pseudopodium
. . . Francis Bacon

. . .

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Although Francis Bacon's essay is dedicated to the truth, it delineates the lie as lasciviously as Nietzsche or Strauss ever would:

Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men's minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

He understood the use-value of secrecy, too. Bacon lived in esoteric times. At the Tudor court, as at Stalin's, few public intellectuals died of old age.

13. The first chapter of a book of the same argument written in Latin and destined to be separate and not public.

A guy could get killed. Some of his own guys did. And he helped kill some of them.

He compromised, but for a higher goal. (He had a higher goal, but he compromised.) A collaborator who feared companionship, he flamed a vision of truth, a prophetic vision even, and he had to find funding, and protection, and still somehow smuggle the word out. Pprrpffrrppffff.

But truth is contrary, and that time is like a river which carrieth down things which are light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is sad and weighty. For howsoever governments have several forms, sometimes one governing, sometimes few, sometimes the multitude; yet the state of knowledge is ever a Democratie, and that prevaileth which is most agreeable to the senses and conceits of people.

That the cautels and devices put in practice in the delivery of knowledge for the covering and palliating of ignorance, and the gracing and overvaluing of that they utter, are without number; but none more bold and more hurtful than two; the one that men have used of a few observations upon any subject to make a solemn and formal art, by filling it up with discourse, accommodating it with some circumstances and directions to practice, and digesting it into method, whereby men grow satisfied and secure, as if no more inquiry were to be made of that matter; the other, that men have used to discharge ignorance with credit, in defining all those effects which they cannot attain unto to be out of the compass of art and human endeavour.

That the very styles and forms of utterance are so many characters of imposture, some choosing a style of pugnacity and contention, some of satire and reprehension, some of plausible and tempting similitudes and examples, some of great words and high discourse, some of short and dark sentences, some of exactness of method, all of positive affirmation, without disclosing the true motives and proofs of their opinions, or free confessing their ignorance or doubts, except it be now and then for a grace, and in cunning to win the more credit in the rest, and not in good faith.

That although men be free from these errors and incumbrances in the will and affection, yet it is not a thing so easy as is conceived to convey the conceit of one man's mind into the mind of another without loss or mistaking, specially in notions new and differing from those that are received.

That the discretion anciently observed, though by the precedent of many vain persons and deceivers disgraced, of publishing part, and reserving part to a private succession, and of publishing in a manner whereby it shall not be to the capacity nor taste of all, but shall as it were single and adopt his reader, is not to be laid aside, both for the avoiding of abuse in the excluded, and the stregthening of affection in the admitted.

That universities incline wits to sophistry and affectation, cloisters to fables and unprofitable subtilty, study at large to variety; and that it is hard to say, whether mixture of contemplations with an active life, or retiring wholly to contemplations, do disable and hinder the mind more.

So he trumpeted the real, worked alone, temporized and plotted, and was, of course, undone: brought low by both his politics and his science. All for the sake of humanity's future.

How did humanity's future react? "[THE REST WAS NOT PERFECTED.]"

God gave Adam free run of Eden excepting the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Bacon's interpretation, this is an injunction to pursue empirical research and leave ethical speculation alone. Morality is the original sin; to pass judgment is to usurp godhood. (As in Foolbert Sturgeon's retelling of the adulteress story -- Jesus: "Let he without sin cast the first stone." Abashed guy, handing a stone to Jesus: "I apologize, master; it was rude of us to start without you.")

This reconcilation of Genesis, the Gospels, and modern science is ingenious, and prescient ("never argue about religion or politics"), and (more clearly than Bacon might wish) dangerous, and (it turned out) unforgivable.

A survey of shelves and sites reveals a hodge-podge reputation, a headcheese of prim disapproval, idiotic hero-worship, occultism, and conspiracy theory: cold-blooded traitor, utopian technocrat, suck-up to a superstitious king, scientific methodist, positivist sinner (and, aesthete though I am, long may the methodists win out, 'cause I ain't no more healthy than the average aesthete and I need those pharmaceuticals), a sexual creature or beast....

In short, fate and fame supplied the customary reward of the skeptic speculator:

"What are thou that questions thus?"
"Men call me Bacon."

