Francis Bacon.

Bacon's essays : with annotations (Volume 3) online

. (page 1 of 57)
Online LibraryFrancis BaconBacon's essays : with annotations (Volume 3) → online text (page 1 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook





- ,










lOKDOlf :






TTAVING been accustomed to write down, from time to
- *- time, such observations as occurred to me on several of
Bacon's Essays, and also to make references to passages in
various books which relate to the same subjects, I have been
induced to lay the whole before the Public in an Edition of
these Essays. And in this I have availed myself of the
assistance of a friend, who, besides offering several valuable
suggestions, kindly undertook the task of revising and arrang-
ing the loose notes I had written down, and adding, in foot-
notes, explanations of obsolete words and phrases. These
notes are calculated, I think, to throw light on the language
not only of Bacon's Essays, but also of our Authorized Version
of the Scriptures, which belongs to the same Age. There are,
in that language, besides some few words that are now wholly
obsolete, many times more (as is remarked in the 'Annotations'
on Essay XXIV.) which are now as commonly in use as ever,
but with a change in their meaning, which makes them far more
likely to mislead than those quite obsolete. 1

In order to guard against the imputation of presumption in
venturing to make additions to what Bacon has said on several
subjects, it is necessary to call attention to the circumstance
that the word ESSAY has been considerably changed in its
application since the days of Bacon. By an Essay was origi-
nally meant according to the obvious and natural sense of the
word a slight sketch, to be filled up by the reader ; brief
hints, designed to be followed out ; loose thoughts on some

1 There is a very useful little work by the Rev. Mr. Booker, a Vocabulary of
the Obsolete Words and Phrases in our Version. It is a manual which no reader ot
the Bible ought to be without.


subjects, thrown out without much regularity, but sufficient to
suggest further inquiries and reflections. Any more elaborate,
regular, and finished composition, such as, in our days, often
bears the title of an Essay, our ancestors called a treatise,
tractate, dissertation, or discourse. But the more unpretending
title of ' Essay' has in great measure superseded those others
which were formerly in use, and more strictly appropriate.

I have adverted to this circumstance, because it ought to be
remembered that an Essay, in the original and strict sense of
the word, an Essay such as Bacon's, and also Montaigne's,
was designed to be suggestive of further remarks and reflections,
and, in short, to set the reader a-thinking on the subject. It
consisted of observations loosely thrown out, as in conversation ;
and inviting, as in conversation, the observations of others on the
subject. With an Essay, in the modern sense of the word, it
is not so. If the reader of what was designed to be a regular
and complete treatise on some subject (and which would have
been so entitled by our forefathers) makes additional remarks
on that subject, he may be understood to imply that there is a
deficiency and imperfection a something wanting in the
work before him ; whereas, to suggest such further remarks to
give outlines that the reader shall fill up for himself is the very
object of an Essay, properly so called such as those of Bacon.
A commentary to explain or correct, few writings need less:
but they admit of, and call for, expansion and development.
They are gold-ingots, not needing to be gilt or polished, but
requiring to be hammered out in order to display their full

He is, throughout, and especially in his Essays, one of the
most suggestive authors that ever wrote. And it is remarkable
that, compressed and pithy as the Essays are, and consisting
chiefly of brief hints, he has elsewhere condensed into a still
smaller compass the matter of most of them. In his Rhetoric
he has drawn up what he calls ' Antitheta,' or common-places,
' locos,' i.e. pros and cons, opposite sentiments and reasons, on


various points, mo^t of them the same that are discussed in the
Essays. It is a compendious and clear mode of bringing
before the mind the most important points in any question, to
place in parallel columns, as Bacon has done, whatever can be
plausibly urged, fairly, or unfairly, on opposite sides ; and then
you are in the condition of a judge who has to decide some
cause after having heard all the pleadings. I have accordingly
appended to most of the Essays some of Bacon's ' Antitheta' on
the same subjects.

