Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III
Last time, we wondered why Bacon titled his essay “Of Truth.” He seemed more concerned with skepticism and lying, and pointed indirectly at the advantages they provide. Again, the larger significance of Francis Bacon’s thought: he is a key transitional figure from ancient/medieval thought to the world as we know it today. Democracy and science are prominent themes, but have to be looked for carefully, as Bacon can be considered subversive for his time.
We resume with a comment of Bacon’s about poetry. Poetry, he claims, was condemned by a Church father as something demonic and filled with error, some kind of wine or false nutrition, as it fills the imagination. But poetry may be filling the imagination because it is nothing but a shadow of a lie. Poetry comes and goes, passing through the mind: it’s a shadow puppet show. The deeper lies sink and settle in the mind, and they cause harm:
One of the fathers, in great severity, called poesy vinum doemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet, it is but with the shadow of a lie. But it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in, and settleth in it, that doth the hurt; such as we spake of before.
What lie, which sinks and settles, did we speak of before? Bacon must mean the type that gives us “vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would,” i.e. self-esteem. But no one’s self-image is based entirely on truth. We make do with a combination of truth and lies – or more properly speaking, untruths. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t work for honor or for greater goods.
Of course, you object at this point. Isn’t a life that works for honor, a greater good, or the truth one that is fundamentally true? – Oh, you have much to learn. – Bacon will allow you to use the word “truth” in a number of different ways, assuming their uses completely reconcile. According to him, the sorts of lies I am saying we use for self-respect are merely depraved. Truth only judges itself, teaches inquiry into itself and an erotic love of knowledge. Also, believing one has the truth is not just enjoyment, but “the sovereign good of human nature:”
But, howsoever these things are thus in men’s depraved judgments, and affections, yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.
Bacon has taken a key element of ancient thought, that the philosopher has a lust for knowledge, and overemphasized its inhumanity. Granted, Socrates can be accused of neglecting the human things. “What is justice?” leads to the inanity and cruelty of the Republic. Aristophanes and the sophists rightly ask how one so unmindful of money can advise regarding human happiness.
The overemphasis makes itself clear in how truth is a realm unto itself, a realm that sounds suspiciously like a universal, monotheistic religion. The “belief of truth” is the “sovereign good of human nature” and our pleasure? No believer about to massacre infidels or heretics thinks they have a mere opinion. By contrast: the Socratic claim was knowledge of ignorance, which, upon further examination, was something Socrates worked for.
Bacon provides, in accordance with his purposes, a retelling of Scripture. Pursuing truth is no less than godly. God first made “the light of the sense” and ended Creation with “the light of reason.” The work of the sabbath (are you supposed to work on the sabbath?) is “the illumination of his Spirit:”
The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense; the last, was the light of reason; and his sabbath work ever since, is the illumination of his Spirit. First he breathed light, upon the face of the matter or chaos; then he breathed light, into the face of man; and still he breatheth and inspireth light, into the face of his chosen.
This little myth reconciling Christianity and rationality is crazy. The light of God that distinguishes beings from chaos is of a reason and purpose beyond us. It requires revelation to understand. Man in Scripture is not meant to be as rational as he is meant to be obedient. That is plainly obvious. With these problems in mind, what the heck being “chosen” in the sense of having light inspired in one has to do with the sabbath or the Holy Spirit is beyond me. I think Bacon ultimately wants to show rationality of a certain sort Providential, i.e. the progress of the sciences. This would make truth useful to man. But Bacon prior to this passage has truth being its own self-sufficient realm, where believing in it is enjoying it.
So what exactly is happening in this essay? For now, the argument seems to be that the pursuit of truth is a godly task that is good in every way. To have the truth is to have the highest honor possible. Those in ships and in battles are subject to fortune and can be laughed at as idiots. However, you, holding the truth, will have pity and move in charity, as you do not need to condescend to swelling with pride:
The poet, that beautified the sect, that was otherwise inferior to the rest, saith yet excellently well: 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 (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors, and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling, or pride. Certainly, it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.
Bacon said truth is its own good, even Providential in aspect. And yet he ends this paragraph with a bit of poetry whereby one who has the truth does better than others. This is not an appeal to the good in itself or to divinity. This is a mere earthly pleasure, usually held by one who is vastly superior to opponents in games of power. Bacon is appealing to some kind of courtier or clergyman or warrior desperate for honor. Instead of adventure, intrigue, or force of arms, go find the truth and put oneself in an unassailable position. He has not yet talked about doing science, but he is definitely preparing the ground for that (cf. New Atlantis, where honor and science and religion go hand-in-hand).