Durant 1926: The Essays (Francis Bacon)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy 

This paper presents Chapter III, Section 3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


III. The Essays

His elevation seemed to realize Plato’s dreams of a philosopher-king. For, step by step with his climb to political power, Bacon had been mounting the summits of philosophy. It is almost incredible that the vast learning and literary achievements of this man were but the incidents and diversions of a turbulent political career. It was his motto that one lived best by the hidden life—bene vixit qui bene latuit. He could not quite make up his mind whether he liked more the contemplative or the active life. His hope was to be philosopher and statesman, too, like Seneca; though he suspected that this double direction of his life would shorten his reach and lessen his attainment “It is hard to say,” he writes, “whether mixture of contemplations with an active life, or retiring wholly to contemplations, do disable or hinder the mind more.” He felt that studies could not be either end or wisdom in themselves, and that knowledge unapplied in action was a pale academic vanity. “To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules is the humor of a scholar. … Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation.” Here is a new note, which marks the end of scholasticism—i. e., the divorce of knowledge from use and observation—and places that emphasis on experience and results which distinguishes English philosophy, and culminates in pragmatism. Not that Bacon for a moment ceased to love books and meditation; in words reminiscent of Socrates he writes, “without philosophy I care not to live”; and he describes himself as after all “a man naturally fitted rather for literature than for anything else, and borne by some destiny, against the inclination of his genius” (i. e., character), “into active life.” Almost his first publication was called “The Praise of Knowledge” (1592); its enthusiasm for philosophy compels quotation: 

My praise shall be dedicate to the mind itself. The mind is the man, and knowledge mind; a man is but what he knoweth. … Are not the pleasures of the affections greater than the pleasures of the senses, and are not the pleasures of the intellect greater than the pleasures of the affections? Is not that only a true and natural pleasure whereof there is no satiety? Is not that knowledge alone that doth clear the mind of all perturbations? How many things be there which we imagine are not? How many things do we esteem and value more than they are? These vain imaginations, these ill-proportioned estimations, these be the clouds of error that turn into the storms of perturbations. Is there then any such happiness as for a man’s mind to be raised above the confusion of things, where he may have a respect of the order of nature and the error of men? Is there but a view only of delight and not of discovery? Of contentment and not of benefit? Shall we not discern as well the riches of nature’s warehouse as the beauty of her shop? Is truth barren? Shall we not thereby be able to produce worthy effects, and to endow the life of man with infinite commodities? 

Here is a new note, which marks the end of scholasticism—i. e., the divorce of knowledge from use and observation—and places that emphasis on experience and results which distinguishes English philosophy, and culminates in pragmatism. 

His finest literary product, the Essays (1597-1623), show him still torn between these two loves, for politics and for philosophy. In the “Essay of Honor and Reputation” he gives all the degrees of honor to political and military achievements, none to the literary or the philosophical. But in the essay “Of Truth” he writes: “The inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it; the knowledge of truth, which is the praise of it; and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human natures.” In books “we converse with the wise, as in action with fools.” That is, if we know how to select our books. “Some books are to be tasted,” reads a famous passage, “others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”; all these groups forming, no doubt, an infinitesimal portion of the oceans and cataracts of ink in which the world is daily bathed and poisoned and drowned. 

Francis Bacon looked at truth as something to be applied. “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Surely the Essays must be numbered among the few books that deserve to be chewed and digested. Rarely shall you find so much meat, so admirably dressed and flavored, in so small a dish. Bacon abhors padding, and disdains to waste a word; he offers us infinite riches in a little phrase; each of these essays gives in a page or two the distilled subtlety of a master mind on a major issue of life. It is difficult to say whether the matter or the manner more excels; for here is language as supreme in prose as Shakespeare’s is in verse. It is a style like sturdy Tacitus’, compact yet polished; and indeed some of its conciseness is due to the skillful adaptation of Latin idiom and phrase. But its wealth of metaphor is characteristically Elizabethan, and reflects the exuberance of the Renaissance; no man in English literature is so fertile in pregnant and pithy comparisons. Their lavish array is the one defect of Bacon’s style: the endless metaphors and allegories and allusions fall like whips upon our nerves and tire us out at last. The Essays are like rich and heavy food, which cannot be digested in large quantities at once; but taken four or five at a time they are the finest intellectual nourishment in English.

