There is no doubt that the essays of Bacon are a treasure-house of what is called worldly wisdom. Worldly wisdom means the kind of wisdom that is necessary for achieving worldly success. Worldly wisdom does not imply any deep philosophy or any ideal morality. It simply means the art or the technique that a man should employ to achieve success in his life. It therefore implies .shrewdness, sagacity, tact, foresight, judgment of character and so on. Bacon’s essays are replete with wisdom of this kind.He teaches us the art of how to get on in this world, how to become rich and prosperous, how to rise to high positions, how to exercise one’s authority and power so as to attain good results, how to gain influence, etc. It is true that Bacon is a philosopher and a moralist, but it has rightly been pointed out by critics that, in his essays as in his own career, he treated philosophy and morality as being subordinate to worldly success. It is for this reason that the wisdom of his essays is of a somewhat cynical kind. It is significant that he described this essays as “Counsels, civil and moral”, which means that he intended his essays to provide such guidance to his readers as could help them in attaining success in civil life while at the same time observing certain basic moral laws.
Bacon is clearly seen in his essays both as a philosopher and as a moralist. A philosopher is, broadly speaking, a person who is deeply interested in the pursuit of truth, while a moralist is a person who teaches human beings the distinction between what is right and what is wrong and urges them to tread the right path only. Bacon appears in this dual role in many of the essays that he has written. In the essay, Of Truth, Bacon says that truth is the supreme good for human beings. He describes the inquiry of truth as the wooing of it, the knowledge of truth as the presence of it, and the belief of truth as the enjoying of it. Making an obvious reference to the Bible, Bacon says that the first thing created by God was light and the final thing created by Him was the rational faculty which He bestowed upon man. First God breathed light upon matter or chaos; then He breathed light into the face of man; and afterwards He has always been breathing light into the faces of those whom He chooses for His special favour. Bacon quotes Lucretius who said that the greatest pleasure for a man was the realization of truth and that, standing upon the vantage ground of truth, a man could survey the errors, falsehoods, and follies prevailing in the world. All these, we might say, are the observations of a philosopher-cum-moralist. Bacon’s object in writing this essay is manifestly to instill into the minds of his readers a love of truth. A man’s mind, says he, should turn upon the “poles of truth”. Falsehood brings nothing but disgrace. Quoting Montaigne, he says that, in telling a lie, a man is brave towards God but a toward towards his fellow-men. He warns human beings against the punishment which will descend upon them on the doomsday for the falsehoods which they indulge in or practice.
The essay, Of Great Place, contains a large number of moral precepts but these moral precepts, be it noted, are synonymous with worldly wisdom. In seeking power, says Bacon, a man loses his liberty. Men in high positions, he observes rightly, derive much of their happiness only from hearing that other people envy them for the positions they are holding. Like a true moralist, he writes: “In place there is licence to do good and evil, whereof the latter is a curse; for in evil, the best condition is not to well, the second not.” The whole purpose of a man’s efforts should, according to Bacon, be meritorious works. Noble performance, he points out, raises a man almost to the status of God. Bacon also warns men of authority against the vices which are likely to beset them. There is plenty of worldly wisdom in the guidelines of conduct which he lays down for men in high positions. No man in a high position will come a cropper if he follows the advice offered by Bacon. But Bacon teaches no moral idealism and no ideal morality. In fact he is willing to come to terms with morality for the sake of worldly success. For instance, he clearly admits that a man may have to adopt objectionable methods in order to attain a position of high authority. He also approves of a man’s joining a group or a faction in order to enhance his worldly prospects though he suggests that, after a man has achieved the desired end, he should become neutral. This is how he writes in this connection. “All rising to great place is by a winding stair; and if there be factions, it is good to side a man’s self whilst he is in the rising, and to balance himself when he is placed.” Even when Bacon urges a high official not to speak ill of his predecessor, he does so not in the interests of high morality but because there will be unpleasant consequences for the man who does not follow this advice. In other words, Bacon tries to bring about a compromise between morality and the demands of worldly success.
The essay, Of Friendship, is the work of a pure utilitarian. Bacon does not speak of friendship in terms of an emotional bond intimately linking two persons. He makes a purely worldly approach to the subject. He gives us the “uses” of friendship. A friend enables us to give an outlet to our suppressed discontents. A friend clarifies our understanding. The advice given by a friend is most reliable. A friend can speak or act on our behalf in situations in which we ourselves cannot speak or act. There is no idealism involved in all this. Bacon seems to suggest that we need friends only for our worldly happiness and worldly good. To put it more bluntly, he regards pure selfishness as the basis of friendship. This is an essay that clearly shows that Bacon’s wisdom is of a cynical kind, and that his morality is determined by purely utilitarian considerations. He does not speak of the emotional or moral aspect of friendship at all.
Bacon makes a utilitarian approach even to studies. In his essay on this subject he speaks of the “pleasure” of studying only to forget it. Nor does he emphasise learning for its own sake. He wants studies to be supplemented by practical experience so that a man may make the best use of both to attain worldly success. Wise men, according to him, are those who put their studies to practical use. He even recommends the study of books “by deputy” and extracts being made of books by others, though he recommends this practice in the case of only the meaner books. He also points out that different branches of study have different effects on the human mind and speaks of curing different mental defects by means of an appropriate choice of studies. Bacon here becomes almost ridiculous by his reducing the whole thing to a scientific formula as if a man whose wits are wandering could really achieve powers of concentration by being made to study really achieve powers of concentration by being made to study mathematics. Bacon forgets that everybody does not have an “. aptitude for mathematics or for any other particular branch of study. But it is Bacon the man of the world who speaks here, not the true scholar that he really was. He allows his scholarship and his philosophy to be pushed into the background by his worldly enthusiasm.
In the essay, Of Marriage and Single Life, Bacon’s wisdom, again, is not of the profound or philosophical variety; it is worldly wisdom, and much of this wisdom is cynical. The very opening sentence of this essay is cynical because Bacon here expresses the view that a married man with children cannot undertake great enterprises: “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” And he goes on to say, what is certainly not true, that the “best works and of greatest merit for the public have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men.” As in the case of friendship, Bacon forgets the emotional element, and in this case also the passionate element which generally enters into marriage. What could be more utilitarian than the remark that a wife is a mistress when the husband is young, that she is a companion when he enters middle age, and that she is a nurse when he grows old? He wants soldiers to be married because then they will fight better! He thinks that by getting married a dishonest judge will become honest!
However, it is the essay, Of Suitors, that completely exposes Bacon. He certainly indulges in a lot of moralising here. For instance, he disapproves of person who undertake suits without any real intention to have them granted; he disapproves of a man giving false hopes to a petitioner whose suit he has undertaken; and so on. But he comes to terms with morality when he suggests that if a patron wants to favour the undeserving of the two parties in a legal case, he should bring about a compromise between the two parties instead of pronouncing the judgment in favour of the deserving person. Bacon here does not categorically reject, the case of the undeserving person; on the contrary, he wants the undeserving person to be accommodated. Again, he goes on to say that if a patron wants to appoint a less deserving candidate to a post’, he should do so without passing adverse remarks against the character of the more deserving applicant. Here is a great moralist willingly condoning a patron’s action in appointing a less deserving candidate to a post which lies in his patronage!