Bacon's Essays: Of Nature in Men

When Francis Bacon writes of nature in men, he means “The inherent or essential quality or constitution of a thing; the inherent and inseparable combination of properties giving any object, event, quality, emotion, etc., its fundamental character.” At least, that’s the definition in the OED illustrated by a quote from this essay. (I love it when I find Bacon in the OED!)

“Nature is often hidden; sometimes overcome; seldom extinguished.” You can’t always detect a person’s true nature, or sometimes even your own. You can overcome aspects of your nature, but never fully extinguish them.

Maybe that’s true. I quit smoking nine years ago (my addictive nature) and have no genuine desire to smoke anything ever again, but for some reason yesterday as I got into my car to go home after spending 3 hours in the cold wind planting saplings with Treefolks, the thought of smoking a cigarette strolled lightly through my mind — and out again, but it’s still in there!

Gaining victory over nature

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Lifebelt_sketch
Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch of a lifebelt

This essay speaks to the eternal struggles of us humans with ourselves. It manifests in many ways, but I’m going to use writing examples.

I know so many writers who say they can’t write in the morning, or write short, or long, or plot, or not plot, or write every day, or write romance, or write action scenes. Lots of can’ts in our declarations of our essential writerly natures. Some of it matters, in terms of what we write. I don’t seem to have any darkness in me, for example, whereas some writers are darkness all the way through. But many of those cants are excuses for not finishing or selling books.

“He that seeketh victory over his nature, let him not set himself too great, nor too small tasks; for the first will make him dejected by often failings; and the second will make him a small proceeder, though by often prevailings.”

In writing terms, he’s saying set goals of the appropriate size. If you’re just starting out, writing your first book, don’t expect yourself to write 3,000 words a day. You’ll fail and give yourself another can’t. But don’t be a lazy wimp and set a trivial goal of 50 words a day. You’ll never finish the thing. If you’re super-busy, 100 words is a reasonable goal, but if, like most people, you can carve two hours out of your day (training yourself to write during those hours and not pine for other ones), 1000 words a day is an excellent goal. You can finish a 90,000 word novel (first draft) in three measly months at that rate!

“And at the first let him practise with helps, as swimmers do with bladders or rushes; but after a time let him practise with disadvantages, as dancers do with thick shoes.”

Writer translation: Let your first book or two be in the simplest genre that you enjoy: short contemporary romance, say, or Star Trek novels, or short breezy thrillers. Well-established genres with well-defined features of plots and characters. It’s hard enough just to sit there and write for your designated time span each day, much less to be totally original on all fronts. Then, as you gain skills and confidence, continue to challenge yourself with richer settings, twistier plots, deeper insights — whichever course your tastes and talents send you on.

Where nature is mighty

“For it breeds great perfection, if the practice be harder than the use. ” This reminds me of Robert Browning’s famous advice, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” Strive toward something grand, is what they’re both saying. Challenge yourself.

Wild_Turkey
James Audubon’s Wild Turkey

“Where nature is mighty, and therefore the victory hard, the degrees had need be, first to stay and arrest nature in time; like to him that would say over the four and twenty letters when he was angry; then to go less in quantity; as if one should, in forbearing wine, come from drinking healths, to a draught at a meal; and lastly, to discontinue altogether.”

They only had 24 letters in Bacon’s day. I & J were variants of one another, as were U and V, although the four began to be distinguished in the 16th century. I love this bit of advice, which is still apt. Don’t answer until you’ve recited the alphabet, twice, under your breath.

But Bacon recommends going cold turkey if you can handle it: “But if a man have the fortitude, and resolution, to enfranchise himself at once, that is the best: Optimus ille animi vindex laedentia pectus, Vincula qui rupit, dedoluitque semel.” (He is the best assertor of the soul, who bursts the bonds that gall his breast and suffers all, at once.)

Bend nature to extremes

hathaway 020
Willow sculpture at Anne Hathaway’s house

“Neither is the ancient rule amiss, to bend nature, as a wand, to a contrary extreme, whereby to set it right, understanding it, where the contrary extreme is no vice.”

If it’s not risky in terms of bad habits, push your nature to the opposite extreme. Write horror! Write short stories! Write a night or first thing in the morning. Write 4,000 words in one exhausting day. You’ll learn something about your writing self by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone once in a while.

“Let not a man force a habit upon’ himself, with a perpetual continuance, but with some intermission.” Hm. I think this means, take a break now and then. A day off from writing recharges the batteries. 

Buried nature

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_The_young_man_and_the_cat_bride
Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677), The young man and the cat bride.

“But let not a man trust his victory over his nature, too far; for nature will lay buried a great time, and yet revive, upon the occasion or temptation.” Like that little smoking twitch I experienced yesterday. 

“Like as it was with AEsop’s damsel, turned from a cat to a woman, who sat very demurely at the board’s end, till a mouse ran before her. Therefore, let a man either avoid the occasion altogether; or put himself often to it, that he may be little moved with it.”

This advice is better illustrated with addiction or exercise examples. Either avoid all situations in which there is smoking (easily done these days) or alcohol (not at all easy), or attend them in order to fortify your ability to resist the impulse.

(I don’t think the illustration is actually relevant, but it’s the right period and it’s cool, yah?)

 

 

The secret of happiness

“A man’s nature is best perceived in privateness, for there is no affectation; in passion, for that putteth a man out of his precepts; and in a new case or experiment, for there custom leaveth him.” This seems self-explanatory. People don’t trouble to hide their natures in private and they tend to reveal themselves in extreme situations.

“They are happy men, whose natures sort with their vocations; otherwise they may say, multum incola fuit anima mea (my soul has been long a sojourner); when they converse in those things, they do not affect.”

I think the secret to happiness is finding a way to make a living (and make a positive contribution to society) doing something you love to do. Otherwise, you have a longer road to travel to reach happiness.

“In studies, whatsoever a man commandeth upon himself, let him set hours for it; but whatsoever is agreeable to his nature, let him take no care for any set times; for his thoughts will fly to it, of themselves; so as the spaces of other business, or studies, will suffice.”

You can always find time to screw around in social media, so don’t bother to schedule that! But almost all writers agree that it’s essential to set specific times for writing. Part of that has to do with the sheer discipline of getting things done, but it also has to do with training your mind to generate stories in response to certain cues.

And here’s the money quote. It’s a good one this time. “A man’s nature, runs either to herbs or weeds; therefore let him seasonably water the one, and destroy the other.”

Herb garden at Coughton Court
Herb garden at Coughton Court

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