Several of these ' Antitheta ' were either adopted by Bacon
from proverbial use, or have (through him) become Proverbs. 1
And, accordingly, I prefixed a brief remark (which I here
insert) to the selection from Bacon's ' Antitheta ' appended to
the Elements of Rhetoric. For, all the writers on the sub-
ject that I have met with (several of them learned, ingenious,
and entertaining) have almost entirely overlooked what appears
to me the real character, and proper office, of Proverbs.

' Considering that Proverbs have been current in all ages and
countries, it is a curious circumstance that so much difference
of opinion should exist as to the utility, and as to the design
of them. Some are accustomed to speak as if Proverbs con-
tained a sort of concentrated essence of the wisdom of all Ages,
which will enable any one to judge and act aright on every
emergency. Others, on the contrary, represent them as fit
only to furnish occasionally a motto for a book, a theme for a
school-boy's exercise, or a copy for children learning to

* To me, both these opinions appear erroneous.

' That Proverbs are not generally regarded, by those who use

1 There is appended to Prof. Sullivan's Spelling-book superseded, a collec-
tion (which is also published separate) of PEOVEKBS for Copy-lines, with short
explanations annexed, for the use of young people. As a child can hardly fail to
learn hy heart, without effort or design, words which he has written, over and over,
as an exercise in penmanship, if these words contain something worth rernemhering,
this is so much clear gain.


them, as, necessarily, propositions of universal and acknow-
ledged truth, like mathematical axioms, is plain from the cir-
cumstance that many of those most in use are like these
common-places of Bacon opposed to each other; as e.g.
f Take care of the pence, and the pounds "will take care of
themselves / to * Be not penny- wise and pound-foolish / and
again, ' The more haste, the worse speed / or, ' Wait awhile,
that we may make an end the sooner / to ' Take Time by the
forelock/ or ' Time and tide for no man bide/ &c.

'It seems, I think, to be practically understood, that a
Proverb is merely a compendious expression of some principle,
which will usually be, in different cases, and with or without
certain modifications, true or false, applicable or inapplicable.
When then a Proverb is introduced, the speaker usually
employs it as a Major-premise, and is understood to imply,
as a Minor, that the principle thus referred to is applicable in
the existing case. And what is gained by the employment of
the Proverb, is, that his judgment, and his reason for it, are
conveyed through the use of a well-known form of expression,
clearly, and at the same time in an incomparably shorter space,
than if he had had to explain his meaning in expressions
framed for the occasion. And the brevity thus obtained is
often still further increased by suppressing the full statement
even of the very Proverb itself, if a very common one, and
merely alluding to it in a word or two.

'Proverbs accordingly are somewhat analogous to those
medical Formulas which, being in frequent use, are kept
ready-made-up in the chemists' shops, and which often save
the framing of a distinct Prescription.

' And the usefulness of this brevity will not be thought, by
any one well conversant with Reasoning, to consist merely in
the saving of breath, paper, or time. Brevity, when it does
not cause obscurity, conduces much to the opposite effect, and
causes the meaning to be far more clearly apprehended than it
would have been in a longer expression. More than half the
cases, probably, in which men either misapprehend what is said,


or confuse one question with another, or are misled by any
fallacy, are traceable in great measure to a want of sufficient
conciseness of expression.'

Perhaps it may be thought by some to be a superfluous task
to say anything at all concerning a work which has been in
most people's hands for about two centuries and a-half, and
has, in that time, rather gained than lost in popularity. But
there are some qualities in Bacon's writings to which it is
important to direct, from time to time, especial attention, on
account of a tendency often showing itself, and not least at the
present day, to regard with excessive admiration writers of a
completely opposite character; those of a mystical, dim, half-
intelligible kind of affected grandeur. 1

' It is well known what a reproach to our climate is the
prevalence of fogs, and how much more of risk and of incon-
venience results from that mixture of light and obscurity
than from the darkness of night. But let any one imagine to
himself, if he can, a mist so resplendent with gay prismatic
colours, that men should forget its inconveniences in their
admiration of its beauty, and that a kind of nebular taste
should prevail, for preferring that gorgeous dimness to vulgar
daylight ; nothing short of this could afford a parallel to the
mischief done to the public mind by some late writers both
in England and America ; a sort of ' Children of the Mist,'
who bring forward their speculations often very silly, and not
seldom very mischievous under cover of the twilight. They
have accustomed their disciples to admire as a style sublimely
philosophical, what may best be described as a certain haze of
words imperfectly understood, through which some seemingly
original ideas, scarcely distinguishable in their outlines, loom,
as it were, on the view, in a kind of dusky magnificence, that
greatly exaggerates their real dimensions.'