. . .

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Bacon's melodious sentence is itself an example of the triumph of grace over truth. His personal experience of judgment halls may have overpowered his biblical studies -- or could he be foisting away a too-close kinship of philosophical inquisitors, so vehemently as to call attention to the resemblance he denies?

"I was the justes judge that was in England these fifty years; but it was the justes censure in Parliament that was these two hundred years."
What I asked was what most folks call a "rhetorical" or a "leading" question (and some folks call "proof"). I phrase it as a question so that you'll draw the answer up from your very own store of cleverness -- "Yes!", fist pumped up then inwards -- and then it's personal, you're committed, you've sworn your allegience.

But honestly turn the question back to me, and what can I say? I can try to answer it myself, losing my advantage. Or I could meet it with rhetorical silence, glaring as if dumbfounded by your rudeness or your clumsiness, and then let my more pliant disciples rip you apart while I approve them: a bullying technique of group enforcement favored in playground and classroom both. ("O, I say, here's a fellow says he speaks as a hegemonic subject!" "O, I say, here's a fellow says he doesn't speak as a hegemonic subject!")

Or I could do something I can't even picture. It's not like I have a lot of pictures.

At any rate, we chiefly emulate Pilate (uncredited) when we wash our hands of the whole affair, and chiefly criticize him (by name) for his question. Among English speakers, Pilate's reputation was made by Bacon's vivid tableau, even though the source gospel hardly bursts with japery:

Then led they Jesus from Cayphus into the hall of judgment. It was in the morning, and they themselves went not into the judgment hall lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the paschal lamb. Pilate then went out unto them & said: What accusation bring ye against this man? They answered and said onto him: If he were not an evil doer, we would not have delivered him onto thee. Then said Pilate to them: Take ye him, and judge him after your own law. Then the Jews said onto him: It is not lawful for us to put any man to death. That the words of Jesus might be fulfilled which he spake, signifiying what death he should die.

Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, & called Jesus, and said unto him: Art thou the king of the Jews? Jesus answered: Sayest thou that of thy self, or did other tell it thee of me? Pilate answered: Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and high priests have delivered thee unto me. What hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my ministers surely fight that I would not be delivered to the Jews, but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate said unto him: Art thou a king? Then Jesus answered: Thou sayest that I am a king. For this cause was I born, and for this cause came I into the world: that I should bear witness unto the truth. And all that are of the truth hear my voice. Pilate said to him: What thing is truth.

And when he had said that, he went out again onto the Jews and said onto them: I find in him no cause at all. Ye have a custom that I should deliver you one loose at Easter. Will ye that I loose onto you the king of the Jews? Then cried they all again saying: Not him but Barrabas.

That Barrabas was a robber.

If someone tells you that everyone who hears him knows the truth, and you don't actually feel much of anything when you hear him, is it really so wrong to ask him to elaborate?

Nor is it all that clear (in translation, anyway) that Pilate terminated his laugh line by turning on his heel and exiting stage left to scattered applause. Later, the same gospel shows Jesus refusing to acknowledge another direct question:

We have a law, & by our law he ought to die: because he made himself the son of God. When Pilate heard that saying, he was the more afraid, & went again into the judgment hall, & said unto Jesus: Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him none answer. Then said Pilate unto him: Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, & have power to loose thee? Jesus answered: Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above. Therefore he that delivered me unto thee is more in sin. And from thenceforth sought Pilate means to loose him: but the Jews cried saying: If thou let him go, thou art not Caesar's friend. For whosoever maketh himself a king, is against Caesar.

Pilate's patience is remarkable. Like later totalitarian regimes, neither imperial Rome nor Tudor England held truck with silence; self-incrimination was their favorite evidence, and they had no scruples about getting it.

In fact, the reader can't help but be struck by the gospels' generosity toward Pontius Pilate, increasing over time as the early Jewish cult became more reliant on Roman gentiles for protection and converts. The Romans weren't going to take the fall for this one.

The Gospel of John, being written last, sketches an especially sympathetic portrait (elaborated by Bulgakov, among others), of a colonial bureaucrat hamstrung into damnation by politics, confusion, and self-fulfilling prophecy.

