Personal Experience in Bacon’s Essays

An English politician and successful writer, among many other things, Sir Francis Bacon has had great influence on the literary genre of the essay, taking inspiration from the pioneer of the style, Michel de Montaigne. However, he did not provide a great deal of authority in his essays. They had numerous quotes and Biblical references, but these were not regular throughout. He had great familiarity with many of the subjects he wrote about, especially those concerning money and power. Montaigne often digressed into anecdotes and stories from his own life experiences, but Bacon stayed very much away from that area entirely. The arguments that Bacon set forth in a number of his essays could have been backed by his own extensive personal experience, and could have been made far more convincing. However, Bacon failed to do so, and his credibility suffered.

An influentiafrancis_bacon_viscount_st_alban_from_npg_2l politician in England, Francis Bacon served as Lord Chancellor and Attorney General in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He ran up great debt during his career and was charged with 23 counts of corruption in 1621 by his nemesis, Edward Coke. He was forced to leave Parliament, and devoted the rest of his life to study. Luckily, he escaped degradation, the reduction of his title as Viscount. He made great contributions to the scientific method, which is alternatively referred to as the “Baconian”. His disgrace and the ending of his political career must have had an extraordinary impact on his life, and yet they are not referenced in his works.

Bacon explored the theme of personal riches and wealth in several of his essays, none of which used his valuable personal experience as evidence. His essays Of Fortune, Of Riches, and especially Of Expense do not mention Bacon’s own circumstances. He was no stranger to riches, wealth, or great expense, as he had a large income and huge debt.He had a wealth of experience in the matters he wrote about, but he did not provide examples to attest to his authority on the subject.

In the essay on fortune, Bacon described how good fortune can come to men by accident, but more often “the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.” He did not describe the bad fortune he encountered in his disgrace, and he did not describe his good fortune in avoiding degradation and retaining his noble title. These relevant personal experiences would have given Bacon far more credibility and authority as an essay writer.

The essay on riches is largely critical, and it again fails to provide information from personal experience. Bacon calls riches “the baggage of virtue”, impeding the way of virtue much like baggage impedes an army: “it cannot be spared nor left behind, but it hindereth the march”. Bacon was familiar with riches. He knew what they could do to a man who had them, and no doubt he drew from the knowledge he had acquired during his position in the royal court. However,the source of this valuable knowledge was withheld from the reader, again diminishing Bacon’s credibility.

Finally, Bacon’s essay on expense focused on an extremely relevant topic to him, but like the others, it did not invoke the authority of personal experience. Bacon lost his career because of debt, no doubt brought on by too great expense. The essay is largely concerned with giving good advice for what to do with riches. He said that if money is spent in certain areas, then it must be conserved in others: “A man had need, if he be plentiful in some kind of expense, to be saving again in some other… if he be plentiful in the hall, to be saving in the stable… for he that is plentiful in expenses of all kinds will hardly be preserved from decay.” Bacon knew this, as he himself fell into great debt, which cost him his dignity, his career, and nearly his title.

If Francis Bacon had referenced the great authority of his personal experience, he would have better shown his own credibility. He experienced the effects of both good and bad fortune, the result of what great riches do to a man, and what happens when expenses are not kept in check. All of these things and more did Bacon write about, but none of them invoked the powerful authority of personal experience.


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