Bacon's essays: Of marriage and single life

In this month’s Bacon’s essay: On marriage and single life, Francis Bacon weighs the pros and cons of marriage chiefly from the point of view of society, with only a nod to the personal benefits or detriments.

The first line includes one of his most often quoted phrases: “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune [italics mine]; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” ‘Hostage to Fortune’ is the title of Jardine & Stewart’s biography of Bacon (discussed briefly Biographical posts.) The phrase just means that people with spouses and kids are no longer free to choose as they please. They have to make sensible choices, which tend to be moderate. Great enterprises entail risk.

Caring for a family teaches a man mercy. Bacon calls it ‘a kind of discipline of humanity” and observes that “single men, though they may be many times more charitable, because their means are less exhaust, yet, on the other side, they are more cruel and hardhearted… because their tenderness is not so oft called upon.

Society needs singles

Bacon has praise for the single state and seems like a single man throughout his life, even though he did eventually marry. (He was 45, she was 14, but don’t worry; the marriage was probably chaste. He needed her father’s money very badly.)

He wrote, “Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and means, have married and endowed the public.”

This is quite a bold assertion which is unlikely to hold up to scholarly scrutiny, if only because most people reproduce and therefore the parent clan has numbers on their side.

Parents do tend to focus inward, on their own families, although nowadays their perspectives may expand again as their kids grow up and leave home. In my observation, many people lose the habit, although perhaps they never had it. We should also remember that in the sixteenth century, marriage implied children. That’s not true today, when childfree couples can engage in enterprises with the single-mindedness of singles.

“Unmarried men are best friends, best masters, best servants; but not always best subjects; for they are light to run away…” Friends, certainly, because they’re available socially. Servants too, because they’d have no one competing against your interests. I don’t know about subjects. You couldn’t run very far, unless your monarch granted you a passport. I should think they would make worse masters, because they’d have more time to micro-manage you and also lack those lessons in humanity.

No more girdles

Singles, as noted above, may be less charitable towards others. They may “account future times impertinences” and be glad not to have to spend their money supporting children.

“But the most ordinary cause of a single life, is liberty, especially in certain self-pleasing and humorous minds, which are so sensible of every restraint, as they will go near to think their girdles and garters, to be bonds and shackles.”

Bacon doesn’t consider single women, although there a few in his time. It wasn’t a great option in those days and they would certainly not be allowed to engage in great enterprises. Unless their name was “Elizabeth Tudor.”

He does have some thoughts about chastity. “Chaste women are often proud and froward, as presuming upon the merit of their chastity. It is one of the best bonds, both of chastity and obedience, in the wife, if she think her husband wise; which she will never do, if she find him jealous.”

That one makes me laugh. It’s one of those basic human truths and it proves Bacon was capable of observing women and understanding their motives, even though he spent the majority of his life in the company of men. (But is that really true? He lived at Gray’s most of his life, but he was a courtier all his adult life, serving a regnant queen and a king whose wife led a merry court. However shy, however male-oriented, he would have been obliged to make conversation with many women in the course of an ordinary week.)

When to marry?

Bacon originated this oft-quoted observation: “Wives are young men’s mistresses; companions for middle age; and old men’s nurses.”

Certainly men who are looking for in-house mistresses will marry a young woman, but in my admittedly limited observation, young couples seem more equitable than those of my peers and older. Young men don’t get bent out of shape if their wife is the more successful partner. Women still live longer and are

In this month’s Bacon’s essay: On marriage and single life, Francis Bacon weighs the pros and cons of marriage chiefly from the point of view of society, with only a nod to the personal benefits or detriments.

The first line includes one of his most often quoted phrases: “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune [italics mine]; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” ‘Hostage to Fortune’ is the title of Jardine & Stewart’s biography of Bacon (discussed briefly Biographical posts.) The phrase just means that people with spouses and kids are no longer free to choose as they please. They have to make sensible choices, which tend to be moderate. Great enterprises entail risk.

Caring for a family teaches a man mercy. Bacon calls it ‘a kind of discipline of humanity” and observes that “single men, though they may be many times more charitable, because their means are less exhaust, yet, on the other side, they are more cruel and hardhearted… because their tenderness is not so oft called upon.

Society needs singles

Bacon has praise for the single state and seems like a single man throughout his life, even though he did eventually marry. (He was 45, she was 14, but don’t worry; the marriage was probably chaste. He needed her father’s money very badly.)

He wrote, “Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and means, have married and endowed the public.”

This is quite a bold assertion which is unlikely to hold up to scholarly scrutiny, if only because most people reproduce and therefore the parent clan has numbers on their side.

Parents do tend to focus inward, on their own families, although nowadays their perspectives may expand again as their kids grow up and leave home. In my observation, many people lose the habit, although perhaps they never had it. We should also remember that in the sixteenth century, marriage implied children. That’s not true today, when childfree couples can engage in enterprises with the single-mindedness of singles.

“Unmarried men are best friends, best masters, best servants; but not always best subjects; for they are light to run away…” Friends, certainly, because they’re available socially. Servants too, because they’d have no one competing against your interests. I don’t know about subjects. You couldn’t run very far, unless your monarch granted you a passport. I should think they would make worse masters, because they’d have more time to micro-manage you and also lack those lessons in humanity.

No more girdles

Singles, as noted above, may be less charitable towards others. They may “account future times impertinences” and be glad not to have to spend their money supporting children.

“But the most ordinary cause of a single life, is liberty, especially in certain self-pleasing and humorous minds, which are so sensible of every restraint, as they will go near to think their girdles and garters, to be bonds and shackles.”

Bacon doesn’t consider single women, although there a few in his time. It wasn’t a great option in those days and they would certainly not be allowed to engage in great enterprises. Unless their name was “Elizabeth Tudor.”

He does have some thoughts about chastity. “Chaste women are often proud and froward, as presuming upon the merit of their chastity. It is one of the best bonds, both of chastity and obedience, in the wife, if she think her husband wise; which she will never do, if she find him jealous.”

That one makes me laugh. It’s one of those basic human truths and it proves Bacon was capable of observing women and understanding their motives, even though he spent the majority of his life in the company of men. (But is that really true? He lived at Gray’s most of his life, but he was a courtier all his adult life, serving a regnant queen and a king whose wife led a merry court. However shy, however male-oriented, he would have been obliged to make conversation with many women in the course of an ordinary week.)

When to marry?

Bacon originated this oft-quoted observation: “Wives are young men’s mistresses; companions for middle age; and old men’s nurses.”

Certainly men who are looking for in-house mistresses will marry a young woman, but in my admittedly limited observation, young couples seem more equitable than those of my peers and older. Young men don’t get bent out of shape if their wife is the more successful partner. Women still live longer and are healthier longer, so the last part holds up pretty well, 400 years later. 

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4 Comments on "Bacon’s essays: Of marriage and single life"

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Rakesh K
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very good experience essay by F Bacon

Arun karthikeyan
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not bad

Ramya
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Useful to read

imran ansari
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no comment

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