Bacon's Essays: Of Parents and Children

anne bacon 1Francis Bacon had no children, but he had parents, both of whom influenced him greatly. The picture shows the painted terracotta busts made of Lady Anne and Sir Nicholas. I snagged them from another blog. I don’t know where that person got the photo.

Like many a thoughtful introvert, Bacon observed and considered other people’s busy interactions. This essay delivers some of those observations. The language in this essay is simpler and lovelier than it is in many of them. Could he have been thinking about his own mother? There was nothing simple about her communicative skills; she was renowned in her day for her education and her translations of thorny religious works.

The joys of parenthood

Anyway, this essay needs little interpretation. It starts thus: “The joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears. They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other. Children sweeten labors; but they make misfortunes more bitter. They increase the cares of life; but they mitigate the remembrance of death.”

The benefits of childlessness

He moves directly on to praise the childless, known in these days of choices as the childfree. “And surely a man shall see the noblest works and foundations have proceeded from childless men, which have sought to express the images of their minds, where those of their bodies have failed. So the care of posterity is most in them, that have no posterity.”

I’m afraid that rule does not hold up. Shakespeare had children, though his only known, legitimate grandchild died without issue. Christopher Marlowe has no descendants; Charles Dickens had ten. Queen Elizabeth was childfree, but Queen Victoria, had eight children. Apart from queens, there’s some truth in it for women, at least before the modern era. Neither Jane Austen nor George Eliot had children.  

A potpourri of proverbs

The rest is a bit of a hodge-podge about parental errors and their effect on children.

“A man shall see, where there is a house full of children, one or two of the eldest respected, and the youngest made wantons; but in the midst, some that are as it were forgotten, who many times, nevertheless, prove the best.”

“The Italians make little difference between children, and nephews or near kinsfolks… And, to say truth, in nature it is much a like matter; insomuch that we see a nephew sometimes resembleth an uncle, or a kinsman, more than his own parent; as the blood happens.”

He gives his advice on choosing a career for one’s child in Latin: “Optimum elige, suave et facile illud faciet consuetudo.” Choose what is best, custom will make it agreeable and easy. ‘Best’ meaning in accordance with the child’s aptitude.

He ends with this: “Younger brothers are commonly fortunate, but seldom or never where the elder are disinherited.” I don’t understand it and he doesn’t elaborate.

Bacon was the youngest of eight; he had three step-brothers and three step-sisters, and one brother of his own mother, Anthony. After his father’s death, his mother engaged in a furious battle over the will. She mostly lost and Bacon got very little. His elder brothers were far from disinherited; they were left wealthy men. Their estates survive in a couple of cases. But of course, no one remembers them while Francis, the landless youngster, became the Father of Science.

Choose what is best, indeed!


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