I want my writing in 2020 to demonstrate far more attentiveness to craft. How do writers create sentences their readers want to quote? How do they give them images and scenes they want to remember and revisit? Why does my writing suck?
I mean, attention to craft shouldn’t collapse into insecurity, but the moment I ask “Why does this paragraph work?” of a famous essay, I see so many factors at play that I should have thought about, didn’t think about, maybe never will think about because all I do is smash a keyboard with my face and call it writing.
It’s probably important to remember that the great mystery of writing isn’t creativity. It’s the number of things which are borrowed of which we aren’t remotely conscious. It really is incredible we can speak to each other across the ages, because so much expression depends on colloquialism, idiom, social norms, what’s on tv, the climate, the weather, how everyone regards a specific politician, etc. So much expression depends on a specific consciousness of the present. A writer borrows some of the elements constituting that consciousness, often without realizing what she’s doing, and somehow that turns into effective—maybe even lasting—communication.
I guess that’s one reason why it’s important to just get the words down first, then worry about the result later. Today, though, I want to look at an example of prose that is extremely well-made and precise, perhaps even overwrought. My professors used to gush about Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume as superior craftsmen of English prose. I can’t say I shared their tastes, and I’d like to understand what I missed when I read them the first time. Enter Francis Bacon’s “Of Delays.” It’s simply a paragraph or two in a group of Essays (1625) we can assume are for gentlemen—people with titles, wealth, and power seeking more for their name. I’d like to know why anyone would write about “delays.” How could that be a significant topic? I’d also like to understand Bacon’s toolkit as a writer, and how it differs from our contemporary kit. What does he do that we do not do? What does he do that we may consider bad form?
“Of Delays” begins with a maxim. It draws its readers in with something pithy and quotable that sounds like common sense: Fortune is like the market; where many times, if you can stay a little, the price will fall. Already I have an assignment: can I start a blog post or essay like this? Bacon’s first sentence demonstrates his subtlety, as his target is patience. Whereas I would write some trash like “Is patience bad or good? Depends,” Bacon introduces patience the way our parents and mentors introduce it to us. If you cultivate it as a virtue, you can beat luck. You can master this life, getting value out of any number of situations just by waiting. If you wait for true love or work for years to build an educated self, you are exercising patience, playing the long game against fortune.
Bacon doesn’t guarantee you’ll beat the market every time. He means that long term, waiting will produce in most situations. That sounds reasonable, until you realize what you can lose by waiting: And again, it is sometimes like Sibylla’s offer; which at first offereth the commodity at full, then consumeth part and part, and still holdeth up the price. The second sentence devastates the notion that patience alone will get us what we need. The Sibyl’s offer was a set of 9 books, some containing prophecies. It was offered to Tarquin, who initially balked at the price. She burned 3 books. He balked again; she burned 3 more books. He ended up paying full price for the last 3 volumes, which were instructions on how to worship the gods. It’s a great story about what religion promises to offer, but that sly joke is separable from the immensity of what was lost. If you exercise patience for the sake of a few pennies–really, patience for patience’s sake–could you lose out on a future you want? Of course: that’s why we’re intense about finding someone to love, oftentimes too intense and too hasty.
Bacon can refer his readers to a witty story not bereft of gravity or complexity in one sentence. Some might say “the death of the humanities” has made this sort of thing impossible nowadays, but I’d say it’s better form to walk your reader through what you think essential. Nothing would be lost if Bacon told the story in its entirety in this paragraph, or if he told a version that suited his purposes. Bacon’s audience knows a certain number of books and shares similar concerns–a story about ancient Rome speaks to the schoolboy and the statesman. For myself, I want a diversity of readers with different areas of expertise. The time I spend telling a story to make a concept vivid or walking through my premises and fundamental assumptions is time well-spent.