Bacon’s Essays must be numbered among the few books that deserve to be chewed and digested.

What shall we extract from this extracted wisdom? Perhaps the best starting point, and the most arresting deviation from the fashions of medieval philosophy, is Bacon’s frank acceptance of the Epicurean ethic. “That philosophical progression, ‘Use not that you may not wish, wish not that you may not fear,’ seems an indication of a weak, diffident and timorous mind. And indeed most doctrines of the philosophers appear to be too distrustful, and to take more care of mankind than the nature of the thing requires. Thus they increase the fears of death by the remedies they bring against it; for whilst they make the life of man little more than a preparation and discipline for death, it is impossible but the enemy must appear terrible when there is no end of the defense to be made against him.” Nothing could be so injurious to health as the Stoic repression of desire; what is the use of prolonging a life which apathy has turned into premature death? And besides, it is an impossible philosophy; for instinct will out. “Nature is often hidden; sometimes overcome; seldom extinguished. Force maketh nature more violent in the return; doctrine and discourse maketh nature less importune; but custom only doth alter or subdue nature. … But let not a man trust his victory over his nature too far; for nature will lay buried a great time, and yet revive upon the occasion or temptation. Like as it was with Aesop’s damsel, turned from a cat to a woman, who sat very demurely at the board’s end, till a mouse ran before her. Therefore let a man either avoid the occasion altogether, or put himself often to it, that he may be little moved with it.” Indeed Bacon thinks the body should be inured to excesses as well as to restraint; else even a moment of unrestraint may ruin it. (So one accustomed to the purest and most digestible foods is easily upset when forgetfulness or necessity diverts him from perfection.) Yet “variety of delights rather than surfeit of them”; for “strength of nature in youth passeth over many excesses which are owing a man till his age”; a man’s maturity pays the price of his youth. One royal road to health is a garden; Bacon agrees with the author of Genesis that “God Almighty first planted a garden”; and with Voltaire that we must cultivate our back yards. 

Bacon is against the repression of desire because it can easily go out of control under temptation. It is better to talk about and confront one’s desire often to understand it and get used to it, so one may be able to control it.

The moral philosophy of the Essays smacks rather of Machiavelli than of the Christianity to which Bacon made so many astute obeisances. “We are beholden to Machiavel, and writers of that kind, who openly and unmasked declare what men do in fact, and not what they ought to do; for it is impossible to join the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove, without a previous knowledge of the nature of evil; as, without this, virtue lies exposed and unguarded.” “The Italians have an ungracious proverb, Tanto buon she val niente,”—so good that he is good for nothing. Bacon accords his preaching with his practice, and advises a judicious mixture of dissimulation with honesty, like an alloy that will make the purer but softer metal capable of longer life. He wants a full and varied career, giving acquaintance with everything that can broaden, deepen, strengthen or sharpen the mind. He does not admire the merely contemplative life; like Goethe he scorns knowledge that does not lead to action: “men ought to know that in the theatre of human life it is only for Gods and angels to be spectators.” 

Bacon is a departure from the scholasticism of Christianity. He urges that one must understand the nature of evil in order to guard virtue. He scorns knowledge that does not lead to action.

His religion is patriotically like the King’s. Though he was more than once accused of atheism, and the whole trend of his philosophy is secular and rationalistic, he makes an eloquent and apparently sincere disclaimer of unbelief. “I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind. … A little philosophy inclineth a man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s mind about to religion. For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them, confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity.” Religious indifference is due to a multiplicity of factions. “The causes of atheism are, divisions in religion, if they be many; for anyone division addeth zeal to both sides; but many divisions introduce atheism. …. And lastly, learned times, especially with peace and prosperity, for troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion.” 

