Book Review: Essays (Francis Bacon)

Essays, by Francis Bacon

As a frequent writer of essays I also enjoy reading the essays of others.  Indeed, this book and the approach that Francis Bacon takes in his essays is not so different from my own blogs.  Whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your own judgment of either my own modest essays or those of a man whose essays have become the chief way that this intelligent and complicated man has been remembered by future generations.  The more one knows about Bacon’s life and political sensitivities, the more these essays and their dedications will strike one with a great deal of interest and curiosity.  Why did Bacon dedicate the first edition of his essays to his brother while having his brother give the dedication to the doomed Elizabethan favorite Essex?  Why did the third edition of the essays, the last one released during his lifetime, have a cringing and servile dedication to a Jacobean favorite (The Duke of Buckingham) who Bacon intensely loathed?  Why does Bacon write an essay which condemns corruption on the part of leaders when he himself was convicted on a (likely highly politically motivated) charge of corruption himself?  A man can write about virtue without being a virtuous man, but is that something to be celebrated?

This book is a reasonably short at 250 pages or so.  The first 50 pages or so discuss the principal dates in Bacon’s life, an introduction to the essays and Bacon’s other writings, as well as a note on the text and suggestions for further reading.  The next 180 pages or so are made up of a wide variety of essays, most of them very short (indeed, Bacon would have been a very accomplished blogger, as many of his essays are precisely the sort of blog posts that are very popular nowadays in terms of their learned content and cerebral approach).  Most of the essays have titles such as Of Truth, Of Death, Of Revenge, Of Adversity, Of Envy, Of Love, Of Boldness, Of Nobility, Of Seditions And Troubles, Of Atheism, Of Superstition, Of Travel, Of Empire, Of Counsel, Of Cunning, and so on, and they average only three or four small pages in length.  Some of the essays deal with areas that are still topical where Bacon’s thinking is still thought-provoking even today.  The book then closes with various appendices that discuss fragments, versions, and parallels between different editions, as well as writing the essays (i), counsels for the prince (ii), the wisdom of the ancients (iii), idols of the mind (iv), and an essay on poetics (v).

In reading this book one can find a lot about what Francis Bacon thought.  The essays are intensely cerebral and intelligent and the author explores the complexities of what would be threadbare cliches in the less skilled hands of others.  Indeed, it is the willingness to explore the different shades of meaning inherent in different words and the many and sometimes contradictory senses of conventional wisdom, blending logic and arguments from authority together in inventive ways, that makes these essays particularly important for later generations.  They are the sort of thoughtful pieces that someone like an Emerson could only dream of writing.  That said, it must be freely admitted that the author reveals little about his own sense of humanity and what really drove and motivated him as a person.  As is the case with some intelligent people, Bacon used his fluency and his obvious skill with words to distance himself and his own vulnerable aspects of his personality from the scrutiny of others.  And that is not such a bad thing; I can definitely relate to that tendency myself, and perhaps some readers will be able to relate to this as well.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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