An Analysis of Francis Bacon’s Essay ‘Of Studies’

Image for post
Image for post

Central to any humanities education is knowing how and when to apply what one has learned. Justification of the humanities would be necessary even if we lived in an age in which the value of a true liberal arts education was widely known. I say this because much of what passes for liberal arts today is deeply ideological and based in pseudo-disciplines. A true liberal arts education, based in the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and emphasizing an understanding of and appreciation for the great classics, aims at the excellence of the individual. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), being one of the most important writers for any student of the humanities to study, should be part of the basic curriculum. Among his writings, his Essays offer an immensely practical understanding of the humanities. Among his essays, Of Studies is perhaps the greatest. What is the value of studying in the liberal arts? Francis Bacon offers an utterly compelling answer. This article will be an analysis of what I would argue is one of the most important essays ever written.

“Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business.”

Beginning with a tripartite explanation of why studies are useful, Bacon opens by addressing the various reasons one may avail himself to lessons. Bacon uses the term ‘studies’ to refer to wisdom and authority conferred through books to the reader. A close reading of the first line reveals, not just a trinity, but the verb ‘serve.’ That is, studies are in the service of these options. Studies have instrumental value in aiding those who read for enjoyment, those who wish to improve the quality of their manner of speaking, and those who wish to improve the value they bring to the marketplace. Reading for pleasure allows one to develop an appreciation for great writing. Reading for ornament allows one to think and speak with greater clarity. Reading for business allows one to rise to the top of his/her respected industry. Indeed, one should observe the vocabularies of Fortune 500 CEOs. An expansive vocabulary allows on to express ideas with greater subtlety and actually become smarter over time. Intelligence, along with conscientiousness, will allow one to rise to the tops of hierarchies. Studies prove immensely valuable in such endeavors.

“For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. 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.”

When Francis Bacon refers to ‘expert men,’ he means people with practical experience but not necessarily a formal education in abstract reasoning. Hence, his emphasis on judging particulars. One many happen upon abstract principles strictly through practical experience but, as Bacon wisely councils, knowledge of abstract principles allows for greater efficiency. Intelligence is not merely the ability to comprehend greater degrees of complexity. Speed is also a key component. In a competitive environment, speed is an asset. Knowledge of relevant abstract principles are a must. I must go on a bit of a digression here. This concerns the dismal way history has been taught for quite a while now. History teachers who focus on names and dates are not teaching true history. Such teachers do not justice to the field by taxing their students’ minds with memorizing little bits of trivia. Focusing on general themes as well as having students read the classics and write as often as possible are the best ways to promote individual excellence and instill in them a sense of awe and appreciation for the field. This is why we need Classical Humanism in the twenty-first century.

In this portion of the essay, Bacon addresses problems with the three categories introduced at the outset. Spending too much time studying leads to lack of productivity. Studies have only potential power in themselves. They must be applied toward practical ends. Here, it would be prudent to remember words of wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.” Using studies for ornament in the present day is perhaps best exemplified by the postmodernists. Lacan, in particular, loved obscurantism. Quite frankly, his writing makes him sound like a pretentious hipster. Bacon warns against such vanity. Love of sounding intelligent (especially in cases where there is nothing beyond the façade) leads to intellectual conceit. Bacon notes one other major problem: ‘to make judgment wholly by their rules.’ Here, he is rejecting the subjugation of humanity to reason. We use reason to improve out lot in life (both individually and as a society). Plato and others have tried to argue that reason must reign supreme (see Plato’s Phaedrus). Plato used the analogy of the chariot whereby the charioteer represents reason and the horses represent the passions. The charioteer’s goal is to maintain control (this feeds into Plato’s larger argument that the soul works best when reason is in charge). Modern psychology has pretty much shattered the naïve goal of placing reason in charge of the passions. If we were to ‘make judgments’ wholly by the rules of abstract principles, we would feel terribly constrained. Reason is the servant of the passions, but a persuasive and stubborn one.

“They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience.”

Here, Francis Bacon emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between studies and experience. They buttress each other much like the two sides of an arch. Leonardo da Vinci once said “The arch is nothing else than a force originated by two weaknesses, for the arch in buildings is composed of two segments of a circle, each of which being very weak in itself tends to fall; but as each opposes this tendency in the other, the two weaknesses combine to form one strength.”[1] Similarly, studies and experience may escape from their own deficiencies through mutual reinforcement. That the particulars can be understood within an abstract framework and the abstract framework be grounded in practical experience.

“Crafty men contemn 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. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things.”

Francis Bacon addresses responses to studies (again in a trinity). The tripartite elements in this essay allow for both efficiency and complexity, thus allowing Bacon the liberty to expatiate when necessary but not so as to stray from the purpose of the essay. By ‘crafty men,’ Bacon means practical men with an acrimonious disposition toward formal studies. Such men tend lack the necessary foresight to realize the value of studies. On the other hand, simple men merely admire studies and those whom they perceive to be intelligent. The value of studies is in their utility. That must be the focus. In the latter portion of this section of the essay, Bacon gives advice on how to read. Given the seemingly infinite number of printed materials in the world today, one must focus on quality. With regard to education, quality can be determined for a select number of works published from ancient times to about a century before the present. These works, the Great Classics, have stood up to generations of the best critics, have made a significant impact, and have influenced other great works. Other, not so great, works can be read with greater brevity or via secondary sources. In other words, life is too short to be reading the ideological garbage produced by the likes of Judith Butler. Focus on the great works of Francis Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky instead!

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study 197 the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.”

This last section of the essay basically reinforces what Bacon has been going over in the other parts. Here, he breaks down ‘studies’ and notes their practical values. He stresses disciplining the mind and how studies can aid in the process.

Written by

Artist | Content Creator | Pantheist | Bohemian | Philosopher | Juggler | Anti-Authoritarian, Pro-Decentralization/Localism|

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store