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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Bacon, Gracián, and H.L. Mencken

From Washington Lawyer, October 2014

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorIn the District of Columbia (as in most jurisdictions), those who pass the written bar exam must then meet with a seasoned lawyer who will conduct a personal interview. I recall my interview. The seasoned lawyer’s office was in a building at 15th and H streets. The office was lined with law books, old and new, and on his desk were a manual typewriter, legal-sized paper, and carbon paper. In the corner, there was a big grandfather clock.

He congratulated me for having passed the written bar exam. Then he said there are things in the law practice other than contracts, evidence, and real property. Chemists deal with each of the elements in the periodic table. In the law practice, the periodic table is people.

He said that when he was a young lawyer, he wanted to know how to deal with people. He said he came across two books in which the authors gave people advice. These books were Francis Bacon’s Essays and Baltasar Gracián’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom. He suggested I make a note of these two people, and in time, they would be of value.

Months later I was in New York, and I walked through Book Row, the secondhand and antiquarian bookstores around Fourth Avenue, south of 14th Street. As usual, I wound up at the Strand Book Store where I bought Bacon’s and Gracián’s books, both for a dollar and a half.

In Washington we had our own Book Row, near 9th and G streets. The best of all was Mrs. Reifsnyder’s Park Book Shop. It was a high ceilinged affair with the mysteries on the upper shelf, which could only be reached by a ladder attached to a metal railing that circled the entire shop. With practice, I learned to move the ladder while standing on the top rung, by reaching out, grabbing the railing a few feet ahead, and pulling the ladder along to get a book that I wanted.

Back to Bacon and Gracián. I read their books on the train ride back to Washington. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was a gifted philosopher, scientist, and lawyer. He held the highest English judicial position there was, and then there was trouble. Accusations were made that he, as the judge, accepted bribes. He was fined and imprisoned. Shortly thereafter, he was released and later pardoned, but he never returned to public office. He died near London deeply in debt.

Bacon’s essays are short, giving advice on his worldly wisdom. He commenced writing the essays in 1597, and he worked on them, always tightening each essay to be aphoristic, until his death.

Bacon’s aphorisms can be found in books like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Here are a few:

  • All rising to a great place is by a winding stair.
  • He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator.
  • Imagination was given to man to compensate for what he is not, and a sense of humor to console him for what he is.

Gracián (1601–1658) was Spanish. He entered the Spanish Society of Jesus. He was interested in writing and he wrote on many things. The society was displeased with his works, and he was denounced.

Here is a quotation from his book The Art of Worldly Wisdom:

Avoid outshining your superiors. All victories breed hate, and that over your superior is foolish or fatal. Pre-eminence is always detested, especially over those in high positions. Caution can gloss over common advantages. For example, good looks may be cloaked by careless attire. There are some that will grant you superiority in good luck or good temper, but none in good sense, least of all a prince—for good sense is a royal prerogative and any claim of superiority in that is a crime against majesty. . . .

Both Bacon and Gracián have, in their writings, a philosophy of cynicism. Perhaps that is because of the bad experiences each had in his life. Bacon and Gracián could have met, say, in 1620, when Bacon was 59 and Gracián was 19. The conversation between them would have been interesting.

The philosophy of cynicism can be defined in many ways. H. L. Mencken defined it in a letter to his girlfriend at a time when she was depressed.

Dear Sara:

You tell me too little about yourself. How do you feel? I don’t preach patience to you so much as cynicism: it is the most comforting of philosophies. You will get over your present difficulties only to run into something worse, and so on until the last sad scene. Make up your mind to it—and then make the best of it. If you can’t write a book a year, then write one every two years.

I believe that life is a constant oscillation between the sharp horns of dilemmas. I work like a dog, and accomplish nothing that really interests me. Once I gave up all routine work and devoted myself to a book: I was sick of it in six months, and went back to answering letters and reading manuscripts.

It is the feeling of exerting effort that exhilarates us, as a grasshopper is exhilarated by jumping. A hard job, full of impediments, is thus more satisfying than an easy job. When I get letters from German Gelehrten, complaining that they are having a hell of a time, I always congratulate them. They will do good work, and enjoy it.

Please excuse poor pen.


Jacob A. Stein can be reached at [email protected].