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2017 Commentator Brunch Sampler: Gilbert On Bacon

I saw a car parked on School Street in Montpelier not far from the library. It had a bumper sticker that said, “I [heart] Bacon.” I smiled. Imagine a person putting that bumper sticker on his car because he’s so enamored with Francis Bacon! The first taste I got of Bacon was in college when I was reading English at University College London. Bacon was a contemporary of Shakespeare.

Bacon was a man of parts: An eminent philosopher and statesman, he was a Member of Parliament, and he held positions of authority under both Queen Elizabeth and James the First. But after falling deeply in debt, his political career ended in disgrace with allegations of corruption.

Bacon was also a hugely influential scientist; in fact, he’s considered the father of the Scientific Method.

And Bacon was a distinguished author. His best-known work, his volume Essays, contains short essays on topics such as Adversity, Beauty, Boldness, Cunning, Death, and Revenge. It was extremely well-received and is still held in the highest repute.

The first essay in the volume is entitled “Of Truth.” It begins with this famous sentence: “What is truth, asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”

Bacon explains that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor best known for his role in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, didn’t stay to learn what truth is because to have a fixed belief would be to have a “bondage,” and because there’s a “delight in giddiness,” “giddy” meaning “frivolous; impulsive; flighty.”

Moreover, people like lies, Bacon asserts, not only because it’s hard work to find truth but also because there’s a “natural . . . love of the lie itself.” Does anyone doubt, Bacon asks, that if you took “out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, [and] imaginations . . . it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?”

In sum, Pilate didn’t stick around to learn what truth is because he didn’t want to be pinned down, because he was giddy, because finding the truth is hard, and because he loved the lie itself.

There’s another line we should remember from the same essay, “Of Truth.” Indeed it’s carved into the wall of the Library of Congress: "The inquiry, knowledge, and belief of truth is the sovereign good of human nature.” That is, seeking truth, knowing it, and believing in it, Bacon argues, is human nature’s greatest good.

Hear all the commentaries presented at this event here.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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