Of Studies Summary
The title “Of Studies” denotes collective studies that a person does in his/her life. The main idea of “Of Studies” by Francis Bacon is benefits of reading. Reading helps readers to cope up with diverse situation. Reading enhances readers’ intellect and reading also cures restraints of the mind. “Of Studies” also provides the right methodology to read different branches of knowledge and discusses their benefits. In short, the main focus of the essay “Of Studies” is how studies benefit a reader’s life enormously in different ways.
Three Important Uses of Studies
At the outset, Francis Bacon states that the three useful purposes of studies are delight, ornament, and ability. The first useful purpose of studies is studies provide pleasure to the reader. When one is relaxed in his/her private space, reading is useful at that time as it provides great pleasure. The source of pleasure can be varied from reader to reader.
For instance, if a reader’s personal preference is non-fiction then picking non-fiction would be his/her source of pleasure. Exploring the core idea of the argument and the counter-argument in a piece of non-fiction can be an engaging session of delight for a reader.
Similarly, if another reader enjoys fiction then fiction would do the same. Each fiction is a world in itself. By plunging into the world of fiction, the reader meets different characters, transcends from one place to another, even goes back to a time, etc.
For instance, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist takes the reader to the life of a shepherd, Santiago, and makes the reader witness his quest for treasure.
The reader meets different characters such as the King of Salem, the crystal merchant, the English man, his beloved Fatima, and the Alchemist, etc. and enjoys Santiago’s adventurous journey as Santiago proceeds in his quest for treasure from Andalusia to the hearts of Egypt, the pyramids.
Irrespective of personal preferences, reading gives pleasure to each individual. Therefore reading not only compensates for boredom in seclusion but also gives immense pleasure to readers based on each one’s taste of reading.
The second purpose of studies is studies add ornament to discourse. When a well-read person engages in a written or spoken discussion or communication, reading helps the person to exhibit his knowledge in a much better way than an average person.
For instance, a reader who has read Daniel Goleman’s Focus and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow can engage passionately in a discussion on concentration or focus.
It is no exaggeration that we are surrounded by endless distractions. Most of the time we are busy responding to external information. Therefore Daniel Goleman suggests we need to have selective attention.
In addition, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says the brain’s processing capacity of information is limited, precisely 126 bits/second. Therefore concentration is how much one is capable of putting that 126 bits at something at a particular time.
The last use of studies also improve one’s ability of judgment and arrangement of things. One can be an expert at something even without studies but there lies a distinction between an expert and a learned man.
To make this point, Bacon says that an expert can execute his plan, and even judge a situation but a learned man can better perform in giving advice, making plans, and managing with things.
For example, a person, who has excelled in managing a hotel with time, can also manage a hotel well.
But a person who has studied hotel management, books on communication skills is more skilled in managing clients, the probable problems in hotel. Because by reading books the reader is exposed to the probable problems, experiences of other experienced people.
Whereas an expert is limited to only his/her experience but a learned man can explore different masters’ experiences. In this way, the efficiency of a learned man is better than an expert.
The effect of excessive reading
These are the three things of studies that can be helpful for a reader. However, too much in everything is bad and reading is no exception to that. Bacon makes a balance in his argument by mentioning the effect of excessive reading.
Bacon states that spending too much time in studies leads to laziness. From the physiological point of view, reading is a sedentary task and when a reader sits for long, the immobility of the body would lead to lethargy.
Using decorated words and collected knowledge in discourse is impressive. However, too much use of them would show a learned man as ostentatious.
Bacon also states that make judgments totally on the basis of bookish knowledge is the humor of a scholar. Consideration and application of the teaching of books without understanding the practical world is a fault. A reader must able to draw the distinct line between the book and the real world while judging.
Bacon here emphasizes the ‘too much’ in each situation. Therefore it should be kept in mind that equilibrium must be maintained between studying and other activities, between ornament and argument, and between theory and practical.
Bacon reiterates his main argument that reading does hone human nature and is perfected by experience. Bacon draws an analogy between natural plants and the natural abilities of a person.
The plants which could grow in any direction are cut off for aesthetic structure and overall improvement of the tree, similarly, the natural abilities of a man need to be nurtured by studies.
