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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 o