Knowledge is the key to immortality
Of Studies
Prepared by Dr. Baburam Swami - Assistant Professor - English

Aphoristic Style of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon’s fame as a writer depends most of all on the fact that he is the father of modern English prose. He evolved a prose style that proved for the first time that English could also be used to express the subtleties of thought, in clear and uninvolved sentences.

Does Bacon have two styles?

The critics have noticed that there is a marked difference between Bacon’s earlier and later essays. Macaulay, by contrasting extracts from Of Studies (1597) and Of Adversity (1625) illustrates what he calls the two styles of Bacon.

Indeed it is true that there is a vast difference in the styles. But it is rather questionable whether this difference could be attributed to the fact that Bacon had gained a maturity of mind and intellect. This inference, as Hugh Walker shows, is not tenable. Bacon in fact wrote in more than one style; he suits his style to his subject. The style of Advancement of Learning shows an adornments as rich as that of Adversity. The stately movement of The Advancement of Learning has been achieved in 1605 itself. Does this mean that Bacon has achieved this maturity and development in mind and imagination in the space of eight years? This seems a rather unconvincing and unrealistic explanation for the change in his style.

The explanation lies in the fact that Bacon’s very conception of the essay underwent a change. The first collection of essays is fully illustrative of Bacon’s definition of the essay as ‘dispersed meditations’ set down rather significantly than curiously. The original idea was to make the essays into a sort of diary in which significant observations on various topics of practical importance, domestic, political, intellectual, moral, religious and social, were to be jotted down in a terse and pithy and concise language. These first essays were mere skeletons of thought, grouped around central themes with suitable titles. There was no attempt at polishing the style, or clothing the statements with literary beauty or imaginative grace. When, however, Bacon saw that his essays had gained an unexpected popularity, he thought it was worthwhile to spend some more time on them and make (item more polished and riches. Thus, the later essays acquired flesh and blood; the argument was amplified with the help of illustrations and analogies, the phrasing became more rounded and the style more supple and eloquent than before. The stylistic changes are prompted mainly by the desire to bring about greater clarity and richness. In the earlier essays, Bacon treated the subject in a very sketchy and incomplete manner. In the later essays, there is a warmth and colour and the introduction of connective clauses and conjunctions. In the earlier essays there is an extreme condensation that would not have been there if he had been treating the subject more fully. Each sentence in these essays contains as some critics point out, matter for a paragraph. Having realized their popularity, Bacon felt it to be worthwhile taking the time to weave together the disjecta memba of his meditations”. Though even in the later essays in the general conception of essays as an attempt is preserved, and the subject is still treated incompletely, the loose thoughts are no longer disconnected. His conception of the essay has developed.

A Distinct Style

Francis Bacon’s writing has been admired for various reasons. Some admire his dazzling power of rhetoric, others, his grace, and yet others find him too stiff and rigid. But all admit that he is one of the greatest writers of English prose of his age. His essays have become a classic of the English language and they owe this position, not so much to their subject matter, as to their inimitable style and literary flavour. In Bacon we find a style which is distinct and at the same time characteristic of his age.

Salient Features of his Style

Bacon’s style, while it includes a number of features common to the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans, has at the same time special characteristics of its own.

1. Aphoristic Style

The style of Bacon remains for the main part aphoristic, with the result that he is one of the most quotable of writers. There is a terseness of expression, and an epigrammatic brevity, in the essays of Bacon. His sentences are brief and rapid, but they are also forceful. “They come down like the strokes of a hammer’, says Dean Church. This terseness is often achieved by leaving out superfluous epithets and conjunctions and connectives. It is seldom carried to the extent of causing obscurity, though one or two instances do exist where this extreme condensation has caused great difficulty in understanding the meaning. This is a remarkable power of compressing into a few words an idea which other writers may express in several sentences. The essays of Bacon in fact have to be read slowly because of the compact and condensed thought. There are a number of sentences which are read like proverbs Examples easily jump to one’s mind:

1. A lie faces God and Shrinks from man. (Of Truth)

2. Suspicions among thoughts are like bats among birds.

(Of Suspicion)

3. The ways to enrich are many, and most of them foul.

(Of Riches)

4. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. (Of Truth)

5. It is a strange desire to seek power and lose liberty: or to seek power over others and lose power over a man’s self. (Of Great Place)

6. The rising unto place is laborious, and by pains men come to greater pains. (Of Great Place)

There is not one essay which does not contain such capsules of common wisdom. The sentences are pregnant with meaning. They are often curt, telegraphic or stenographic in nature.

