy. The second point is good too: once riches exceed a certain amount, they don’t really benefit the rich person. They are of no true usefulness. Once one has shelter, food, healthcare, and some basics, the rest is all about bragging of what one has.

I also want to mention in this connection, a thought from “Of The True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates” The essay is broader than this one point, touching on a variety of issues related to why states are great and how they can attain or preserve greatness. But this one is interesting and applies well to our modern times:

Let states that aim at greatness, take heed how their nobility and gentlemen do multiply too fast. For that maketh the common subject, grow to be a peasant and base swain, driven out of heart, and in effect but the gentleman’s laborer.

Hmm, let’s think about our own times, where inequality is growing at a rapid pace, while real wages for all except those at the top have declined. Too many people at the top with status and wealth - and who don’t really have to work at common labor. Those lower down becoming in essence laborers to preserve the wealth and privilege of those higher up. Nope, not at ALL like what we have seen in the last 40 years. We in the US tend to think we don’t have class distinctions. Like hell we don’t. We just pretend we don’t have castes.

Another interesting observation comes in “Of Great Place,” which addresses good governance and how to avoid corruption.

For corruption: do not only bind thine own hands, or thy servants’ hands, from taking, but bind the hands of suitors also, from offering For integrity used doth the one; but integrity professed, and with a manifest detestation of bribery, doth the other.

Words to ponder when we talk about campaign finance and other related topics. Bacon continues:

And avoid not only the fault, but the suspicion. Whosoever is found variable, and changeth manifestly without manifest cause, giveth suspicion of corruption. Therefore always, when thou changest thine opinion or course, profess it plainly, and declare it, together with the reasons that move thee to change; and do not think to steal it.

On the one level, this is the question that should be directed at every politician who flip flops on an issue. See, I understand changing one’s mind. I’ve changed a lot in the last 20 years. If you follow my blog, I really try to explain the ways I have changed, and why. But that is much different from changing because it benefits you.

But I want to carry this one further. This doesn’t just apply to politicians. It applies to all of us. Do we change our positions because the change is genuine? Or because it benefits us to change?

One of the things that has just burned me this past election is to see “Christian” leader after leader explain why when Bill Clinton was president, sexual peccadilloes were the end of the world, a total and absolute disqualification for office. And now, when someone who brags about sexual assault and going into teen girls’ changing rooms to gratify his lust and thirst for power is somehow not just acceptable, but the last hope of Christianity, I have to ask, are you going to admit your change in position? Are you going to explain why you changed your mind?

Of course not. Because the reality is damning. They haven’t really changed their mind in any defensible way. There has been no epiphany. And they will go right back to their former position as soon as it benefits them. Because the only thing that changed is the letter after the last name of the candidate. And what does that mean? That the one promised them political power and the other didn’t. All the flip flopping has proven is that these “Christian” leaders never really gave a rat’s ass about character. It was always about political power. Their political power. And their actions have proven them to be corrupt to the core.

One final essay I want to mention - although there are many other excellent ones - is “Of Seditions And Troubles.” Bacon was, as I have noted, a monarchist, and he hated the idea of civil unrest. I tend to share the second of these, as I am temperamentally inclined toward peace rather than revolution. This whole essay is outstanding, for a number of reasons.

First is his insight that civil unrest is commonly greatest “when things grow to equality.” One of the things I have noticed as I have studied history is that there has been a reaction every time there has been a milestone in racial equality. (This is by no means original to me, of course. But once I read about it, it was interesting how well it fit.) So, after the Civil War freed the slaves, there was a violent reaction to Reconstruction. The first iteration of the KKK formed and terrorized the former slaves. The South enacted a series of laws which established Jim Crow and poll taxes, and so on. Likewise, the second wave of the KKK (beginning in 1915) was a reaction against growing immigration from Catholic countries, increased urbanization, and...wait for it...a perceived loss of political clout to Southern white males. (Notably, working women were a target of this movement. Get them back in the home where they belong…) The third KKK arose during the Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and the rise of the Religious Right were in direct response to the enactment of civil rights laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act. In my own time, it is no accident that the first African American president has been followed by an outpouring of racial hatred, with White Supremacists openly cheering the perceived triumph of their political goals. Bacon was right, there is a reaction to growing equality, and civil unrest follows.

