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Francis Bacon & Benjamin Franklin: Thinking in the 21st Century

I’ve come across a perplexing problem in modern linguistics. Perhaps you can help me.

My all time favorite quote is actually two quotes. One is from Francis Bacon who said:

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

The other is an amended version by Benjamin Franklin, which reads

Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man, discourse a clear man.

I have carried these quotes around with me for years. However, I’ve been continuously confused on the precise meaning of each quote. One of which was written in the 16th century the other in the 18th.

The more I investigate these quotes the more I realize two factors are at play in the way we interpret them today. First is the change in the meanings of words over time. Second is each author’s intended audience.

What spurred me to reconsider my understanding of these statements was a challenge by the linguist Richard Mitchell, author of the infamous “Underground Grammarian.” In his book, Less Than Words Can Say, he persuaded me to re-consider what Bacon meant by a “full” man. The implication is that not to read is to be an empty man or at best a half-filled man. The more literature, poetry, history and philosophy that I read, the more this truth has revealed itself to me. If our consciousness, or our souls, are buckets, with what do we fill them? Reading is at the very least a minimal requirement to keeping our buckets full.

But what about the rest of the quote? And why did Benjamin Franklin change the wording? Can we learn anything by investigating the wording of Bacon’s quote, and the possible reasons for Franklins adaptation? I think yes.

When we hear the word “conference” our first emotional response is likely equivalent to the one we get when we bite into an apple with a rotted core: “yuck!” The word compels us to recall a series of monotonous speakers pacing a bare stage talking endlessly at us. Or we may think of the uncomfortable steel chairs we spend an inordinate amount of our existence on. We may attend thousands of conferences over our lifetimes: Parent/teacher conferences, teacher conferences, work conferences, speaker conferences, sales conferences, marketing conferences, business conferences, financial conferences, mastermind conferences. To some of these conferences we go willingly to with the false hope of finding success afterwards, while many we go unwillingly to as a duty. One thing is certain. We do not conjure in our minds the exact meaning that Francis Bacon meant.

Bacon, a philosopher, was born in the 16th century and died in the early 17th century. When he uses the word “conference” he does not mean an uncomfortable situation one is forced to endure by the demands of one’s boss. And he definitely doesn’t mean linking telephones or computers for tele-conferencing or video-conferencing. He means a more formal conception of “conversation” or “to talk.” Conferre means in Latin ‘bring together,” but it was originally used in the sense of a conversation.

Conference makes a ready man. Here again we may be confused, due to an expansion in the meaning of word. We may feel “ready” means something like “eager,” “available,” “inclined,” or even “prepared.” We commonly use the word in everyday phrases like “Ready, set, go,” “make ready for,” “At the ready,” “ready and waiting,” “Ready to roll.”

My assessment is that Bacon meant more precisely, ready for a specific purpose. Meaning, after our formal conversation with an enlightened mind (hopefully through reading) we are ready to take the actions needed to accomplish our purpose. From a religious perspective, if God endowed me with a life purpose, then after my conference with God I will be “ready” for taking the actions necessary to accomplish that life purpose. From a secular perspective, if I choose my own purpose, say, to build a business, then after my conference with inquisitive minds, I will be ready for taking the actions necessary to accomplish my chosen purpose. Either way, we can be sure that conferences for their own sake are about as useless at preparing us for our purpose as taking a hot shower prepares us for an olympic swimming competition.

Then I asked myself: Why did Franklin change “conference” to “meditation” and “ready” to “profound;” in his quote he says:

Words can be tricky. This is especially true when we use words so loosely today. The word meditation, like conference, has gone through significant changes over the past two hundred years. Likely, you are picturing an ascetic looking bald-man with loosely fitting robes sitting on a mountain top, legs tangled in a pretzel chanting “ohmmmm.” The monk’s objective is clearing the mind from distractions.

In the original sense of the word, meditation, means something more akin to “contemplation.” The purpose of which is not to empty the mind but to focus the mind on a single subject for a long period of time. As most thinkers can attest, silence and even chanting may in fact be beneficial to this process. Nevertheless, the primary goal here is not to clear the mind but to think carefully about a subject. My goal with this article, for instance, is not to clear my mind of all distractions, but to dive deeply into the meaning of these particular quotes. Notice the method by which I am unpacking a total of twenty five words written by two men hundreds of years ago.

Consider Marcus Aurelius, the favorite thinker of modern “self-development” gurus like Ryan Holiday, and Tim Ferriss. Aurelius’ famous work is not titled “The Writings of Emperor Aurelius” but simply,“Meditations.” The sense in which Franklin is using the term meditation means “written or spoken discourse expressing considered thoughts on a subject.”

But why change the word “ready” to “profound?” If we take meditation to mean “expressing considered thoughts on a subject,” then we can take the word profound to be emphasizing the depth of our meditation. Profound comes from the Latin ‘pro + fundus’ meaning ‘before the bottom.” In Latin ‘profundus’ would be used to refer to a deep well or body of water. From there, a philosopher may be referred to as bottomless like an ocean: sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. Remember, while there may be infinite depths, if you are not careful you can easily drown.

Now we can consider my second realization for these quotes: audience. Franklin wrote this quote in The Poor Richard’s Almanack, which was meant for ordinary farmers. Whereas Bacon wrote his work for the learned man of his time. Perhaps Franklin’s goal was to translate wisdom to farmers who would not spend the better parts of their lives in cloistered academia.

This may account for the change in the last phrase. Bacon wrote

writing [makes] an exact man

Franklin wrote:

discourse [makes] a clear man.

