Friday, March 11, 2022

Bacon's prose style: a brief analysis.

When Bacon published the first edition of his Essays in 1597, prose writings in English were not highly developed. Nor, it should be noted was Bacon a full-time literary author. He was a man of affairs, deeply involved in politics and administration. Only a small part of his energy was directed to philosophy and literature. It was after his disgrace and consequent forced retirement form public office that he could devote his whole energy to science, literature and philosophy. Without being a professional litterateur, he occupies a permanent and important place in English literature as the first essayist. To Bacon and Bacon alone belongs the distinction of introducing in English the essay as a literary genre.

The Essays fully reflect the scientific and rational outlook of Bacon as a Renaissance man. Bacon observes the world keenly and de duces his conclusions from practice and observations. His judgments have their firm basis in experience. He does not argue a priori, i.e, from cognitions prior to experience as was done by the schoolmen in the Middle Ages. His essays are always based more on reason than on imagination. There is hardly any soaring flight of imagination. He takes his stand on observation and experience of facts and events. As a philosopher and logician he was acquainted with the deductive and inductive methods. As an empiricist his decided preference was for the inductive method based on observation and experience. He not only substantiates his arguments with instances, but maintains a fine balance between example and precept. Bacon is never superfluous, but precise. He is terse, brief and shuns circumlocution. He always directly comes to the point. He does not indulge in quibbling or dispute like the Sophists. His judgment is not dogmatic and one-sided. He states the essential but does not forget to dwell on the opposite viewpoint.

Through his brevity and clarity Bacon has taught all the future essayists the art of writing essays. In the present age his style and use of words may sometimes appear to be archaic but in spite of that Bacon is remembered even today for the pragmatic and practical outlook of his Essays. This is evident in his essays 'of Study' and 'of Discourse'. In the former Bacon states the three main purposes or aims of studies -"Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability." The entry into the subject matter is direct, precise and terse. This short sentence states what many an author would take ten lines to say. He also states likewise "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested". This statement is aphoristic and has been quoted by the readers and writers of English times without number. Another such statement is "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing and exact man." The influence or effect of study of different types of books is succinctly stated in the following sentence, -History make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtill; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend." One may not fully agree with everything that Bacon says, but one is compelled to admire the direct, precise and brief way in which he states his views. The fact that in a short essay of Bacon one finds many quotable quotes shows the high level of his intellectual attainment.

The other essay "of Discourse" begins rather with a general statement. "Some in their discourse desire rather commendation of wit, in being able to hold all arguments, than of judgment, in discerning what is true." He compares a good discourse to an open field. And Bacon goes on to state that it is not good to show in conversation all one knows. It is better to hide some of one's knowledge in order to acquire the reputation of knowing more than what one professes to know. "If you dissemble sometimes your knowledge of that you are thought to know, you shall be thought another time to know that you know not."

The critics of Bacon point out that his language is overlaid with the influence of Latin. His essays have a fair sprinkling of Latin quotations form his favourite authors to prove his point. But, really speaking, this is no demerit in Bacon. If one reads the Essays of Montaigne one will find many more quotations in Latin and Greek. In the sixteenth century, the European languages were just beginning to stand on their own feet. The whole of Europe in the Middle Ages had Latin as the tongue of the educated class. The regional languages gradually developed out of Latin in course of a long process of evolution. So it is quite natural that in the sixteenth century authors there was a strong influence of Latin. Bacon himself wrote most of his important works in Latin, e.g. Novum Organum. The only thing to be asked is whether the Latin quotations of Bacon are apt or irrelevant. Rather, one may say in defense of Bacon that the Latin quotations add to the beauty and literary merit of the Essays. In spite of the lack of spontaneity and personal notes that one finds in the essays of Montaigne, it must be said that the Essays of Bacon bring out the spirit of the age in which he lived. Though Bacon cannot be elevated to the level of a great philosopher, in the Essays he undoubtedly rose to the height his nature would permit.

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