2. Antithetical Statements

The force of the aphoristic statements depend upon other stylistic devices which supplement them. Such devices are the ‘balance’ and antithesis’ which mark the structure of most of his sentences. They range from simple two-pronged structure to the multi-pronged ones:

(a) Travel in the younger sort, is part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.

(b) For a lie faces God, and shrinks from man.

These are examples of two-pronged balance in the structure of sentences. In the essay, Of Studies, there is a consistent use of a three fold balance:

(a) Studies serve for delight, for ornament and for ability.

(b) Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.

(c) Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

(d) Read not to contradict, nor to believe, but to weigh and consider.

Other essays too exhibit this quality:

“Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth and embaseth it.” (Of Marriage and Single Life.)

Very often the two parts of a balanced sentence are made up of a statement and an explanatory analogy, so that the meaning remains ‘suspended’ till the end of the sentence:

“A simple life doth well with churchmen; for charity will hardly water the ground where it must first fill a pool.”

Sometimes the explanation is a mere prolongation of sense completed in the first part:

“He that hath wife and child hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises either of virtue or mischief.”

Bacon has the habit of weighing the pros and cons of every question that he deals with. When he makes a statement, he almost immediately counter-balances it. He scrupulously presents the advantages and the disadvantages of a particular issue; he gives both sides of the picture. Sometimes he draws definite conclusions after balancing the issues, but most of the time the reader is left to draw his own conclusion. In the essay Of Marriage and Single life, for instance, Bacon weighs the advantages of both the states in a cool and rational fashion. Thus, single men are good friends, good masters and good servants, but they are unreliable as good citizens, or when he says in his essay Of Parents and Children children sweetens labour, but they make misfortune more bitter, ‘they increase the care of life, but they mitigate the remembrance of death.’ In his essay, Of Simulation and Dissimulation, he clearly gives throe advantages and three disadvantages arising from dissembling. Such weighing and balancing makes his style antithetical. Each sententious statement is balanced by an opposite statement.

3. A Rhetorician

Bacon’s style is definitely rhetorical. In this connection. Saintsbury has remarked that no one “knows better than….. (Bacon) how to have a single word to produce all its effects by using it in some slight *v uncommon sense, at setting the wits at work to discern and adjust this, or how to unfold all manner of applications and connotations, to open all inlets of side-view and perspective! That he dazzles, amuses half-delusively, suggests, stimulates, provokes, eddies, instructs, satisfies, is indeed perfectly true.” His matter is not Always great, but almost always seems better than it is, but this vary fart is the greatest glory of his manner. He has great powers of attracting and persuading his readers even though he may not convince them.

“In prose rhetoric, in the use, that is to say, of language to dazzle and persuade, not to convince, he has few rivals and no superiors in English”, says Saintsbury.

In this connection, one has to study another striking feature of Bacon’s style.

4. His Imagery and Analogy

There is a constant use of imagery and figurative language in Bacon, especially in his later essays. The apt and extensive us of metaphors, images, similitudes and analogies is in keeping with the views of the rhetoricians of the ancient as well as the ‘Renaissance. These devices were regarded by rhetoricians, and by Bacon, as functional or an integral part of the main object of the writer, namely to persuade, move and inform the reader.

Bacon draws his imagery from the familiar objects of nature, or from the facts of every day life. His similes are most of the time, apt, vivid and suggestive. Abstract truth is vivified by a concrete analogy of the unfamiliar thing with a familiar object, process or experience of common everyday life. And Bacon draws these analogies from a surprising range of sources. Classical mythology, the Bible, astronomy, philosophy, natural observation and domestic objects and functions, navigation, war, the sea or the garden, all these are pressed into service for communicating the meaning to the minds of the reader.

The analogies may take the form of similitudes simple and short, or complex and elaborate, or they may be short and suggestive as metaphors.