A final unanswered question, then: When Jesus said that Pilate's power was "given thee from above," just which authority was he talking about?

Further deponent saith not.

Quotes from the Gospell after Saynt Johan the Euangelyste
translated by William Tyndale, 1525

. . .

Francis in the Army Corps of Engineers

Our too-infrequent correspondent Jessie Ferguson:

> it always seemed to me that agreement on the existence of some sort of
> outside world that had to be referred to was basically healthy. At least
> I've known some pretty sane science majors.

this is very true -- to the point of cliche? hm. i was reminded of it recently at a coffeehouse where some professor was holding office hours at a nearby table, going on and on about poststructuralist social theory. i don't hold theoretical discussions against people -- theory certainly has its place -- but i was particularly struck thinking later about the lack of real-world applications of the theories by their proponents. part of the trouble is that there is not a push for consensus among theorists or researchers in the social sciences, whereas there is in the natural sciences. there is no sense that it's "just fine" that people would do entire lifetimes of work on the same problems, taking completely divergent approaches and making incommensurable assumptions, in the sciences, because one of those sets of assumptions & approaches must be better than the other -- or else, by definition, you're looking at two different sorts of problem. so it's highly inefficient because people can waste so much time staking out their theoretical territory rather than working towards a shared body of knowledge. this is fine, i think, in fields which concern, say, pure aesthetics rather than praxis -- there doesn't have to be a Grand Unified Theory Of Jane Austen -- but it would be *helpful* if there were some very general consensus about how people are conditioned by social norms, for instance. if you didn't have completely different assumptions about human behavior being made by marxian sociologists and classical economists, both doing current work, both contributing & producing research papers, winning awards, being allowed to train other sociologists and economists or influence policy or what have you. in terms of any sort of reality, can these two (hypothetical) accounts really *both* be accurate?

to put it another way: if you ask me about the research i'm doing in biology and i say, well, i'm examining the ability of receptor x to respond to events y and z and i'm about to present the work at a conference, it would be pretty strange if i added that no matter what i said, five out of ten people were going to disagree with me -- but so what. or even something like having a paper in spectroscopy read by a particle physicist who would then declare that it was right from a chemistry perspective but wrong from a physics perspective. these things don't really happen. yet i think the "you have your story, i have mine" reply is fairly common in the social sciences and the socially-conscious humanities...

this is probably why people who do work in the humanities and actually care about the work they do get into trouble emotionally -- the only ones i've seen having a good time with it are the ones who are completely mercenary and basically see graduate school or the professoriate as a means to maintaining class privilege without the burden of a corporate job/lifestyle. by that i don't mean any disrespect. not much, anyway. to be honest, i wouldn't weep if some of those sinecures dried up -- i have a hard time believing anyone has a right to a life of the mind when it's so often a thinly disguised right to be economically supported at barely-sustainable levels at the expense of people who are no less talented or perceptive.

which... sigh... makes me sound like a socialist again. but i think it is hard fucking work enlightening people and there isn't any point in getting credit for doing it halfway... i think there is a benefit to social and cultural theory, but that in the current state of academia very few people benefit from it -- compared to the countless many who are directly affected by the Cato Institute and the World Bank and other organizations of interest to theory-loving goons. and i don't see that i have much power to change that.

so no, i don't know that i'm turning my back on the humanities themselves. i'm not writing any more papers on how milan kundera is a bastard, though.

It's true that the humanities don't support the law of noncontradiction. And I'm down with that; I'm an aesthete, not a logical positivist.

Still, it seems only fair that when we resign the duty of logical coherence, we should also give up our right to the rhetoric of indefinitely extendable "proof."

The little mystery we've been considering here is is just how empty most stuff published as humanities scholarship is. Not necessarily how foolish, or misguided, or self-conflicted it is, but how much nothin' fills the journals, and how much one nothin' tastes like another no matter what the trademark promises. Goofy Grape or Choo Choo Cherry, who can tell?

