Harvard Classics

July 9 – Sir Francis Bacon: Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral

  • Of Truth
  • Of Death
  • Of Unity in Religion
  • Of Revenge
  • Of Adversity
  • Of Simulation and Dissimulation

A Little Lying Now and Then
“What is Truth?” asked Pilate. For an answer Bacon discourses not on human nature as it should be, but as it is. These shrewd observations on making a life and a living admit occasional departures from truth.
(Bacon becomes Privy Councilor, July 9, 1616.)
Read from BACON‘S ESSAYS Vol. 3, pp. 719

Of Truth

Men love lies: made for pleasure (poetry) and for advantage (merchants) // the mixture of a lie adds pleasure // natural though corrupt love of the lie itself // difficult to find and obtain truth

poesy (poetry) vinum daemonum [devil’s wine] because it fills the imagination yet is but with the shadow of a lie

It is a pleasure to stand upon the shore and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure to stand in the window of a castle and to see a battle and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth.

There is no vice that doth so cover a man with shame as to be found false and perfidious.

Of Death

Of Unity and Religion

The quarrels and divisions about religion were evils unknown to the heathen.

Bacon discusses the subject of unity in religion under three heads: the fruits of unity; the bounds or extent of unity, and the means of unity. Taking up the fruits of unity first, Bacon points out that heresies and schisms are the greatest scandals in the sphere of religion. Nothing keeps men out of the Church, and nothing drives men out of the Church, as much as a breach of unity does. There will be complete confusion in the minds of people if one man suggests that Christ should be sought in secret chambers. If a heathen hears Christians talking with several tongues, he will surely think them to be mad. If there are different sects in a religion and they all adopt different postures and attitudes, they will be enacting a kind of “Morris dance” mentioned by the French writer, Rabelais. The fruits of unity for those who believe in their Church are the blessings of peace leading to faith, charity, and piety.

Of Revenge

A kind of “wild justice” that offends the law

The most tolerable revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy

The man that studies revenge keeps his wounds fresh that otherwise would heal and “do well”

Of Adversity

good things that belong to prosperity are to be wished; but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired.

Of Simulation and Dissimulation

Bacon argues that both simulation and dissimulation are useful but their successful use requires both intelligence and “a strong heart,” that is, confidence. Dissimulation Bacon defines as “when a man lets fall signs and arguments, that he is not, that he is.” In other words, dissimulation allows others to misunderstand what he is doing and thinking–he fails to correct misconceptions about his behavior. Simulation, on the other hand, is much more active: a man takes actions that disguise what he is really thinking and doing. Dissimulation and simulation are two of three levels of a man’s method of hiding or veiling his motives, the first of which is “closeness, reservation, and secrecy,” that is, a man hides himself sufficiently so that no can easily observe his behavior. We might call that today shyness, modesty, reserved behavior. Bacon argues that secrecy is “both public and moral” because being “open,” telling everyone what one thinks about everything, leads to people concluding that the person cannot keep confidences and is therefore weak.

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