Bacon goes on to say that a symptom of this unrest is libels against the state. That is, false claims about the state. Perhaps, um, conspiracy theories? Guess what has become the stock and trade of the fringe elements of both sides lately? This crap keeps popping up in my Facebook feed, from people who really should know better.

Bacon is absolutely correct, though. These are symptoms, not causes. He also is correct that the worst thing to do is to suppress them. Nothing makes them linger more than active suppression. On the other hand, Bacon advocates despising these false ideas. Show them contempt.

I’ll just hit on the rest of it. Bacon notes (correctly) that a main cause of civil unrest is poverty. He mentions two kinds: first, the impoverishment of the “better sort.” By this he means the lesser nobility and larger landowners: the middle to upper middle class, as it were. Second, the lack of necessities for the lower classes. He considers the combination of both of these to be the worst possible danger. This is what violent revolutions spring from. (See, for example, the French Revolution and the Communist Revolutions.) Bacon warns in the strongest terms that a wise prince will not ignore either of these, but will take action before it is too late.

More good stuff: Bacon warns strongly against letting wealth and power accumulate in the hands of a few. He even advises the use of luxury taxes to curb the excesses of the rich. He warns against quick changes to laws, particularly those affecting religion or custom. Finally, he notes that lasting peace comes when the rulers have a good reputation, and not when they are popular and bombastic. Dang, maybe we should have thought about that recently, yes?

Seriously, the whole essay is great. It will probably appeal to those of the center-right like me, who value a basically conservative outlook, but who see grave danger in inequality and ostentation. Address the problems before they get bad, aggressively work to keep wealth and power spread as broadly as possible, and seek to use good judgment rather than demagoguery.

Because of its age, this book is best read a little at a time. The language (as is obvious from the quotes) is archaic. Even I had to look a few words up from time to time. I will also note that Bacon assumes the reader knows Latin and French, as he quotes from it often. Google is your friend in this endeavor, although many of the quotes can be figured out if you have a passing knowledge of Latin roots.

By modern standards, Bacon may seem a man of the past. But it is worth remembering that without Bacon, we would not be who we are today. We take for granted that his most revolutionary ideas are true. Indeed, they are the ideas that the Enlightenment was built on, and on which rest much of our modern world.

Postscript: The truth of the story has been disputed, and there is little direct evidence either way. But here it goes: Bacon died at age 65 of pneumonia. This much is undisputed. One of his early biographers wrote that he caught said pneumonia while attempting a scientific experiment on the preservation of meat. To wit, he was testing whether chickens could be kept preserved by filling their bodies with snow. In an era when refrigeration was unknown, and germ theory itself wouldn’t be proposed for another quarter century - indeed, germ theory wouldn’t be accepted for nearly three hundred years! - Bacon was on to one of the revolutionary ideas of modern life that we take for granted. I can purchase food, and it will keep easily for a week. If I freeze it, it can last years. And I won’t get sick when I eat it. This is the true stuff of revolution. Alas, Bacon succumbed to those germs that hadn’t been discovered, and his death was blamed on a chill, which probably wasn’t as much of a factor as his old age (for the era).


  1. I appreciate the fact that I can count on you to read and digest books that I would find interesting but don't take the time to read. Thanks for this neat summary of Bacon's writings.

  2. That line about making the Holy Ghost into a vulture is awesome.

    "Just an indication of the time he lived in: He was 45, she was 14."

