Reading and Studying

Original essay by Francis Bacon

Paraphrased by Leslie and Tim Laurio, May 2008

This is not a substitute for reading the original; it's meant to help with understanding difficult parts.

The purpose of studying and reading is to add joy to life, to add interest and to make a person more capable. Their main purpose in adding joy to life is quiet, private enjoyment. Their main purpose in adding interest is making discussion more lively. Their main purpose in making a person more capable is enhancing his sense of judgment and being better skilled at business. Some gifted people can accomplish things and perhaps make some sound decisions, but in general, advice, plans and conducting affairs is best handled by educated people.

Spending too much time reading and studying is lazy and unproductive. Using education to sound impressive is vanity. Judging only 'by the book' is more scholarly than practical. Reading and studying improves a person's nature, but education itself is improved through personal experience. Natural talent and giftedness is like a plant that needs pruning through reading and studying. But studies themselves are too broad and vague to be of much practical use unless they're guided by a person's real-life experience. Devious people scorn education, ignorant people admire education, but wise people use education. For them, education itself for education's sake isn't the goal. But realizing that isn't something you learn from studying; it's a higher knowledge that's above and beyond book learning. It comes from observation and reflection.

Don't read and study with the attitude of criticizing and disagreeing with what the author says. And don't believe and accept everything you read. Don't learn just to sound impressive in conversation. No, read and study for the purpose of weighing ideas, considering concepts and reflecting. Some books are only meant to be lightly tasted. Some books are meant to be swallowed whole. But some books need to be chewed deliberately and digested slowly. In other words, some books can be skimmed casually, some can be read quickly without too much thought, but a few books have to be read completely, carefully, and thoughtfully with undivided attention. With some books, it's okay to use summaries and extracts done by others, but that's only with books concerning less important issues, or shallower sorts of books. Otherwise, book extracts are like distilled water with some of its elements removed, leaving only the bare substance. They're filled with dry facts, but less useful for thoughtful reading. [Literally, they're 'flashy things.']

Reading and studying makes a person complete. Discussion makes a person prepared. Writing makes a person exact. Therefore, if a person doesn't write very much, then he'd better have a good memory. If he doesn't dialog with others very often, then he'd better be unusually clever. If he doesn't read much, then he'd better be exceptionally intelligent so that he seems to know what he really doesn't. Reading history makes a person wise, reading poetry makes a person witty, reading math makes a person subtle, reading nature and science makes a person deep, reading morality makes a person serious, reading logic and rhetoric makes a person able to debate. 'Abeunt studia more.' [Each of these studies can produce its own character trait.]

There's no defect of the mind that can't be improved with the right kind of studying in the same way that physical problems can be helped by the proper exercise. Bowling prevents kidney stones, shooting expands the lungs and chest, gentle walking soothes the stomach, riding clears the head, etc. So, if a person's mind tends to wander, he should read mathematics because, if he loses his focus even a little while doing a math problem, he'll have to start all over again. If his mind isn't discerning enough to tell one thing from another, he should read the Schoolmen [medieval Biblical scholars], because they're 'cymini sectores' [hair splitters]. If he's not likely to consider details, and to use evidences to prove his point, then he should read lawyers' cases. So you can see how every mental defect has its own remedy.

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