Of Death, Francis Bacon: Line by Line Explanation

1. "Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children, is increased with tales, so is the other. 2. Certainly, the contemplation of death, as the wages of sin, and passage to another world, is holy and religious; but the fear of it, as a tribute due unto nature, is weak. 3. Yet in religious meditations, there is sometimes mixture of vanity, and of superstition."

In this essay titled "Of Death," Sir Francis Bacon examines the fear of death and its various aspects, including religious contemplation and potential superstitions.

Summary & Analysis Here

Explanation:

1. Drawing an analogy, Bacon likens the fear of death to the fear that children have of darkness. He suggests that just as children's fear of the dark is heightened by stories, the fear of death is also magnified through various influences and sources, contributing to its intensity.

2. Bacon acknowledges that reflecting on death in the context of its role as a consequence of sin and a passage to another world can be considered sacred and filled with religious significance. However, fearing death as a natural part of life is a weaker sentiment. This contrast between the spiritual and natural aspects of death's contemplation is highlighted.

3. Bacon acknowledges that even in religious reflections on death, there can exist a mixture of vanity, implying self-centered preoccupation, and superstition, suggesting irrational beliefs. This observation emphasizes the complexity of human thoughts and emotions related to mortality, even within the context of religion.

In these lines, Bacon introduces the themes of fear, spirituality, and irrationality that he will likely delve further into as the essay progresses. The subsequent sections may explore the psychological and cultural factors that contribute to the fear of death and how different perspectives shape individuals' perceptions and reactions to mortality.

4. You shall read, in some of the friars’ books of mortification, that a man should think with himself, what the pain is, if he have but his finger’s end pressed, or tortured, and thereby imagine, what the pains of death are, when the whole body is corrupted, and dissolved; when many times death passeth, with less pain than the torture of a limb; for the most vital parts, are not the quickest of sense. 5. And by him that spake only as a philosopher, and natural man, it was well said, Pompa mortis magis terret, quam mors ipsa. Groans, and convulsions, and a discolored face, and friends weeping, and blacks, and obsequies, and the like, show death terrible.

In this section, the author explores the perception of death, its pain in comparison to bodily suffering, and the external factors that contribute to the fear of death.

Explanation:

4. Bacon references certain writings by friars that suggest a contemplative exercise. According to these writings, individuals are advised to consider the pain experienced when a small part of their body, like a finger's end, is pressed or tortured. By extrapolating from this minor pain to the potential pain of death, one can imagine the suffering that accompanies the corruption and dissolution of the entire body. Interestingly, Bacon points out that death sometimes inflicts less pain than the torment of a single limb. This is because the most vital parts of the body may not have the same acute sense of pain.

5. The author alludes to a saying by an unidentified philosopher and naturalist, suggesting that the pomp and ceremony surrounding death are often more terrifying than death itself. The visual and emotional aspects associated with death, such as groaning, convulsions, distressed appearances, weeping friends, somber attire, funeral rites, and similar factors, contribute to the perception of death as a terrifying event.

In these lines, Bacon explores the psychological and physical aspects of pain and fear related to death. He presents the notion that the fear of death is influenced not only by the actual pain but also by the vivid and emotional experiences that surround it. The essay delves into the complex interplay of physical sensations, emotions, and perceptions that shape humanity's relationship with mortality.

6. It is worthy the observing, that there is no passion in the mind of man, so weak, but it mates, and masters, the fear of death; and therefore, death is no such terrible enemy, when a man hath so many attendants about him, that can win the combat of him. Revenge triumphs over death; love slights it; honor aspireth to it; grief flieth to it; fear preoccupateth it; nay, we read, after Otho the emperor had slain himself, pity (which is the tenderest of affections) provoked many to die, out of mere compassion to their sovereign, and as the truest sort of followers.

In this passage, the author examines how various human emotions and passions can overshadow the fear of death, thereby diminishing its perceived terror.

Explanation:

6. Bacon highlights a notable observation: no matter how weak a human emotion or passion may be, it can still overcome and subdue the fear of death. This realization leads to the understanding that death is not an insurmountable enemy, especially when an individual has numerous strong emotions and motivations that can overcome that fear. Bacon provides a list of emotions and motives that can diminish the fear of death:

- Revenge, the desire to settle scores, can triumph over the fear of death.
- Love can make death seem insignificant or less frightening.
- Honor can inspire one to face death bravely, often in pursuit of a noble cause.
- Grief, particularly intense sorrow, might lead one to welcome death as an escape from suffering.
- Fear can lead to preoccupation with death, making its approach less alarming.
- An interesting historical example is given about Emperor Otho. After he took his own life, pity and compassion for their ruler moved many to follow suit, seeing it as the most genuine form of loyalty.

By showcasing these diverse emotions and their relationships with death, Bacon demonstrates that the fear of death can be overshadowed by a range of powerful motivations and sentiments.

This passage illustrates how complex human emotions and motivations can alter the perception of death. Bacon emphasizes that the fear of death can be counteracted by other intense feelings, suggesting that the context and emotional landscape surrounding death play a significant role in how individuals approach and respond to mortality.

7. Nay, Seneca adds niceness and satiety: Cogita quamdiu eadem feceris; mori velle, non tantum fortis aut miser, sed etiam fastidiosus potest. 8. A man would die, though he were neither valiant, nor miserable, only upon a weariness to do the same thing so oft, over and over. 9. It is no less worthy, to observe, how little alteration in good spirits, the approaches of death make; for they appear to be the same men, till the last instant.

