"Pruning by Study": Self-Cultivation in Bacon's 'Essays.'

By Miller, John J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

"Pruning by Study": Self-Cultivation in Bacon's 'Essays.'


Miller, John J., Papers on Language & Literature


The question of the relationship of Bacon's Essays to his scientific project is a recurring commonplace of Bacon criticism. Generally, critics have argued over the degree to which the Essays conform to Bacon's inductive method, as described and demonstrated in The Novum Organon and The Advancement of Learning. Jacob Zeitlin's influential essay of 1928 was one of the first to argue that the Essays represent the application of induction to "civil knowledge [,] . . . which of all others is most immersed in matter, and hardliest reduced to axiom" (III: 445),(1) resulting in a "science of pure selfishness" (503).(2) Some more recent studies suggest a different approach to the question; these stress the coherence of the writings by arguing not so much that the Essays are (or are not) informed by the principles and methods of the scientific writings, as that both are the products of common anxieties, concerns, or socio-political conditions. Robert Faulkner, for instance, discovers underlying the Essays a "foundational" definition of the Baconian subject as "a needy self that must make its own provision to the point of making its own world" (87). From such a self, Faulkner argues, springs both the Essays' concern with personal security and power, and the will to power over nature which is the end of the scientific project.(3)

The following essay will begin, likewise, by exploring the nature of the self--and its "selfishness"--on which the Essays are predicated. The self portrayed in the Essays, and for which they are written, is motivated by a powerful anxiety about its ability to control and distribute its creative energies.(4) This anxiety, in turn, highlights a significant difference between the two projects--The Advancement of Learning and the advancement of the self--and thus illuminates an important methodological distinction between the two. while the scientific writings concern the present and future work of many minds, the Essays address the needs of a single concrete self, bounded by time and space, and ambitious to achieve concrete results within those bounds. Knowledge, the goal of The Advancement of Learning, is long; but life, the subject of the Essays, is short.

While the Novum Organon argues that induction, properly practiced, will proceed more efficiently than science had hitherto, it warns especially against the dangers of haste in method, particularly such haste as is encouraged by the desire to see results, whether in the form of abstract axioms or concrete, practical "fruits."(5) For the individual contingent self, however, results do count. For that self, therefore, efficiency becomes a paramount concern. The contingent self, as both subject and audience of the Essays, thus determines their difference from Bacon's progressive writings.

This difference explains and can be illustrated by a consistent difference in the uses to which a common set of figures are put in the Essays and in the scientific writings. Brian Vickers has described Bacon's use of horticultural metaphors such as seeds, fruit, gardens, and irrigation to represent the potential for the growth of knowledge from the well cultivated "seeds" which the scientific writings are supposed to plant.(6) Such figures figure prominently in the Essays as well. There, however, they are most often used as images of unrestrained growth to an opposite effect: to represent the inefficient expenditure of the self's limited creative resources. Figures of fecundity in The Advancement of Learning become, in the Essays, metaphors for profligacy.

This concern with protecting the resources of the contingent self is most evident in those essays which describe the borders of public life. These include the essays on the relationship between public and domestic life, a relationship which is necessarily competitive within the economy of the self's limited energies. Among other things, these essays discover a greater security in the public realm, in part because the expression of creative energies is more easily controlled through the fashioning of an artificial public self--a reputation--than through the making of separate and individual selves through physical procreation. …

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