Bacon's Essays: Of Discourse

Francis Bacon at 17
Francis at 17, when he was prone to stutter when especially excited.

Of Discourse seems a bit bland, given Bacon’s own rhetorical gifts and the importance of rhetoric in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture. Still, it’s good advice, from a man who spent much of his life standing around in a monarch’s presence chamber, making small talk with visitors from abroad and other courtiers.

Bacon was much admired for his eloquence, both verbal and written, although as a young man he made some notes in his private commonplace book worrying that he sometimes spoke too fast, when he got excited about a topic, stuttering and perhaps emitting a little spit. Practice and maturity would cure those small faults.

I find the prose in this essay too dense, perhaps a little too artful. I’ll try to unpack it for us. Two helpful hints are to remember that at this time, ‘want’ also meant ‘lack,’ and ‘that’ was often used in place of ‘in order to.’

More substance, less style

“Some in their discourse, desire rather commendation of wit, in being able to hold all arguments, than of judgment, in discerning what is true; as if it were a praise, to know what might be said, and not, what should be thought.”

We all know people like this. They rattle off some quip — they think — in order to sound witty or clever, when their stupid quip actually has little to do with the topic at hand. Clever, maybe, but ill-considered.

courtiers

“Some have certain common places, and themes, wherein they are good, and want variety.”

People who can only talk about their kids, or their dogs, or how much they hate their jobs… Pick up a magazine or take up a hobby, for pity’s sake! And please don’t tell us about your dreams or repeat the whole plot of whatever movie you just saw.

“The honorablest part of talk, is to give the occasion; and again to moderate, and pass to somewhat else; for then a man leads the dance.”

This is opaque. I think he’s saying, it’s best to be a director of the conversation, introducing new topics that others can then expand. That’s the gift of the skilled hostess or host at a party.

“It is good, in discourse and speech of conversation, to vary and intermingle speech of the present occasion, with arguments, tales with reasons, asking of questions, with telling of opinions, and jest with earnest: for it is a dull thing to tire, and, as we say now, to jade, any thing too far.” 

Variety is pleasing in conversation as in other things. We like to talk about current events (not necessarily politics!), mix that up with a story or two, especially stories with morals. Ask each other questions. Joke a little, but also talk seriously about some things.

Mind your jests

“As for jest, there be certain things, which ought to be privileged from it; namely, religion, matters of state, great persons, any man’s present business of importance, and any case that deserveth pity.”

jesterIn Bacon’s time, jesting about great persons could land you in jail. These days, it’s the major topic, at least among people who are sure they’re all on the same page politically. We could probably do with less of it, in my most humble opinion. More discussion of policy, less mocking of personalities.

“Yet there be some, that think their wits have been asleep, except they dart out somewhat that is piquant, and to the quick. That is a vein which would be bridled: Parce, puer, stimulis, et fortius utere loris.” (Boy, spare the spur, and more tightly hold the reins, Ovid, Metamorphosis.)

There are guys like this in my dad’s old coffee shop gang. Everything you say, they come back with some sarcastic comment, obviously intended to be clever and funny, but actually just a crashing conversation killer. You can’t talk to a person like that! 

“And generally, men ought to find the difference, between saltness and bitterness. Certainly, he that hath a satirical vein, as he maketh others afraid of his wit, so he had need be afraid of others’ memory.”

You can’t cover up your general bitterness by using joking intonation, pretending that you’re being amusing while you’re really just bringing everyone down with your endless negativity. Exploring what Bacon meant by “saltness,” I find this exact quote in the OED under the meaning “piquancy, poignancy.” Although the term also meant “lecherousness” back then. Nowadays, “salty” is an old-fashioned way of saying “sexy.”

Don’t be a poser

foppington
Lord Foppington, a fictional character

“He that questioneth much, shall learn much, and content much; but especially, if he apply his questions to the skill of the persons whom he asketh; for he shall give them occasion, to please themselves in speaking, and himself shall continually gather knowledge.”

You can learn a lot by asking people about their areas of expertise, and please them by giving them the opportunity to talk about that subject.

