Of Discourse by Francis Bacon
Line by line explanation
SOME in their discourse desire rather commendation of wit, in being able to hold all arguments, than of judgment, in discerning what is true; as if it were a praise to know what might be said, and not what should be thought.
Meaning … There are some vainglorious speakers, who utilize their opportunity of joining a discourse to show off their gift of incisive intelligence. They strive to win all their arguments vis-a-vis other speakers, albeit more through aggression than by the power of their arguments. In the pursuit to project their mental prowess, they lose sight of the fact that the sole objective of a discussion is primarily to arrive at a sound judgment pertaining to an issue, and to discover the truth through careful participatory analysis. Such assertive and often, over-bearing speakers assume that the occasion to speak before a gathering is to win acclaim for their ability to guide others about what should be said and thought on the topic under discussion. They become the self-appointed ‘moderators’ of the confabulation.
Some have certain common places and themes wherein they are good, and want variety; which kind of poverty is for the most part tedious, and when it is once perceived, ridiculous.
Meaning …..These individuals, no doubt, have their areas of specialization. A lawyer of eminence knows about laws much better than a doctor, the same way a doctor knows more about the human body than a philosopher does. But, the knowledge of these experts is one -track, and severely limited in scope and depth. This makes their talk lacklustre and monotonous. Other listeners in the group find such talks to be drab, shallow and ridiculous.
The honorablest part of talk is to give the occasion; and again to moderate, and pass to somewhat else; for then a man leads the dance.
Meaning —-The model participant in a discussion has to be quite different from the above type of arrogant speakers. The ideal speaker must not try to steal the glory away by exhibiting over-bearing attitude. He must yield the floor to other speakers, and play his part as a polite moderator when the talk meanders away undesirably. He should lead the discussion to other relevant aspects of the issue, so as to bring forth different perspectives. For example, a discussion on abortion rights for women has legal, moral, medical and religious angles. A good speaker could steer the discussion seamlessly to all these aspects rather than allowing a participant to dominate the discussion. For example a speaker, who is a lawyer, might try to hammer the legal side of the matter endlessly. The speaker, who is intelligent, accommodative, and has the ability to look at an issue from all its angles is the ideal contributor. Such a person lets the other speakers present their sides with ease, and with no hindrance. He is the most ideal anchor.
It is good, in discourse and speech of conversation, to vary and intermingle speech of the present occasion with arguments, tales with reasons, asking of questions with telling of opinions, and jest with earnest: for it is a dull thing to tire, and, as we say now, to jade, anything too far.
Meaning …. A model speaker must strive to intersperse his speech with a variety of thoughts, arguments, and relevant anecdotes. He should try to poke the minds of his listeners with searching questions followed by suitable and well-reasoned answers. By doing this, he effectively augments his own opinion. The ideal speaker’s enthusiasm to enlighten others and bring them on board must be matched with real earnestness to add value to the discourse. Instead of doing this, if he tries to impose himself on others by repetitive citation of his own way of thinking, the talk might test the patience of his listeners. Their reaction would be one of disgust and irritation.
As for jest, there be certain things which ought to be privileged from it; namely, religion, matters of state, great persons, any man’s present business of importance, and any case that deserveth pity.
Meaning … A spirited speaker speaking passionately on any matter must not be carried away to utter anything critical of religions, the royalty and the government, and eminent people enjoying considerable clout in the society. He should desist from passing derogatory remarks on anyone else’s profession, or condescendingly show pity on anyone, however distressed he might be.
During Bacon’s time, freedom of speech was severely restricted. Even mild criticism of the king or the monarch would incur his wrath resulting in incarceration of the speaker. Hence Bacon gave such words of caution.
Yet there be some that think their wits have been asleep, except they dart out somewhat that is piquant, and to the quick.
Meaning …… There can, however, be some speakers who have a penchant for being provocative. [The late Khuswant Singh of India was one such intellectual who reveled in poking fun of others.] In their irresistible urge to express their inner feelings, they fail to rein in their sense of wit and humour. They stray to the ‘forbidden’ areas of discourse.
That is a vein which would be bridled: Parce, puer, stimulis, et fortius utere loris. [Spare, boy, the whip and tighter hold the reins.] And generally, men ought to find the difference between saltness and bitterness.
A judicious person must avoid any propensity to talk indiscreetly. He must hold his errant tongue with a tight leash. In the quest to lighten up his talk with some banter and well-meaning criticism, he must be very careful not to embitter others. He may land himself in considerable trouble by his off-the-cuff remarks or comments.
Certainly, he that hath a satirical vein, as he maketh others afraid of his wit, so he had need be afraid of others’ memory.
Meaning …. A satirist might overawe others by his wit and intrusive insight, but he must remember that his satire is rarely taken kindly by his targets. They nurse grudge against the satirist for his barbs and might take revenge against him later out of malice.
He that questioneth much shall learn much, and content much; but especially if he apply his questions to the skill of the persons whom he asketh; for he shall give them occasion to please themselves in speaking, and himself shall continually gather knowledge.
