Bacon's Essays: Of Truth

Of Truth is the first essay in the 1625 edition. I’m linking to the html-ized versions at westegg.com for the handy searchability. Also because Mr. West Egg, aka Steven Morgan Friedman, seems to be quite the wacky cat and I like those kinds of cats.

Fine; you look for a picture of Truth.
Fine; you look for a picture of Truth.

I must first note the surprising fact that there are 49 reviews of Francis Bacon’s Essays at Goodreads. They get a 3.77 out of 2,264 ratings. I’ll go out on a limb and call that an impressive record. I feel fairly certain that only the darkest, wooliest Francis Bacon fanatic will be reading my work four hundred years from now, if they can find it some dingy archive.

Bacon starts by wondering why men love lies; that is, why don’t they always seek Truth. As always, he identifies an apparently ubiquitous type of human. “Certainly there be, [those] that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting.”

I see these people everywhere in the writing universe. Suggesting to some writers that they might like to use standard punctuation or adopt common practice with respect to scene structure seems tantamount to threatening them with literal bondage. “Rules!” they cry. “Such are not for me!” This is so common you have to preface any how-to talk with, “These are just suggestions that you might find useful, not hard and fast rules.” We loathe those hard and fast rules! We want loose, slow, slippery semi-truths.

We’ve all met people who claim to believe in nothing, but to be open-minded about everything. Bacon doesn’t think that’s possible; not if you want to contemplate anything True. But he gets it: “Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?” Recite that with a blues rhythm: if it weren’t for vain hope, I’d have no hope at all.

(Bacon wrote in the Age of Commas, when this punctuation mark found honor in places not even a British writer of lyrical non-fiction would consider today. He had colons, semi-colons, and dashes and uses them as well, just not the way we would. Which is not a license to eschew standard punctuation in your own work!)

Truth (1896). Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Adams). Left bronze door at main entrance of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. Wikimedia Commons.
Truth (1896). Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Adams). Left bronze door at main entrance of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. Wikimedia Commons.

The essay goes on to consider the fact, to Bacon, that Truth was God’s ultimate creation, after the sensory world. “The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense; the last, was the light of reason; and his sabbath work ever since, is the illumination of his Spirit.” I’ve seen Bacon’s name on lists of famous atheists. Those list-makers obviously never read even the first half of his first essay. He believed in God as the Creator and a motive force for Good. Bacon’s God wanted humans to learn, study, and understand, and apply what they learned to the good of all humankind. Bacon’s God is essentially the Good, which to Bacon entailed a lot of lovely challenging homework. Made in his own image, much?

The last paragraph is about the practical, or civil, value of Truth. “…clear, and round dealing, is the honor of man’s nature; and that mixture of falsehoods, is like alloy in coin of gold and silver, which may make the metal work the better, but it embaseth it.” (That’s base, as in low or mean.)

Don’t you wish we could use words like ’embaseth’ in everyday conversation? It makes my word-junky heart sing with joy. I don’t think the causative prefix ‘en-/em-‘ is very productive today. We can encircle something, but can we enfractal it? We can enjoy, because we’ve been doing it for centuries, but we can’t engrouch anything, not even on the worst day.

But heck, give it a shot. Next time someone tries to put you down, cry, “‘Zounds, man! Why embaseth thou me thus?” Wait, that’s a tongue-twister. Not even the ultra-articulate Bacon could get that one out. Plus he wasn’t the kind of guy to say ‘Zounds. Let’s try this: “By my love of truth, thou dost embase me unjustly.” Then you can add for good measure: “There is no vice, that doth so cover a man with shame, as to be found false and perfidious.”

OK, I found a picture of Truth. Not sure what the snake has to do with it, but I like the way she’s pointing that mirror right at us. To thine ownself, dogface!

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