October 27, 2011


One new book I’m reading is a study of Francis Bacon, a philosopher of the 16th century. The work was written by one of my former students, now a university professor in California. We reconnected at his 45-year high school reunion and as he’d always been among my favorites, I was delighted to see him (Blog: 9/14/11). Naturally, when I learned he’d written a book, I ordered it and when it arrived, I discovered that Harvard Press had awarded it the Thomas J. Wilson prize for being the best of the university’s publication for 1989. 

For an academic book it is well written but we all know what I mean when I say “an academic book.” Automatically one thinks “inscrutable” and “boring.” Scholarly writing fails because, over time and as authors strive to impress their peers, a style has developed which mistakes obscurity for profundity. Sadly here is an example from the book by my beloved student who is gifted and talented and who can write better.

            “The formulation and interpretation of aphorisms [Bacon’s] is an ordeal because the discourse of fragments ‘gathered here and there from very various and widely displaced facts’ surprises the understanding and perplexes the imagination.”

 Here’s what I think he intended to say: To understand how Bacon created and interpreted aphorisms is difficult because his discussion is based upon fragments from a variety of sources and facts, the numbers of which can be mind boggling.

A writer must realize that while an idea may be complex, it can be expressed simply. Albert Einstein worked many years to derive the equation E=MC (2), but once grasped its expression is simple and elegant, as is the universe.     

The number of ideas floating around in our heads is limited to our experience and the bulk of those experiences are common to all. Most of us can grasp the thoughts and feelings of others by dint of being human. The mightiest king who is betrayed by his friends feels no more passion flowing through his veins than does the teary-eyed toddler who imagines he’s been abandoned when his mother leaves him at day care. Language serves us best when it fosters mutual understanding.