Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III
I’ve been disappointed in a number of people recently. Some have shown that they can absorb a lot of information, but could care less about treating others decently. Others are better on that score, but display an enormous amount of immaturity and irresponsibility despite the fact they know better. Still others are dogmatic and too comfortable with their conclusions, and quite a few cannot distinguish their petty complaints from what are serious character flaws. In a number of cases, they unjustly cast virtue as vice. I do feel we are consistently failing others, that we have declared ourselves a right to be trivial, cruel, and petty.
The best thing for me to do is not to continue ranting, but introduce something and see if anyone cares. What follows is a commentary on Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Truth.” To summarize Francis Bacon’s relevance: if one wonders how democracy and science emerged in the West, he is a crucial figure to study. Ancient philosophy (Plato, Aristotle) was concerned with science and democracy, but careful not to endorse both blindly. Socrates was put to death by a democracy; the pre-Socratics advanced inquiry, but did not care about sounding insane. Christian thought overemphasized ancient philosophy’s concern with virtue and the soul. (I’ve written a little bit about this in my Introduction to Machiavelli’s Prince.) Bacon, writing after Machiavelli, breaks with classical thought (virtue is not as important as utility) and certainly with Christianity (the goal of the sciences: “the relief of man’s estate,” or immortality).
Let’s start proving and exploring some of the claims I have made. “Of Truth” begins with Bacon asking a “What is?” question, the sort of question Socrates was said to ask, i.e. “What is justice?” or “What is virtue?” However, “What is truth?” is not put in Socrates’ mouth, but Pilate’s. Like Socrates, there is an element of jest, but Socrates would at least stick around:
What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
The “what is” question is asked by one who put God to death, but it did not serve his interest to actually get an answer. Bacon, after his one sentence NaNoWriMo submission, continues by showing a classically-influenced skepticism undermining morality for the sake of freedom:
Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits, which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them, as was in those of the ancients.
Once there were ancient skeptics who dismissed the very concept of truth in order to emphasize that they were free thinkers and actors. Bacon sees in his time “discoursing wits” who play in a similar vein, but are much more trivial. Even though Bacon rejects both the modern and ancient skeptics, he has created a hierarchy in his writing, where the “discoursing wits” of his day do not matter. The want of freedom meant that once it was “bondage to fix a belief.” Once, people insisted on the freedom of thinking, even if they were mistaken about the cause of that freedom.
Abruptly, the subject matter of the essay changes, as it strays from the themes of truth and skepticism. In an instant, Bacon wishes to tell us about how awesome lies are. Truth is difficult and laborious to find; when found, it imposes on one’s thoughts. There is a “natural though corrupt love of the lie itself:”
But it is not only the difficulty and labor, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural though corrupt love, of the lie itself.
One can say this is entirely continuous with what was before. The dilettantes of Bacon’s day are lazy, and the ancient skeptics were scared truth would impose on them. But skepticism is a far, far cry from loving lies.
Bacon really wants to focus on lying. “The lie itself,” instead of the truth itself, is loved. He sketches the position of a Greek philosopher who thought that there might be lies told only for “the lie’s sake,” not just for pleasure or advantage. Bacon expresses confusion himself about this position, equating “this same truth” with daylight and lies with candlelights:
One of the later school of the Grecians, examineth the matter, and is at a stand, to think what should be in it, that men should love lies; where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie’s sake. But I cannot tell; this same truth, is a naked, and open day-light, that doth not show the masks, and mummeries, and triumphs, of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights.
This is where things get interesting. Bacon said a sentence ago that there was a “a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself.” He brought up a Greek philosopher who said much the same thing. Then he expressed his confusion, as if the philosopher and he himself were wrong. Note that the Greek philosopher sorted lies by pleasure, advantage, its own sake. The unnamed Greek philosopher is not Aristotle, but in Aristotle’s Ethics, there are friendships of utility, pleasure, and virtue. What lies could stand in place of is virtue. (Virtue – arete in Greek – is simply “excellence.”) No wonder Bacon affirms that lies loved for their own sake matter, then sounds like he wants to back away from it.
Bacon argues that “this same truth” is “naked,” “open day-light.” He may mean by the “truth” the specific proposition that the lie in itself is loved, not just that truth in general is daylight, opposed to lies that are lesser lights. Those lesser, artificial lights – you know, ones that help create shadow puppets on cave walls – “show the masks, mummeries, and triumphs of the world” in a “stately” and “daintily” fashion. Honor and love are merged in lies. One can say pleasure and advantage come from this, but Bacon leads us to a much larger, harsher truth: conventionality is the lie in-and-of itself.
Again, he only leads us there. His very next passage seems to show lies pleasurable and advantageous in such a way that loving lies for their own sake could not exist. Truth has value, like a pearl. But diamonds and carbuncles do better with artificial light, so they are more useful. And lies mixed in with truth give pleasure. See? There is no such thing as lies loved for their own sake. There are only lies for pleasure and advantage, both lesser goals than the beatific vision. Truth is by implication amazing, and Francis Bacon by implication totally believes in God and truth and virtue and all that good stuff:
Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?
Bacon’s surface falls apart when one carefully considers the link between honor and pleasure. The pleasure of mixing in a lie affects opinions, hopes, valuations, imaginations. The consequence is not simply a small ego boost or even self-delusion, for without lies, there is “melancholy,” “indisposition,” a complete crisis of self-confidence. One could say Bacon appeals to humility before God as the highest virtue, but if his audience has any kind of ambition, they’re wondering what notion of truth they need in order to be properly confident. Bacon’s notion of lying is so strong that it wrecks any attempt to feel honored.
To summarize: Bacon shows skepticism about the truth not only to be linked to impiety, but freedom. He goes further and links lying not just to obtaining pleasure and advantage, but the larger issue of the good life. One can question every convention, sure, but then one is going to be miserable. All the same, by discussing the value of skepticism and lying, he is positioning himself for discussion of the value of truth. “What is truth?” is still the outstanding question, and whether reason or revelation will help illuminate it has yet to be seen.