Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Contemporary Relevance of Francis Bacon's Essay "Of Studies" by Hoor Banu

The Contemporary Relevance of Francis Bacon’s Essay “Of Studies”

Hoor Banu: All Smiles after a fruitful day at Osmania University

The paper won "Special Paper"  award at the "Paper Reading Contest" organised by Department of English, Osmania University, Hyderabad, 18-19 August, 2017 


“Reading maketh a Full Man; Conference a ready man; and writing an exact man”, wrote Francis Bacon in the essay, “Of Studies”, published in the year 1597. Francis Bacon was a revolutionary lawyer, scientist and political figure of sixteenth century England. However, among students of English Literature, he is valued for his pioneering work on content and style of the English essay. Influenced by French writer Michel Du Montaigne, Bacon developed his own compact and formal style of essays. Some of his other popular works include, “Of truth”, “Of Travel”, “Of Atheism”. I have taken up for my study the essay, “Of studies". One may think, why in an age of information overload, when the dynamics of the way we read, write and study has undergone inexplicable changes, I choose to go back to Bacon? What is the relevance of remembering Bacon in the context of studies when our knowledge systems are being updated and altered every day at a maddening speed? In my paper, I would like to elaborate the importance of the essay, “Of Studies” as a testament to the culture of education and knowledge. The essay, is not only Bacon’s criticism of sixteenth century scepticism towards objective way of attaining knowledge but also useful to understand some of the academic trends in our times too (Zagorin 379). In the paper, I shall highlight the way  in which Bacon has illustrated the purpose, protocols and impact of studies.

Purposes of Studies
One of the most famous images of English Renaissance literature is of the picture of the title page of Bacon’s Instauratio Magna; it shows the ship of learning sailing back from the straits of Gibraltar traditionally thought to be the limits of knowledge, returning with new ideas an discoveries (Vickers 495). In “Of Studies”, Francis Bacon, in a precise and lucid manner describes the three primary purposes of study. The first one is“Delight”. Bacon states that certain people study for gaining pleasure. They wish to enhance their knowledge so that they can engage in academic studies of interesting ideas.  For example, one may be an accomplished scientist but studies equestrian life as he or she desires to become an expert in horse-riding. The idea supports the popularity of many hobby-courses and art workshops taken up by working professionals whether working in corporate or other fields these days. Such studies are meant for self-advancement, a desire that defines the Renaissance outlook of  Francis Bacon. The second purpose of Study is for “Ornament”: people who wish to come across as educated and refined while in conversation in polite circles may take up studies. They attain knowledge, not to improve upon themselves but to impress others. Bacon’s observation reminds me of Facebook and the erudite conversations on gender-rights, corruption and other such topics that many people take up in social media without being an expert in any of them. The third reason for studying is for enhancing one’s “Ability". The knowledge of subjects enables such people to improve their skills at work and the capacity to take decisions to make work possible. Bacon is here taking about educated professionals, like teachers, engineers, managers who use their education to complete their work successfully.

However, if we all are able to use our education in our jobs then why do we complain about the quality of our work? Often, in colleges, companies who come to recruit students complain that students have technical knowledge but lack  quality. I have been able to trace the answer in “Of Studies”.  Bacon clearly mentions that our academic knowledge can be perfected only by experience and observation. Thus, I have felt the need for an education system which is activity based and enhances the  critical thinking capacities of our mind.
But how should we do that in times when we are almost sinking in the sea of information around us? As a solution, Bacon prescribes, a few protocols.

Protocols of Study
Bacon, through common place metaphors, states that books are like food; Some are to be tasted, that is read in parts, others swallowed, to be read but not curiously and few to be chewed and digested, to be read with diligence and attention. Bacon even elaborates the importance of reading subjects like history which make men wise, poetry which lends wit, mathematics that sharpen our senses, philosophy that give us a moral ground, logic and rhetoric that enhance our ability to analyse and argue. These ideas by Bacon encourage us to devise methods to make our study more focused and impactful. For example, these days we not only learn from books but from the internet, television, radio, social media and cultural events. If we are asked to write assignments on Shakespeare’s Tragedies, we have a number of sources to flood us with information, some of them might not even be correct. If we carefully follow Bacon’s suggestions then we may devise ways to filter the information we receive and use only those that are relevant. Bacon’s ideas are for posterity, as they not only show us ways in which our approach to studies can change but also the impact it has on our lives.

Impact of Study
Abuent Studia in Mores; Studies influence our lives, writes Bacon. He then offers a list of subjects and their impact on our minds. Bacon confidently concludes that, “every defect of the mind may have a special receipt”; just as diseases have medicines, similarly our mental needs can be satisfied by study of appropriate subjects. Such a useful observation by Bacon has made me query about the impact of literature on my life. Many people have asked me, "why literature"? And sometimes, I ask myself. What do you all think? Do you ever ask that question? Well, I am no expert and have simply taken my infant steps in the ever widening world of literature, but I go back to Bacon and understand that literature has given me knowledge beyond the limits of  my academic interest, my  culture and  the possible boundaries that I thought existed in my mind.

Conclusion: Relevance of Bacon
Francis Bacon’s “Of Studies” reminded me of the speech titled, “A Well Educated Mind verses a Well Formed Mind” by Dr SashiTharoor. In the lecture, Tharoor, explained the importance of critical thinking and creative, self-driven approach as a solution to many of the educational problems in the country. Similarly, Bacon proposes, us to constantly reinvent ourselves through studies. In the essay, Bacon highlights the importance of attaining and understating knowledge. In our generation, we use knowledge, to pass exams with excellent marks but does that ensure that we have understood what we studied or that our minds have been shaped by the books we read? We will become graduates in Literature but will that ensure that we shall become nation builders with suitable reading, writing communication and employability skills? 
Few of my queries have been answered by Bacon. The essay has acted like a catalyst to clarify the reasons we take up education or the study of a certain subjects. Bacon’s essay highlights the ultimate need for self-motivation and self-refashioning through studies(Cairncross). It shows that studies are simply not for an educated mind but a mind that strives to pursue excellence in service, character and moral growth.

Works Cited
Cairncross.A.S. Ed.  Eight Essayists.Macmillan. 1937 1st Edition. Print.
Vickers, Brian. “Francis Bacon and the Progress of Knowledge”.Journal of the History of Ideas.Vol. 53, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1992), pp. 495-518. University of Pennsylvania Press.Web.
Zagorin, Perez. “Francis Bacon's Concept of Objectivity and the Idols of the Mind”.The British Journal for the History of Science.Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec., 2001), pp. 379-393.Cambridge University Press.