Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bacon’s “Essays”: A Reflection of the Renaissance Spirit

The Renaissance
The term ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’, or more generally, ‘revival’. It was the series of events by which Europe passed from a Medieval to a modern civilization. The Renaissance meant a revival of learning, and specially of the study of Greek which broke down the rigid conventions of the Middle ages. There was a new spirit of inquiry, of criticism, a passion for scientific accuracy, which was accompanied by a sense of individualism and worldliness. Its chief features are only too well reflected in the great prose writer of the age, Bacon. The essays have several features that show-the spirit of the Renaissance.

Pragmatical Spirit
A very important writer of the Italian Renaissance was Machiavelli, and the attitude he represents is quite typical of the age. An opportunistic philosophy that sacrificed high ethical ideals in the interests of achieving material progress, would not have been possible in the Middle ages but is the common spirit of the Renaissance. Bacon too teaches no ideal morality; he judges the Tightness of an action by the results it bears. Man is an individual and an end in himself and this sense of individualism gave rise to the feeling that he must know how to get on in this world. Thus we see Bacon advising his readers on how to become rich and influential, how to rise to high positions, how to exercise one’s power, and so on. Bacon does not consider it much of a drawback in a man to adopt crooked methods in order to achieve his ends. But here another spirit of the Renaissance asserts itself: the spirit of nationalism. It is to be noted that Bacon advocates even unethical ways but never at the expense of his country or state. The state is ever important and whatever men might do must be calculated to ensure the best for the country. Every thing that Bacon deals with has a utilitarian tone, so much so that even friendship is considered from the aspect of the advantages it can offer. Petitions can be granted to the undeserving person too if one likes the person. Compromise and expediency are the governing principles of Bacon’s advice. This concern for worldly success is one aspect of the spirit of the Renaissance.
Exploration, Adventure and Political Conquest
There was in the Renaissance a growing spirit of adventure and exploration. The importance of ‘great enterprise’ is mentioned often in the essays of Bacon. A country should make efforts at becoming great and powerful, and to this end should be ready to make war and become a military state. He gives practical advice to king and rulers on how to keep the subject under control and how to anticipate and avoid the dangers faced by the rulers. Not the essays of Empire and of Sedition. In the essay of the True Greatness of Kingdoms, Bacon gives a clear analysis of how to become a powerful state. Those were the days of naval wars and Bacon writes: “To be master of the seas is an abridgement of a monarchy.” His attitude towards war and peace is typical of the age in which there was tendency towards expansion of territory and power of a nation.
Classical Learning
The revival of classical learning and the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature and history was a hall-mark of the Renaissance. This spirit of learning is very much in the essays of Bacon. There are innumerable quotations from ancient writer that he employs to support his arguments. The several allusions to ancient history and the references to classical mythology are all evidence of the typical Renaissance culture. Latin writers like Tacitus, Seneca, Lucian, Lucretius, Virgil are often referred to and quoted from. There is hardly an essay that is free from these quotations or allusions. Classical mythology is often used to re-inforce his arguments. His love of learning is clearly portrayed in his essay, Of Studies, where he emphasises upon the advantages of books and studies. Many of his essays are heavy with learning. Note how he substantiates his arguments in the essay, of friendship, with instances from history.
Though one would generally hesitate to ascribe the term ‘sensuous’ to Bacon, who is principally a philosopher-cum-politician, there are instances where this Renaissance feature is also to be found. The essay, Of Gardens, is one such example which shows him to be a keen lover of sensuous beauty:
“And because the breath of flowers is for sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes, like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air.”
His love for singing and dancing and sheer spectacle comes out in his essay, Of Masques, though he quickly curbs this deviation into what he calls consideration of ‘toys’.
Wealth of Metaphor and Analogy
Yet another important characteristic of the Renaissance to be found in Bacon’s essays, is the abundant use of striking figures of speech. The metaphors and similes taken from different spheres of knowledge and experience reflect the exuberance of the age. To quote only a few sentences that have this typically rich, metaphorical quality,
1.       “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)
2.       “For a crowd is not company, and forces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love,”                                             (Of Friendship)
3.       “...glorious gifts and foundations are like sacrifices without salt, and but the painted sepulchres of alms, which soon will putrefy and corrupt inwardly.                         
(Of Riches)
Curiosity and Love of Travel
The sense of curiosity, and the love of increasing one’s knowledge is what prompts Bacon in his recommending travel for both the young and the old. The list that he makes of the things worth seeing are typical of the spirit of the Renaissance, It exhibits the tendency to know more and more about everything and every place.
An Exception
In one and only one aspect Bacon moves away from the spirit of the Renaissance. He does not reflect the ages’ pride in the English language. He preferred and admired Latin to English and in fact thought that the Latin version of his essays would be more popular. He apparently did not feel with others of his age that English could match the classical languages.
One can say that Bacon was a writer who represented the most salient features of his age, the age of the revival of learning and study of the ancients, the spirit of inquiry and individualism and nationalism.
It is easy to agree with the critic who says of Bacon that he was “the product of the Renaissance man’s glory, generous or terse, his opportunity of mind and body, his eye finely rolling across the subtlety and magnificence of the world, his joy in learning, discovering, weighing, or eating - all this as it existed in Bacon’s mind sifted through into the essays.”

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