Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Essays of Sir Francis Bacon


The Essays of Sir Francis Bacon reads very much like a secret, although mostly benign, document for ruling the Western world in the age immediately following Elizabeth (as Bacon puts it, the post hempe period, an acronym which stands for Henry Edward Mary Philip and Elizabeth. The old wives' rhyming "prophecy" of the day was "When hempe is spun England is done."  Bacon points out, rather astutely in my opinion, that there is truth to the saying in that James followed and England became the British Empire.)  Although it should probably be noted that there was nothing secret about it.  Bacon lived an extremely public life (much to his eventual detriment. I'll leave that tidbit dangling for those who might be tantalized into further investigating Bacon's fascinating biography.  Don't miss his place on the list of scientists killed by their own experiments!)  The book is simply the accumulated wisdom of a very sharp man.

A man who was not William Shakespeare by the way.  Let's get that out of the way right off.  For those of you who don't know, there has been a aberrant school of thought in Shakespearean scholarship which posits that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote the works of William Shakespeare.  Scuttling Occam's Razor, there are books which talk about Bacon's connections to people associated with the London theater, skepticism cast of the production history of Shakespeare's first play, links made between Bacon's passion for English history, and phrases hidden in acrostic in the First Folio. The "Bacon as Shakespeare" school was a hypothesis I've been familiar with for years, but now that I've read Bacon, I feel entirely safe in assuring you of the bêtise of said hypothesis.  Utter rot, I say!  One need only have the barest grasp of their stylistic differences to bury that theory.  

Such ear-tickling theories of esoteric knowledge may sell books, but does not have a place in serious scholarship anymore than suggesting Bacon was also the Merovingian ambassador to the Mole People who live beneath the surface of the hollow Earth.  One can speculate anything.  That doesn't make it scholarship or worth considering.  Even though we are talking about a time 300 years before the invention of television, I'm sure Sir Francis Bacon's life was far too busy to also produce the works of Shakespeare in his free time. 

His Essays are a remarkable collection of human thought.  He writes about, as I mentioned, aspects of ruling and deportment in positions of power.  He also covers general human behavior and experience.  They are brilliant and I found it a little unnerving that, for example, a man 400 in the grave observed the formulaic state that atheism will rise when there is widespread, well-known corruption  in the clergy coupled with gross disunity in the Church, leading to a culture which condones mocking religion.

There was a great deal in his work that I found rich and rewarding.  A few points on which I already heartily agreed with him (I thought his assessment of prophecy was entirely in line with my own experience.  He agreed that instances appear to have existed, then went on express his extreme distrust of prophecy and suspicion that most of it is concocted ex post facto.)  Also he mentions the stages of a great society in formulaic form.  He says that a great empire focuses on diversification of goods, services, peoples, climes, and so forth.  There is great wisdom in this although one might level the accusation that this mode of thinking lead to the British imperialism that made life very unpleasant for a lot of people in the following centuries.  His formula also states that an early great society focuses their attention on arms, a middle period great society focuses on learning, a period follows of a mixture of the two, and an empire in decline focuses on merchandise and mechanical arts (what Mark Twain would call "gee-gaws.")  Although I think I take a little issue when he elsewhere encourages leaders who want a great nation to focus on arms.  The Quaker in me objects.

I wont write at length about the individual essays as there are many, but I found this to be a highly valuable volume of human thought.  I'm sure it will, like so many books in this series, give me great food for thought for years to come.  I would recommend it to anyone.


  1. That was very interesting, Paul. Thanks!

  2. Are you still reading this, or have you finished it? If you're still in it, how much have you read and how much do you have left to go? I confess my reading went into the toilet after giving up Moby Dick. Going through a week of full-on depression didn't help matters, though it did push me towards exploring opera, which... maybe isn't such a bad thing, after all. This year (and counting) of unemployment and occasional depression has seen me:

    - begin down the path of a bread artisan (baguettes, rustic loaves, sourdough, bagels, pizza dough, etc)
    - reaffirm my love of literature
    - discover the films of Werner Herzog
    - establish a deeper interest classical music
    - realize that I actually don't hate, and can even greatly enjoy opera

    It's not bringing me any money, but those are things that will improve my life for the rest of my life.

  3. Actually, in the Harvard Classics, I'm writing about them after I've finished them.

    I had a very similar experience with unemployment.