Stately, dignified, grave - these words could describe both matter and manner of the essays. “Counsels-civil and moral”, Bacon called them and he never forgets this aim, serious and of a practical nature, intended to be offered as guidelines to men in this world.
The variety of subjects that Bacon deals with is surprising- social, political, religious, domestic, philosophical or ethical, no sphere of knowledge or experience is ignored by him. He writes on an abstract subject such as truth, or on an important topic like seditions or on personal matters like marriage and love, or on human emotions like love, anger and revenge. It is only when one reads these essays, that one is struck by their impressive tone that is the result of their author’s keen and great intellectual force.
Impressive Collection of Worldly Wisdom
The essays are, undoubtedly, impressive. One is struck by the wisdom of ripe experience that informs all the sentences. They offer guidelines for human conduct. One gets the impression of the author as a man of powerful intellect capable of a shrewd analysis of human nature and human behaviour and of using this knowledge towards the end of progressing in the world. Calculating common sense is the dominant tone of the essays. A clear eyed realist, Bacon had the ability to judge human beings very well and he sits about giving guidelines for these human beings who are after all more prone to evil than to good. Utilitarian as his advice is, it is admittedly of a universal nature and true for all men and in all ages. Some of the comments and suggestions that he offers are shrewd such as, that people should be given freedom to some extent to give vent to their resentment so that their discontent subsides, or when he says friends help to mitigate one’s sorrow, or that the griefs and sorrows of parents are personal and cannot be shared. To rise to a high position is difficult, he says, but to maintain it is even more so. There are innumerable comments and advice in his essays that reveal sharpness of observation, keen intellect and range of worldly sense. They express an intellectual elevation, and a deep knowledge of human nature.
Pragmatism is the governing principle of most of his advice and often expediency takes a superior place to any ideal morality. Yet a man of such powerful intellect could not be totally unaware of elevated moral principles. That Bacon indeed was not unaware of these, is evident in scattered comments he makes in his essays. In Of Great Place, he insists that men should use their high positions for doing good for the people. Power and influence should be desired in order to convert good thoughts into action. Of Truth and Of Goodness are essays of a totally moral nature. In them Bacon brings his keen intellect to deal with these undeniably elevated ideals.
But it is true that most of the advice he offers compromises these high ideals in favour of practicality and expediency.
Rational Rather Than Emotional
Bacon’s purpose in writing the essays was utilitarian and in his approach to all subjects, including morality, he is rational and realistic. It is this attitude that tinges even his moral standards—let truth be told, let right be done but only if it is not too costly! His morality is as high as is easily practicable in this world:
“He appears to be looking down with dispassionateness from a height, and determining what course of conduct pays best.” (Hugh Walker)
He takes a balanced view of everything, weighs the pros and cons of every issue, presents different aspects of the picture and counsels of moderation. This is a rationalist’s approach and it preludes emotion and feeling. And what is more surprising is that this cold, intellectual and rational attitude is to be found even in essays whose subjects would normally admit of a more emotional treatment
One is admittedly a little bit shocked at the manner in which Bacon treats topics like friendship, love, marriage and parents and children.
The essay, Of Friendship is surprising for the calculating attitude presented in it. It is a purely utilitarian view, listing a number of advantages of having friends and the disadvantages of not having a friend. The closest that Bacon arrives at a semblance of touching feeling is in the lines,
“But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”
While one admires and agrees with Bacon about the truth of what he says regarding friendship, one can not but feel his strange lack of emotion and. feeling When one reads Of Love, one is freshly and forcibly struck by the cold intellectuality of Bacon There is, further, a sense of disappointment as one sees how unemotionally he has treated one of the most powerful passions of mankind. Love is a source of trouble and ruin in this world and is more fit for thy theatre than real life. It is a “child of folly” and should not be allowed to interfere with the serious matters of life. Mark how he brings historical allusions to support his thesis, but for once, one does not even quite admire him, for the feeling that it is all too cold an attitude is too strong to overcome. The grandeur, the sublimity of this passion, the delight and rapture that it can provide are things that simply do not seem to exist for Bacon. What can exceed the absolutely coldness and intellectually balanced nature of the statement:
“Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth and embaseth it.”
Wife and children are “impediments to great enterprise”. Once again the subject of marriage and single life is treated unemotionally. What he says is logical and convincing and true to human behaviour, but there is a singular lack of feeling in the essay which is remarkable when we consider the subject.
The intellectual force of the arguments given in the essay, Of Parents and Children is undeniable. The advice is based on sound common sense but the comments again allow to emotion or feeling. The essay is a striking example of the balanced arguments that Bacon is capable of presenting: “Children sweeten labours, but they make misfortunes more better.” They increase responsibilities but mitigate the remembrance of death. There is nothing in the essay about how children can satisfy the emotional urge in human beings, but for Bacon such emotion would be an impediment to material progress!
Even an essay Of Travel is given a highly intellectual treatment - though again what he says is impressive and admirable. Studies offer a number of advantages, but says the rationalist, they have to be supplemented by experience to make them useful.
