Francis Bacon’s “Of Imposters” is one of his brief 1597 Meditationes Sacrae. As I work more and more on Bacon, I am becoming more and more convinced that one more point of his outrageous originality is the detailed and discerning treatments he gives of how people go wrong ethically and intellectually. Bacon is perhaps the most discerning anatomist of the “dark arts” — what used to be called “human evil” — amongst the Western philosophers.
For Bacon, it is not enough to philosophize about the good, or even give advice as to how to achieve the virtues. The good by itself can always become the naive, without understanding the mechanics of how people behave badly.
Bacon believes that moral philosophy needs to better understand the characters of different kinds of people, the colors and kinds of the different emotions, the effects of different stations in life on character — and indeed, the shapes of all the different forms of cunning and bastardry that people use, who wish to put their own selves over everything else but are clever enough to realize that the best way to do this is to pay public homage to virtue, selflessness, and upright conduct.
“Of Imposters” is the first of two very brief “sacred meditations” on “imposture” in the 1597 collection (the second one is about three forms of sophistry). What is this first meditation then about?
“The true image and true temper of a man, and of him that is God’s faithful workman”, Bacon begins, is that “his carriage and conversation towards God is full of passion, of zeal”. On the other hand, “his carriage and conversation towards men is full of mildness, sobriety, and appliable demeanor.”
The person of good faith prays in private, not to be seen. They try to serve some causes or values, even when it is unclear whether others will see and reward them for their labors.
Before others, they do not put themselves forward, throwing out boasts and glamorous promises to enthrall people simple enough to believe them. They might even downplay their worth.
The contrary relationship between what is ideal and salutary (God, public image) and what is real (how we relate to others) applies to hypocrites — that is, to those Bacon calls “impostors”.
For they in the church, and before the people, set themselves on fire, and are carried as it…