Bacon’s has deep faith that may be regarded as religious.

But Bacon’s value lies less in theology and ethics than in psychology. He is an undeceivable analyst of human nature, and sends his shaft into every heart. On the stalest subject in the world he is refreshingly original. “A married man is seven years older in his thoughts the first day.” “It is often seen that bad husbands have good wives.” (Bacon was an exception.) “A single life doth well with churchmen, for charity will hardly water the ground where it must first fill a pool. . . . He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” Bacon seems to have worked too hard to have had time for love, and perhaps he never quite felt it to its depth. “It is a strange thing to note the excess of this passion. . . . There was never proud man thought so absurdly well of himself as the lover doth of the person beloved. . . .You may observe that amongst all the great and worthy persons (whereof the memory remaineth either ancient or recent), there is not one that hath been transported to the mad degree of love; which shows that great spirits and great business do keep out this weak passion.” 

But Bacon’s value lies less in theology and ethics than in psychology. He sees the emotional attachment of humans as a weakness. He differentiates between attachment and love that is affinity among humans.

He values friendship more than love, though of friendship too he can be skeptical. “There is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals, which was wont to be magnified. That that is, is between superior and inferior, whose fortunes may comprehend the one the other. … A principal fruit of friendship is the ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.” A friend is an ear. “Those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts. … Whoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another; he tosseth his thoughts more easily; he marshaleth them more orderly; he seeth how they look when they are turned into words; finally, he waxeth wiser than himself; and that more by one hour’s discourse than by a day’s meditation.”

It is more efficient to sort out one’s thoughts through conversation with a friend than in meditation.

In the essay “Of Youth and Age” he puts a book into a paragraph. “Young men are fitter to invent than to judge, fitter for execution than for counsel, and fitter for new projects than for settled business; for the experience of age in things that fall within the compass of it, directeth them; but in new things abuseth them. … Young men, in the conduct and management of actions, embrace more than they can hold, stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue absurdly some few principles which they have chanced upon; care not to” (i. e., how they) “innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences. … Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success. Certainly it is good to compel employments of both, … because the virtues of either may correct the defects of both.” He thinks, nevertheless, that youth and childhood may get too great liberty, and so grow disordered and lax. “Let parents choose betimes the vocations and courses they mean their children should take, for then they are most flexible; and let them not too much apply themselves to the disposition of their children, as thinking they will take best to that which they have most mind to. It is true that, if the affections or aptness of the children be extraordinary, then it is good not to cross it; but generally the precept” of the Pythagoreans “is good, Optimum lege, suave et facile illud faciet consuetudo,”—choose the best; custom will make it pleasant and easy. For “custom is the principal magistrate of man’s life.” 

Young men are adventurous as they are not weighed down by experience. They have energy but they need to be directed.

The politics of the Essays preach a conservatism natural in one who aspired to rule. Bacon wants a strong central power. Monarchy is the best form of government; and usually the efficiency of a state varies with the concentration of power. “There be three points of business” in government: “the preparation; the debate or examination; and the perfection” (or execution). “Whereof, if you look for dispatch, let the middle only be the work of many, and the first and last the work of a few.” He is an outspoken militarist; he deplores the growth of industry as unfitting men for war, and bewails long peace as lulling the warrior in man. Nevertheless, he recognizes the importance of raw materials: “Solon said well to Croesus (when in ostentation Croesus showed him his gold), ‘Sir, if any other come that hath better iron than you, he will be master of all this gold.”

In politics, Bacon believed in good preparation, detailed examination and determined execution.