Apparently nothing should be indulged in for the mere pleasure it affords one. Everything has its uses and limitation -one should use a thing in such a way that one can derive maximum advantage and avoid its limitations or disadvantages. In the essay Of Revenge, Bacon is fully aware of the superiority of a man who forgives his enemy but, at the same time he is reasonable enough to make a concession.. A man may take revenge if the law does not offer a remedy for the particular wrong but says Bacon with shrewd common sense, he should take such revenge that is itself outside the purview of Law!
Arguing the matter in all its aspects is the approach of a pure rationalist. Intellectual power is evident in an essay on Of Gardens. While this essay does indeed give beautiful description, it is intellect that informs Bacon’s views on how to arrange the garden.
“Toys” and trifles are below the dignity of the grave wisdom of Bacon and the one concession he makes in Of Masques and Triumphs is brought to a hasty and impatient conclusion: “But enough of these toys”.
If in essays dealing with personal relationships itself Bacon is cold emotional, there is no cause to expect anything but the daylight of reason in his political essays. These indeed incorporate advice frequently of a Machiavellian nature. Worldly success and public good are the criteria of action and it is the pure logician or rationalist who speaks in these essays. A judicious mixture of honesty and dissimulation is advocated, the king is advised to er courage the people to keep hopes alive, and so on. True, the arguments offered in these essays are highly intellectual and reasonable, but there is no place or emotion or feeling is one touched or involved emotionally.
This brings us to another aspect of his essays which is equally intellectual and impressive - his style.
Aphoristic and full of analogy and images, quotations and allusions, the style of the essay once again proves the intellectual ability of the author. It is indeed remarkable to note how much of wisdom and meaning is compressed into very short space. One is impressed by the wit and skill. No one could have surpassed. Bacon for sentences packed with thought in such brevity:
1. “Revenge is a kind of wild justice.”
2. “A lie faces God and shrinks from man.”
3. “It is a strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty: or to seek power over others and to lose power over a man’s self.”
4. “Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds.”
His use of figures of speech is again striking and of his keen wit. Comparing a mixture of truth and falsehood to an alloy he says that it makes it work better but debases its value. The abundance of quotations and historical references and mythological and Biblical allusions speak for his wide knowledge and erudition. The manner in which he applies these quotations and allusions to support, illustrate or explain his arguments is nothing if not impressive. Choosing metaphors from practically all spheres of knowledge and experience and using them aptly and vividly speaks for a sharp and erudite intellect. These help to turn the essays into scholarly dissertations.
Impersonal and Dignified
However erudite and however intellectual the essays are, their author is unable, or refuses to establish an easy, confidential relationship with the reader. He discusses the subjects in a purely objective way. We find in them Bacon the thinker rather than Bacon the man. We learn of his opinions on various topics, delivered in the authoritative and confident tone of one who knows, and knows that he knows. But there is hardly an instance where we are taken into the author’s confidence about his personal likes and dislikes, nature, temperament, whims and idiosyncrasies. There is no subjective note in these essays, no personal chit chat; the tone is always impersonal, aloof, superior and dignified. Bacon never forgets that he has a serious aim and that he is at a height above his audience which position he occupies by virtue of his greater wisdom.
If we consider the idea’ essay to imply lightness and ease, and a confidential relation between the author and the reader Bacon’s essays are not ideal. If we agree that an essay is essentially personal and mostly a self portrait, where the subject is not important but only the mood of the author if the essay is to be a picture of the writer’s mind as affected by the subject with which he is dealing, if one considers the ideal essay to be purely subjective in nature, then Bacon does indeed fall short of the ideal. There is, in Bacon’s essays, no gossiping, no whispering, no personal confidence exchanged with the reader. There is no aimless wandering of fancy and imagination within the subject. There is only the light of dry reason illuminating his short, crisp sentences that impresses and even charms to a certain extent, but does not touch the reader’s feelings with pathos or humour for which an emotional approach is required. It is this lack of “feeling” and subjective quality that prompts some critics to say that Bacon is no essayist at all - which is ironical when on the other hand he is considered to be the father of the English essay. But it is true indeed that Bacon is “not an intimate but a reserved figure, not a talker but a writer, not a babler but a rhetorician, not a companion but a teacher, not a friend but a great chancellor, not a familiar, forgetting his dignity but a supple statesman asserting it; preferring to suppress, equivocate and dissemble, and to justify every obliquity - anything rather than candidly pour himself out and leave the justification to the reader. It is not the true spend-thrift of himself that writes, “Nakedness is uncomely as well in mind as in body…..“ The intellectual spend-thrift is a true essayist, if only to have enough of himself to spend; but Bacon was a miser of himself, sitting furred and gilded and cold, like some gorgeous Renaissance figure of a dusky painting, counting over his gains with pursed lips and side long eye, his fingers trembling, jewels flashing, and lips shaping a careful phrase for enrichment of hungry time.” (John I Freeman).
Highly intellectual, full of practical wisdom, enriched by flashes of wit, copious quotations, analogies and allusions, the essays are however intellectual exercises - balanced arguments supported by allusions and quotations but sudden lacking in personal touches and feelings. We are impressed, we admire but at the same time we are aware of a cold rationality untouched by emotion.