Of Truth Bacon Essay Summary

As a pragmatic and as an empirical thinker Bacon subscribed to the fundamental Renaissance ideals—Sepantia (search for knowledge) and Eloquentia (the art of rhetoric). Here in the essay Of Truth he supplements his search for truth by going back to the theories of the classical thinkers and also by taking out analogies from everyday life. It is to be noted here that his explication of the theme is impassioned and he succeeds in providing almost neutral judgements on the matter. Again, it is seen that Bacon’s last essays, though written in the same aphoristic manner, stylistically are different in that he supplied more analogies and examples to support or explain his arguments. As this essay belongs to the latter group, we find ample analogies and examples. Bacon, while explaining the reasons as to why people evade truth, talks of the Greek philosophical school of sceptics, set up by Pyrro. Those philosophers would question the validity of truth and constantly change their opinions. Bacon says that now people are like those philosophers with the important difference that they lack their force and tenacity of argument. He says that like him the Greek philosopher Lucian was equally puzzled at the fact that people are more attracted to lies and are averse to truth. Bacon is surprised by the fact that people are loathed to find out or even acknowledge truth in life. It seems to him that this is an innate human tendency to do so. He finds evidence in support of his arguments in the behaviour of the ancient Greek sceptics who used to question the validity of truth and would have no fixed beliefs. Bacon thinks that people behave like those philosophers. But he understands that they lack their strength of arguments. He then finds the Greek philosopher Lucian, while considering the matter, was equally baffled. Lucian investigated and found that poets like lies because those provides pleasure, and that businessmen have to tell lies for making profit. But he could not come to a definite conclusion as to why people should love lies. Bacon says that men love falsehood because truth is like the bright light of the day and would show up pomp and splendour of human life for what they are. They look attractive and colourful in the dim light of lies. Men prefer to cherish illusions, which make life more interesting. Bacon here gives an interesting analogy of truth and falsehood. He says that the value of truth is like that of a pearl, which shines best in the day-light, while a lie is like a diamond or carbuncle, which shines best producing varied rays in dim light of candles. He comes to the conclusion that people love falsehood because it produces imaginary pleasure about life. Bacon also examines the statement of one of the early Church authorities, which severely condemned poetry as the wine of the devils. Bacon here shows that even the highest art of man—poetry, is composed of lies. He seems to have compounded the two statements made by two early Christian thinkers. He agrees with St Augustine who criticized poetry as “the wine of error”, and with Hironymous, who condemned poetry as “the food of demons”. The equation is that, since the devil or Satan works by falsehood, lies are its food. Poetry tends to be Satanic because it resorts to falsehood while producing artistic pleasure. Bacon, however, makes a distinction here between poetic untruth and fascination with falsehood in everyday life. He thinks that poetic untruth is not harmful, as it does not leave lasting impressions on the mind and character of a person. On the other hand, the lies, which are embedded in the mind and control and regulate every thought and action of a person, are harmful. Bacon refers to the Epicurean doctrine of pleasure, beautifully expressed by the famous poet of that school, Lucretius, who considered the realization of truth to be the highest pleasure of life. Bacon says that the value of truth is understood by those who have experienced it. The inquiry, knowledge and the belief of truth are the highest achievements that human beings can pursue. He amplifies the matter by giving an analogy from the Bible. According to him, God created the light of the senses first so that men could see the world around them. The last thing he created, according to him, was the light of reason, that is, the rational faculty. Bacon here interestingly comments that, since he finished the work of Creation, God has been diffusing the light of His spirit in mankind. He supports his argument by referring to the Epicurean theory of pleasure beautifully expressed by Lucretius who held that there is no greater pleasure than that given by the realization of truth. The summit of truth cannot be conquered and there is tranquillity on this peak from which one can survey the errors and follies of men as they go through their trials; but this survey should not fill the watcher with pity and not with pride. The essence of heavenly life on this earth lies in the constant love of charity, an unshakable trust in God, and steady allegiance to truth. At the concluding section of the essay Bacon explains the value of truth in civil affairs of life. He is conscious of the fact that civil life goes on with both truth and falsehood. He feels that the mixture of falsehood with truth may sometimes turn out to be profitable. But it shows the inferiority of the man who entertains it. This is, he says, like the composition of an alloy, which is stronger but inferior in purity. He then compares this kind of way of life to that of a serpent, which is a symbol of Satan itself. Bacon finds a striking similarity between the crooked and mean devices adopted by people and the zigzag movements of a serpent. To clarify his point more clearly, Bacon quotes Montaigne who said that a man, who tells lies, is afraid of his fellow men but is unafraid of God who is all perceiving. Bacon concludes his arguments by saying that falsehood is the height of wickedness, and such that it will invite the wrath of God on Doomsday.

Sir Francis Bacon, Essays, "Of Truth" and "Of Marriage and the Single Life"

Genre: Philosophical essays on the model of those by Montaigne, but also influenced by the attitudes of Machiavelli and the Roman historians, whose guarding of their own personas Bacon imitated.

Form: Prose.  Isn't that easy!  But actually he uses some notable prose strategies that deserve comment.   Balance and opposition are the most common strategies he uses to achieve both the apperance of balance and the concealment of his own opinions under the cloak of the opposing alternatives.  He also is an adept wielder of other writers' opinions, as in his use of Pilate, Augustine, Lucretius, and Montaigne in "Of Truth." 

Characters: The aforementioned "authorities" operate as occasional characters in his prose, as well as offering him the chance to display his learning.

Summary:

  • "Of Truth" raises the interesting problem of our difficulty in defining lies, especially when we consider theology as a view with a higher and more profound standard of truth than mere mortal philosophy.  More dangerously, he speculates "A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure" (1259).  When moving into ordinary language of "civil business" (see the preface regarding his career!), he turns openly censorious of lies, even though such a world is obviously full of them.
  • "Of Marriage and Single Life" considers "wives" and children (assuming his readers are male) and balances their advantages against their disadvantages in such a way that it's difficult to decide whether marriage is a good or a bad idea.  Bad marriages, however, he suggests can be analyzed more easily by their effects upon the women in them.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. Bacon has come in for some tough criticism in the nineteenth century (especially Macaulay), but he also is known as an early proponent of the scientific method in the Novum Organum (1620), which discussed "true directions concerning the interpretation of nature" by means of experiment under controlled conditions.
    • How much of the ambiguity in his essays might be explained by the fact that life, as we encounter it, is not a controlled experiement, and that generalizations upon life's experiences must necessarily be complex, even unto inutility?
  2. The sad fact of Bacon's indictment for bribery, which he confessed, did not keep him from marrying an heiress and living out his life in retirement as a man of letters and a scientific researcher.
    • How many of our poets are similarly productive because of their isolation from public life, and from the temptation to squander their energies on the "important" issues of their day?
    • Can this give us any further insight into the defense of poetry which Sidney began, by establishing a need for certain kinds of special lives which are dedicated to arcane pursuits beneficial to humanity only in the very long run?
    Also see Milton's "When I Consider..." for another view of this notion.

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.

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