Education

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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.”

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.”

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!

Wheel_Iran
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!

 

Lady Anne Bacon

AnneCookeBacon
Lady Anne Bacon

Francis Bacon’s mother, Anne (c. 1528 – 27 August 1610), was one of the five daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke. The Cooke sisters were renowned for their learning and intelligence, an unusual source of fame for women in any age. Sir Anthony, like Sir Thomas More, was a humanist scholar inspired by the renaissance of classical learning that swept across Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (Humanist, because humans were the focus, not God or mysticism.)

Sir Anthony was a tutor to Edward VI and thus close to power in the turbulent years preceding Elizabeth’s accession. Unlike Sir Thomas More, Sir Anthony was a Protestant, well-aligned with Elizabeth’s views on religion; not surprisingly, since he helped to form them. Sir Anthony believed that girls should be educated as well as boys and taught his daughters to read and write fluently in both Latin and Greek. He undoubtedly gave them a solid foundation in classical literature as well. He served on religious commissions and held important public offices, but is now chiefly remembered for having taught Francis Bacon’s mother her Greek. Funny how the wheel turns.

Bacon’s redoubtable aunts

Anne’s sisters were Mildred (b. 1526), Margaret (c. 1536), Elizabeth (b. 1540), and Catherine (c. 154?.) Mildred married William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer and the most powerful man in the kingdom. Her son, Robert, born two years after Francis, in 1563, blocked Francis’s path all his life. Only after Robert’s death in 1612 did Francis begin to achieve the positions of real influence and prestige. One of Francis’s earliest preserved letters is to his Aunt Mildred, begging her to forgive his awkwardness (“I am not yet greatly perfect in ceremonies of court”) and to mention with favor his current suit to his Lord uncle. What he was pursuing at that time isn’t mentioned. Mildred must have received near daily letters from her sister Anne requesting attention and favor for Francis and his brother Anthony.

Elizabeth_Hoby
Lady Elizabeth Hoby

Aunt Catherine married Sir Henry Killigrew, a diplomat and ambassador to Scotland and the Netherlands. She died in 1583, leaving four daughters.

Aunt Margaret married Sir Ralph Rowlett, an MP and sometime Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire. She died in 1558. They had no children. Neither Catherine nor Margaret figures in my stories.

Aunt Elizabeth, on the other hand, is one of my favorite Elizabethans. She was an extraordinary woman. In our day, she’d be running for president. I introduce her in book 3, The Widows Guild, as the founder of the influential Andromache Society. She will continue to play an important role in my books, as she must have done in Francis’s life.

The portrait shown here and on the cover of my book shows Lady Elizabeth in her widow’s cowl, after the death of her first husband, Sir Thomas Hoby. Her second husband was John, Lord Russell, who had the ill grace to die before his father, thus preventing Elizabeth from becoming a countess, to her lasting disgruntlement.

The mother of a genius

Lady Bacon was a gifted linguist, fluent in Italian, Latin, and Greek, and even possessed of some Hebrew. Her translation from Latin to English of Bishop John Jewel’s An Apology or answer in defense of the Church of England was highly regarded throughout Protestant Europe. It was published without her name on it, of course; she was a lady and ladies did not write books. Nevertheless, she was a respected participant in the campaign to develop and propagate Protestant doctrine. She was a devout Calvinist who supported and protected nonconformist preachers at her home in Gorhambury throughout her long life. (She lived to the exceptional age of 82.) Her beliefs were considerably more radical than those of her husband, her sons, or the established church. She did not hesitate to make her views known to the authorities of church and government when she deemed it necessary. Judging from the tone of her letters, she was not one to be easily persuaded from her chosen course.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter she wrote Lord Burghley after a conference between bishops and nonconformist preachers at which Lady Bacon felt the preachers had not been given a fair hearing*:

“I know well, mine especiall good Lord, it becometh me not to be troublesome unto your Honour at any other time, but now chiefly at this season of your greatest affairs and small or no leisure; but yet because yesterday’s mornings speech, — as, in that I was extraordinarily admitted, it was your Lordship’s favour, — so, fearing to stay too long, I could not so plainly speak, nor so well perceive your answer as thereto as I would truly and gladly in that matter, — I am bold by this writing to enlarge the same more plainly and to what end I did mean.”

In other words, her brother-in-law got her into an important conference at which she was unable to express her opinions, so now she’s going to bend his ear at length, no matter how busy the poor guy is. I like that “enlarge the same more plainly.” I can just see Lord Burghley taking off his spectacles to rub his forehead. And yet he read every letter and responded.

Lady Bacon was in charge of her two gifted sons’ early education (Anthony and Francis). No notes about her curriculum or materials survive, but we can imagine a program centered on religious doctrine in many languages. Her standards were high. She and her sons were close all their lives. Her letters are an endearing mix of scolding them for insufficient piety, worrying about their health (chronically delicate), and anxiety about scoundrels and false friends scheming to take advantage of their innocence and inexperience. You can imagine how much the 26-year-old Francis appreciated that advice.

Letters from home

Here are some illuminating examples. These are all letters to Anthony. (I’m copying in more than I meant to, but they’re irresistible.)

“I trust you, with your servants, use prayer twice in a day… Your brother [Francis] is too negligent herein.”

“Let not Lawson [Anthony’s friend], that fox, be acquainted with my letters. I disdain both it and him…. Send it back, to be sure, by Mr. Fant sealed; but he will pry and prattle.”

“Procure rest in convenient time. It helpeth much to digestion. I verily think your brother’s weak stomach to digest hath been much caused and confirmed by untimely going to bed, then musing nescio quid [I don’t know what] when he should sleep, and then in consequent by late rising and long lying in bed: whereby his men are made slothful and himself continueth sickly. … Let not your men see my letter. I write to you and not to them.” [Sounds like Francis kept writer’s hours.]

“I am glad and thank God of your amendment [improved health]. But my man said he heard you rose at three of the clock…. I like not your lending your coach yet to any Lord or Lady. If you once begin, you shall hardly end.” [She had a spy in Anthony’s house! Amazing that he tolerated it, but those were different times.]

“If you deal with Elsdon, be very well advised… These days are full of fraud. My man said you wished to have strawberries to gift. I have sent I think all there be, and this day gathered… I send them by the boy of my kitchen, a shrewd-witted boy and prettily catechized, but yet an untoward crafty boy. … It is here very hot indeed. Let not your men drink wine in this hot weather; nor your brother’s neither; tell him.” [That pretty, crafty boy sounds ideal for the Bacon brothers. And I love the way she jumps from fraud to strawberries.]

“Be not too bold with κυριω θησαυραριω [lord’s treasure, I think]. Lose not his φιλιαν [love, friendship]. You know what I mean… Be not overcredulous nor too open. Sub omni lapide latet anguis [under every stone lurks a snake].”

Anthony has recently returned from several years of intelligence work in France, where he was befriended by kings and courtiers, walked a fine line between Catholics and Huguenots, and maintained a vital, encrypted correspondence with Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Earl of Leicester, with Francis managing the correspondence. Over-credulous? Methinks not so much.

Can’t you just imagine the two brilliant, sophisticated Bacon brothers getting letters like this from their mother every single day? They loved her, but there must have been a lot of eye-rolling. Whilst enjoying the freshly picked strawberries.

* The letters are taken from Spedding, James, ed. 1890. The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon. Vol. I. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

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