Read, discuss, write!

Francis Bacon's famous quote stands in the long tradition of rhetoric and logic

There are quotations that one never forgets, and this, the following quotation from the English Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon, came to my mind very well when reading the novel Wedding before the Fall, written by Dorothy L. Sayers in 1937. And then comes the moment when one is reminded of this quotation anew in an up-to-date way. We'll get to that later.

The quote written by the former Attorney General of the English Crown is written in full:

Francis Bacon

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

Source: Francis Bacon: Of studies in Essays (essay 50 of 58), 1625

Read, discuss, write! - Francis Bacon, Portrait by Pourbus the Younger, 1617, Source: Wikipedia
Francis Bacon, Portrait by Pourbus the Younger, 1617, Source: Wikipedia
The secondary source of the quotation

Dorothy L. Sayers Busman's Honeymoon

There's nothing like original sources. But that's not always so easy when one can't even climb up the shelves of the Bodleian Library.

I first met the author, or rather the often quoted historical figure Francis Bacon, in the novels of the English writer Dorothy L. Sayers. Her detective novels - mostly about the character of the rich and eloquent, elegant and never at a loss for a clever word, gentleman detective Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey - are teeming with clever words, aphorisms and idioms. They often stand aside the plot and carry it. In this case it is a little different, because the quote is pronounced by three people in sequence. In this way, the characters present only their wisdom, literacy and classical education to themselves and to the other characters in the novel, but especially to the reader. Elegant education is what the figure of the elegant detective breathes in and out in all of the British author's novels, yet Wimsey always remains down-to-earth, perhaps sometimes patronising, always connected to the life situations of the other characters. In addition to his ability to shine as an educated scion of the nobility, Peter Wimsey also has a deep-rooted closeness to the earth, which enables him to find his way in both upper-class and normal middle-class and rural life.

In the last book of the series there is a well-deserved happy ending between Lord Peter and his girlfriend and fiancée Harriet Deborah Vane. On their honeymoon in Vane's former parental home, as the title Busman's Honeymoon so aptly suggests in the original (the saying goes: the bus driver always goes on holiday by bus, he can't escape his job, ergo his fate), there is of course a murder that needs to be solved.

Somerville College Library, Wikicommons
Somerville College Library, Wikicommons
Nice and imposing

Busman's Honeymoon, the secondary source

Dorothy L. Sayers, 1893 - 1957

Dorothy L. Sayers, born on 13 June 1893 in Oxford and died on 17 December 1957 in Witham, Essex was an English writer, essayist and translator. Her crime novels, which contain astute, sensitive descriptions of the 1920s and 1930s milieu, have established her reputation as one of the outstanding British Crime Ladies. Her work was largely forgotten at the time of her death. It was first rediscovered in the women's movement of the late 1960s.

Dorothy L. Sayers

Some of the novel's protagonists meet in a scene that serves to explore the closer circumstances of a murder. In this meeting at the Wimseys' rectory and holiday home, this dialogue between Harriet Vane aka Lady Wimsey, Constable, Superintendent and Lord Peter is relaxed:

Not at all. Seeing the Superintendent's eye fix modestly upon a spindly specimen of Edwardian craftsmanship, Peter promptly pushed forward a stout, high-backed chair with gouty arms and legs and an eruption of heavy scroll work about its head. You'll find this about up to your weight, I fancy.

Nice and imposing, said Harriet.

The village constable added his comment:

That's old Noakes's chair, that was.

So, said Peter, Galahad will sit down in Merlin's seat.

Mr. Kirk, on the point of lowering his solid fifteen stone into the chair, jerked up abruptly.

Alfred, said he, Lord Tennyson.

Got it in one, said Peter, mildly surprised. A glow of enthusiasm shone softly in the policeman's ox-like eyes. You're a bit of a student, aren't you, Superintendent?

I like to do a bit o' reading in my off-duty, admitted Mr. Kirk, bashfully. It mellows the mind. He sat down. I often think as the rowtine of police dooty may tend to narrow a man and make him a bit hard, if you take my meaning. When I find that happening, I say to myself, what you need, Sam Kirk, is contact with a Great Mind or so, after supper. Reading maketh a full man——

Conference a ready man, said Harriet.

And writing an exact man, said the Superintendent. Mind that, Joe Sellon, and see you let me have them notes so as they can be read to make sense.

Francis Bacon, said Peter, a trifle belatedly. Mr. Kirk, you're a man after my own heart.

Thank you, my lord. Bacon. You'd call him a Great Mind, wouldn't you? And what's more, he came to be Lord Chancellor of England, so he's a bit in the legal way, too. Ah! well, I suppose we'll have to get down to business.

Quelle: Sayers, Dorothy Leigh, Busman's Honeymoon., Gollancz, London, 1937

The whole quote is:

Francis Bacon

Reading maketh a full man,
Conference a ready man
and writing an exact man.