    Interestingly (and I'm sure you know this), 14yos getting married gets lots of press, and it did happen in the past, but it wasn't necessarily as common as people think. I learned this when I ran across Mormons trying to justify Joseph Smith's 14yo wife (though IIRC it's unclear whether that one was ever consummated). "Everybody did that!" They didn't, actually. In the US average age at first marriage, since it was recorded directly (which is since the late 1800s - and even before then you can get an idea from other sources), didn't drop below 20 for women until the 1950s, when it fell to ~19. Then in the 1960s it popped back up over 20. Men have always been 20+. Because honestly, if children are one of the goals of marriage, then there's not actually any reason to marry a 14yo except $$$, esp. since menarche used to happen much later.

    "It will probably appeal to those of the center-right like me, who value a basically conservative outlook, but who see grave danger in inequality and ostentation. Address the problems before they get bad, aggressively work to keep wealth and power spread as broadly as possible, and seek to use good judgment rather than demagoguery."

    And again, as I'm sure you know, this would get you branded a radical progressive Leftist by at least half the base of the GOP. That part about working to keep wealth and power spread around is MARXISM, ya know. Some people just work harder than others. *vomit*

    1. Re the last point: no kidding. Things have sure changed at the GOP since I was a kid thrilled to see Ronald Reagan up close.

      I agree with your point about child marriage during the Victorian Era - definitely not as common as many believe. I have found a lot more evidence of it from the 1500s, though.

      As far as why? Well, a 14 year old very likely to be a virgin. Or, perhaps as much to the point, if she isn't menstruating, she almost certainly isn't pregnant with another man's child. Get her locked up before she is tainted, so you don't have to worry about wasting your resources raising another man's DNA, right?

  3. It could have been, I haven't specifically researched it as much that far back. I'd be interested to know how class played into it, i.e. was it more or less common among peasants or the nobility. Certainly there were noble/royal marriages that happened very young.

    And it's not as if it completely went away later. I home transcribe (American) genealogical records for FamilySearch and occasionally I come across a 13yo or 14yo bride post-1900 or in the very late 1800s. Very rare, but it did happen. This is why I've wondered whether there should be parental permission exceptions to age of consent laws.

    I just always feel compelled to point out that this wasn't "normal" (at least not in the 1800s) because I've heard so many advocates for early marriage in the homeschool movement. "Oh, everybody would have been starting a family by 16 back in frontier days!" And then there was the dude who came on my blog and called me a legalist for saying 12yos shouldn't get married...

    1. I think the *last* thing we need is parental consent laws. Just my legal experience, they seem to be in practice "parental coercion" laws. Obviously for fundies looking to marry 'em off young. But more commonly when the girl gets pregnant. Solve the problem by having her marry, right? (That actually is how they did it in the 1950s and in colonial times...)

    2. Looking at this again, I phrased that really badly. I meant whether we should even allow there to be exceptions at all for people under the age of consent, i.e. no, parents, I don't care if you're okay with it, it's illegal to get married at 14, period. I can't think of any positive situations that would involve someone that age getting married anyway. It seems like giving parents a special opt-out asterisk after the age of consent because well, they felt like it.

    3. I forgot to include a point I had intended to: Here in CA, there is (technically) no minimum age for marriage. However, minors must jump through a number of hoops to get there. First, either parental consent or proof that the parents aren't in the picture. Second, permission from the court. As part of this process, there is an evaluation (usually by the juvenile probation department) and mandatory premarital counseling. On a case where I explored the issue, the probation officer who does this in my county said they will never recommend it for someone under 16, and expect that there be a plan in place to finish high school, support the family (both genders) and so on. It's a high bar to reach, and very few are approved in practice.

      I find it interesting that CA doesn't have the minimum age that many states do, but then makes up for it by making marriage difficult.

  4. Great post. I really enjoyed it. I never thought about that aspect of the purity culture that you mentioned, that is the virgin wife holding her 'purity' over her husband's head, and also as an entitlement to wealth and prosperity.

    I also suspect that another reason people accumulate wealth is so that they don't have to work, which is why they seek to accumulate wealth beyond the basic necessities. I agree with you though that the rise in inequality will no doubt cause problems down the track.

    I'm going to have to keep an eye out for this book.