The fourth sentence feels to me the heart of his short essay, but it is built to a strange way: “For occasion (as it is in the common verse) turneth a bald noddle, after she hath presented her locks in front, and no hold taken; or at least turneth the handle of the bottle first to be received, and after the belly, which is hard to clasp. There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things.” The fourth sentence, There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things, links the opening of the essay about fortune and satisfaction with the other half, about danger. Without this sentence, the essay falls apart. It looks to me like Bacon wanted people to declare wisdom as timely action or decision-making. The roughly central position of this statement is the smallest indicator of its importance.
You may wonder how declaring timely actions or decisions wise is controversial. A brief glance at the third sentence can help: there, the “common verse” describes trying to take hold of a woman, and Bacon himself describes trying to take hold of a bottle. The timely actions and decisions, the “greater wisdom,” can entail mere satisfaction of appetites, e.g. lust and drink. The violence and sexism implicit in the “common verse” is reprehensible, regardless of what “gentlemen” in Bacon’s time think. There is more to say. Is there another concept of wisdom other than “knowing when to do something?” There’s Aristotle’s “contemplative life,” wherein someone loves knowledge and wisdom and receives their happiness through the act of “contemplating.” If this sounds too good to be true, there are indications that Aristotle himself might have his doubts. Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a 24-27, tr. Joe Sachs: “…at any rate, philosophy seems to have pleasures that are wonderful in their purity and stability, and it is reasonable that the way of life of those who have knowledge is more pleasant than that of those who are seeking it.” Strictly speaking, philosophy is love of wisdom, not possession of wisdom—Socrates is famous for defending his knowledge of ignorance. Aristotle makes it sound like the philosopher is continuously pleased by what little he does know and not at all tormented and pained by what he does not know. With that disclaimer, I will say that premodern times, especially with monastic communities alive and well, took “contemplation” seriously. Leo Paul de Alvarez, one of my teachers at the University of Dallas, made a strong case in a talk once that Aristotle’s “contemplative life” transforms all the other virtues he enumerated and discussed, making them all the more powerful and beautiful. That makes sense to me–bring some degree of thoughtfulness into any area of your life, and you get that much more out of it.
There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things is a statement that patience is a suspect virtue and the contemplative life is not a worthy goal. Again, this statement ties half of Bacon’s essay to the other half. We have spoken of fortune, the possibility of missing something marvelous, the crude satisfaction of appetites. But what concerns Bacon after he declares what is “greater wisdom” is danger: Dangers are no more light, if they once seem light; and more dangers have deceived men than forced them. In other words, patience and contemplation can lead one to underestimate how bad things could possibly be. I might think that with time, I can overcome anything, so I let a sickness get out of hand. I might be too busy “contemplating” and forget that the people around me have feelings that need to be addressed.
In fact, one might say that patience and contemplation–“delays”–are the opposite of wakefulness: Nay, it were better to meet some dangers half way, though they come nothing near, than to keep too long a watch upon their approaches; for if a man watch too long, it is odds he will fall asleep. Bacon’s emphasis on danger sounds eminently sensible, until you realize what exactly he’s asking. Is wisdom really meant to tell you the exact time you should do something? That’s insane: what you’d have to do, to avoid danger completely, is have a command of science so thorough that you would virtually stand outside of time. Then you would use the knowledge science gives you… to avoid a low speed fender bender in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart.
I want to be clear that there are a number of people studying Early Modernity who think they can recover premodern traditions and use them to challenge the way we live now. To be really blunt, they think they can point to a world without technology as perfectly sensible. I’m sympathetic with how they read, and I appreciate their ability to see how figures like Bacon see themselves. I flatly reject their quiet romanticizing of the world before modernity & their uncritical approach to what they consider traditional religion. When we are wondering what Bacon means and criticizing the direction his thought can take, we need to try to imagine how he sees his age. Sure, Bacon rejects the contemplative life and traditional notions of wisdom and virtue. Is that because he really wants a supermarket with air conditioning, or because the old ways have become hopelessly corrupt?
The demand that wisdom be practical is not wholly alien to philosophy. Socrates did use his trial and execution as an opportunity. For myself, I like to think that I’m thinking about how to avoid our worst possible outcomes and get value out of situations which are not ideal. “Danger,” then, is at least as important an area of thought as virtue or happiness.
