The essays of Bacon were published in three successive editions. The first of which appeared in 1597. The second and third appeared in 1612 and 1625?
Bacon described his essays as “dispersed meditations”, as “brief notes set down rather significantly than curiously”. He regarded the essay as a receptacle for detached thoughts. Many of his essays do indeed resemble note book jottings-one gets a good idea, from observation or from some book and quickly notes it down briefly, so as not to forget it. Some of his essays, especially the earlier ones, are strings of sentences that read like maxims. These sentences are not linked by any development of ideas.There is of course no digression from the central subject. Bacon never strays away from the subject. There is no irrelevant matter, no going off at a tangent. But the essays are not “well-knit” compositions: there is no systematic development from one thought or idea to the next; the ideas do not evolve smoothly from one another. In, these earlier essays, of which Of Studies and Of Suitors are typical examples, ideas have been put together almost at random, as they occurred, though they all relate to the particular subject. There is no detailed discussion of the subject. And what is more remarkable is that in the interests of brevity and condensation of thought, even conjunctions and other logical connections are sometimes left out.
Brief and Undeveloped
These essays are very brief in length. The ideas have not been developed. The sentences are all crisp, short and sententious. Each sentence stands by itself, the concentrated expression of weighty thought. There is so much of condensation that each sentence could easily be developed into a paragraph. This is not to say that each sentence does the work of a paragraph but that it contains matter that could be elaborated into a paragraph. As Hugh Walker remarks, these essays (such as Of Studies) read like running analysis of paragraphs. Bacon does not treat the subject fully; he expresses an idea in a few words and then passes on to the next idea, to be expressed in equally terse terms.
The essay Of Studies is a suitable example of those essays of Bacon which read like a string of aphorisms and maxims. It begins with the statement that studies serve for delight, for ornament and for ability. Next he says that it is not good to spend too much time on studies or take too much from books for ornamentation of speech. He passes on to tell us that study is perfected by experience. Then he states that “Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them” and so on.
Though if one notices carefully one can see the implicit connections between the various ideas expressed these connections are not worked out by the author. The reader has to supply them by himself.
Similarly in the essay, Of Suitors, the ideas are tersely expressed and the aphoristic condensed sentences are put together. Again, each sentence is relevant to the subject, but they cover such a large area in such short space that a sense of logical development is not visible. There is also obscurity in some sentences in this essay resulting from excessive condensation:
“Suitors are so distasted with delays and abuses, that plain dealing in denying to deal in suits first, and reporting the success barely, and in challenging no more thanks that one hath deserved, is grown not only honourable but also gracious.”
The essays alternates between the suits, the suitors, those who undertake to get suits granted and the patrons of petitions, without any apparent sense of logical development. There is no proper arrangement of thoughts here. The thoughts here are literally-”dispersed meditations”. There are a number of abrupt transitions of thought. A number of other essays too have this quality of looking like the jottings of random thoughts on a particular subject. We have once again a collection of terse sentences reading like maxims in of Marriage and Single Life. Here Bacon gives the advantages and disadvantages of either state of life.
Abruptly, he goes on to chaste women being proud of their chastity and sober men being faithful husbands. Then he says that a husband who is respected by his wife for his wisdom will commend her loyalty as well. At the end of the essay Bacon points out that bad husbands of ten have good wives. Now all these ideas, while, being in a broad sense related to the central subject, do not arise from one another. In other words, they are merely a collection of thoughts on a subject, put down as they occur, in any order. There is a lack of connection between them. None of them is elaborated or given a detailed treatment. They are significantly set down, in the sense that they are profound thoughts expressing the wide and ripe wisdom of their author gathered from books and experiences and observation of life. They are useful and valuable guidelines for a man aiming for worldly success, but they are not dealt with elaborately. Some essays even in the second and third editions have this characteristic. Of Ambition deals with various ideas related to the subject: ambition, if repressed, can be harmful how princes can use ambitious men, how ambitious men can be controlled, what sort of ambition is more harmful, what can bring honour to an ambitious man. On the face of it, there does not seem much connection between the different ideas except that they all relate to ambition. None of the multitude of ideas are fully developed, but then one may argue that an essay by its very nature implies a mere attempt and not a complete treatment of a subject. This is true but there should surely be some kind of smooth flow of ideas from one to another. These sentences have a tendency to stand by themselves, having no, or little link with preceding or succeeding sentences.