Discourse and writing may seem very different, but in fact they are very similar. Writing is more than a process of translating the sounds in our head into black scratches on a piece of paper. In Bacon’s time writing was a rigorous process done mostly in Latin. Though by the 16th century English writing was developing and becoming more popular, the process was no less rigorous. To write in Latin or English was not a process of regurgitating the string of random thoughts in one’s head. Rather, it was a strict process of refining and re-refining our selected words and grammatical structure. We know the common phrase today “writing is editing,” but this was taken as doctrine in Bacon’s time. Discourse means a “process of reasoning.” Writing should be the physical manifestation of that process.

My guess is that Franklin did not want to scare un-schooled farmers into believing that they should be spending all their time learning Latin. Perhaps, Franklin merely wanted people to engage in friendly spoken discourse with one another, in order to gather opinions of important topics like how to lead a good life, and how to govern our families and society.

Like Franklin, I have taken it upon myself to translate the spirit of Bacon’s wisdom for our own time. And this is where I have run into a terrible confusion.

Here is my version:

Reading makes a full man, deliberation a ready man, and writing a precise man.

Not much has changed, and, well, that was deliberate. The only real differences are “deliberation,” and “precise.” By deliberation I mean a “long and careful consideration or discussion.” This word originates with latin meaning “consider carefully.” I removed the word “conference” for the reasons I indicated above. The connotations have shifted to such a degree that the word would be confusing.

By precise I am selecting a word that is not used as commonly as “exact.” We often hear that term used in colloquial language: “exact change” “Exactly!” “That’s exactly how I feel.” Precision feels like cutting something out. It feels like an “incision.” I actually like the connotation of “precision bombs” and “military precision,” because those conjure up the image of absolute perfection, and they imply a very hard-line “cutting off.” If a man who packs his own parachute is not precise, he will absolutely pay the consequences.

The terrible confusion occurred as I contemplated selecting a different word for “writing.” Franklin eliminated the word “writing” and chose the word “discourse.” I find that neither quite fit today. Then there is the word “clear.”

One could write a dissertation on the word “clear.” Look it up in the dictionary and you’ll see it’s one of the longest entries in the book. The goal of writing should be to clear the path to the overall theme. While we may be taught that clarity can only be accomplished by using fewer words, often elaboration is required. Here is a grade-school example:

The dog bit the mailman.


Baring its teeth, the dog bit the mailman.

The latter sentence has more words, but we now have a clearer picture of the dog. Clarity, therefore has more to do with concreteness than economy of words.

Today, writing as an activity has lost so much of its original meaning as to be almost equivalent to mere speaking. In reading blogs, articles, books and tweets, I have noticed at best pithy one-liners and at worst complete inanities. Even successful writers use words lazily. I found that I could neither use the words clarity, exactness, nor precision to refer to modern writing.

Here is a representative example from the viral blog post (that was expanded into a book and became a New York Times bestseller) Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:”

The people who don’t give a fuck about adversity or failure or embarrassing themselves or shitting the bed a few times. The people who just laugh and then do it anyway. Because they know it’s right. They know it’s more important than them and their own feelings and their own pride and their own needs. They say “Fuck it,” not to everything in life, but rather they say “Fuck it” to everything unimportant in life. They reserve their fucks for what truly fucking matters. Friends. Family. Purpose. Burritos. And an occasional lawsuit or two. And because of that, because they reserve their fucks for only the big things, the important things, people give a fuck about them in return.

Notice how Mark doesn’t seem to give a f*ck about complete sentences. Rather than a focus on bringing into view a crystal clear picture of an intended theme, writing as an activity has become muddied by vagaries and inanities.

If being vague has a value, it is in the potential for mass appeal. Vague communication allows multiple readers to see multiple meanings in a text. Whereas to one reader, not giving a f*ck may mean finding a purpose in life and working hard to attain it, to another reader it may mean smoking pot and eating burritos. What is important to one reader may be unimportant to another. This form of subjective writing and reading may feel good, but it comes at the expense of precision.

There is nothing more dangerous to humanity than the inculcation of vagary. One example is sufficient. In investigating the hundreds of thousands of documents used in Germany to capture, house, feed, transport and execute millions of Jews, not a single use of the word “killing” has been found. Neither was “murder,” or even “death.” Instead, vague words like “moving” or “transporting,” were used. Jews were not murdered by the million, they were simply moved or transported from one place to another. Not giving a F*ck as a guide to life will not in itself cause such mayhem, but the training of the modern mind in vagaries can and does.

This is where I have become stuck. For me, the Bacon/Franklin quote is a solid guide to intellectual life. It packs in a single sentence all the actions and states of being required to achieve a life of wisdom. We must read, or else we will be empty. We must converse with purpose, or else we will not be prepared to act. We must write, otherwise we will not have a precise understanding of reality.

Here is where I could use your help. There is no single word today meaning “writing with precision.” Writing used to mean just that. With the rise of self-publishing, Manson-esque blogging, and emotion ridden tweeting, we seem to have lost the rigorous process required of real writing and thus of clear thinking.

In my desire to adapt Bacon/Franklin to our own time I came to the conundrum that no one would know precisely what I mean by “writing.” The activity of typing a pithy statement in 140 characters or posting a gif is no more writing than waving your arms in the air is running.

Must we create a new word? “Wrediting” perhaps? (I am clearly not good at inventing words). Maybe one of you can capture the essence of rigorous writing while differentiating from the word vomit currently spewed on screen in the 21st century.



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