Ferguson's comparison helps clear that up for me. We can plod along in the sciences, filling crannies, verifying results or their lack, and so on, and still be producing something even if it's not discipline-shattering. But there are no negative results in the humanities: I can't construct an experiment that will convincingly prove that Lacanian analysis has nothing useful to tell us about the novels of William Dean Howells. Which leaves plodding-along humanities scholars able and prodded to demonstrate nothing-to-say one individual case at a time.

I'm afraid that Ferguson's probably also right to call this hard-won insight a cliché. Francis Bacon anticipated it, for one:

But the Idols of the Theatre are not innate, nor do they steal into the understanding secretly, but are plainly impressed and received into the mind from the play-books of philosophical systems and the perverted rules of demonstration. To attempt refutations in this case would be merely inconsistent with what I have already said: for since we agree neither upon principles nor upon demonstrations there is no place for argument. And this is so far well, inasmuch as it leaves the honour of the ancients untouched.

And in the plays of this philosophical theatre you may observe the same thing which is found in the theatre of the poets, that stories invented for the stage are more compact and elegant, and more as one would wish them to be, than true stories out of history.

In "the academic Left," we see the dispiriting spectacle of a holy crusade conducted against the Idols of the Marketplace for the Idols of the Theater.

It's not much of a match.

. . .

Introducing guest blogger William Cornwallis

In the history of discursive prose, William Cornwallis won a minuscule place as the first English imitator of Montaigne. Montaigne clearly made an impact on the lad:

I am determined to speake of bookes next, to whome, if you would not say I were too bookish, I should give the first place of all things heere. [Some brisk praise of Plato and Tacitus follows.]

For profitable Recreation that Noble French Knight, the Lord de Montaigne, is most excellent, whom though I have not been so much beholding to the French as to se in his Originall; yet divers of his peeces I have seen translated they that understand both languages say very wel done & I am able to say (if you will take the word of Ignorance) translated into a stile admitting as few Idle words as our language will endure. It is well fitted in this new garment, and Montaigne speaks now good English. It is done by a fellow less beholding to nature for his fortune than witte, yet lesser for his face then fortune. The truth is, he lookes more like a good-fellowe then a wise-man, and yet hee is wise beyond either his fortune or education. But his Authour speakes nobly, honestly, and wisely, with little method but with much judgement. Learned he was and often showes it, but with such a happinesse as his owne following is not disgraced by his owne reading. Hee speaks freely and yet wisely, censures and determines many things Judically, and yet forceth you not to attention with a "hem" and a spitting Exordium. In a word hee hath made Morrall Philosophie speake couragiously, and in steede of her gowne, given her an Armour. He hath put Pedanticall Schollerisme out of countenance, and made manifest that learning mingled with Nobilitie shines most clearly.

I haave done with bookes, and now I will sit in judgement upon all those that my memory can readily produce, and it is no presumption. [...]

- From "Essay. 12. Of Censuring"

Considered as proto-blogger, however, Cornwallis holds a number of advantages over either Montaigne or Francis Bacon: he was twenty years old and not particularly talented, intelligent, or knowledgeable. The distinction wasn't lost on him:

I holde neither Plutarche's nor none of those auncient short manner of writings nor Montaigne's nor such of this latter time to bee rightly tearmed Essayes; for though they be short, yet they are strong and able to endure the sharpest tryall. But mine are Essayes, who am but newly bound Prentise to the inquisition of knowledge and use these papers as a Painter's boy a board, that is trying to bring his hand and his fancie acquainted. It is a maner of writing wel befitting undigested motions, or a head not knowing his strength like a circumspect runner trying for a starte, or providence that tastes before she buyes. For it is easier to thinke well then to do well, and no triall to have handsome dapper conceites runne invisibly in a braine but to put them out and then looke upon them. If they proove nothing but wordes, yet they breake not promise with the world, for they say, "But an Essay," like a Scrivenour trying his Pen before he ingrosseth his worke. Nor, to speake plainely, are they more to blame then many other that promise more; for the most that I have yet touched have millions of wordes to the bringing forth one reason; and when a reason is gotten, there is such borrowing it one of another that in a multitude of Bookes, still that conceit, or some issued out of that, appeares so belaboured and worne, as in the ende it is good for nothing but for a Proverbe. When I thinke of the abilities of man, I promise my selfe much out of my reading, but it prooves not so. Time goeth, and I turne leaves; yet still finde my selfe in the state of ignorance; wherefore, I have thought better of honesty then of knowledge. What I may know, I will conuert to that use; and what I write, I meane so, for I will chuse rather to be an honest man then a good Logitian. There was never Art yet that laid so fast hold on me that she might justly call me her servant. I never knew them but superficially, nor, indeed, wil not though I might, for they swallow their subject and make him as Quid saide of himselfe.

