Francis Bacon on Marriage and Single Life

One of the advantages of reading great authors of earlier eras is that you get perspectives that don’t square with party lines we’re fed today by dominant cultural forces in the mass media, corporate world, and political classes. With respect to marriage, what we’re told today is that marriage is all about romantic love, it exists for companionship, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with children. Corollaries to this reasoning include the mainstreaming of the single-parent household, no-fault divorce, and homosexual marriage.

When Francis Bacon ruminates on marriage and single life, he clearly operates from a different frame of reference. For example, he assumes that children are part of the deal when one marries. He recognizes this as a trade-off; the married man must defer gratification and sacrifice for the future:

It were great reason that those that have children should have greatest care of future times; unto which they know they must transmit their dearest pledges. Some there are, who though they lead a single life, yet their thoughts do end with themselves, and account future times impertinences. . . . The most ordinary cause of a single life is liberty.

Remaining single gives one flexibility and perhaps allows one to achieve greatness:

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public.

These observations should be fairly intuitive to most people. Just as St. Paul noted that family responsibilities prevent one from devoting oneself fully to the work of the Kingdom, Bacon recognizes the investment of finite time and energy into one’s family necessarily leaves less of those things for one’s career or calling. He echoes St. Paul on the clergy: “A single life doth well with churchmen; for charity will hardly water the ground where it must first fill a pool.”

On the flip side, marriage can improve one’s character:

Certainly wife and children are a kind of discipline of humanity; and single men, though they may be many times more charitable, because their means are less exhaust, yet, on the other side, they are more cruel and hardhearted (good to make severe inquisitors), because their tenderness is not so oft called upon.

“Childless by choice” folks won’t like Bacon:

There are some other that account wife and children but as bills of charges. Nay more, there are some foolish rich covetous men, that take a pride in having no children, because they may be thought so much the richer.

Bacon assumes a patriarchal model in marriage, but also notes that many wives have a character superior to that of their husbands. So there’s something for everyone here.

I don’t like everything about Bacon, but I’m glad that my Great Books Project has introduced me to so many of his essays. I’ve found a great deal of food for thought in them.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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9 Responses to Francis Bacon on Marriage and Single Life

  1. Your quote that mentions “flexibility and perhaps allows one to achieve greatness” has actually been a tough thing for me to deal with this past year. I read and subscribe to a number of blogs/newsletters that are written by young, unwed men who have been able to achieve a form of greatness (think Simon Black and Craig Ballantyne) and I’ve had to work to understand that many aspects of that life-style are not for me. I’m married and have incredibly strong family ties (on both sides) and Bacon is right, I can’t truly be flexible like that; not without losing a great deal. It’s a burden that I foolishly carry some days.

    • Dr. J says:

      I know where you’re coming from. There are only so many hours in the day, and family men must devote some of those hours to the “home front.” Sometimes I wonder what I would have accomplished over the last 12+ years had I remained a bachelor. I might have written an extra book or two, but I can’t seriously imagine my life being better or more fulfilling than it is now. Plus, no one can blame a father of five for the West’s demographic collapse!

      • Haha! Well said.
        Though one does wonder how you find the time to do as much reading as you do with such a large family. Do you schedule a certain time every day for reading or is it a “fill in when you can” kind of thing?

        • Dr. J says:

          I’m not completely consistent. When I’m up to it, I get up early in the morning and read while the house is quiet. Some evenings I read a bit after the kids are in bed. And I also do quite a bit on the weekends and during lunch.

  2. jenny says:

    would u mind me asking that what position does bacon finally reaches to..? i mean what does he advocates..a married life or single life..?

    • Dr. J says:

      There’s not really a statement in the essay that makes a firm recommendation one way or the other. Lots of Bacon’s essays are like that. You get the sense that his views on some issues are works in progress.

  3. natashawatts says:

    Thanks for your insight! I’m doing a paper on Bacon’s essay for a British Lit class. We need to put the essay in a historical context. I think I’ll research a little on the attitudes regarding marriage and singleness in Bacon’s day….Do you have any suggestions for me?

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