Bacon’s compact, laconic style suggests the kinship between the word ‘essay’ and the mineralogist’s ‘assay’; for the handful of carefully-washed words which come out in one of Bacon’s Essays puts one in mind of the prospector sluicing away the grit until a few clear specks of gold are left in the bottom of his pan.
(W. E. Williams, Introduction)
Lamb, again, is the sharpest possible contrast to Hazlitt. His themes call for no precise terms of definitions, not even logic. Lamb is involved always in a mood rather than a topic, and what he writes is a kind of ode in prose. His ‘subject’ is a pretext rather than an assignment. It moves him as a wind flutters the thousand bits of glass which hang from the ridges of a Japanese temple; it sets him off on an excursion as liable to land him into the fanciful as anywhere else. Yet anyone who examines an Essay of Lamb’s will see that he is no mere bubble-blower. His fancy and his responsiveness to moods are disciplined into a pattern of progress and development.
(W. E. Williams, Introduction)
To spend too much time in studies, is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humour of a scholar: they perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. 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.
(Francis Bacon, "Of Studies")
When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow: when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.
(Joseph Addison, "The Tombs in Westminster Abbey")
"Then, do you remember our pleasant walks to Enfield, and Potter's Bar, and Waltham, when we had a holyday -- holydays, and all other fun, are gone, now we are rich -- and the little hand-basket in which I used to deposit our day's fare of savory cold lamb and salad -- and how you would pry about at noon-tide for some decent house, where we might go in, and produce our store -- only paying for the ale that you must call for -- and speculate upon the looks of the landlady, and whether she was likely to allow us a table-cloth -- and wish for such another honest hostess, as Izaak Walton has described many a one on the pleasant banks of the Lea, when he went a fishing -- and sometimes they would prove obliging enough, and sometimes they would look grudgingly upon us -- but we had cheerful looks still for one another, and would eat our plain food savorily, scarcely grudging Piscator his Trout Hall? