Of Truth -Line by line meaning
WHAT is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
Meaning … Here Francis Bacon refers to Pontius Pilate, who occupied a position of influence in Emperor Tiberius’s court. For his involvement in the persecution of Jesus Christ, Pilate was not looked upon favourably by Christians. He enjoyed a somewhat sullied reputation. Here Bacon takes Pilate’s name to express how humans, in general, avoid Truth. They find Truth inconvenient and difficult to imbibe.
Certainly there be that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting.
Meaning .. People do not seek Truth, and enjoy resorting to falsehood and lies. People like ambiguity , and inaccuracy, so that they can couch the harshness of Truth in convenient language.
And though the sects of philosophers, of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them as was in those of the ancients.
Meaning ….. Bacon goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers, who often lost their way while looking to ascertain what really ‘truth’ was. He laments the fact that some of these independent-minded, free-thinking philosophers proposed that there was nothing real as ‘truth’. But, while trying to prove the contrary, they soon wavered, and came out with conflicting decisions. These types of thinkers have all but ceased to exist. The present day ones lack the rigor and verve of the ancient great minds. They are paler versions of their illustrious predecessors. Nevertheless, they, too, doubt the existence of truth, and tend to drift towards falsehood.
But it is not only the difficulty and labor which men take in finding out of truth, nor again that when it is found it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself.
Meaning … Undoubtedly, people do make very sincere and strenuous attempts to discover ‘truth’. They succeed, but regrettably, they find the burden and demands of ‘truth’ to be unbearable. Expediently, they abandon the pursuit of ‘truth’, and drift towards ‘lies’ knowingly very well that resorting to ‘lies’ is degrading. The world of ‘lies’ is dark, but people, somehow’ develop a fascination for lies at the expense of truth.
One of the later school of the Grecians examineth the matter and is at a stand to think what should be in it, that men should love lies, where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie’s sake.
Meaning …Some Greek philosophers of later periods delved in to this matter. They tried to know why and what attracts people towards ‘lies’. In poetry, some distortion of truth adds to a poem’s literary beauty. So allowance needs to be made to accommodate fantasy and fiction as they enhance the readers’ literary pleasure. Merchants and traders resort to a certain amount of falsehood to entice the customers to buy their merchandize. But, why do common folks resort to lies despite knowing its unsavoury consequences.
But I cannot tell; this same truth is a naked and open day-light, that doth not show the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights.
Meaning .. ‘Truth’ depicts everything very honestly, faithfully and transparently. There is no place for extravagant praise or derision, superficial description or sycophantic eulogy in ‘’ truth’. Emperors, heroes, military commanders and other men and women of prominence are described with the minimum laudatory language. Truth builds no artificial aura of greatness around them. So, bereft of their unrealistic praise, they appear vastly diminished in stature.
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.
Meaning … A pearl shines in the day. A diamond or a carbuncle glow at night giving an unreal feeling of light in the midst of total darkness. ‘Truth’ is like a pearl. It shows what is visible to the naked eye. It can’t show anything by lighting up something unrealistically. Only ‘falsehood’ has that capacity to make something apparent in total darkness.
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?
Meaning … A cocktail of lies and truth has the potency to please humans more than only lies or only truth. Bacon, paradoxically, suggests the utility of such combination of lies and truth. If everything is portrayed in their true colours with no addition of superficial praise, flaterring comments and allusions, the society will appear drab and indolent. Vanity and aggrandizement induce creativity, energy and intellectual activity. For example, if a poet is not felicitated or a player is not rewarded, how will they be motivated to reach higher levels of accomplishments? While showering praise, use of a certain amount of unreal description of one’s feat is needed. Otherwise, the praise will be bland and ineffective.
One of the fathers, in great severity, called poesy vinum dæmonum [devils’-wine], because it filleth the imagination; and yet it is but with the shadow of a lie. But it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in and settleth in it, that doth the hurt; such as we spake of before.