1 The passages that follow are chiefly extracted from No. 29 of the Cautions for
the Times ; of which I may be permitted to say, as it was not written by myself
that a more admirable composition, both in matter and style, I never met with.


In the October number of the Edinburgh Review, 1851
(p. 513), the reviewer, though evidently disposed to regard with
some favour a style of dim and mystical sublimity, remarks, that
' a strange notion, which many have adopted of late years, is that
a poem cannot be profound unless it is, in whole or in part,
obscure ; the people like their prophets to foam and speak

But the reviewer need not have confined his remark to
poetry; a similar taste prevails in reference to prose writers
also. ' I have ventured,' says the late Bishop Copleston (in a
letter published in the Memoir of him by his nephew), ' to give
the whole class the appellation of the ' magic-lanthorn school,'
for, their writings have the startling effect of that toy ; children
delight in it, and grown people soon get tired of it/

The passages here subjoined, from modern works in some
repute, may serve as specimens (and a multitude of such might
have been added) of the kind of style alluded to :

' In truth, then, the idea (call it that of day or that of
night) is threefold, not twofold : day, night, and their rela-
tion. Day is the thesis, night the antithesis, their relation
the mesothesis of the triad, for triad it is, and not a mere
pair or duad, after all. It is the same with all the other
couples cited above, and with all couples, for every idea is a
trinitarian. Positive pole, negative one, and that middle term
wherein they are made one ; sun, planet, their relation ; solar
atom, planetary one, their conjunction, and so forth. The term
of relation betwixt the opposites in these ideal pairs is some-
times called the point of indifference, the mesoteric point, the
mid-point. This mid-point is to be seen standing betwixt its
right and left fellow-elements in every dictionary : for example,
men, man, women ; or adjectively, male, human, female. ' So
God created man in His own image : in the image of God
created He him ; male and female created He them/ '

' Now, this threefold constitution of ideas is universal. As
all things seem to go in pairs to sense, and to the understand-


ing, so all are seen in threes by reason. This law of antinomy
is no limited, no planetary law, nor yet peculiarly human ; it is
cosmical, all-embracing, ideal, divine. Not only is it impossible
for man to think beauty without simultaneously thinking de-
formity and their point of indifference, justice without injustice
and theirs, unity without multiplicity and theirs, but those
several theses (beauty, justice, unity, namely) cannot be thought
without these their antitheses, and without the respective
middle terms of the pairs. As the eye of common-sense cannot
have an inside without an outside, nor a solar orb without a
planetary orbicle (inasmuch as it ceases to be solar the instant
it is stript of its planet), so the eye of reason cannot see an
inside without seeing an outside, and also their connexion as
the inside and the outside of one and the same thing, nor a
sun without his planet and their synthesis in a solar system.
In short, three-in-one is the law of all thought and of all
things. Nothing has been created, nothing can be thought,
except upon the principle of three-in-one. Three-in-one is the
deepest-lying cypher of the universe/ 1

Again : f The ' relativity' of human knowledge, i.e., the meta-
physical limitation of it, implies, we are told, the relation of a
subject knowing to an object known. And what is known
must be qualitatively known, inasmuch as we must conceive
every object of which we are conscious, in the relation of a
quality depending upon a substance. Moreover, this qualita-
tively known object must be protended, or conceived as existing
in time, and extended, or regarded as existing in space ; while
its qualities are intensive, or conceivable under degree. The
thinkable, even when compelled by analysis to make the nearest
approach that is possible to a negation of intelligibility, thus
implies phenomena objectified by thought, and conceived to exist
in space and time. With the help of these data, may we not

1 This must have been in the mind of the poet who wrote
' So, down thy hill, romantic Ashbourne, glides
The Derby Dilly, carrying three insides/ -



discover and define the highest law of intelligence, and thus
place the key-stone in the raetaphysic arch ?'