Meaning … A speaker, who is inquisitive and knows whom to direct his questions to, is a great learner and a very desirable listener. For example, when a bubbling listener directs his questions about heart ailments to a cardiologist (rather than a sociologist), he gets a treasure house of information from the heart doctor. The latter will willingly talk at length while answering the question. Finding a receptive and very attentive listener, the cardiologist will derive great joy from his talk. Thus, it becomes a win-win situation for both -the knowledge-hungry listener and the erudite speaker.
But let his questions not be troublesome; for that is fit for a poser. And let him be sure to leave other men their turns to speak. Nay, if there be any that would reign and take up all the time, let him find means to take them off, and to bring others on; as musicians use to do with those that dance too long galliards.
Meaning ………. While asking questions, one should take care to ensure that the process does not deteriorate to look like interrogation. There should be no overt or covert hostile intent in the questions. The questions should not aim to test the knowledge of the person being asked. Additionally, the speaker must not drag on with his questioning and rob other speakers of their turn to take part in the discourse. Monopolizing tendencies to corner time and attention are not the attributes of a good speaker. Bringing in other speakers to the fore enlivens discourse just as musicians take their designated slots in appropriate intervals during a concert. For example, in an orchestra, a player of the sitar comes in and withdraws to give time to a violinist, and a guitarist yields place to a percussionist in the right moment. Such participative contribution by musicians gives the desired musical effect. Such planned and voluntary interludes cut monotony and add quality to the orchestra.
If you dissemble sometimes your knowledge of that you are thought to know, you shall be thought another time to know that you know not.
Meaning … Allowing gaps during speaking refreshes one’s memory and rekindles one’s ability to remember and recall. It helps to open new windows to one’s mind, thus, banishing intellectual arrogance and smugness.
Speech of a man’s self ought to be seldom, and well chosen. I knew one was wont to say in scorn, He must needs be a wise man, he speaks so much of himself: and there is but one case wherein a man may commend himself with good grace; and that is in commending virtue in another; especially if it be such a virtue whereunto himself pretendeth.
Meaning ………. One should not take part in discourses too often. Such occasions should be few and far between. One should decide to speak in the opportune time and in opportune moments. A person, who grabs every opportunity to speak, invites derision and ridicule despite being a very wise man.
By praising the talent and virtue in another speaker generously, a speaker elevates, and never undermines himself. For example, a renowned mathematician will endear himself to other mathematicians during a discourse by heaping praise on another mathematician-speaker. Praising others liberally enhances one’s own standing.
Speech of touch towards others should be sparingly used; for discourseought to be as a field, without coming home to any man.
Meaning ……… While mentioning others individually, one should be very circumspect and cautious. Discourse should not centre around any specific individual. Keeping the discourse issue- based and general in nature helps to keep controversies at bay.
I knew two noblemen, of the west part of England, whereof the one was given to scoff, but kept ever royal cheer in his house; the other would ask of those that had been at the other’s table, Tell truly was there never a flout or dry blow given? To which the guest would answer, Such and such a thing passed. The lord would say, I thought he would mar a good dinner.
Meaning ……. Here Bacon talks about two noblemen hailing from the western part of England. One was a boastful, insensitive speaker with a rather abrasive style of speaking. But, he was a good entertainer too because his barbs were at the cost of others. The other person, his compatriot, enquired from guests about what his outspoken friend spoke. In his opinion, passing hurtful comments leaves the listeners jarred. Such inclination towards satire should, therefore, be shunned in order to maintain the congenial and joyous atmosphere during dinners and other such get-togethers.
Discretion of speech is more than eloquence; and to speak agreeably to him with whom we deal, is more than to speak in good words or in good order.
Meaning ……… Civility, and discretion during speaking are the hallmarks of a good speaker. A flamboyant speech interspersed with high-sounding words and stylishly arranged sentences may get high rating in eloquence contests, but is a poor fit for inter-personal communication. Articulation and soft-speaking skills prove to be desirable traits while talking to our near and dear ones, our subordinates, friends and associates.
A good continued speech, without a good speech of interlocution, shows slowness: and a good reply or second speech, without a good settled speech, showeth shallowness and weakness.
Meaning …… A long winding speech devoid of style and flourish appears slow, monotonous and boring. Similarly, a reply, however intelligent and befitting, loses its appeal, if it is low in oratory skill.
As we see in beasts, that those that are weakest in the course are yet nimblest in the turn; as it is betwixt the greyhound and the hare. To use too many circumstances ere one come to the matter, is wearisome; to use none at all, is blunt.
Meaning ……… In the animal world, a comparison between the greyhound and the hare shows that the latter, being weak, is slow in taking evasive turns. On the contrary, the greyhound is both fast and agile making it a very dreaded predator of the hare. In the same vein, a speaker who gives a lengthy pompous introduction to his speech before formally starting it, fails to grip the attention of the audience. Similarly, a speaker, who starts his speech without even a short introduction to the topic, appears to blunt and curt.
Good words and phrases used in this write-up
Pompous, Flourish, Intersperse, Flamboyant, Hallmark, Circumspect, Derision, Smugness, Interlude, Enliven, Erudite, Incarceration, Confabulation, Condescend, Meander, Lackluster, Penchant, Yield the floor