CCE Corner – Writing

January 21st, 2021

After two posts on Reading, we’ve come to the second “R” of education: Riting [a.k.a. “Writing”]. Our 5th-8th grade language arts teacher is fond of the following quotation by 16th century English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man”.* In this Classical Christian Education Corner, we use Bacon’s words as inspiration for thinking more about words–those read, spoken, and written.

“Reading maketh a full man.” A “full man” is not one who has eaten too much at dinner. He is “A man whose mind is richly stored with knowledge.” A classical approach to reading–thoughtfully, deeply, and widely–increases those stores. More than that, however, if one reads edifying material, those things that St. Paul calls “true, lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy,” such reading can help to fill one’s mind and heart in such a way as to make one more fully human, more fully the person God intends. Good reading not only fills one’s mind, it helps one become a better, more complete person. In other words, reading not only makes a man full, it also makes a full man.

“Conference [maketh] a ready man.” While the first part of Bacon’s quotation probably seemed easy enough to understand (Old English aside), this section sounds more peculiar. What does Bacon mean by “conference”? And what does it mean to be a “ready man”? Ready for what? The word “conference” comes from the Latin “conferre” which means “to bring together.” Since the 1550’s, it meant an “act of consulting together,” and since the 1580’s, a “formal meeting for consultation, discussion, instruction, exchange of opinions”. For Bacon and those of his time, it also meant “compare”.** So, now we have a picture of coming together with others to discuss, debate, deliberate, and compare ideas. It is worth noting that for Bacon conference was meant to remove people from the echo chambers of their own ideas. And it is probably fair to assume that Bacon had civil discourse in mind (something that has become increasingly rare in our online world). It is thoughtful and open interaction with the words of others, those of one’s contemporaries or predecessors, that makes a man “ready.”

So, ready for what? The word “ready” has many meanings, and several of those are desirable things for a person to be: 1) prepared mentally or physically for some experience or action, 2) prepared for immediate use, 3) willingly disposed. It makes sense that conference, rather than relying solely on one’s own opinions and devices, would help one to be more fully prepared for any number of purposes. But, a deeper, classical Christian answer to the question “Ready for what?” is found in I Peter: “[A]lways be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you”. Through the words that we read and the conferences that we have, we should seek to “sanctify the Lord God in our hearts” so that we may live and speak in eternal hope. In short, so that we are ready for heaven.

“And writing [maketh] an exact man.” We might be a little disappointed with this part of Bacon’s quotation if we read the next line: “if a man write little, he had need have a great memory.” Is Bacon simply saying we should write things down so we won’t forget them? Is he promoting daily planners with extra paper for to-do lists? Bacon was a philosopher and statesman, known for his powers of observation and credited with developing the scientific method. He is likely talking about substantial and meaningful note-taking and writing, not merely as a memory-aid but as a way to think more clearly, to be more “exact.” For Bacon, to be exact meant to be “precise, rigorous, accurate, highly finished” and it involved a kind of “drawing or forcing out.” It is through the process of writing that one remembers, organizes, analyzes, tests, and extends observations and ideas. It is through the process of writing that one does not merely “express oneself” but conforms one’s thought more and more to the realities, the possibilities, and the promise of the world and the Word. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “An author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom”. It is in this kind of writing that one becomes an “exact man”.

In our next CCEC, we will look more specifically at how Trinitas uses reading, conference, and writing to help students become full, ready, and exact.

*A couple centuries later, Benjamin Franklin expressed these ideas this way: “Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man, discourse a clear man.”
**You may recognize the abbreviation cf. which comes from the meaning of “conference” as “compare.”