Quicquid conabar dicere versus erat.

I would earne none of these so dearly as to ty up the minde to thinke onely of one thing; her best power by this meanes is taken from her, for so her circuit is limited to a distance, which should walke universally. Moreover, there growes pride and a selfe opinion out of this, which devours wisdome.

- From "Essay. 45. Of Essaies and Bookes."

His contemporaries took note as well. Cornwallis's one twentieth-century editor Don Cameron Allen, understandably sour retrieved two particularly telling reactions. The first, occasioned by a Parliament speech made by Cornwallis in 1604, was written by a mutual acquaintance to John Donne:

Sir William Cornwally hath taken upon him to answer the Objections against the Union, but they are done so lamely; and, although it seem scarce possible, so much worse then his Book, as (if he were not a kind friend of yours) I would expresse that wonder which I have in my heart, how he keeps himself from the Coat with long sleevs. It is incredible to think, if it were not true, that such simplicity of conceit could not be joyned in him, with so impudent utterance.

The second, answering an inquiry from would-be patron Sir Henry Wotton, was written by Cornwallis's father:

My good Lo: I thanke yow much for soe good a testimony of your love to myne unthrifty and unfortunate sonne. Hee hath spent mee in yt Courte above 5000 £i. And now haveinge geven him 200 £i a yeare more wherewith to live, he turnes his backe to his fortunes. Of all sorts of people I most dispaire of those of his sorte, that are Philosophers in their wordes and fooles in their workes. To God Almightie his mercifull and gracious providence I must leave him.

With the aid of providence William Cornwallis died dirt poor in 1614, an inspiration to us all. But let us return to 1600, where we find him launching a familiar scene, albeit without benefit of cafes or wireless access points:

Essay. 22.
Of Alehouses.

I write this in an Alehouse, into which I am driven by night, which would not give me leave to finde out an honester harbour. I am without any company but Inke & Paper, & them I use in stead of talking to my selfe. My Hoste hath already given me his knowledge, but I am little bettered; I am now trying whether my selfe be his better in discretion. The first note here is to see how honestly every place speakes, & how ill euery man lives. Not a Poste nor a painted cloth in the house but cryes out, "Feare God," and yet the Parson of the Town scarce keeps this Instruction. It is a straunge thing how men bely themselves; every one speaks well & means naughtily. They cry out if man with man breake his word, & yet no Body keepes promise with vertue. But why should these Inferiours be blamed, since the noblest professions are become base? Their instructions rest in the Example of higher fortunes, and they are blinde and lead men into sensualitie. Me thinks a drunken Cobler and a meere hawking Gentleman ranke equally; both end their pursuites with pleasing their senses. This, the eye; the other, the Taste. What differs scraping misery from a false Cheatour? The directour of both is Covetousnesse and the end Gaine. Lastly, courting of a Mistresse & buying of a Whore are somewhat like; the end of both is Luxury. Perhaps the one speaks more finely, but they both meane plainly. I haue been thus seeking differences; and to distinguish of places, I am faine to fly to the signe of an Ale-house and to the stately comming in of greater houses. For Men, Titles and Clothes, not their lives and Actions, helpe me. So were they all naked and banished from the Herald's books, they are without any evidence of preheminence, and their soules cannot defend them from Community.

Responses

Where is this Cornwallis guy? Will he do a reading at Moe's? He's Boffo!

BIG MONEY IN INFORMAL ESSAYS!!!

A S K    M E    H O W !!

"He did not, however, completely adopt the Persian costume, which would have been utterly repugnant to Grecian ideas, and wore neither the trousers, the coat with long sleeves, nor the tiara, but his dress..."

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.