Departments

Bacon and Montaigne

Suppose yourself a child, and that two old men live near you.

One is Montaigne. He is delighted by your visits, stuffs you with cookies, asks after your interests, takes it graciously in stride when you tell him (being a child) that they have changed, offers up anecdotes and friendly advice that he will not be offended if you disregard.

The other is Bacon. When you visit, he sits you down, offers you wine—they do that where he comes from—and takes everything you say seriously. You have opinions; he treats them like theories. You have observations; he treats them like theses. You have tastes; he treats them like positions. You finish bewildered and afraid. Montaigne makes you feel grown up; Bacon lets you know that you are not even as grown up as you thought.

The Essais of Montaigne sum to an autobiography in topical cross-sections; the Essayes of Bacon are ventured as Counsels Civill and Morall. Montaigne was the first essayist, the inventor of the essay; he is the standard. There will never be a better essayist than Montaigne, because trying to write an essay is trying to write like Montaigne.

But I should not have to argue that Bacon's was the greater mind (though the two were more alike than goes acknowledged). Montaigne conceded to the world and posterity, "What do I know?"; Bacon, troubled noting that he knew nothing, determined to find something out. Read the Apology for Raymond Sebond; count how often Bacon's method has discovered what Montaigne thought we could never know.

Bacon's essays, and Bacon himself, have lost their once universal regard. Bacon has been expelled from the history of science. The very idea that an individual might be responsible for the project and phenomenon of science, and a philosopher at that, offends mathematicians who find a debt to the condemned practice of thinking in words distasteful, and would prefer an ancestry direct from Galileo to Newton. And it offends historians who conclude that, because science was supported by economic forces, science was therefore predestined by them—the role of individuals, and certainly of an instorer, being redundant; and any claim of originality or responsibility, naive.

Even as Bacon's achievement increases in importance, he and his age sink ever farther from us into the costumed past. His glory as the founder of science, already lost, is irrecoverable.

But Bacon's essays should not be forgotten. They are the model of strength in writing: swift, direct, and final. If Shakespeare had written essays, they would read like Bacon's (as is only natural in two contemporaneous, equipollent minds meeting the same challenge in Montaigne). They have that life in themselves, and that closeness to life as it is lived; lived not in passing, but in success or failure. Bacon's language is free from the texture and balance which batten Addison's meaning; free of Macaulay's fireworking showmanship; free of the diffidence (or, worse, the confidence) of the twentieth century essay.

Analogy is the proof of a writer's skill and character. Bacon and Shakespeare were both immune to the temptation by which stockbrokers pushing keys and paper under fluorescent lights make hay while the sun shines. Bacon's Idols (not in his essays, but still his) deserve a place in the analogical equipment of every mind besides Shakespeare's stage of life; or the winding stair, beside time and tide; or death and the dark, beside what dreams may come.

Still, I expect no literary renascence or restoration for Bacon. We still read Montaigne because he, himself, appeals to us; because his observations, centered on and conditioned by himself, are easy even for our suspicious sympathies to enter into.

But Bacon is a counselor; an adviser. We do not like to take advice at all; and the advice that is not accompanied by an exemplary life we not merely reject, but oppose unheard. Bacon's counsels are stern, harsh distillations. He was not a pitying man; he would not even pity himself. He knew his failure, and he measured it as clearly as he would any other's.

Bacon had a destination in mind for science, a New Atlantis, and sought the royal road to it. When geometry denied him, he denied geometry. Having found the right course, he took the easy way, as he did in politics, where he certainly practiced flattery (with the ease and excess of the arrogant and disingenuous) with his superiors, and was probably corrupt to his inferiors. These are the vices of politics, and perhaps not avoidable; but Bacon did not merely allow them, he perfected them—the easy way to power, and from power, he must have thought, to what we would call reforms, but he would an instoration.

Bacon set himself apart from the world and from mankind so he could inspect them, make experiments on them, and recognize in and learn from them the accidental experiments conducted by nature. In this way, his two great failures—his failure to see the value of mathematics in science, and his failure to—I will not say, practice as he preached (for his essays are not secular sermons), but to act with patience or discretion—are the same failure. He sought, not (as some have) to know God's thoughts, but to have God's view. As his aim was too high, his fall was certain.