In this portion, the author introduces Seneca's perspective on death and examines how factors like weariness and the attitude of individuals affect their perception of mortality.

Explanation:

7. Bacon mentions Seneca's contribution to the discussion, bringing up the notion that niceness (excessive refinement or fussiness) and satiety (feeling of fullness or boredom) can also lead someone to desire death. Seneca's quote "Cogita quamdiu eadem feceris; mori velle, non tantum fortis aut miser, sed etiam fastidiosus potest" is translated as "Think how long you have done the same things; one can wish to die, not only out of courage or misery, but also out of disgust." This perspective suggests that someone might wish for death not just because they are brave or suffering, but also out of a sense of weariness or repulsion.

8. The author expands on Seneca's idea, stating that a person might want to die even if they are neither brave nor miserable. This desire can arise purely due to the weariness of repeatedly performing the same tasks or living through the same experiences.

9. Bacon observes that the approach of death often doesn't cause significant changes in individuals of good spirits. People who are in a positive frame of mind tend to remain relatively unchanged until the very end of their lives. This insight underscores the resilience and continuity of one's personality and demeanor in the face of death.

In these lines, Bacon continues to explore the factors that influence an individual's perception of death. He highlights how emotional states, weariness, and repetition of experiences can contribute to the desire for death. Additionally, he notes the surprising constancy of people's attitudes and spirits as death approaches, emphasizing the stability of one's character even in the face of mortality.

10. Augustus Caesar died in a compliment; Livia, conjugii nostri memor, vive et vale. Tiberius in dissimulation; as Tacitus saith of him, Jam Tiberium vires et corpus, non dissimulatio, deserebant. 11. Vespasian in a jest, sitting upon the stool; Ut puto deus fio. Galba with a sentence; Feri, si ex re sit populi Romani; holding forth his neck. 12. Septimius Severus in despatch; Adeste si quid mihi restat agendum. And the like.

In this section, the author provides historical examples of the varied ways in which Roman emperors faced death, ranging from poignant declarations to jests.

Explanation:

10. Augustus Caesar's death is described as occurring within a compliment. As he was dying, he addressed his wife Livia with the words "conjugii nostri memor, vive et vale," meaning "mindful of our wedded life, live and farewell." This suggests that his final words were meant to be a thoughtful parting message.

11. Tiberius's death is contrasted with dissimulation (pretense). Tacitus, a historian, commented that Tiberius's body and strength were failing him, not his ability to deceive. This implies that Tiberius's death was marked by physical decline rather than the deceptive facade he maintained during his rule.

12. Vespasian's death is described as occurring in a jest. As he was dying, he humorously remarked "Ut puto deus fio," meaning "I think I'm becoming a god." This jest implies a lighthearted attitude towards death.

Galba's death is described as occurring with a sentence. He held forth his neck to be struck, with the words "Feri, si ex re sit populi Romani," meaning "Strike, if it be for the good of the Roman people." This sentence indicates a willingness to accept his fate for the greater good.

Septimius Severus's death is described as occurring in despatch. His final words were "Adeste si quid mihi restat agendum," meaning "Be at hand if there is anything left for me to do." This statement reflects a sense of responsibility and purpose even in his last moments.

In these examples, the author presents different approaches to facing death among Roman emperors. These varied reactions demonstrate the diverse ways in which individuals can approach their mortality, whether through heartfelt farewells, jests, willingness to die for a cause, or a sense of duty and purpose.

13. Certainly the Stoics bestowed too much cost upon death, and by their great preparations, made it appear more fearful. Better saith he qui finem vitae extremum inter munera ponat naturae. 14. It is as natural to die, as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful, as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit, is like one that is wounded in hot blood; who, for the time, scarce feels the hurt; and therefore a mind fixed, and bent upon somewhat that is good, doth avert the dolors of death. 15. But, above all, believe it, the sweetest canticle is, Nunc dimittis; when a man hath obtained worthy ends, and expectations. Death hath this also; that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envy. —Extinctus amabitur idem.

In this section, the author criticizes the Stoic philosophy's excessive focus on preparing for death and presents his perspective on the naturalness of death, its perception in different life stages, and its connection to achievement and reputation.

Explanation:

13. The author criticizes the Stoics for investing too much effort and seriousness into preparing for death, which he believes makes it seem more terrifying. He contrasts this with the viewpoint of someone who considers the end of life as a natural part of the gifts of nature.

14. The author reflects on the natural cycle of life and death, stating that dying is just as innate as being born. He suggests that to a young infant, the pain of birth and the pain of death might be comparable. He draws an analogy between dying while passionately pursuing something and getting wounded in a heated battle, indicating that a strong focus on a meaningful pursuit can diminish the fear of death.

15. The author highlights that the phrase "Nunc dimittis," meaning "Now you dismiss" in Latin, is the sweetest song to be sung when someone has achieved their worthy goals and fulfilled their expectations. Death has an additional significance—it opens the gateway to obtaining a good reputation and quells feelings of envy that might have existed during one's life. The Latin phrase "Extinctus amabitur idem" means "When dead, he will be loved the same."

In these lines, the author critiques the Stoic approach to death, asserting that death's naturalness and the achievement of significant goals are more effective in dispelling the fear of death. He also touches on death's ability to shape one's reputation and put an end to feelings of envy. This passage exemplifies the author's multifaceted perspective on death, examining it from psychological, philosophical, and social angles.

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