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HAVING been accustomed to write down, from time to time, such observations as occurred to me on several of Bacon's Essays, and also to make references to passages in various books which relate to the same subjects, I have been induced to lay the whole before the Public in an Edition of . these Essays. And in this I have availed myself of the assistance of a friend, who, besides offering several valuable suggestions, kindly undertook the task of revising and arranging the loose notes I had written down, and adding, in footnotes, explanations of obsolete words and phrases.
In order to guard against the imputation of presumption in venturing to make additions to what Bacon has said on several subjects, it is necessary to call attention to the circumstance that the word ESSAY has been considerably changed in its application since the days of Bacon. By an Essay was originally meant—according to the obvious and natural sense of the word—a slight sketch, to be filled up by the reader; brief hints, designed to be followed out; loose thoughts on some subjects, thrown out without much regularity, but sufficient to suggest further inquiries and reflections. Any more elaborate, regular, and finished composition, such as, in our days, often bears the title of an Essay, our ancestors called a treatise, tractate, dissertation, or discourse. But the more unpretending title of 'Essay' has in great measure superseded those others which were formerly in use, and more strictly appropriate.
I have adverted to this circumstance because it ought to be remembered that an Essay, in the original and strict sense of the word,—an Essay such as Bacon's, and also Montaigne's,—was designed to be suggestive of further remarks and reflections, and, in short, to set the reader a-thinking on the subject. I' consisted of observations loosely thrown out, as in conversation, and inviting, as in conversation, the observations of others on thi subject. With an Essay in the modern sense of the word, i is not so. If the reader of what was designed to be a regular and complete treatise on some subject (and which would have been so entitled by our forefathers) makes additional remarks on that subject, he may be understood to imply that there is n deficiency and imperfection—a something wanting—in the work before him; whereas, to suggest such further remarks—to give outlines that the reader shall fill up for himself—is the very object of an Essay, properly so called—such as those of Bacon.
He is, throughout, and especially in his Essays, one of the most suggestive authors that ever wrote. And it is remarkable that, compressed and pithy as the Essays are, and consisting chiefly of brief hints, he has elsewhere condensed into a still smaller compass the matter of most of them. In his Rhetoric he has drawn up what he calls 'Antitheta/ or common-places, 'locos/ i.e. pros and cons,—opposite sentiments and reasons, on various points, most of them the same that are discussed in the Essays. It is a compendious and clear mode of bringing before the mind the most important points in any question, to place in parallel columns, as Bacon has done, whatever can be plausibly urged, fairly, or unfairly, on opposite sides; and then you are in the condition of a judge who has to decide some cause after having heard all the pleadings. I have accordingly appended to most of the Essays some of Bacon's 'Antitheta' on the same subjects.
Perhaps it may be thought by some to be a superfluous task to say anything at all concerning a work which has been in most people's hands for about two centuries and a-half, and has, in that time, rather gained than lost in popularity. But there are some qualities in Bacon's writings to which it is important to direct, from time to time, especial attention, on account of a tendency often showing itself, and not least at the present day, to regard with excessive admiration writers of a completely opposite character; those of a mystical, dim, half intelligible kind of affected grandeur.
It is well known what a reproach to our climate is the prevalence of fogs, and how much more of risk and of inconvenience results from that mixture of light and obscurity than from the darkness of night. But let any one imagine to himself, if he can, a mist so resplendent with gay prismatic colours, that men should forget its inconveniences in their admiration of its beauty, and that a kind of nebular taste should prevail, for preferring that gorgeous dimness to vulgar daylight; nothing short of this could afford a parallel to the mischief done to the public mind by some late writers both in England and America;—a sort of 'Children of the Mist/ who bring forward their speculations,—often very silly, and not seldom very mischievous,—under cover of the twilight. They have accustomed their disciples to admire as a style sublimely philosophical, what may best be described as a certain haze of words imperfectly understood, through which some seemingly original ideas, scarcely distinguishable in their outlines, loom, as it were, on the view, in a kind of dusky magnificence, that greatly exaggerates their real dimensions.
In the October number of the Edinburgh Review, 1851 (p. 513), the reviewer, though evidently disposed to regard with some favour a style of dim and mystical sublimity, remarks, that 'a strange notion, which many have adopted of late years, is that a poem cannot be profound unless it is, in whole or in part, obscure; the people like their prophets to foam and speak riddles.' But the reviewer need not have confined his remark to poetry; a similar taste prevails in reference to prose writers also. 'I have ventured/ says the late Bishop Copleston (in a letter published in the Memoir of him by his nephew), 'to give the whole class the appellation of the 'magic-lanthorn school,' for their writings have the startling effect of that toy; children delight in it, and grown people soon get tired of it.'