Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bacon’s Essays: A Hand Book of Practical Wisdom

Practical Bias
“Beyond any other book of the same size in any literature they are loaded with ripest wisdom of experience,” says Hudson regarding Bacon’s essays. Nobody can deny the wisdom of Bacon or his understanding of the affairs of the world. He shows an extraordinary insight regarding the problems that men face in life. But there is also no denying the fact that this wisdom is of a prudential, and practical nature.

Bacon was a man of the Renaissance and that was an age which tried to explore to the full, the opportunities of mind and body afforded to man Man was the subject of most literature and Man is the subject of Bacon’s essays. The age was in need of a new set of people who could deal effectively in the arts of peace and war. Bacon set out to put before the men his “counsels-civil and moral”, which could supply them with sagacious principles of conduct. He preferred the life of action to the life of contemplation. His attitude to knowledge is coloured by an active, practical bias. Knowledge, implies Bacon, need not be remote from day to day life, indulged in for its own sake. It can be applied to practical life and made to serve man in his social and political affairs. As he remarks in his essay Of Studies book-knowledge has to be supplemented by experience and experience enriched by knowledge from books. He was anxious that “pragmatical man may not go away with an opinion that learning is like a lark that can mount and sing and please herself and nothing else: but may know that she holdeth as well the hawk, that can soar aloft and can also descend and strike upon the prey.”
Thus, the wisdom that Bacon shows in his essays is regulated by this practical consideration It is frankly utilitarian. This does not mean that the essays are devoid of ethical or philosophical considerations but that these are glanced at or even sometimes clearly stated but are on the whole subordinated to what is of use in practical life: subordinated to the achievement of worldly success.
It is easy to assume that Bacon’s wisdom was cynical because some of his advice calmly ignores ethical standards and seems to imply that nothing succeeds like success, that nothing is more important than material advancement. Yet this is to misinterpret and misunderstand his attitude. One has to realize that Bacon accepted the basic Christian assumption that man, though made in the image of God, was yet a sinful creature - a fallen creature - and such, more prone to evil than to good. (And though an unflattering opinion, there is no denying its truth - history and experience of life support the truth of this opinion. Only self-righteous hypocrite or a saint would deny it.)
Bacon is utilitarian but he is so because he realized that the vast majority of the people in the world are guided by his attitude, and success for them has only one meaning - material success. Bacon writes for them - to provide guidance to them in their pursuit of success in a civil life. Thus we have in the essays a worldly wisdom which implies shrewdness, foresight, judgement of character. How to get on in this world, how to rise to high positions, how to become rich - the list is endless -are what Bacon advises upon in his essays. His essays thus are mainly utilitarian and deal with the art and technique that a man should employ to achieve success. His philosophy is of a pragmatical nature - the philosophy of getting on in the world. And his morality or moralizing is always governed by the knowledge that man is not perfect and that he can be expected to adhere to ethical standards only to a certain extent. This is not to say that Bacon did not himself entertain any reverence for high moral principle at least in precept.
At least two of his essays present him as entertaining deep regard for high moral sentiments and the sanctity of truth. His essay, Of Truth, speaks of truth, and of love, of truth, and fair and round dealings, in high terms. Here he is a philosopher who advocates the pursuit or search of truth and speaks in glowing terms of the satisfaction a man gets from “the vantage” point of truth- He says that “the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.” He speaks here as a moralist. A man’s mind, he says, should turn upon the “poles of truth”. Falsehood debases man even though it might help him to gain material success. Bacon advocates man to follow a path of truth and truthfulness. It is to be remarked here that in this essay, too, Bacon’s observation of human behaviour is evident as when he says that men have an inherent love of falsehood because it helps them to keep up illusions and vanities, that man mix falsehood with truth in order to make life interesting. But this does not mean that Bacon is in favour of man indulging falsehood. He merely sets the “noble ideal and the ignoble reality” side by side so as to force the basic truth of human behaviour upon the attention of the reader. It is very clear that in this essay Bacon unequivocally intends to instill into the reader’s mind a love of truth.
Similarly, his essay Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature is on a purely moral plane. He counsels goodness, charity and benevolent action and declares that no man can suffer because of being excessively charitable, for charity know no excess. There is a clear condemnation of evil and malignity and glowing praise for goodness
Moral and Prudential Aspects Balanced
There are some essays in which Bacon puts forward a number of moral precepts, at the same time, not ignoring prudential aspects. One such essay is Of Great Place. Mingling with the shrewd observations made on people occupying high positions (such as they lose freedom, and are never happy in their heart of hearts) is a clear analysis of the faults that are commonly found in such people and a very firm advice to avoid these shortcomings. It is true that Bacon frankly advocates or rather accepts crooked means adopted by an aspirant to a high position. This is prudential and utilitarian. But at the same time Bacon recognize the value of great place, which is the opportunity it gives of doing good,
“But the power to do good is the true and lawful end of aspiring. For good thoughts (though God accepts them) yet towards men are little better than good dreams, except they be put in act.”
