Holiday reading, anyone? Try two of England’s best
According to the Renaissance/Elizabethan Age writer Sir Francis Bacon, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” I gather Bacon meant that reading can broaden and deepen us, conversation can sharpen us, and writing can focus us.
Inasmuch as Christmas slows us down, though briefly, and can provide a time for contemplation, those with some extra reading time over the New Year’s holidays might want to explore Francis Bacon’s life and work. He will stimulate and inspire. So will another English writer and thinker who has sparked the minds and deepened the souls of many, namely G.K. Chesterton.
These two writers have made distinct contributions to how we think and what we think about. Bacon was a politician and scientist; Chesterton, a journalist and a towering Christian apologist. Virtually unheralded today, these two men illustrate that true science is not the enemy of faith and vice versa, a concept we might think about at this time of year.
Bacon was the first westerner to speak and write on inductive reasoning, that is, drawing a principle from direct observation or a conclusion from experimentation. Unlike Aristotle who taught us deductive reasoning, Bacon explained how to arrive at a conclusion the opposite way. Whereas Aristotle started with a general statement or hypothesis and drove toward a specific conclusion (“All men are mortal / Socrates was a man / Socrates was mortal”), Bacon started with a question, then experimented and drew a conclusion: Does ivory soap float? Place a bar in water 10 times and see. Then declare what you saw.
A devout Anglican, Bacon was as interested in philosophy and faith as he was politics and scientific experiments. Mindful of man’s creative as well as his practical, scientific side, he once wrote, “Imagination was given to man to compensate for what he is not and a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”
It was Bacon who made the essay popular as a literary form. Before Bacon there were long tomes and discourses, but no short pieces of analysis or opinion or what journalism calls articles or columns. True to his investigative spirit, Bacon bought a chicken, killed it, and stuffed the corpse with snow, all in an attempt to preserve it for later consumption. During his experiment, a fatal case of pneumonia ensued. Serving as a Member of Parliament never kept Bacon f rom writing and experimenting.
It’s commonly said that Chesterton said something about everything. Having had little education, the 300-pound journalist wrote for the London News and authored 100 books. As funny as he was serious, Chesterton defended Christianity and the Catholic faith, neither of which, even in his day (1874-1936), played well in the university or the media.
Calling atheists such as Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells his “friendly enemies,” Chesterton once remarked in a debate with Russell, “Atheism is the most daring of dogmas. It is the assertion of a universal negative. If there were no God, there could be no atheists.” Chesterton’s book, “The Everlasting Man,” influenced the young atheist C.S. Lewis to become a Christian as well as an equally influential Christian apologist.
Neither Bacon nor Chesterton shunned the word orthodoxy. Neither believed that all reality was physical but that there are truths and realities that lie beyond man’s ability to see, touch or understand. As Bacon put it in his work, “The Advancement of Learning,” “There is more to us than what we can see between the cradle and the grave.”
Unfortunately, to Americans and specifically to educators and students, the word “history” means political history (dates, political figures, wars, elections). This may be the reason it is disliked by so many. If schools taught intellectual history such as the ideas of Socrates, Jefferson, Marx, Einstein, Russell, Adam Smith, Gandhi, or Bacon and Chesterton, and analyzed how their ideas have played out in the advancement of the human race, we would then be saying “Ideas have consequences” instead of the prevailing verbiage, “Elections have consequences.”
Bacon, the very “Father of Modern Science,” believed in unfathomable mystery, which is something to think about around Christmas. Chesterton (who was welcomed into the world on the same day as Winston Churchill, another consequential Englishman of great girth), was the master of propounding the unfathomable. Neither Bacon nor Chesterton considered a life of faith a source of limitation or repression, but of joy. That, to me, is a relevant Christmas thought.
Happy reading, I hope your Christmas was merry and Happy New Year!