Quelle: Francis Bacon in Sayers, Dorothy Leigh, Busman's Honeymoon. A Love Story with Detective Interruptions. 1937, Edition used as base for this ebook: London: Gollancz, 1937

Scientific methodology

The holistic researching human

Basically Bacon was concerned with this quotation about a new scientific method. Read first! Then discuss, preferably with peers, and finally write. Steve Draper, University of Glasgow, notes that the higher academic education system is certainly lacking some of these. He writes about the quote in a readable essay:

Steve Draper

Currently it may constitute a relevant and insightful critique of HE where there is far too little discussion by students of ideas. The measure of this is the number of minutes per day a given student is actually speaking about some intellectual idea.(...) If we were to take this as a serious educational rule, then for each course we need to consider an even division in times spent on each of reading, discussing, and writing; and also an equal weight of assessment for each.

Source: Draper, Steve, Reading, discussing, writing, 2013

There is too little talk and discussion of ideas at universities, too little talk about books. Or about the relationship between you. The Parisian professor Pierre Bayard writes in his book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, which of course I haven't read, that it's not so much about reading a book in its entirety, it's more about understanding how the book relates to other books and social ideas. And it would depend very much on these relationships.

Steve Draper

We learn whenever we have to convert our knowledge into a new format (...)

Source: Steve Draper, Reading, discussing, writing, University of Glasgow, 2013

Isn't that exactly what it is? Is it perhaps the reason why I paint, what I paint and how I paint it. My view of the world, my own subjective experience of space, of urban space and urban architecture - I paint it and it transforms my knowledge, my insight into a new way of seeing and thinking.

At least for me, as I write this little essay, I transform the information I read into a new insight, into a data pile of insights that are newly linked. Especially because the new scientific method conjured up by Bacon has a tradition that goes far back to the Romans. What I am missing here now in Bacon's sense, is the discussion with someone about these thoughts and ideas written down here, because then I could transform them in the broader sense of this thinker and philosopher of the 16th and 17th century into something new again, perhaps into a thought that leads further and beyond.


There are of course completely different approaches to reading. We can read a book for fun, out of curiosity, as part of a scientific task, for research reasons. We can also simply, like Bayard, not read a book, but only look at the relationships it has redefined as an entity in a social context. When we read, we definitely take something in, often an emotional connection is made to books because we have discovered something through them. That is the reason why we give these books a special place in our lives. The differentiation of the concept of quality by Robert M. Pirsig, for example, and how wonderfully he manages to solve big problems by solving small tasks, the expansion of imagination and loving language by John Donne - this list could be continued at will.


Discussion has a completely different quality according to Draper. Discussion requires quick thinking, quick and nimble reactions to unexpected questions and objections. Discussion requires flexibility, speed of response and the ability to adapt to the situation and to people. Draper cites evidence that promoting discussion would have improved students' grades. Russian psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (17.11.1896 - 1934) says

Lew Semjonowitsch Wygotski

The reorganization of natural mental functions to higher mental functions with the help of signs happens in a cultural context, namely the communication with other people.

Source: Lew Semjonowitsch Wygotski (1896 - 1934)

Is it not the case that every thin, argumentative cardboard wall quickly collapses when one faces an open discussion? Eloquence does not only mean to swing the linguistic knife sharply, but also to really have a knockable, reflected upper arm muscle and a substantial body that is capable of it. If we are ready for this discussion with open ears and eyes, the talking, the conversation, the discussion will have an effect on a new process within us. From the outer process - the discussion - a new inner process arises in us.


I've always loved writing. With my handwriting it never became anything, after primary school I didn't take the curve correctly to get a beautiful handwriting that can also be written quickly. Soon I realized that I can write faster on keys. So quickly that certain associations developed from writing and they were written down directly, almost like associative surrealist painting.

But that's not the way of writing here. It's about precise, finished writing. This was always difficult for me, and I almost screwed up my diploma. My co-examiner could not, did not want to help me because he did not understand my problems. Scientific writing, scientific, limiting and analytical work - it did not take place for design studies and for me, or not in the way I needed it. My problems consisted in the sum mainly of limitation and order. My inclination to trace every piece of information back to its beginning did not prove to be particularly helpful in the diploma phase.

From a guide to scientific work

Try to avoid large leaps of thought and to draw a recognizable, consistent train of thought through your explanations, which connects the individual chapters in a meaningful way.

Source: Dr. Eva Maria Noack, Barbara Heinrich, Leitfaden zum Konzipieren und Schreiben wissenschaftlicher Arbeiten.

Try to avoid big jumps in thought. Me? Ha! Likewise, I already had a tendency to be distracted by side issues when I was a student. Besides, terms like taxonomy were unknown to me and the systematics were not yet accessible. In contrast to fiction (by Belles Lettres), scientific writing requires accuracy and precision. Was Bacon a scientist? Could Bacon have been a scientist? The scientist Bacon. The English Lord Chancellor Bacon, considered by many to be a scientist. Bacon was never a scientist. Same words, different notions of Bacon as a man. Which one is an exact description for him? Instructions, like the one above, for the correct writing of scientific papers are many, but few on the subject of: How does one write exactly?

