Bacon's Essays: Of Love

Bacon’s essay about love is next in line, but perhaps appropriate for Thanksgiving week, when so many people gather with the ones they love for a glorious feast. But Bacon, not surprisingly, is not a fan of love, considering it more suitable for the stage than for a man’s life. “in life it doth much mischief; sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury.” It makes for great theater, though.

Armand Point The Siren 1897 1

The Siren, Armand Point, 1897

Great men do not allow themselves to be distracted by love. The only ancients Bacon can think of who were thus entangled are Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and Appius Claudius. Bacon says, “the former was indeed a voluptuous man, and inordinate; but the latter was an austere and wise man: and therefore it seems (though rarely) that love can find entrance, not only into an open heart, but also into a heart well fortified, if watch be not well kept.” Wise men keep their distance!

He gives us a quote from Epicurus: “Satis magnum alter alteri theatrum sumus [Each is to another a theater large enough]. Bacon disapproves of such a narrowing of interest: “as if man, made for the contemplation of heaven, and all noble objects, should do nothing but kneel before a little idol and make himself a subject.”



The child of folly

He goes on to disparage the way a lover exaggerates the loved one’s attributes. Absurd! Ridiculous! “For it is a true rule, that love is ever rewarded, either with the reciproque, or with an inward and secret contempt. By how much the more, men ought to beware of this passion, which loseth not only other things, but itself!”

Antonio Perez Ponz 1

Antonio Perez, by Ponz.

It makes me wonder if he ever suffered that inward contempt. Bacon wasn’t terribly astute in the area of feelings; that is, he seemed not to notice or be much affected by slights that would have enraged other Elizabethans. Bacon had a cool temperament, although he had lovers, we believe. His mother complained about a man named Percy; perhaps a relative of the Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. (Certainly not the earl himself; that would have been known.) And Bacon apparently had a hot little fling with Antonio Pérez, the wily Spaniard who came to England as the envoy of Henri VI.

Through with love

You’re better off without this unruly passion. “For whosoever esteemeth too much of amorous affection, quitteth both riches and wisdom.” 

I find it odd that Bacon doesn’t set up types of love and examine each in turn. He does this with many other topics. He must have known about the Greek distinction of four types of love: eros, storge, agape and philia.

Eros is erotic, or romantic, love. Storge is empathy or the fondness of familiarity. Agape is larger, more abstract, godlike, charitable love. Philia is the love that obtains between friends. Bacon has a separate essay about friendship and perhaps he preferred to avoid topics encroaching on religious ideas (agape.) Nobody talks about storge. That word was new to me, and I am well read!

Bacon ends this essay with the briefest acknowledgement that love is more than mere romantic infatuation, but this one sentences is all he has to say on that front. “Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth, and embaseth it.” 

Categories: Bacon's works Essays

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