Francis Bacon would be 454 years old on January 22nd. His body is long gone, but his works live on. His Essays, for example, have never been out of print since they were first published in 1597. Not bad, eh?
In 1597, Bacon was 37. He published his first book, a slim octavo collection containing three works: a collection of ten brief English Essays, the short Latin essay Meditationes Sacrae, and Coulers of Good and Evil a Fragment. (Colors refers to general precepts of argument, like styles or strategies.) He considered the Essays to be trifles, but they were popular right away. You could buy them at a bookstall in Chancery Lane, under the sign of the Black Bear, for 20 pence.
He didn’t invent the essay form — that honor goes to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who was a friend of Francis’s brother Anthony, who sent Francis a copy of Montaigne’s Essais in French sometime in the late 1580s. Stephen Gaukroger* says Bacon’s essays were more like Castiglione than Montaigne, in that they are didactic rather than musing observations. Castiglione wrote the international bestseller, The Art of the Courtier, which taught young men of fashion throughout Europe how to behave.
The 1597 edition only included ten essays. Bacon revised these and added 38 more for a new edition in 1612. by that time he had been Solicitor General for five years; a busy man, but still finding time to write. He revised them all again and brought out the last edition in 1625, the year before his death. By that time, he had been elevated to the peerage as Viscount St. Alban, served as Lord Chancellor for four years, been drummed out of office in utter disgrace, stripped of his title, (unfairly), and written the scientific and philosophical works that earned him the title Father of Modern Science.
He was obviously quite busy during those years too, we assume, yet still he found time to write. So let’s not hear any more excuses from the dithering writers out there (and in here.)
The last edition contains 58 essays on topics as varied as Gardens, Dissimulation, Beauty, Envy, Friendship, Ambition. Words of wisdom from one of the great minds of humankind and from a man who had been an insider in one of the most treacherous and intriguing courts in world history. Worth reading!
I have read them, more than once, but to learn them better, I’m going to post an article about one essay each month for the next 58 months — unless I am drummed out of my office in utter disgrace.
Now you can get them free at Amazon or for a mere $0.99 at Barnes & Noble. Or read them online, as I do when I’m writing these posts. You can get Montaigne’s Essays and the Art of the Courtier in digital formats pretty everywhere as well. Never go without a bit of useful advice from these articulate men of the world again!
*Gaukroger, Stephen. 2001. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.