There are numerous examples to be found in the essays.

In his essay, Of Studies he says that distilled books are like common distilled water flashy things. In the essay, Of Marriage and Single Life, he says that some men value their freedom to such an extent that they “will go near to think their girdles and garters to be bonds and shackles.” “Those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts”, he says in his essay, Of friendship. In such examples comparison serves to intensify the aphoristic force of his wisdom.

Often he uses analogy to illustrate his ideas. Thus in the essay, Of Truth, Bacon communicates the idea of man’s natural love of lie and proneness to mix falsehood with truth by taking the help of the analogy of dramatic performances which have a sense of beauty and reality only in the dim light of candles, bus lose all their fake brightness in the clear light of the day. He compares falsehood to an alloy in a coin of gold or silver. The alloy makes the metal work better, but it lowers the value of the metal.

An almost poetic figure of speech is found in the statement: “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.” Or when he adapts a passage from Lucretius:

“It is pleasure to stand upon the shore, and to see ships toss upon the sea; a pleasure to stand in the window of a castle, and to see the battles and adventures thereof below; but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth…..and to see .the errors, and wanderings and mists and tempests, in the vale below…..“

In Of the True Greatness of Kingdom, there is an analogy drawn from the Bible which is rather elaborate:

“The blessing of Judah and Issachar will never meet: that the same people or nation should be both the lion’s whelp and the ass between burthens: neither will it be, that a people overlaid with taxes should ever become valiant and martial.”

He also aptly states the case against a clergyman marrying: “For charity will hardly water the ground where it must first fill a pool.”

There are a number of similes and metaphors in the essay Of Friendship, such as:

“For a crowd in not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”

5. Allusions and Quotations

The essays bear witness to Bacon’s learned mind in the extensive use of quotations and allusions drawn from various sources, classical fables, the Bible, History, the ancient Greek and Roman writers and the familiar collection of proverbs. But these allusions, like the images and metaphors are functional. In the essay Of Truth we have references to Pilate, Lucian, Lucretius and Montaigne, with quotations from two of them, hi the essay Of Great Place, there are allusions to Tacitus, Galba and Vespacian. Most of his allusions to Roman history are used to illustrate and support the argument in hand. The essay, Of Empire, abounds in this kind of allusions, hi the essay, Of friendship, a string of historical allusions are given in support of his argument.

Quotations likewise are used to illustrate and support Bacon’s point of view or idea. At times, he even gives his own interpretation of quotations to make them fit the occasion. At times the quotations are rather inaccurate, made to be more serviceable to him than the exact words would have been. At times the quotations not only support the argument, but are themselves elucidated by the argument. In the essay Of friendship, for example, the argument is set in motion by a quotation by Aristotle. This is followed by Bacon’s own comment upon it, which leads to a further elaboration of the meaning of solitude.

Bacon thus employs allusions and quotations in order to explain his point. They serve to make his style more scholarly and enrich it while lending weight to his ideas.

6. Flexibility

Though Bacon’s style is heavy with learning, yet it is more flexible than any of his predecessors and contemporaries. The sentences are short and with this shortness came lucidity. The grammatical structure is sometimes loose, but the sense is rarely ambiguous. The new style of Bacon fitted itself as easily to buildings and gardens, or to suitors, as to truth and death. “It could be sunk to the familiarity of likening money to muck, not good unless it be spread, or rise to a comparison between movements of the human mind and the movements of the heavenly bodies.” (Hugh Walker) Bacon shows a mastery of the principles of prose.

7. Wit

There is no humour in Bacon’s essays, but there is ample of wit. He is a master of the skilful use of words. He could manipulate words cleverly to delight the reader:

“By pains men come to greater pains.”

‘Through indignities men rise to dignities.”

8. Sources of Difficulty

Bacon on the whole is not difficult to understand, though his condensed style demands greater attention and more time on the reader’s part. Yet at times this very condensation leads to a certain obscurity, though it is so in very few cases. There are a few Latinism in his essays which are difficult to follow. Dolours (pain), plausible (praiseworthy); foreseen (provided); creature (created tiling) are just a few examples of Latinisms. There are also a number of archaic words: ‘leese’ for ‘lose’; ‘fame’ for ‘rumour’; ‘bravery’ used in the sense of ‘show’ or ‘ostentation’.


