'Of Studies' by Francis Bacon

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"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested" (Francis Bacon, 1561-1626). (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Francis Bacon, the first major English essayist, comments forcefully in Of Studies on the value of reading, writing, and learning. Notice Bacon's reliance on parallel structures (in particular, tricolons) throughout this concise, aphoristic essay. Then, compare the essay to Samuel Johnson's treatment of the same theme more than a century later in On Studies.

The Life of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon is considered a Renaissance man.

He worked as a lawyer and scientist throughout his life (1561-1626.) Bacon's most valuable work surrounding philosophical and Aristotelian concepts that supported the scientific method. Bacon served as an Attorney General as well as Lord Chancellor of England and received his education from several universities including Trinity College and the University of Cambridge. Bacon has written over 50 essays beginning with "Of" in the title and following the concept, such as Of Truth, Of Atheism and Of Discourse.

A few interesting facts about Bacon follow:

  • Bacon's uncle was the Lord Keeper for Queen Elizabeth I. He helped symbolize the approvals for key documents.
  • He is known as the father of the scientific method which was influenced by his own Baconian method based on reason and observation.
  • There are rumors that Bacon was mostly attracted to men, due to his late marriage in life, amongst other ​theories.

    Interpretations of Study

    Bacon's essay expresses several comments in Of Studies that can be interpreted as the following:

    • Studying is helpful for better understanding and provides a knowledge that develops experience, as well as a character that grows.
    • Reading provides delight and fun, ornament and showing off, and the ability for success.
    • Bacon expanded upon different fields of study depending on one's goal; for example, to master clarity with language, study poetry.

    Of Studies Excerpt by Francis Bacon*

    "Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores [Studies pass into and influence manners]. Nay, there is no stone or impediment in the wit but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores [splitters of hairs]. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind may have a special receipt."

    * Bacon published three editions of his essays (in 1597, 1612, and 1625) and the last two were marked by the addition of more essays. In many cases, they became expanded works from earlier editions. This is the best-known version of the essay Of Studies, taken from the 1625 edition of Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral.

    Below, for the sake of comparison, is the version from the first edition (1597).

    "Studies serve for pastimes, for ornaments, for abilities; their chief use for pastimes is in privateness and retiring; for ornaments in discourse; and for ability in judgment; for expert men can execute, but learned men are more fit to judge and censure. To spend too much time in them is sloth; to use them too much for ornament is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules is the humor of a scholar; they perfect nature, and are themselves perfected by experience; crafty men contemn them, wise men use them, simple men admire them; for they teach not their use, but that there is a wisdom without them and above them won by observation. Read not to contradict nor to believe, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some are to be read only in parts, others to be read but curiously, and some few to be read wholly with diligence and attention. Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready, and writing an exact man; therefore, if a man write little, he had need of a great memory; if he confer little, he had need of a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning to seem to know that he doth not know. Histories make wise men; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend."
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    Nordquist, Richard. "'Of Studies' by Francis Bacon." ThoughtCo, Sep. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/of-studies-by-francis-bacon-1688771. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, September 24). 'Of Studies' by Francis Bacon. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/of-studies-by-francis-bacon-1688771 Nordquist, Richard. "'Of Studies' by Francis Bacon." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/of-studies-by-francis-bacon-1688771 (accessed November 23, 2017).