In the essay Of Death, Francis Bacon explicates the subject of death, the uncertainty of understanding of death and certainty of its occurrence.
Table of Contents
Of Death Summary by Bacon
Fear of the unknown
Bacon describes the mortal human beings gripped with fear of the unknown and death is the biggest unknown mystery of human life. He describes fear-ridden men as children who are afraid of darkness, a space without the certainty of light.
This fear is fed and reared by the frightening stories and accounts of death and darkness. Such mortal fear stops men from traversing the dark filled areas, both literally and figuratively.
The thoughts and introspection that death demands are very normal. Reflecting on death as one reflects on life, with poise and calm shows wisdom and intellect. It is similar to the contemplation of one’s sins and mistakes and is a sign of intelligence and reasoning.
These qualities are what makes a man religious and in turn makes him/her accountable to the actions that he/she commits. However, Bacon believes irrational fear of death and attributing it Nature’s supreme power of levelling well with evil is both unacceptable and problematic.
Bacon goes on to highlight the underlying fear that causes men to succumb to religious extremism, superstition and futile rituals. Along with prayers and exhortations, men indulge in and become honour prisoner of superstition and irrational beliefs which stem from the fear of death itself.
In order to assume the pain and suffering of death many people try to inflict some measurements of pain on themselves, as a way of appreciating the final pain of death. It also makes them more aware of the suffering caused in other people’s lives due to their actions and makes them more empathetic.
But, often death is caused without us feeling much physical pain. Our organs like kidney, heart, lungs etc never experience profound pain like a severed finger or broken limb.
Now, Bacon notes that the approach of death, the inevitable union, is what scares people even more than the event of death itself. It is the advent of death that is more frightening than its occurrence.
Such fear is heightened and magnified by the scenes and sounds of people wailing and losing their composure at the sight of a dying man.
It is the wails, convulsions, despair and cries of a dying man’s loved ones that send powerful chills and pangs of horror down the spine of many onlookers. It makes the experience even scarier than it actually is.
Bacon says that alternatively, death is not that scary for the one who is dying. Since, he is in the embrace of his loved ones, cared for and looked after, he feels more empowered and at peace than he ever before.
It is the sight of him cocooned by the enclosure of loving and doting friends and family that makes death an attraction for him. It becomes a way to attain salvation from the sufferance of life and its abandonment, loss, hardships and trials. In a way, death is not the villain in the human story.
Lessons from history
Bacon gives another example from history. He describes the death of Roman emperor Otho who killed himself. His death brought such unbearable devastation and grief to his people that many of them committed suicide. Such morbid tribute was their way of honouring their king.
Bacon goes on to qualify several emotions with the entity of death. They are the admirers of death. He says that revenge feels triumphant in death (as the seeker kills his object of vengeance).
Death is full of spite for the emotion of love as it causes separation between the loved ones. It is aspired to and courted by honour and stands as its vindication. But for a dying man, death is an object that instils fear and trepidation.
Fear anticipates death
Bacon talks about the Stoic philosopher Seneca who described death as the deliverance from the punishment of life. According to him, life is often monotonous and riddled with pain, loss, unfulfilled desires and dashed hopes.
The weight of regrets, disappointments and suffering makes the prospect of death more attractive than life itself. Thus, death is the destruction of such suffering, an escape from the torture chamber of life.
Such life of uneventful moments and painful monotony is brought to an end by the prospect of death. In a way, death elevates the boredom, misery and drudgery of so many lives that are neither heroic nor tragic.
These lives are insignificant and untraceable in terms of their mundane and ordinary events and occurrences. Therefore many, on their death bed, welcome the embrace of death.
The sweet release of an end to their monotonous and unspectacular life brings a level of vitality and excitement to them. They look forward to meeting the unknown visitor called death.
Another historical example is used by Bacon. He describes Augustus Caesar who faced his death triumphantly. In his last moments, Caesar is strong and proud of his marriage and extends the same message to his wife.
He describes the comments of Caesar’s companions who commented on his death and the dead body. Tiberius claimed that Caesar may have lost his bodily powers but he still had his powers to hide his true feelings.
Vespasian proclaimed to be a god while Galba fomented to strike dead emperor’s neck for the betterment of Rome. Severus inquired if he was required to inflict more damage.
Bacon goes on to criticize such the Stoic philosophers and commentators as they attributed to much value and valorization to death.
Such grand comments and preparations only made death more frightening and horrific. He calls on the wise people who described death as a way of restore and maintain balance in Nature.
Courage before the end
He goes on to talk about the cycle of birth and death. It is unrelenting, inevitable and inescapable. Whatever is born must witness death and both birth and death are painful processes to go through.
A person who is engrossed in his ambition and hunt for success feels no pain in small and trivial setbacks or injuries. Much like a soldier who gets hurt in combat, he is possessed by his objective and does not even register small injuries or insignificant pain or fear.
Finally, Bacon eulogies the bravery and courage of the people who welcome death while pursuing a good and hallowed cause. A soldier who dies trying to defend his country is an object of great admiration and praise, not just of his compatriots but also his enemies, detractors and critics.
The trait of courage in the face of death is what elevates man to a place of heroic greatness and commendation. As long as he chased after glorious and righteous objectives, death raises his name above the vices of envy, hate and slander.