The style of Bacon is not the personal, and chatty style of the subjective essayist like Montaigne or Lamb. It is dignified and aphoristic, full of learned quotations, and allusions, informed by striking though apt analogies. But what is most remarkable about this style is its terseness and brevity, the compact and condensed structure of sentences expressing the deepest thoughts in an economy of language. He was indeed a consummate artist who polished and chiselled his expressions and who could change his style to suit his subject. With him, English prose definitely took a long leap forward.

Reynolds, praising Bacon’s style in the essays, “such expressions are the works of a great writer at his best, the highest efforts of an art that defies analysis, simple, unaffected, sublime,”


The fact that strikes the reader of Bacon’s essays almost immediately is the extreme condensation of thoughts into the space of such few words. Bacon possessed a remarkable ability to express deep weighty and profound thoughts with an economy of language. It is this ability that makes most of his sentences read like proverbs or maxims or aphorisms. Most of his sentences can be expanded into whole paragraphs - there is so much meaning compressed into them. The terse epigrammatic nature of his sentences make them easily remembered and quotable.

Different uses of Aphoristic Sentences

This aphoristic style i.e., the style that is compact, epigrammatic and condensed, enriches most of Bacon’s essays. Many a time he begins his essays with such a sentence that grips the reader’s attention. Such an example is in the essay, Of Marriage and Single Life, “He that hath wife and children, hath given hostages to fortune.” Of Great Place, too, begins with an epigrammatic statement:

“Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business.”

Or in the essay, Of Travel:

“Travel in the younger sort, is a part of education: in the elder, a part of experience.”

There are some essays which end with such aphoristic sentences too.

Of Simulation and Dissimulation, for instance, ends with a statement which is now famous:

“The best composition and temperature is to have openness in fame and opinion; secrecy in habit; dissimulation in seasonable use and a power to feign; if there foe no remedy.”

Of Love, too, ends with such an epigrammatic sentence:

“Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth and embaseth it.”

This kind of use of the aphoristic sentences serves to add, greater force to the arguments and weight to the essay as a whole.

Bacon sometimes writes down an aphoristic statement immediately after an analogy, so as to bring home the truth of the saying with added force. Thus, after comparing truth of a pearl, and a lie to a diamond, he effectively compresses the meaning or sense of that analogy into the striking sentence:

“A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.”

Full of Wisdom

All his sentences express astute wisdom in the minimum possible words. In a statement like:

“But it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in and settleth in it, that doth the hurt.”

Bacon wants to convey a load of meaning; he means that a lie that is merely heard or read about will not cause much harm, because, it is a passing shadow. It is the lie that takes deep root in a man’s mind and informs all his actions and thoughts which is bad and harmful in the long run. There is so much matter compressed into such few words! Such sentences that convey a load of meaning in the shortest possible space, abound in Bacon’s essays.

He sums up the main advantage of having friends in a pithy sentence:

“For there is no man that imparteth his joy to his friend, but he joyeth the more; and no man that imparteth his grief to his friend, but he grieveth the less.”

He sums up the advantages and disadvantages of unmarried men most effectively in:

“Unmarried men are the best friends, best masters, best servants, but not always the best subjects.”

The essay, Of Studies, forms a whole collection of pithy and epigrammatic sentences, of which the most famous are:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

In Of Great Place, we have:

“The rising into place is laborious, and by pains men come to greater pains.”

“It is a strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others and to lose over a man’s self.”


Sometimes, however, this extreme condensation of meaning leads of obscurity, though this is not very frequent. But in the essay, Of Suitors, we find sentences which do not reveal their meaning easily because of great condensation of thought. One such sentence is:

“Secrecy in suits is a great mean of obtaining.”


This aphoristic style of Bacon lends charm to his essays. We admire the range of knowledge, the brightness of intellect and wit, the keen practical wisdom, all packed into the minimum possible words. Bacon never wastes a word, and, what is more, he seems to compress these weighty thoughts into these brief sentences with the minimum of effort as well. There is a note of spontaneity in the style, even while it is so dignified.

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