1625 | London

Hostage Situation

Francis Bacon compares marriage with the single life.

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly the best works—and of greatest merit for the public—have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men, which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public.

Yet it were great reason that those that have children should have greatest care of future times, unto which they know they must transmit their dearest pledges. Some there are, who though they lead a single life, yet their thoughts do end with themselves and account future times impertinences. Nay, there are some other that account wife and children but as bills of charges. Nay more, there are some foolish, rich, covetous men that take a pride in having no children, because they may be thought so much the richer. For perhaps they have heard some talk, “Such an one is a great rich man,” and another except to it, “Yea, but he hath a great charge of children,” as if it were an abatement to his riches. But the most ordinary cause of a single life is liberty, especially in certain self-pleasing and humorous minds, which are so sensible of every restraint, as they will go near to think their girdles and garters to be bonds and shackles.

Unmarried men are best friends, best masters, best servants but not always best subjects, for they are light to run away; and almost all fugitives are of that condition. A single life doth well with churchmen, for charity will hardly water the ground where it must first fill a pool. It is indifferent for judges and magistrates, for if they be facile and corrupt, you shall have a servant five times worse than a wife. For soldiers, I find the generals commonly in their hortatives put men in mind of their wives and children, and I think the despising of marriage among the Turks maketh the vulgar soldier more base. Certainly wife and children are a kind of discipline of humanity; and single men, though they may be many times more charitable because their means are less exhausted, yet on the other side, they are more cruel and hardhearted (good to make severe inquisitors) because their tenderness is not so oft called upon. Grave natures, led by custom, and therefore constant, are commonly loving husbands; as was said of Ulysses, “He preferred his old wife to immortality.” Chaste women are often proud and forward, as presuming upon the merit of their chastity. It is one of the best bonds both of chastity and obedience in the wife, if she think her husband wise, which she will never do if she find him jealous. Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses. So as a man may have a quarrel to marry when he will. But yet he was reputed one of the wise men that made answer to the question when a man should marry: “A young man not yet, an elder man not at all.” It is often seen that bad husbands have very good wives, whether it be that it raiseth the price of their husband’s kindness when it comes—or that the wives take a pride in their patience. But this never fails if the bad husbands were of their own choosing, against their friends’ consent, for then they will be sure to make good their own folly.


Audio brought to you by Curio, a Lapham’s Quarterly partner

Portrait of Francis Bacon in sixteenth-century armor.

Francis Bacon

“Of Marriage and Single Life.” One of three hundred men knighted by King James I in 1603, Bacon three years later at the age of forty-five married a fourteen-year-old girl named Alice Barnham, whom he considered a “handsome maiden to my liking.” Although there were no known marital scandals, he later excised her from his will, citing “great and just causes.” Bacon published “The Wisdom of the Ancients” in 1609, was named attorney general in 1613, and became Lord Chancellor in 1618.