It is best for a man to use the position to be an active-benefactor of his fellow men. There is in this essay a compromise between morality and the prudence that is demanded in the achievement of worldly success.
Social and Domestic Relationship
When we come to Bacon’s essays dealing with subjects such as love, friendship, parents and children or marriage and single life, we are at once struck by the rather cold and unemotional treatment of topics that could easily admit m emotion approach. Also noteworthy is the absolutely utilitarian approach Bacon brings to these topics Prudence governs marriage love and even friendship. In the philosophy of getting-on in the world, wife and children are handicaps, love is a hindrance and friendship is to be measured in terms of the advantages arising from it. Love is an emotion not fit for life according to Bacon, He merely allows some consideration for nuptial love which serves the useful function of propagating human kind: Love is treated as if it has no ennobling aspect to it. Similarly, friendship is not spoken of in terms of an emotional bond between two persons, but always in the terms of its utility. How a friend can serve a man, but no mention of what sacrifices a man might make for a friend. A friend serves well in meeting a man’s requirements in this world. So it is good to have a friend.
Similarly marriage can be useful to man in certain professions. A wife is useful to man in certain professions. A wife is useful at all stages of a man’s life -a mistress in youth, a companion in middle age, a nurse for old age. Such a remark, besides incurring the wrath of modern women’s libbers seems totally coloured with an almost ignoble utilitarianism; reducing marriage to some kind of prudent investment.
The utilitarian measure is applied even to such subjects as travel and study. How can each help a man in this world in his material advancement, is what occupies Bacon’s attention. He loftily ignores a quite valid reason for resorting to pleasure. Travel has its “uses” - it educates the young and widens the experience of the old. A wise man, according to Bacon, is one who applies his book-knowledge to practical life. One admires the good sense in such comments but at the same time cannot miss the pragmatical viewpoint. Even while describing gardens, Bacon concentrates fully on its utility.
Political and Civil Topics
Bacon is most at home in these essays, full of easy confidence born out of the close contact with statesman, public officials and rulers of a country. In these essays, his worldly wisdom, prudence and sheer utilitarianism gains a firm upper hand over any ideal morality. He is frankly Maciavellian in his recommendations of policies and measures more foul than fair, which are required for ensuring the king’s security and country’s well-being, and for upholding the honour and prestige of the ruler in the eyes of his people.
Keep hope alive in the public so as to avoid sedition, he advises rulers. The secret of successful state policy lies in wisdom of the ruler to maintain the balance between the high and the low, between one faction and another or one powerful leader and another. But one has to remember here that in terms of concrete results in the world of politics, the ways and means recommended by Bacon are quite appropriate and acceptable. They are the views of a realist and admittedly do not preach any ideal morality which in any case would be out of place in politics, whether it be conducted in a monarchy, despotic state or a democracy. In any form of administration, as far as politics is concerned, honest and sound dealings remain ideals often spoken of, but craft, simulation, dissimulation, cleverness in finding out a rival’s intentions and anticipating his actions, are universal laws followed in practice.
Critics rightly (and a bit self-righteously) point out that Bacon quite calmly condones a compromise of moral principles and in fact often suggests suitable means of getting the best out of such compromise. This is obvious in the essay Of Suitors where Bacon does not categorically reject the very idea of awarding a case to the undeserving party, but suggests that the patron brings about a compromise between the two parties if he feels like favouring the undeserving side.
Similarly, Bacon comes to the conclusion in the essays Of Simulation
“The best position and temperature is: to have openness in fame and opinion: secrecy in habit; dissimulation in seasonable use; and a power to feign, if there be no remedy.”
Thus, even simulation which Bacon in fact disapproves of, is acceptable if there is no other way out. Every thin” every faculty of man has its advantage and disadvantage: success lies in the man’s ability to use the faculty to get maximum advantage and minimum disadvantage. This is the go\tumig principle in Bacon’s advice,
Morality Of Sorts
Yet one cannot say that Bacon is amoral or immoral in his advice. As we read the essays, we are conscious of the fact that their author’s morality is higher than that of average humanity It is also to be noted that even when he advocates the practice of dubious methods by rulers or public officials, it is with the end of public good in mind rather than selfish goals In every issue, he balances the advantage and disadvantage; it is not merely the advantage to the individual he cares for; it is always the Public Good. Even within the utilitarian code that Bacon puts forward, there is a certain code of conduct - a morality that is perhaps as high as is easily practicable in the world as we know it.
The essays of Bacon are undeniably utilitarian in purpose and the attitude they present. And the philosophy that Bacon has formulated is a philosophy for the man of action - a pragmatic philosophy. His essays abound in moral precepts, though very few of these are of an ideal nature (such as those in Of Truth and Of Goodness). Mostly his morality too is tinged with a “worldly” tone, of a standard that can be easily attained and put to good use by a man intent on “getting on” in this world.
These essays then embody the wisdom and philosophy and morality of a clear-eyed realist who knows quite well what men should be but also knew what they actually were. And the counsels are not written by an author who considers what they ought to do. The only test he recognises as regards ‘ought” is whether a man’s action is of advantage to state.

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