' If thou hast any tidings' (says Falstaff to Ancient Pistol)
' prithee deliver them like a man of this world/

Again : ' Thus to the ancient, well-known logic, which we
might call the logic of identity, and which has for its axiom,
'A thing can never be the contrary of that which it is,' Hegel
opposes his own logic, according to which ' everything is at
once that which it is, and the contrary of that which it is' By
means of this he advances a priori ; he proposes a thesis, from
which he draws a new synthesis, not directly (which might be
impossible), but indirectly, by means of an antithesis.'

Again : ' It [Religion] is a mountain air ; it is the embalmer
of the world. It is myrrh, and storax, and chlorine, and rose-
mary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime ; and the silent

song of the stars is it Always the seer is a sayer.

Somehow his dream is told, somehow he publishes it with
solemn joy, sometimes with pencil on canvas, sometimes with
chisel on stone ; sometimes in towers and aisles of granite, his
soul's worship is builded Man is the wonder-
maker. He is seen amid miracles. The stationariness of re-
ligion ; the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that
the Bible is closed ; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus
by representing him as a man, indicate with sufficient clear-
ness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true
teacher to show us that God is, not was that He speaketh,
not spoke. The true Christianity a faith like Christ's in the
infinitude of Man is lost. None believeth in the soul of Man,
but only in some man or person old and departed ! In how
many churches, and by how many prophets, tell me, is Man
made sensible that he is an infinite soul ; that the earth and
heavens are passing into his mind ; and that he is drinking for
ever the soul of God !

' The very word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian Churches,
gives a false impression : it is a monster ; it is not one with the


blowing clover and the falling rain. . . . Man's life is a miracle,
and all that man doth. ... A true conversion, a true Christ,
is now, as always, to be made by the reception of beautiful
sentiments. . . . The gift of God to the soul is not a vaunting,
overpowering, excluding sanctity, but a sweet natural goodness
like thine and mine, and that thus invites thine and mine to be,
and to grow/ 1

Now, without presuming to insinuate that such passages as
these convey no distinct meaning to any reader, or to the
writer, it may safely be maintained that to above ninety-nine
hundredths including, probably, many who admire them as
profoundly wise they are very dimly, if at all, intelligible. If
the writers of them were called on to explain their meaning, as
Mr. Bayes is, in The Rehearsal, they might perhaps confess as
frankly as he does, that the object was merely ' to elevate and
surprise/ Some knowledge of a portion of human nature was
certainly possessed by that teacher of Rhetoric mentioned by
Quintilian, whose constant admonition to his pupils was
\GKOTiaov\ ' darken, darken !' as the readiest mode of gaining

One may often hear some writers of the c magic-lanthorn
school' spoken of as possessing wonderful power, even by those
who regret that this power is not better employed. ' It is
pity/ we sometimes hear it said, ' that such and such an author
does not express in simple, intelligible, unaffected English such
admirable matter as his/ They little think that it is the
strangeness and obscurity of the style that make the power

1 It is worth observing that this writer, as well as very many others of the
same stamp, professes to be a believer in what he chuses to call Christianity ; and
would, of course, not scruple to take the oath (so strenuously maintained by some,
as a safeguard to the Christian religion) ' on the true faith of a Christian,' though
he is further removed from what is commonly meant by ' Christianity,' than a Jew
or a Mussulman. And it should be remembered that this case is far different from
that (with which it is sometimes confounded) of hypocritical profession. He who
uses the word ' Christian' avowedly in a sense quite different from the established
one, is to be censured indeed for an unwarrantable abuse of language, but is not
guilty of deception.


displayed seem far greater than it is ; and that much of what
they now admire as originality and profound wisdom, would
appear, if translated into common language, to be mere com-
mon-place matter. Many a work of this description may
remind one of the supposed ancient shield which had been
found by the antiquary Martinus Scriblerus, and which he
highly prized, incrusted as it was with venerable rust. He
mused on the splendid appearance it must have had in its bright
newness; till, one day, an over-sedulous house-maid having
scoured off the rust, it turned out to be merely an old pot-lid.

