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.