Studies enhance the knowledge of the reader but that remain unfulfilled until the person gains experience related to the subject of study. So Bacon suggests the point that knowledge will be completed only when it is met by experience.
Treatment of Studies by Different Types of People
Studies give so many benefits to a man. However, not all men admire studies and their benefits. For instance, Bacon says the shrewd people contempt studies as they perceive studies don’t help people.
As we have discussed above how studies help a man in various situations; such as in private situations, discourse, and managing affairs.
The shrewd men in most cases cope with different situations of life without the need for studies. Therefore from the shrewd men’s perspective, studies are of no use and therefore the shrewd men don’t appreciate studies.
On the contrary, simple men admire studies and those who study. Those who are not voracious readers but aware of the benefits of studies. The simple men are awestruck to see a man filled with knowledge.
Apart from both shrewd and simple men, wise men take the best out of studies as wise men know how to use the knowledge from books in real life.
Books don’t tell their readers about its pragmatic aspects of the knowledge. The ability to implement knowledge in real life is a wisdom that is acquired by observation. The better one’s observation skill is the better the reader would be able to implement them in real life.
Here Bacon reiterates his point that having bookish knowledge is not enough, rather theoretical knowledge is completed when it is used in real life and this skill could only be acquired by observation.
Real Method of Studies
To get the most out of books, Francis Bacon suggests the method one should follow while reading.
Bacon suggests that one should not read to prove others wrong because, with this motive, the reader during reading looks for the points which can be used as arguments. The reader might be right but in the process, the reader loses what the book has to offer.
During reading the reader must not also believe what the book says or take everything that the book says for granted. This approach is also problematic because this approach does not allow the reader to open up the mind and the reader does nothing except imbibing the knowledge theoretically.
A book also should not be read as a means to use it in a talk and discourse. This approach is too wrong because the reader would be concerned more about the points which the reader can use in discourse and it becomes superficial.
Rather, Bacon suggests is to consider what the writer’s main message or argument/s before making any decision consciously or unconsciously.
For instance, what Bacon says in Essays (1597) should not read to confute someone or blindly believe in it or not to read wholly for the use of it in discourse, rather the best approach would be to consider what Bacon says in different subjects of discussion in Essays.
Moreover, I’d like to add here that the best practice of reading, according to Mortimer Adler, is Syntopical Reading (19). In How to Read a Book Adler mentions that syntopical reading is above the analytical reading. Syntopical reading or comparative reading is making an analysis on a subject based on the reader’s reading of books on same topic.
Not Every Book is Same
However, Bacon reminds the reader that this approach cannot be followed in every book. Because some books are only meant to be tasted; those books are to be read partially; one can skim the parts of the book.
Others are to be swallowed; books such as theoretical books are to be read but not curiously. They are necessary for memorization so that they can be used in real life.
There are only a few books that are to be read completely, these books are to be chewed and digested. While going through the book reader needs to read each part of the book with an unwavering focus to think and understand. In the case of such books, analytical reading is necessary.
Bacon also suggests that abridged versions and summaries of books can be studied but that should be limited to only less important books. These books are like distilled water which has no significance for later use.
Therefore it is up to the reader which book should be read in extract or which not.
Benefits of Reading, Discussion, and Writing
Bacon returns to addressing the effects of reading, discussion, and writing. He states, reading makes a full man; conference leads to a ready man while writing makes an exact man.
Reading provides a reader diverse dimension of knowledge. When one reads books one after the other, one’s knowledge is bound to increase by the means of studies. In this way, the reader is packed with knowledge.
Like reading, continuous engagement in the discussion makes a well-read person good at the discussion. In discussion, one makes a practice of using the collected knowledge the presence of mind and constant practice makes one ready for any topic to talk on.
Like the other two practices mentioned above, if the reader notes down what s/he thinks of a book or his/her opinion then s/he revisit to the notes at any time in the future and it is easy than memorizing everything. The act of writing helps one to find one’s exact idea or thought even after a long period of time without pressuring the memory.