1 ' It is chiefly in such foggy forms that the metaphysics and
theology of Germany, for instance, are exercising a greater in-
fluence every day on popular literature. It has been zealously
instilled into the minds of many, that Germany has something
far more profound to supply than anything hitherto extant in
our native literature ; though what that profound something is,
seems not to be well understood by its admirers. They are,
most of them, willing to take it for granted, with an implicit
faith, that what seems such hard thinking, must be very accu-
rate and original thinking also. What is abstruse and recondite
they suppose must be abstruse and recondite wisdom ; though,
perhaps, it is what, if stated in plain English, they would throw
aside as partly trifling truisms, and partly stark folly.

' It is a remark which I have heard highly applauded, that a
clear idea is generally a little idea; for there are not a few
persons who estimate the depth of thought as an unskilful eye
would estimate the depth of water. Muddy water is apt to be
supposed to be deeper than it is, because you cannot see to the
bottom ; very clear water, on the contrary, will always seem
less deep than it is, both from the well-known law of refraction,
and also because it is so thoroughly penetrated by the sight.
Men fancy that an idea must have been always obvious to
every one, when they find it so plainly presented to the mind
that every one can easily take it in. An explanation that is

1 This passage is from the Cautions for the Times, No. 29.


perfectly clear, satisfactory, and simple, often causes the unre-
flecting to forget that they had needed any explanation at all.
And truths that are, in practice, frequently overlooked, they
will deride as ' vapid truisms' if very plainly set forth, and will
wonder that any one should think it worth while to notice

Accordingly, if there should be two treatises on some science,
one of them twice as long as the other, but containing nothing
of much importance that is not to be found in the other (ex-
cept some positions that are decidedly untenable), but in a style
much more diffuse, and less simple and perspicuous, with a
tone of lofty pretension, and scornful arrogance, many persons
will consider this latter as far the more profound a"nd philoso-
phical work, and the other as containing merely ' beggarly
elements/ fit only for the vulgar.

Hence it is that some Writers appear to have much more,
and others, much less, originality than they really have. A
man who with a certain amount of ability, has a larger amount
of self-conceit, and a still greater craving for admiration, will
often acquire a kind of trick of dressing up in a new and
striking and paradoxical form, much that has in it little or
nothing of real novelty. And if he also throws out dark hints,
in a boastful style, of what wonderful matters he could produce
besides, he will commonly pass for a Writer of great originality.
Those, again, of an opposite character, wishing more to convey
instruction than to excite admiration, will endeavour, and often
with success, to connect what is new with what is long esta-
blished and well-known, so exactly and so neatly, that the suture,
as it were, will be imperceptible, and the readers will so easily
and clearly understand what is said, that they will fancy they
knew it before, and will consider such Authors as sound, indeed,
and clear, but quite destitute of originality, and not at all

Each kind of writing has its recommendations. Each will
obtain, if there be a considerable amount of ability, some degree


of popularity : but of immediate popularity, far the larger share
will be obtained by a style of boastful pretension, and apparent
originality, because it will be admired by that class of persons
who are the more numerous. But the other will strike deeper
root, and will produce a more powerful, a more beneficial, and a
more lasting impression.

'Now, Bacon is a striking instance of a genius who could
think so profoundly, and at the same time so clearly, that an
ordinary man understands readily some of his wisest sayings,
and, perhaps, thinks them so self-evident as hardly to need
mention. But, on re-consideration and repeated meditation,
you perceive more and more what extensive and important
application one of his maxims will have, and how often it
has been overlooked : and on returning to it again and again,
fresh views of its importance will continually open on you.
One of his sayings will be like some of the heavenly bodies
that are visible to the naked eye, but in which you see con-

Online LibraryFrancis BaconBacon's essays : with annotations (Volume 3) → online text (page 1 of 57)