Perhaps a topic for future research?

Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England

Francis Bacon

The 1st Viscount of St. Albans (and the last bearer of this title), Baron Verulam Francis Bacon was born on 22 January 1561 at York House in London as the son of Anne Cooke Bacon and the English keeper of the seal Sir Nicolas Bacon, and died on 9 April 1626 at Highgate near London. Francis Bacon was an English philosopher, lawyer, statesman and is considered a pioneer of empiricism. Empiricism is the term used to describe scientific theory approaches according to which knowledge should only be based on true cognition, which is first or only through sensory experience.

Bacon's mother was exceptionally well educated, she was perfect in Latin and Greek, as well as the more recent languages French and Italian. As Francis Bacon was often ailing as a child, he was taught at home until the age of 13. At the age of 40 he took up work for the Queen, served James I. later as Attorney General and in 1618 as Lord Chancellor of England, was promoted to 1st Viscount St. Albans in 1621. Finally his career for the English crown came to an end and he had to resign under accusation of corruption.

His more valuable work was philosophical in nature. Bacon took up Aristotelian ideas and pleaded for an empirical, inductive approach, the so-called scientific method, which forms the basis of modern scientific research. By the end of his life in 1626, he had written a large number of scientific essays, including one on the methodology of science. His 58 essays and essays are still valid today and can be purchased under the title The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall.

Bacon relied on detailed observation of nature and experiments to better understand nature and its laws. In contrast to the scholastics, he believed that human knowledge was constantly increasing and growing.

From one of his above-mentioned essays and essays, namely from the Essay Of Studies, the quotation at the beginning is also taken, embedded in an interesting context:

Francis Bacon

Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments and the meaner sort of books; else distilled books are, like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man; and, therefore, if man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend: Abeunt studia in mores; nay, there is no stand or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies.

Source: Bacon, Francis: The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, 1626

After more than 30 years I discover that this beautiful quote is in a broader context that explains it again and perhaps better.

And this is the context: a person who writes little must have a good memory. If this person does not lecture or discuss much, he must have a present joke. And if this person reads little, then he must be quite cunning not to do so. What a person in the best sense of the Frenchman Pierre Bayard Bacon was: you don't have to have read everything, you just have to be damn cunning so that nobody notices. And one thing leads to another wonderful quote, which one can actually prove:

Francis Bacon

Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend (...)

Source: Francis Bacon: Of studies in Essays (essay 50 of 58), 1625

I am very pleased that I have found this quotation, which has accompanied me for so long, and that I now understand better what Bacon wanted to express with it: If you want to be, or become, a perfect human being, then practice reading, discussing and writing. And this seemed familiar to me even before this essay for another reason.

François Rabelais (anonymous portrait from the 17th century),
François Rabelais (anonymous portrait from the 17th century),
François Rabelais

The Trivium

Research on a different topic, on the concept of Rabelais' earthiness, as a metaphor in the novel Look Homeward, Angel by the American author Thomas Wolfe led me to the French monk, doctor and author François Rabelais (1483/1494 - 1553). This rogue, master of crude wit, the fantastic and grotesque, spent his childhood entirely within the framework of the upper middle classes of his time. Among other things, he was trained in the tradition of the medieval teaching of the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium, the so-called three-way, has summarized the language-related teachings that have been there since the 9th century AD:

  • Grammar: formally correct speaking
  • Dialectics: talking right in terms of content
  • Rhetoric: speaking in a way that is understandable

The trivium formed part of the basic studies at the universities of the high Middle Ages before the so-called free mathematical subjects of the quadrivium.

Grammar is about the formally correct art of speaking, dialectics is about speaking correctly in terms of content, as a subspecies of logic, Isiddor calls it the teaching of how to recognize truth from falsehood and rhetoric is about understandable linguistic expression, Isidor of Seville calls it the science of effective speaking in public affairs.

Sister Miriam Joseph Rauh

Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thoughts; logic is the art of thinking; and rhetoric is the art of conveying thoughts from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstances.

Source: Sister Miriam Joseph Rauh, C.S.C., PhD (1898–1982)

Personally, I would like to see here a connection between the tripartite nature of the medieval trivium and the tripartite nature of Francis Bacon's quotation. Whether this context exists, I cannot prove, nor is it known whether Bacon encountered the trivium in his education at home or later at Trinity College, Cambridge. Perhaps the quotation and the Trivium are in the tradition of the same accord, as a human being to follow the realization that only reading, speaking and writing make up the completed, the whole, the finished and exact human being.


The word trivial comes from the term trivium. The studies of trivium were considered trivial in comparison to the higher courses of study.


tl, dr;

The quotation Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. goes back to the English Lord Chancellor and philosopher Francis Bacon. It is about a holistic scientific methodology, which in certain circumstances goes back to the Greeks.

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