“But let his questions not be troublesome; for that is fit for a poser.”

Don’t just ask questions because that’s your social conversation trick. There are such things as stupid questions! You should actually be interested, or it’s just annoying.

But Bacon meant something different by the word “poser” than I thought at first. OED gives us two definitions: “A person who sets testing questions; an examiner,” and “A difficult or perplexing question; a puzzle. Also: a tricky or intractable problem.” The first dates from 1587, the second from mid-eighteenth century. They don’t have an entry for the meaning I mean when I want to be mean, “a person who acts in an affected manner in order to impress others” (from Google, I guess.) For that, OED has poseur, “A person who deliberately adopts a particular attitude or pose; a person with an affected or pretentious style or demeanour,” first citation from Putnam’s Magazine in 1869.

Don’t hog the conversation

“And let him be sure to leave other men, their turns to speak. Nay, if there be any, that would reign galliardand take up all the time, let him find means to take them off, and to bring others on; as musicians use to do, with those that dance too long galliards.”

Yes, let other people speak. This is one I have to work on, because I’m quick, verbally. I have to remember to let pauses develop so slower-talkers can get their turn.

I’m not sure what he means about the long galliards, though. Wikipedia says, “The galliard is an athletic dance, characterised by leaps, jumps, hops and other similar figures.” That sounds like fun, even as a metaphor for a lively conversation. Maybe it’s one of those dance traditions in which couples take turns occupying the center of the floor, showing off their fancy moves.

Lying, bragging, and other unpleasantries

“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.”

jossing-affairFrancis, Francis! You’re working too hard here. Let’s see…. if you lie about something you’re supposed to know, at a later time, people will assume you know something about something about which you know nothing. You’re going to screw up your reputation by lying, that’s the main theme.

“Speech of a man’s self ought to be seldom, and well chosen. I knew one, was wont to say in scorn, He must needs be a wise man, he speaks so much of himself: and there is but one case, wherein a man may commend himself with good grace; and that is in commending virtue in another; especially if it be such a virtue, whereunto himself pretendeth.”

The first part is obvious: don’t talk about yourself too much. The second part is a great strategy, much practiced by us writers. We promote others’ books as a way of aligning ourselves with their work. It’s not sleazy if you’re sincere about it. You can say, “I love J. L. Oakley’s The Jössing Affair! It’s everything great historical fiction ought to be. I strive to provide the same kind of immersive experience for my readers.” But don’t say, “If you like Stephen King’s Whatever, you’ll love my books!” Latching onto some best-seller whose books are nothing like yours.

“Speech of touch towards others, should be sparingly used; for discourse ought to be as a field, without coming home to any man.”

I don’t know what the field has to do with it, but don’t gossip, is the message here. This is followed by an anecdote that makes no sense to me. I guess he’s trying to illustrate the thing about not speaking poorly of others.

“Discretion of speech, is more than eloquence; and to speak agreeably to him, with whom we deal, is more than to speak in good words, or in good order.”

Speak with courtesy, don’t say every dang thing that crosses your mind. Don’t be witty at the expense of a nice social interaction. (That thing the coffee house guys do.)

“A good continued speech, without a good speech of interlocution, shows slowness: and a good reply or second speech, without a good settled speech, showeth shallowness and weakness.”

What does this mean? The slowness must mean slowness of wit, but I don’t know what could be good about someone who drones on, instead of letting their interlocutors chime in. Answering too quickly can show the other speaker that you can’t bother to think about what’s being said to you.

“As we see in beasts, that those that are weakest in the course, are yet nimblest in the turn; as it is betwixt the greyhound and the hare. To use too many circumstances, ere one come to the matter, is wearisome; to use none at all, is blunt.”

Neither speak too quickly nor too slowly, is what he’s getting at here. The same theme throughout: don’t just strive to be witty. Have something of substance to say. By “circumstances,” he means “illustrations” or “examples.” This is especially important if you’re asking for a favor or something similar. Don’t just jump in and say, “Hey, can I borrow your car?” Start by explaining — briefly! — that your car is in the shop.

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