Of Truth By Francis Bacon | Summary
Introduction: Of Truth is an aphoristic essay written by Francis Bacon. He begins this essay with a quotation from Pilate, who asks “What is truth?” According to Bacon, truth is a belief that binds the mind and restricts free choice in thinking and acting. The Greek philosophers who questioned the limits of human knowledge are no longer alive, yet some still do. Men go through numerous challenges in order to understand the truth, but once they do, it limits their thinking and they want to go back to lying. Love, according to Bacon, is a corrupt yet inherent human tendency. Bacon, like the Greek philosopher Lucian, wonders what causes a man to love lying because it does not provide delight as poetry does or provide profit as business does.
Summary of “Of Truth”
Francis Bacon’s essay Of Truth is one of his more famous essays. The essay begins by making a genial observation: it mocks those who refuse to admit that there is objective truth that needs to be acknowledged by all. Bacon almost laughs as he says that people oft have a natural love of lying even when lying yields no notable advantage. ‘Truth’ resembles light, but Bacon opines that many people prefer to flirt with darkness because they take some pleasure in lies and take to lying almost without need. Bacon who might have had faced a debacle with allegations labeled against him at the ripe age of 60; however, asserts that truth is the greatest good that a man can possess. Where does Truth come from and why it is so important? Bacon has the answer – he asserts that Truth comes from God and consequently it brings us close to God, and naturally truth provides us with greatest pleasure.
This essay of Bacon is structured in an interesting manner. It begins with the mentioning Pilate, a symbolic Christ-killer and enemy of God, but it ends by elaborately celebrating God’s goodness and creativity. Pontius Pilate it is said had interrogated Jesus before his crucifixion, Jesus proclaimed that “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37). To this, Pilate had mockingly replied: “What is truth?” and thereafter left Jesus to address the Jewish clergy who were hell bent on getting Christ crucified even over a Barabbas (v. 38). True there is no official record of Jesus’ reply to Pilate but Christians largely believe that Pilate had looked down upon Truth. Jesus does say this to his disciple Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Pilate was dismissive of truth; God, on the other hand, created truth and personifies truth. The the essay though framed by references especially relevant to Christians, Bacon leads to the conclusion that truth is God. Does it not remind us of the Indian thought: Satyam Sivam Sundaram (Truth is God). Bacon does cite various classical authorities and discusses various classical opinions to augment his belief. Not all classical philosophers believed in the existence of truth but there would be some who like the Christians agreed that truth should be highly valued. Bacon is wit personified. He says lying is found oft attractive and truth pain boring, so people would tell lie even when there is no benefit from it. Bacon takes the essay back to the debate initiated by Plato: Poets told lies. Bacon like most of his contemporaries suggested that the lies told by the poets were not harmful in nature. Almost Aristotelian in argument, he says poetic untruth is shadow lie. Finally he ends the essay by aligning himself to the Christian doctrine of truth. Unlike the two essays of our discussion, this essay sees a number of allusions which are used to drive the basic idea of the essay home. Bacon raises serious questions and pushes the readers to think. Apart from allusion, imagery of light and darkness is used effectively:
Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights.
What strikes again is the persuasive nature of Bacon and he does it with such smoothness, that he does not sound like a preacher. The essay is not ornamental like contemporary Elizabethan essays but is straight and simple. There is also a moderate use of Latinism in the essay. Of Truth is indicative of the greatness of Bacon’s mind and art. That he wasa philosopher and gifted with practical reasoning sense is also revealed. Bacon talks of subjective truth that is functional in social life. After reading the essay, we are likely to conclude that Bacon is also a moralist. What are the other aspects of Bacon that we will notice is revealed through the essay? He is a keen observer of human mind and behavior. He candidly says that like in the time of Pilate there would be people who do not care about truth. Bacon reasons as to why people do tell lies! First, truth is acquired through hard work and man is not enthusiastic about hard work. Secondly, truth curtails man’s freedom. Thirdly Bacon says “a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself.” Further he says: “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.” In the bright light of truth, man fears exposure. Bacon states that if deprived of false pride and vanities, the human mind would be deflated and would look poor and sad. He uses the idea of truth to create a utopia suggesting that truth can make the earth a paradise: “Certainly, it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in Providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.” Also Bacon presents the need of truth in civic life: “….. that clear and round dealing is the honour of man’s nature; and that mixture of falsehood is like alloy in coin of gold and silver, which may make the metal work better, but it embaseth it.” The liar virtually has no salvation. Bacon uses the imagery of a snake to present the state of a liar. Bacon takes to the French essayist Montaigne who is of the view that “a lie faces God and shrinks from man” to reiterate his point. It is with this that Bacon concludes that untruth is equal to wickedness. He uses the imagery of the alloy to pin his point. At no point in the essay does it digress, it is single in tone in trying to prove that truth could only salvage man.
Questions and Answers
Q. What is the main theme of the essay of truth?
Answer: In Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Truth,” the author extols the value of truth and critically explains that there are many people who do not place much value on truth, as they find lies more interesting. Bacon asserts that truth comes straight from God, so our relationship with truth brings humans closer to God.
Q. What is truth according to Francis Bacon?
Answer: Bacon says that truth is a belief that binds the mind and hinders free will in thinking and acting. The Greek philosophers who questioned the possibilities of human knowledge are no longer there, but there are still some people who question the same.
Q. What is Bacon’s main focus in of truth?
Answer: Bacon’s main focus in ‘Of Truth’ is on the high value of truth in Christianity and people’s nature to get pleasure in lying and flirting. Interpret ‘No pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage-ground of truth’.
Q. Which type of essay is of truth?
Answer: His writing style is aphoristic which means a compact, condensed and epigrammatic style of writing. He was expert in expressing truth in a few possible words with beauty. His essays are an example of this aphoristic style. His essay “Of Truth” has many examples of the aphoristic style.