OF DISCOURSE. Prof. S . Jayaraman. Email: [email protected] com ‘Of Discourse’ is one of the celebrated essays of Francis Bacon. Of discourse means of conversation. The precepts that Bacon convincingly writes about are brief and precise. Conversation is an art. Some people show off their ingenuity on many subjects in order show their power of judgement. Some others constantly repeat their pet themes and arguments and become tedious. But, the best method, as Bacon says, is to lead, as in a dance.
A conversation becomes interesting with the intermingling of “the present occasion with arguments, tales with reason”, questions and answers as well as serious and laughable. But care should be taken not to laugh at “religion, matters of state, great persons” and any case that deserves pity. Bacon asks the conversationalists to avoid wounding the sensibilities of others. He avers that a person who questions learns much. It is also true that listening to a knowledgeable person gives knowledge as well as delight. If a person speaks well of what he knows, he gets credit for knowing even what he actually does not know.
When one speaks in praise of another man’s virtue, common to the praise and the praised, he gets an indirect commendation. In conversation, “Discretion of speech” is more important than eloquence. One must always use agreeable, sweet and pleasant words. It is definitely better than “to speak in good words or in good order. ” In a conversation, always engage other people. Otherwise, the conversation slows down and betrays weakness. Bacon concludes the essay saying that one should not dwell too long on details as it makes the conversation wearisome.
Likewise, concentrating only on the subject of the talk makes the discourse blunt and unpleasant. OF AMBITION ‘Of Ambition’ is an essay in which Bacon displays his deep knowledge of statecraft. In the very first sentence, he says that ambition is like choler, a humour. When it is allowed to have its way, it makes men active, earnest and busy. If it is stopped, it turns into bitterness. A prince should not employ men of frustrated ambition. If they do, it should be only “upon necessity. ” Ambitious men serve as good commanders. In matters of danger and envy, ambitious persons can serve as “screens to princes. They can also be used for pulling down a public figure who has overreached himself from the top. Men of ambition should always be kept within limits. Men of mean birth, of harsh nature and those “new raised” could be easily restrained. To have royal favourites helps in restraining excessively ambitious servants. Balancing two men of ambitious nature against each other with middle counsellors and keeping them uncertain of their future are two other methods to keep them in check. It is healthy for ambition to excel in great things. But, an ambition to lord over fools is always dangerous.
Bacon says that honour has “three things in it. ” One, an easy approach to the king, two, opportunity to do good to others and, three, raising his own fortune. A wise prince should always further the interests of such ambitious persons. Bacon concludes the essay remarking that princes and states should choose ministers who are sensible but not selfish in their own “rising. ” Such men would love to do their work with conscience and not try to catch the eye of their master. The princes must also be able to distinguish a pretender from the one who does things willingly.