Of Studies by Sir Francis Bacon, written in 1597 and enlarged in 1625, is an essay written in didactic style– it is intended to inform, or teach a lesson. Here, Bacon discusses the importance of studies, highlighting three main reasons to convince his readers of its necessity. In the end, we are told that merely studying a subject isn’t enough. What’s needed to perfect one’s study is the exercise and practice of the studied subject matter. On the whole, Of Studies is an engaging read from “ The Father of English Essays”.
Of Studies | Summary
Bacon begins the essay by listing the three central reasons that studies are important for: delight, ornament and ability. He says that a man can deal with his problems one at a time based on experience, but it is only informed men who can give counsels according to any situation, whether or not they have directly trained in it. In the next paragraph, he hastens to add that too much of anything is not good- and that includes studies. Spending an excess amount of time on it will make one a sloth, while displaying too much in conversation will make one seem affected. And living life solely based on book-learned knowledge is plainly foolish. One has in-born natural talents which are honed by studying and embellished by experiences.
Naturally clever men view studies with contempt, those with average wits admire it, and wise men learn from it. Because studies do not teach how one should use the information- it simply provides it, it is up to the person’s wisdom to utilise it well. One should not study with the intention of contradicting or disproving others, nor should they entirely believe and rely upon everything they read- books should be read to understand and apply, to weigh and consider.
Bacon then says that some books are meant to be read in snippets, as only a few parts are necessary. Others are meant to be ‘swallowed’ as they are important in their entirety. And some are meant to be analysed and understood thoroughly, as they present principal information. Some books may be made up of excerpts from other books- but only excerpts of less important arguments may be read in this fashion. Removing key points from a book and reading it out of context is as good as not reading it at all.
Together, it is reading, writing and discussion that makes a man truly wise. If he only has little of one of these elements, then he must have an overflowing abundance of the other. There are different academic subjects which provide different aspects of intelligence to a person– history for wisdom, poetry for wit, morals for gravity, philosophy for depth. And it is the presence of one that aids the improvement of the other. Bacon then makes a connection between intellectual improvement and physical improvement. Like how bowling is good for the stone and reins, and shooting for the lung and breast and so forth- which each sport aiding a different part of the body- each subject aids a different part of their intellectual capacity. If a man wants to learn to focus, let him study mathematics. If his wit is not up to par, let him study Schoolmen. If he is not up to par in his reasoning and analytical strength, let him study law. Every intellectual capability which one’s mind lacks has an apt solution in the form of a subject of study.
Of Studies | Analysis
Sir Francis Bacon employs an informative, lesson-oriented structure to his essay. The vocabulary and context are fit to the late 1500s and early 1600s, as we can see by several references such as the reference to shooting and riding, which was especially popular in that time, and the use of a Latin phrase in the piece. The theme of the essay is the intelligent application of studies, rather than merely the concept of studying. Sir Bacon emphasises on the importance of knowing how to use what one has learnt.
In order to convey the importance of studying in a more efficient manner, he created three main reasons– to read for enjoyment, to read for merit, and to read for knowledge. However, it is interesting to note that he also inserts bits of advice, suggestions and explanations which elaborate his statements. Such an essay is termed ‘didactic’, as it is written with the intention of conveying a lesson or a point.
He points out in the first paragraph the difference between experts and learned men. Here, he draws a comparison between experience and book-based knowledge. Experience can make one an expert only in that particular subject matter, while reading can be done on several different topics- this may be likened to the modern, on-going debate of ‘book-smart versus street smart’. Rather than choosing one, Sir Bacon underlines the importance of having both. A point to note is that despite advocating for the importance of studies, it is stressed that an excess of anything is harmful:
“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.”
This is a cleverly strung sentence, drawing a firm boundary between necessity and imprudence. It also places weight on the significance of balance.
He also proceeds to reiterate the link between studied knowledge and experiential knowledge, saying that one embellishes the other. We may understand from this, as well as his emphasis on using what the book teaches, that his idea of studying gives value to the ability to apply it in the real world. He regards studying as a tool, something one should be able to connect to real-world scenarios and consequently use. The following sentence gives an insight to how a person may observe studying based on their natural intellectual capacity:
“Crafty men contemn 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.”
Studies are scorned by the shrewd, admired by the simple and observed by the wise.
Sir Bacon follows this with another aspect of studying a subject: intention. It must be acknowledged that one’s reason for performing a certain task plays a great role in how well it is accomplished. Consider the line below:
“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”
One will not receive the same amount of knowledge if their intention is simply to disprove others. This may be because it is not a genuine desire to learn for oneself, but out of pure ambition, and therefore the motivation can disappear quickly. Similarly, Bacon also warns readers against naivety and quick relaxation. Believing everything immediately is equally as dangerous as learning without sincerity. The advice to “weigh and consider” once more links back to Sir Bacon’s accentuation of application. One must understand what they study, when and how to use it, and the reason behind it. They must consider which information is valid for a given situation. It is only with this ability to think critically and use their book-learned information that they can say they are truly learned.
Sir Bacon also discusses how to study- sometimes it is better to read mere chapters of the books, while certain other books are meant to be thoroughly inspected. This may be symbolic of ‘smart learning’ over ‘rote learning’ in more contemporary language. It is important to know how to make use of one’s time and energy, that is the only way not to waste effort on unnecessary information. He likens books which contain collections of important excerpts without context to “common distilled waters, flashy things.” because it is a plateau. There is no further learning that can be done from such books, because we can only learn many things superficially, rather than one thing deeply. Not having context prevents us from understanding the true meaning behind the argument.
Another theme of Sir Bacon’s essay is balance. Multiple times, he mentions the importance of being well-versed in more than one area. We may compare this to his earlier lesson of “too much of anything will cause harm.” Having too much of one strength and none of the other will cause an imbalance of the mind- for example, the ability to memorize quickly, but the inability to focus does not lead to a learned man. Bacon’s vision of an ideal learned man is one who can study, write and discuss.
As this is a didactic essay, Sir Bacon ends it in a rather prescriptive manner- he tells the readers of the importance of different academic subjects, and how they may improve one’s skill and temperament. This advice is put forth in the form of information, with the idea of inspiring curiosity and willpower. He says :
“Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.”
He goes on to elaborate that each subject can be seen as a ‘remedy’ to a lack of ability. For example, if one suffers a lack of wit, the remedy is learning poetry. In order to make the explanation more relatable to his readers, he brings in the example of physical sports:
“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.”
This is in a similar format of listing which physical activities will heal and help which parts of the body.
Bacon’s main point in his essay Of Studies, is that there is a subject for every aspect of intellectual temperament, and becoming well versed in it will confirm personal growth and improvement. He ends the essay with “So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.” However, as he makes clear throughout the essay, it is crucial to maintain a balance. Too much is harmful, too little is purposeless. Too much of one and not enough of the other will work in contradiction. Intent is key, and most importantly, the experience and application of what one has read is what truly proves if they have understood their lesson.