Of Death is a cogent essay by Sir Francis Bacon that deeply engages with the subject of Death – a biological reality and a philosophical concept that has arrested the attention of mankind for ages.
The essay deftly manoeuvres around the concept of mortality, arguing that death is not as negative as the world seems to believe it is. Bacon, the elegant rationalist, essentially argues that the fear of death is, above all, unreasonable. He opines that the fear of death is manufactured without reason, as death itself does not cause torture upon anyone, but the living left behind grieve as though the dead are subject to agony. Written in Bacon’s signature aphoristic style, Of Death endeavours to shed light on the way that man has accepted death, with the insistence that death is only natural, and fearing it achieves nothing.
Of Death | Summary and Analysis
The essay begins with Bacon saying that men fear death because they fear the unknown, just as children fear the dark as they do not know what they will find there. Yet, as horror stories increase the fear of children, so do tales of the pains of death increase the fears of men. Seeing death as a punishment given for the sins committed by the flesh is understood to be religious, but fearing death is nothing but the weakness of man’s natural being. Yet, there is a lot of imagination and ego within the understanding of death given by religious leaders. They make people imagine how terrible and painful the throes of death will be, while in reality, death is usually quick and painless.
“Pompa mortis magis terret, quam mors ipsa” means “It is the pomp of death that alarms us more than death itself”. This is taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, a Latin poem from 8 AD. The pomp of death is in reference to the wild assumptions and assertions that people make about life after death and the torture that one is expected to go through in the passage from this life to the next.
To the living, death is shown to be terrible by the expressions of grief and the parades of the funerals. The weeping, the mass of people dressed only in black, the paying of respects, the groans and moans and expressions of pain represent death as a terrible thing. Yet, the weaknesses in man win him over and turn death into a less terrible enemy. Man masters the fear of death and diminishes it through his desire for worldly happiness, or his fear of worldly pain. A contemporary example would be that people know that excessive smoking will ruin them, yet the enjoyment of smoking or the fear of the pain of going through a nicotine withdrawal are valued more than the corruption of the body and the consequent pains of death. Death is no terrible enemy because man has so many worldly pleasures that win over the fear of death.
The numerous emotions of man connect themselves back to death. The desire for revenge triumphs the fear of death. The fullness of love diminishes the thought of death, making it insignificant. Honour aspires toward death, as can be seen in a soldier who fights for his country, and finds honour in sacrificing himself and entering into the arms of death.
Grief flieth toward it means that when a man feels such deep anguish, they may see death as their only escape, so they ponder upon death as a means to resolve the misery they are forced to experience. Fear preoccupateth it means that fear anticipates it. A fearful man always has death on his mind. Shakespeare said, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” This sort of man constantly anticipates death in his fear. And finally, compassion may bring about death, as when the Roman emperor Otho committed suicide, his admirers followed suit out of tenderness and pity.
Yet, Seneca says “Cogita quamdiu eadem feceris; mori velle, non tantum fortis aut miser, sed etiam fastidiosus potest” – Think how long thou hast done the same thing; not only a valiant man or a miserable man but also a fastidious man is able to wish for death. Men may wish for death as they feel that their lives get repetitious. This wearies them and they will desire the perceived release of death, though they are neither in misery nor are they courageous and honourable.
Bacon also notes that a good man remains good even unto death. The approach of death does not change the goodness of their spirits. He used the example of several Roman emperors. Augustus Caesar died with the words “Livia, conjugii nostri memor, vive et vale” – Farewell, Livia; and forget not the days of our marriage. He did not die with fear or anger, but with acceptance, and a request to be remembered.
Tiberius, his successor, was described as “Jam Tiberium vires et corpus, non dissimulatio, deserebant” – His powers of body were gone, but his power of dissimulation still remained. Dissimulation means concealing one’s thoughts or true character. During his rule, Tiberius never revealed himself truly, and even practised this dissimulation up until his death, never revealing the steady decline of his health. Bacon uses this example to show that even as death approached Tiberius, the man remained the same.
Similarly, for the rest. Vespasian joked “Ut puto deus fio” – As I think, I am becoming a god. Galba said “Feri, si ex re sit populi Romani”- Strike, if it be for the good of the Romans, giving himself up for his country at the hands of Otho.
Septimius Severus said “Adeste si quid mihi restat agendum” – Be at hand, if there is anything more for me to do. He said this to his sons as his reign was cut short by his illness. The goodness of his spirit and his care for the Roman people did not diminish as even in his last moments he told his sons to be ready to do any work that he had left incomplete.
People made death seem much scarier than it really is because of the great preparations they undertook before death. A philosopher said “qui finem vitæ extremum inter munera ponat naturæ” – who accounts the close of life as one of the benefits of nature, which means that it is as natural to die as it is to be born. The prerequisites of life are birth and death. Bacon ends with the assertion that the man who dies having lived a life of commitment and hard work, like the soldier who dies on the battlefield, does not feel the pain of death as their mind is fixed on something good, like their honour or their accomplishments. They are not subject to the grief or agony of death as their mind is on a higher plane. The “dolors of death” means the pain or suffering of death.
But, the sweetest song is “Nunc dimittis” – Now lettest thou … depart. This hymn is one of willingly walking into the hands of death after living a fulfilling life, and meeting all expectations. Death opens the door to fame and diminishes envy because when one dies, people no longer dwell on their wrongdoing, and instead are generous to a fault, and uplift them as much as they can. The adherence to the rule of “Speak well of the dead” results in people being made to seem much better than they were, and thus they are memorialised in good fame. “Extinctus amabitur idem”– The same man that was envied while he lived, shall be loved when he is gone. The man who, in his life, was hated and envied and insulted by those jealous of him, will be praised and loved and spoken well of in his death. Those who envied him will cease to speak badly of him, and so extinguish their envy.
In this essay, Bacon opines that the fear of death is manufactured without reason, as death itself does not cause torture upon anyone, but the living left behind grieve as though the dead are subject to agony. The fear of death is easily overcome by weak men, and the fear of death does not affect men of strong character. Death is nothing to fear as it is as natural as birth, and less painless than one is made to believe.
The one who lives a life of fulfilment and commitment does not feel death to be something they are forced into, as they accomplish their goals and freely walk into death’s warm embrace. The goodness of man will be honoured and remembered, and his shortfalls and transgressions will be swept under the rug, never to be spoken of again. Man will be loved after death, not hated.
Francis Bacon | About the Author
Francis Bacon, also called Lord Verulam, was born on 22 January 1561, in London. He is well known as a philosopher, and his main aim was the promotion of the scientific method. He was a great influence during the scientific revolution and was himself influenced by philosophers like Machiavelli, Plato, and Aristotle.
In 1603, he was knighted by King James I. Bacon was the 1st Viscount St Alban, and was also Lord Chancellor from 1617-1621. He was accused of accepting bribes quite soon after he became the Viscount, and was imprisoned. He was later pardoned by the King, following which he retired.
Some of his notable works are ‘Novum Organum’ and ‘Scala Intellectus’. There is a Francis Bacon Award that is granted every 2 years for scholars whose work has a significant impact on the history of science, technology, or philosophy.
Bacon died on 9 April 1626, in London.