Monday, October 31, 2016

The search for Truth?

Sir Francis Bacon

There is something invigoratingly refreshing (as well as totally humiliating!) about discovering that your use of one of your favourite quotations has been inaccurate.
            I cannot pretend to have read Francis Bacon’s Essays, Civil and Moral in full.  Indeed apart from the opening sentence of Essay I, Of Truth I don’t think that I have read any more of them, unless I have unconsciously read them as isolated quotations.
            To test the point I have just made I have traipsed upstairs to get a couple of my dictionaries of quotations: Encarta Book of Quotations (2000) London, Bloomsbury and Chambers Dictionary of Quotations (1996) Edinburgh, Chambers.  If you read through the selected quotations drawn from the Essays (1625) you realise just how much and how far Bacon’s thoughts have penetrated our everyday lives.  Sometimes the wording is somewhat different in their modern form, but his witty, perceptive and profound understanding has found its way into common wisdom.
            My own favourite of his thoughts, here written correctly with the verbs in their original form rather than my own choice is something which has troubled and stimulated me in equal proportions:

         What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

The question (which you note Pilate ironically states rather than asks, he neither wants nor expects an answer) is perennially relevant and we too often follow ‘jesting Pilate’ and live in our refusal to face the demands of what Bacon goes on to describe as the “difficulty and labor which men take in finding out of truth” and the lure of the preference for its opposite is because, “a mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure” it shuns the “naked and open day-light” of truth because “that doeth not show the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights.”
Although Bacon’s prose is perhaps too dense for a modern reader, it is worth persevering with because it puts you in contact with a liberal understanding of the human condition.  
I have made myself a promise to read more of the Essays because I see a connection with the prose of someone like Sir Thomas Browne, 

a writer I have always enjoyed reading – and another person whose writings may not be universally well known, but whose thoughts have made their way into our intellectual expression.  
You have to like a writer who can think up, for title of whose second (?) most famous work, Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, and it has pictures!  

Both Bacon and also Browne are easily, and productively, searchable on the Internet 
If you have not read them before, you might well be surprised to find out how familiar their thought is to you.

Obviously, the quotation from Bacon has been going through my mind as I look at the situations in Spain, Britain and the USA.  
Truth seems to have become an even more slippery concept in modern political life than usual.  Brexit was conducted with “candle-lights” so dim that Truth appeared to be living in some other debate; truth, honesty, integrity and all other positive virtues are signally lacking from the bunch of chancers who have taken the government in Spain, and Trump has found new depths of duplicity and prejudice that actually manage to throw a glimmer of probity on the mismanagement of Britain and Spain!

I have ever found consolation in Literature.  Thank goodness I have a goodly selection of reading glasses to make my contemplation of so many politicians “poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and disposition, and unpleasing to themselves” as something that can be accommodated within the liberal confines of pages of value!

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