Meaning .. Some very revered men of great wisdom denigrated poetry saying it contained lies. They felt, the poet adds fiction, exaggerations, allusions etc. to his poem to impart it some charm and attraction for the reader. Bacon says, most of these lies actually may not stay permanently in the mind of the reader. However, a part of such falsehood does get embedded in the reader’s mind impairing the sense of the readers. This could indeed be a sad consequence of reading poetry.
But howsoever these things are thus in men’s depraved judgments and affections, yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.
Meaning .. So, lies, undoubtedly, deprave the mind. Truth, on the other hand, remains unblemished always. It is absolute and does not lend itself to differing interpretations. Inquiry of truth is a romantic pursuit that demands indulgence of the pursuer. Knowledge of truth means owning this unique gift. When one reposes absolute faith in truth, the feeling becomes very enjoyable . It symbolizes the ultimate good of human nature.
The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense; the last was the light of reason; and his sabbath work ever since is the illumination of his Spirit. First he breathed light upon the face of the matter or chaos; then he breathed light into the face of man; and still he breatheth and inspireth light into the face of his chosen.
Meaning .. When God created the world, He gave the light of sense to the mankind. Using this, human beings could see and feel the world around them. Then God gave the power of reason. Using this, human beings could reason what was good or bad in the things happening pr being said around them. As a result, human beings got the power of enlightenment. After this, God radiated light that illuminated the world which was so disorderly then. Then His light fell on human beings to make them superior in knowledge and wisdom to other species. After this, He focused his kindly light on the face of those human beings whom He loved most.
The poet that beautified the sect that was otherwise inferior to the rest, saith yet excellently well: It is a pleasure to stand upon the shore and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure to stand in the window of a castle and to see a battle and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and tempests in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride. Certainly, it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.
Meaning .. When one stands in the sea beach and gets to see ships being rocked violently by the winds, it becomes a breath-taking experience. In the same way, one can stand by the window of a high castle and watch the fight raging below. This also is a unique experience. In the same way, when a human being can realize truth, he can feel as if he stands atop a high mountain enjoying its beauty and bliss. But attaining such an exalted status must not make the man to feel proud. Instead, he should be humble, and benign towards others. He should engage in charity.
To pass from theological and philosophical truth to the truth of civil business; it will be acknowledged even by those that practise it not, that clear and round dealing is the honor of man’s nature; and that mixture of falsehood is like alloy in coin of gold and silver, which may make the metal work the better, but it embaseth it. For these winding and crooked courses are the goings of the serpent; which goeth basely upon the belly, and not upon the feet. There is no vice that doth so cover a man with shame as to be found false and perfidious. And therefore Montaigne saith prettily, when he inquired the reason why the word of the lie should be such a disgrace and such an odious charge.
Meaning … Theosophical and philosophical truth belong to a certain domain. While dealing with our day-to-day mundane matters, one finds it difficult to stick to the truth always. To make his business and dealings smoother, he mixes some lies to his dealings. This, at times, appears to be a practical necessity. Although, he might succeed and emerge a winner, such conduct is vile and degrading. It is like an alloy where a foreign element is added in small quantities to a metal like gold and silver to give it more strength and toughness. However, such alloying robs the silver or gold of its luster. It is like a snake that moves on its belly always, and can never stand up erect and upright. This is why, eminent men like Montaigne declared that falsehood was universally degrading and loathsome.
Saith he, If it be well weighed, to say that a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave towards God and a coward towards men. For a lie faces God, and shrinks from man. Surely the wickedness of falsehood and breach of faith cannot possibly be so highly expressed, as in that it shall be the last peal to call the judgments of God upon the generations of men; it being foretold that when Christ cometh, he shall not find faith upon the earth.
Meaning .. When analyzed deeply, he said, it means that a person who lies is afraid of ordinary mortals and has the temerity to face God. He is a lowly soul bereft of any wisdom or intellectual heft. When the Day of the Judgment arrives, a person who has lied all his life, can not face God, and will be punished for his guilt. It has been said that gradual erosion of moral values in the world will slowly drag the earth to a state where ‘Faith’ ceases to exist.
Elsewhere in the blog …
La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad by John Keats
On His Blindness by John Milton
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
A Happy Man by W. Somerset Maugham