Prudence, the art of getting on in the world, was the main theme of the ten brief essays which Bacon published in 1597; he compared them to halfpennies: 'though the silver were good, yet the pieces were small'. These "fragments', as he termed them, are groupings of pithy sayings and maxims slightly expanded from a commonplace book. Such collections of noteworthy passages were frequently made by Elizabethans and were the forerunners of the formal essay. For example, the anonymous Remedies Against Discontentment (1596) contained 'small discourses' on dissembling and vanity. The Baconian essay of 1597 consisted of a string of incipient paragraphs related to a subject such as Studies, Discourse, Suitors, Expense, Faction, and Negotiating. The expression was terse and aphoristic, each little division being independent of the others structurally. In them Bacon favours lists of three:
'Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man'.
Sometimes he develops this triplicity in a parallel sentence:
Studies serve for pastimes, for ornaments, and for abilities. Their chief use for pastime is in privateness and retiring; for ornamentation is in discourse; and for ability is in judgement.
The weightiness of these threes is often relieved by pairings or antitheses: 'They perfect Nature and are perfected by experience.' More complexly, antitheses may be ranged in a compressed triple series, as in Histories
' make men wise, poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep, moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.'
Such a passage momentarily halts the reader, forcing him to fill out the hiatuses in order to grasp the meaning that poets make men witty, mathematics make them subtle, natural philosophy makes them deep, moral philosophy makes them grave, etc. This device of compelling the reader to think, along with the symmetry of the paired and triple constructions and their parallels and antitheses, makes the statements memorable. They give a sense of deep sagacity. Actually, they usually state not the profound, but the obvious. For example, in the 1625 edition of the Essays, the revised 'Of Studies' began as follows:
Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring, for ornament is ill discourse, and for ability is in the judgement and disposition of business.
This is an obvious improvement on the earlier wording quoted above, and it is certainly impressive. But the meaning is almost trite and the compression does not achieve brevity; for Bacon could have written: we read books to please ourselves when we are alone, to impress others in conversation, and to improve our judgement and efficiency in practical affairs. What he achieves is an elevation of the familiar. He gives it dignity and significance, engraving it upon the mind, to be remembered because of its aptness and perfect wording.
Between 1607 and 1612 Bacon added twenty-four essays to revisions of the earlier ones but did not publish them in that form. In the intended prefatory letter he called them:
'Certain brief notes set down rather significantly than curiously, which I have called Essays'.
The term, which means a trial, tentative effort, or assay, was borrowed from Montaigne. The Frenchman's essays were informal, self-revealing, and discursive; Bacon's are of a different type, impersonal, brief, and descriptive.
In the second edition (1612), the essays were enlarged
'both in number and weight', according to Bacon, 'so that they are indeed a new work', and 'come home to men's business and bosoms'.
Twenty-nine new topics such as Religion, Death, Empire, and Fortune were introduced under the descriptive title, Essays, or Counsels Civil and Moral, and the style was made more periodic.
The style in the fifty-seven essays of the final edition (1625) is even less contracted. Transitions are eased, coherence is improved, and illustrative material is inserted. But the fact that the sentences tend to be longer, more fluid, and more closely interrelated does not justify a view that Bacon gradually learned to write in this 'literary' manner. He was a master of numerous and varied styles throughout his writing career. The abrupt, runic style of the earlier essays was a deliberate choice.
In the essays Bacon's usual method is to weigh and balance matters, indicating the ideal course of action and the practical one, pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of each, but leaving the reader to make the final decisions. Since his purpose is not the expression of his own feelings, it is inappropriate to approach the essays like a Romantic critic in search of an author's revelation of himself, just as it is anachronistic to judge Bacon's career by the yardstick of Victorian morality. The essays on marriage, children, and single life alternate between arguments in their favour and arguments in their disfavour without committing him certainly to either side. As his other works reveal, he was not lacking in egotism and exhibitionism, but what he made public in the essays was not an introspective probing of his private being but a persona, a public role which he assumed. He puts on the mask of a sagacious, hard-headed counsellor who is aware of the ways of the world and not afraid to point out what will accord with them. He describes how men succeed in competitive society. The enjoyment of truth may be the 'sovereigns good of human nature', but, having acknowledged that fact, he passes to 'the truth of civil business', the facts about what men do in ordinary affairs where 'the mixture of a lie' is sometimes elective. It is 'holy and religious' to meditate upon death, but obsessive fear of dying impedes a man's efficiency. 'Revenge is a kind of wild justice', but it is best left to the law or nobly neglected, for it distracts a man's time and energy from the advancement of his career. Adversity is unpleasant to endure, but practical people learn fortitude from it and thus gain strength to move on to success. A wife and children may be impediments to great enterprises, but they are a discipline to humanity and may curb a husband and father from harmful endeavours. The envy of others is often dangerous to a man in high position, but a clever man avoids its ill effects by managing things so that the envy is transferred to someone else, such as his dependents or associates. (No wonder that William Blake called the essays 'good advice for Satan's Kingdom!'). Love is all right for the stage,
'but in life it doth much mischief', especially in its 'mad degree'; therefore 'men ought to beware of this passion' and, 'if they cannot but admit love', they will 'do best' to 'sever it wholly from their serious affairs and actions of life'.
In such passages Bacon sees that men are mixtures of good and bad and accepts them as such. A reader should approach him in the same manner. Certainly, to interpret him romantically as a disappointed idealist is to misunderstand his nature and intentions. His essays, like his whole philosophical system, are rooted in realistic observations of facts. Though he may sometimes seem cynical in his appraisal of those facts, it should be remembered that his estimate of them led him to optimism.