On the contrary, Bacon also mentions the opposite situation. For instance, if one reads little, then the person needs to pretend of knowing things that he actually does not aware of. If the person fails to pretend then it will become obvious that he does not aware of the things which he is supposed to know.
Similarly, if one is not familiar with the discussion, s/he needs to have the presence of mind.
If a person does not write much, s/he needs to have great memory because everything he thinks needs to be stored in the memory. Without writing, one must rely on his/her memory.
Benefits of studying different subjects
Francis Bacon repeats the benefits of reading diverse fields of knowledge such as history, poetry, mathematics, philosophy, etc. Francis Bacon mentions,
Histories make Men Wise; Poets Witty; The Mathematics Subtill; Natural Philosophy Deepe; Morall Grave; Logick and Rhetorick Able to Contend.(Bacon 3)
In Histories the reader is exposed not only to the achievements of men of the past but also the mistakes of men that have been done in the past. If anything related to that occurs, the reader can make a better judgment and remain away from the same mistake.
For instance, anyone who has studied World History in general, s/he would never support the race of manufacturing nuclear weapons. In this case, many would say in favor of the statement, saying that this is only for self-defense.
But look at the futility of the action, why are we doing this? For instance, the recent testing of the nuclear torpedo in the Arctic by Russia causes a global concern. However, it must be noted Russia is not the only one conducting weapon testing.
It must not be forgotten that there is only one habitable planet on this universe. Should our focus on the betterment of humanity or the destruction of Mother Nature and humanity? Our collective goal is to sustain humanity.
To clear what I am saying one can draw a comparison based on growth, the mental condition of the people, between countries with the constant war on her land and the countries without conflict either internal or external.
Histories provide ample examples from the past and the readers with the knowledge of the past are wise enough to decide whether men should prepare for war or not.
The next field is poetry. One aspect of poetry is poets not only amuse the readers but also leave an imprint of thought to ponder upon.
For instance, the reader is not only excited by the response of the unmoved beloved of the rejected lover in Robert Browning’s “The Last Ride Together”, but the poem also shares the philosophy of carpe-diem.
Mathematics makes the learner subtle; by dealing with complex and abstract problems mathematics helps in improving problem-solving capacity.
Natural philosophy, in Bacon’s time, means a branch of knowledge that covers all the subjects that we know as physics, chemistry, etc. in short, it is the study of the natural world.
It is no wonder when the reader knows about the physical laws of nature around us such as Gravitational force; one would understand why things fall, not go upwards, it makes one’s understanding deeper.
Reading of moral principles enhances us our dignity. Lastly, logic and rhetoric teach us the ways to assert an argument. One can read Aristotle’s the art of persuasion Rhetoric or Robert Cialdini’s Pre-suasion to know to assert one’s statement.
Again I’d add here that Adler in How to Read a Book discusses how to read history, poetry, philosophy, Social Science etc. You can read the book for better understanding.
Further, Bacon states that intellect can be changed by the right kind of study like a particular physical exercise is right for the distinct disease of the body.
For instance, for a distracted mind, mathematics would be fit to improve concentration. In mathematics, the focus is required and if the mind wanders during doing mathematics, then it would spoil everything. So doing mathematics is a practice to stick to a particular task.
If the mind finds it difficult in the differences of a matter then the study of the philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages would be fit as they are noted for their logical distinctions.
Moreover, if one wishes to improve reasoning or argumentative skills then study lawyers’ cases would be the right thing to do. So for such flaws of mind study has the solution.
It must be noted with praise that Bacon does not support only idle sitting, in fact for him, studies are completed only with experience.
- Bacon, Francis. “Of Studies.” Eight Essayists, edited by A.S Cairncross, New Revised ed., Macmillan, 2001, pp. 3-4, 164.
- Colson, Thomas. “Russia is testing a nuclear torpedo in the Arctic that has the power to trigger radioactive tsunamis off the US coast”. Business Insider India, 7 April, 2021. https://www.businessinsider.in/politics/world/news/russia-is-testing-a-nuclear-torpedo-in-the-arctic-that-has-the-power-to-trigger-radioactive-tsunamis-off-the-us-coast/articleshow/81952874.cms.