Like Aristotle, he has some advice on avoiding revolutions. “The surest way to prevent seditions … is to take away the matter of them; for if there be fuel prepared, it is hard to tell whence the spark shall come that shall set it on fire. … Neither doth it follow that the suppressing of fames” (i. e., discussion) “with too much severity should be a remedy of troubles; for the despising of them many times checks them best, and the going about to stop them but makes a wonder long-lived. … The matter of sedition is of two kinds: much poverty and much discontentment. … The causes and motives of seditions are, innovation in religion; taxes; alteration of laws and customs; breaking of privileges; general oppression; advancement of unworthy persons, strangers; dearths”; disbanded soldiers; factions grown desperate; and whatsoever in offending a people joineth them in a common cause.” The cue of every leader, of course, is to divide his enemies and to unite his friends. “Generally, the dividing and breaking of all factions . . . that are adverse to the state, and setting them at a distance, or at least distrust, among themselves, is not one of the worst remedies; for it is a desperate case, if those that hold with the proceeding of the state be full of discord and faction, and those that are against it be entire and united.” A better recipe for the avoidance of revolutions is an equitable distribution of wealth: “Money is like muck, not good unless it be spread.” But this does not mean socialism, or even democracy; Bacon distrusts the people, who were in his day quite without access to education; “the lowest of all flatteries is the flattery of the common people”; and “Phocion took it right, who, being applauded by the multitude, asked, What had he done amiss?” What Bacon wants is first a yeomanry of owning farmers; then an aristocracy for administration; and above all a philosopher-king. “It is almost without instance that any government was unprosperous under learned governors.” He mentions Seneca. Antoninus Pius and Aurelius; it was his hope that to their names posterity would add his own. 

Like Aristotle, Bacon has some advice on avoiding revolutions. A better recipe for the avoidance of revolutions is an equitable distribution of wealth. What Bacon wants is first a yeomanry of owning farmers; then an aristocracy for administration; and above all a philosopher-king.


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  • Chris Thompson  On August 16, 2021 at 1:00 PM

    “He values friendship more than love, though of friendship too he can be skeptical. ‘There is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals, which was wont to be magnified.”‘ Rings hollow when compared to his treatment of his very best friend by execution . . . WTF?

    “Equitable distribution of wealth.” The age-old dilemma, problem, solution: Take from the rich and give to the poor. Is there any example of that ever happening? And what was the result of that happening?

    Humans, both help and exploit one another. This is another way of discussing equilibrium. At normal work and at the grocery, there is an even handed passive exchange and a naturally normal equilibrium which occurs. But when an imbalance of invention vs production vs consumption vs entitlement vs servitude vs contribution vs exploitation, then trouble ensues. Like out in the universe, when potential differences in energy are too great, cataclysm erupts. When we add to that mix various human social natures and myths such as that, “All Men Are Created Equal,” rather than that everyone should be treated equally under the law; it becomes quite the powder keg.

    Possibly, there are systems that can work among small prides of people, say 6 or 12 to 20. Maybe it could be a little larger. But 7 billion people simply make competing herds that absolutely cannot socialize together but rather compete for resources and others amongst us exploit that competition in order to channel those resources through themselves to carve off more than a wage. Sometimes they just harvest the entire thing giving the hand wave and, “Let them eat cake” to the clamoring crowd.

    Probably Jeff Bezos does not need his wealth to grow at the rate of $100,000,000 per day, yet it does. Perhaps assassination is a solution because really, does Amazon need him anymore? But what then would be done about the excess wealth that used to go to him? Would that surplus go to the government? Where it would be distributed by the aristocracy that exists there as they are doing right now?

    Old England was a tough place to live. I’m not aware of any free lunch at that time. This description of Sir Francis Bacon describes a man with problems more than solutions. Like his aristocratic friends, he worked to build a better world but it seems that better world needed to come at the expense of the masses both at home and abroad.


  • vinaire  On August 17, 2021 at 8:00 AM

    I think Bacon placed certain principles above friendship. He warned his friend for his treasonous acts against the crown many times before he finally prosecuted him. You need the right context before you make a determination.


  • vinaire  On August 17, 2021 at 8:07 AM

    There are rich only because there are poor. Rich become poor and poor become rich. You cannot eliminate either. Just let it be and teach people to be more human. A balance between rich and poor will establish itself naturally.


  • vinaire  On August 17, 2021 at 8:13 AM

    Bacon gave us the scientific method. That has been very important to evolution.


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