Mask and error in Francis Bacon
The Essais of Montaigne and the Essayes of Sir Francis Bacon are often linked, albeit superficially, in histories of Renaissance literature; but one who comes to the Essayes for the first time after having read Montaigne, expecting to find Anglicized echoes of “Des cannibales” or “De l'amitié, ” will be sorely disappointed and not a little baffled. While Bacon does seem to have read Montaigne, he appears to have had little interest in following in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor. Montaigne's writings are loquacious, diffuse, extended, often wandering great distances from their starting points and ostensible subjects; Bacon's are brief, compact, and appear to be tightly focused and organized around their titles. Montaigne never shies away from talking about himself; indeed, whatever the alleged topic of a given essay, the subject matter is equally Michel de Montaigne, his consciousness, his thoughts, his kidneystones. Bacon speaks mostly in abstract, third-person observations; he seems reluctant to speak of himself when discussing historical, moral, and political themes. On the rare occasions when he does use the first person, it is usually only to express an opinion on an aesthetic point, as in the linked essays “Of Building” and “Of Gardens. ” In place of Montaigne's ingratiating charm and generosity we seem to find an impersonal and legalistic sententiousness, occasionally punctuated with grim irony.
This contrast between Montaigne's “subjective”style and the apparently “objective”style of Bacon parallels the contrast between their respective political styles. As we saw in the previous chapter, Montaigne is anxious to show that, although he had the option of being a courtier, he rejected that option, resisting the demands of a nascent absolutist system in an effort to preserve a certain subjective autonomy. 1 For Bacon, however, the situation is quite different. To begin with, unlike Montaigne, he is quite anxious to play the courtly game, and perfectly willing to admit it; furthermore, under the more developed absolutist system of Elizabeth and James, he cannot avoid being thrust onto the stage in some way or another, whether he wants to be or not. As he says in the Advancement of Learning: “… in this theatre of man's life it is reserved only for God and Angels to be lookers