Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Remember Bacon's Bit

One of my favorite aphorisms—and one to which many of my students immediately relate—is the Sir Francis Bacon gem from Of Studies, his 1597 essay (revised in 1625) :

"Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man."

Many students have interpreted this statement to mean that reading will make us full of knowledge. But knowledge without conferencing will soon be rendered useless, for we need to test what we learned in the world of interactive experience. Finally, when we write, we leave a permanent record which had better represent our ideas because once disseminated, it is subject to a misinterpretation devoid of the context in which we intended it to be read.

Bacon's concise 503-word essay remains worthy of a full reading four centuries later. For instance, early in the precis he notes:

"To spend too much time in study in sloth; to use them to much for ornament is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules is the humor of a scholar."

Bacon's entire lifework seemed a petition to depend on experience before anything else—especially before untested or impractical theory. The quote "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man" is easy to find in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; however, the lesser known, less transparent, less quoted, and more profound sentence following it summarizes the essence of reading, conferencing, and writing with astounding poetic depth:

"And, therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. "

For sure! We can ponder the truth of that observation for an eternity. But then, look at all we would not be busy experiencing. So keep involved in a healthy balance of these three vital communication skills.