We find this “looseness of construction” in Of Revenge again, though this is one of Bacon’s later essays. There is a collection of maxims which express shrewd observation and wit but remain separate flashes with no apparent continuity or development of thought.
(i) “Revenge is a kind of wild justice”
(ii) “The most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy”.
(iii) “But base and crafty cowards are like the arrow that flieth in the dark”.
(iv) “……vindictive persons live the life of witches.”
All these lines and more stand out for their striking aphoristic quality but Bacon does not work out connections or details.
Essays not quite “Dispersed Meditations”
It would, however, be a mistake to call all the essays of Bacon “dispersed meditations”. There are some which have received at his hand, a rather detailed treatment, and which cannot be termed as “sketchy”. In these essays, Bacon finds room for conjunctions and connective clauses. Ideas are not left undeveloped and transitions from one thought to another are not so abrupt. In the essays Of Friendship, leaving aside the fact that too much space has been devoted to illustrating the statement mat the need of friends is felt even by the great, there is a logical approach in the enumeration of the principle fruits of friendship. Each advantage is properly handled and ideas are developed smoothly. There is not that abrupt transition of thought that characterises some of Bacon’s other essays.
Of Empire can be said to contain an almost exhaustive treatment of the dangers that beset a king in those days. In Of Seditions and Troubles, there is a quite closely reasoned and connected account of the causes and remedies of discontentment and agitation that may fester and burst out into trouble for the country.
The essay, Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms, is an example of a more or less close-knit piece of writing, in which the ideas are well developed.
Aphoristic sentences are found in these essays too but attention has been ‘given to other factors as well. Bacon has taken the trouble to “weave together the disjecta membra of his meditations” in most of his later essays. Though the general conception of the essay as “loose thoughts, thrown out without much regularity” is not completely discarded, the loose thoughts are not quite so disconnected in the later essays, like Of Riches, Of Empire, Of Seditions and Troubles, Of Simulation and Dissimulation, Of Friendship, Of the True Greatness of. Kingdoms, Of Truth etc. Another important development in the later essays is in the use of figurative language that lends colour and warmth to the abstract arguments. If we take the meaning of “curiously” to be literary “care” or “elaborate treatment”, these essays cannot be said to be brief notes set down significantly but not curiously. They are no longer brief notes or jottings and though they are still “significant”, they also have a sense of richness about them. They are no longer merely strings of compressed wisdom, but are “more flowing and gracious in manner.” Bacon has made use of metaphors and similes extensively and a few of them even have a poetical quality. The most obvious example of this:
“It is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.” (Of Truth)
Another striking example:
“Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds.” (Of Suspicion)
In Of Riches, Bacon says,
“Riches have wings, and sometimes they fly away of themselves, Sometimes they must be sent flying to bring in more.”
“A great state left to an heir, is as a lure to all birds of prey round about to seize on him, if he be not the better established in years and judgement.
Likewise glorious gifts and foundations are like sacrifices without salt; and but the painted sepulchres of alms, which soon will putrefy and corrupt inwardly.” Essays in which such passages occur are obviously much more than mere “jottings”. The “dispersed meditations” have been given a “rich vesture”, even while there is an attempt to bring them into a chosen knit whole.
We see therefore, that it would not be possible to put all the essays of Bacon in the category of “dispersed meditations”, or say that all of them are brief notes. His earlier essays indeed resemble note book jottings - condensed, pithy statements strung together with no apparent connection except in their relation to the subject. But when Bacon realized that his essays were rather popular, his conception of its treatment underwent a change. He has therefore taken greater trouble in his later essays to enrich the style. The essays deal with a variety of subjects but they are no longer merely aphoristic. Metaphors and similes enliven the style. There is an attempt to bring about some connection and continuity in the ideas and thoughts expressed. They are still meditations, but not quite so dispersed. They are still “significant” but there is also an attempt at setting them down “curiously” - for in some essays there is indeed to be found a fairly well reasoned, detailed and logical treatment of the subjects.