Bacon's Essays: Of Custom and Education

Francis Bacon’s first and probably best tutor was his own mother, Lady Anne Bacon. He doesn’t credit her in his essay about education, which is more general, in accordance with the style of such works. I’m relying on our good friend Richard Whately for help with this one, which is fairly opaque in my view.

Thoughts, words, and deeds

“Men’s thoughts, are much according to their inclination; their discourse and speeches, according to their learning and infused opinions; but their deeds, are after as they have been accustomed.”

Francois Ravaillac

François Ravaillac

With Whateley’s help, we understand this to mean that people think whatever they like and their speech is largely influenced by their education. (“Infused opinions” means “the kind of stuff you learn by reading the articles your friends post links to on Facebook,” updated.) But what people do – their deeds – derives largely from habit – custom.

A person may seem to be a self-starter or a serious politico — they may talk a good game — but you don’t know for sure if they are or they aren’t until you see them in action.

Bacon supports this commonplace observation with a paraphrasing of Machiavelli: “His instance is, that for the achieving of a desperate conspiracy, a man should not rest upon the fierceness of any man’s nature, or his resolute undertakings; but take such an one, as hath had his hands formerly in blood.”

Make sure your assassins have actually done the foul deed before hiring them to do another!

Bunch of obscure bad guys

“But Machiavel knew not of a Friar Clement, nor a Ravillac, nor a Jaureguy, nor a Baltazar Gerard; yet his rule holdeth still, that nature, nor the engagement of words, are not so forcible, as custom.”

Balthasar Gerards 1

Baltazar Gérard.

Friar Clement must be Jacques Clement, the fanatical Jacobin friar who murdered King Henri III of France. François Ravaillac stabbed another French king, Henry IV, in 1610. Not the best job, being King of France in the early modern period!

Jaureguy… all I’m getting is a French rugby player who competed in the 1924 Olympics. Can’t be him! But Baltazar Gerard assassinated William of Orange in 1584. That is one crabby-looking Frenchman!

The wheels of custom

“In other things, the predominancy of custom is everywhere visible; insomuch as a man would wonder, to hear men profess, protest, engage, give great words, and then do, just as they have done before; as if they were dead images, and engines moved only by the wheels of custom.”

Habit rules. Actions speak more loudly than words. Judge a person by what they do, not what they say. Like all those verbally ardent environmentalists who drive to work. Ride the bus, I say, and thereby gain more time to read or listen to audiobooks!


Just a really cool-looking wheel, from the Museum of Iran.

Bacon’s examples conflate two meanings of the word custom: “habit,” which we’ve been talking about, and “tradition.”

“We see also the reign or tyranny of custom, what it is. The Indians (I mean the sect of their wise men) lay themselves quietly upon a stock of wood, and so sacrifice themselves by fire. Nay, the wives strive to be burned, with the corpses of their husbands. The lads of Sparta, of ancient time, were wont to be scourged upon the altar of Diana, without so much as queching.”

Pretty sure those wives weren’t so much striving, as struggling to forgo the great honor…

Queching means complaining; obviously the parent of the Yiddish word ‘kvetching.’ Lovely.

“There be monks in Russia, for penance, that will sit a whole night in a vessel of water, till they be engaged with hard ice. Many examples may be put of the force of custom, both upon mind and body.” That one is enough for me – brrr!

Build a better habit

“Therefore, since custom is the principal magistrate of man’s life, let men by all means endeavor, to obtain good customs.”

All your famous givers of advice support this essential practice. Ben Franklin said, “It’s easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.” Ovid, whom Bacon read, wrote “Habits change into character.” Aristotle, whom ditto, wrote “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”

vocal_tract“Certainly custom is most perfect, when it beginneth in young years: this we call education; which is, in effect, but an early custom.”

Well, we don’t call it education anymore, although we do expect our schools to inculcate some habits — or maybe only some of us do. The habit of critical thinking, for example, or the habit of checking the facts so you don’t get trolled by Russian mischief-makers. Oh, wait! Those are never part of the public school debate, probably because the loudest debater do not have those habits.

Back to Bacon. “So we see, in languages, the tongue is more pliant to all expressions and sounds, the joints are more supple, to all feats of activity and motions, in youth than afterwards.”

That’s true. A personal example: my jaw gets tired when I speak Spanish for any length of time, just because of the (to me) extra effort of producing dental t’s and d’s instead of alveolar ones. Our ears are likewise trained to discriminate the sounds of our native language more easily than those of languages learned later in life.

“For it is true, that late learners cannot so well take the ply; except it be in some minds that have not suffered themselves to fix, but have kept themselves open, and prepared to receive continual amendment, which is exceeding rare.” With respect to language, there are some people who have what I think of as unfixed phonologies. They learn accents easily, even in adulthood. Many such people moved around a lot as kids.

Custom conjugate

“But if the force of custom simple and separate, be great, the force of custom copulate and conjoined and collegiate, is far greater. For there example teacheth, company comforteth, emulation quickeneth, glory raiseth: so as in such places the force of custom is in his exaltation.”

Habits shared are constantly reinforced. If everyone else is smoking, you’re not going to try so hardtai-chi to quit. But you’re the last person in your building hanging out behind the dumpster in the rain just to get that nicotine fix… On the other hand, if everyone you know works out and eats salads, you’re more likely to do the same. On the third hand, if everyone in your family hops into a chair in the evening with a book, you’re all going to develop a wicked strong reading habit.

“Certainly the great multiplication of virtues upon human nature, resteth upon societies well ordained and disciplined.” Healthy social systems promote healthy individuals? That seems extraordinarily advanced, even for Francis Bacon.

“For commonwealths, and good governments, do nourish virtue grown, but do not much mend the deeds.” OK, this makes no sense. But Whateley’s version has ‘seeds’ instead of ‘deeds’, which is better. Governments support positive adult behaviors, I guess, but don’t do much to encourage the development of such habits in children. We do a lot better these days than in the sixteenth century, which does not yet give us braggin’ rights.

“But the misery is, that the most effectual means, are now applied to the ends, least to be desired.”

Alas, I have no idea what that means. No money quote in this essay!


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