Still. Something for us is not quite intuitive about demanding wisdom be timely. Bacon indulges martial imagery to more fully illustrate his point: On the other side, to be deceived with too long shadows (as some have been when the moon was low and shone on their enemies’ back), and so to shoot off before the time; or to teach dangers to come on, by over early buckling towards them; is another extreme. Demanding wisdom be timely, in essence, is demanding wisdom win wars. If wisdom is about making the right move at the right time, then that’s the logical consequence. Aristotle in the Ethics is very clear that the contemplative life stands apart from that of a politician or warrior. You could say the contemplative life is emphatically not martial. Xenophon, discoursing on how a general would know an action’s success, tells him to offer up sacrifices and pray.
Bacon chooses the examples he illustrates his ideas with very carefully. I can do more of this as a writer, but it depends on the topic. For this line-by-line reading of “Of Delays,” it is proving far more useful to me and to you to spell everything out. Bacon’s prose in this essay lacks any sense that it is actually spoken by a person who lived and had experiences worth talking about. That’s intentional–he wants you to hone in on how he parodies Aristotle’s use of the “mean” in the Ethics–but it also takes away the sense of urgency he more than likely feels in reorienting philosophy. For myself, I want readers to reconstruct what I have to work with: a sense of abandonment as I try to figure out what to do with memories I cherish from relationships long gone. A sense of neglect as I wonder if I’m only talking to myself. A sense of shame as there’s so much to improve and apologize for. A sense of amazement at how privileged some others are. A sense of wonder at how finely constructed some words or images can be. I wouldn’t say Bacon was a “privileged” writer in the sense we use it today, but he was Lord Chancellor for His Britannic Majesty James the First. Machiavelli does speak of the high and the low, implying that those of us in a lowly position see what has been placed higher with a particular clarity. I wonder.
“Of Delays” concludes with an especially subversive note. Bacon feels he has made his argument, it seems, so he puts forth what might seem to some a provocation: The ripeness or unripeness of the occasion (as we said) must ever be well weighed; and generally it is good to commit the beginnings of all great actions to Argos with his hundred eyes, and the ends to Briareus with his hundred hands; first to watch, and then to speed. He has made his case against contemplation and patience principally on avoiding danger, but he sums it up as if one was picking fruit, say from the Tree of Knowledge. That’s daring enough, but he goes further: one is to commit to having the hundred eyes of Argos or a hundred hands like Briareus. These are not Greek gods–these are monsters, notable only for their power. “First to watch, then to speed” is an endorsement that whomever is reading should not be unafraid of having and using power.
Bacon might tell me “Well, if they can follow what I’ve said carefully, why shouldn’t they have power?” I would be tempted to respond to him with a dril tweet, maybe the one about not ever having to hand things to ISIL. I do think that students shouldn’t be afraid of using knowledge or making serious judgments. They should be given opportunities to lead and make mistakes. And they shouldn’t be lectured about what they’re doing wrong all throughout. But I don’t think Bacon and I see eye-to-eye here. He doesn’t seem as interested in what species of courage they would hold, or what kind of mentor would advise and work with mistakes. His rhetoric comes dangerously close to unleashing something: For the helmet of Pluto, which maketh the politic man go invisible, is secrecy in the counsel and celerity in the execution. For when things are once come to the execution, there is no secrecy comparable to celerity; like the motion of a bullet in the air, which flieth so swift as it outruns the eye. Bacon wants those who have read him and take power to act without delay. You’ll notice his language is an early echo of the Federalist: Hamilton, in Federalist 70, writes of the “secrecy” and “dispatch” of the executive. It may be true that republics and democracies, governments devoted to rights and the progress of science and society, need someone who executes the laws quickly and well and acts against illiberal threats quickly and well. But I think those of us living on Planet Earth in 2020 can see exactly what has been unleashed. Not the specific President or the Presidency of the United States itself, but the idea that power is essentially unaccountable. A rejection of contemplation and patience implies that hesitation–trying to think through “Is this right?” before doing anything–is a problem. As I can say, in my own inarticulate, muddled way: no.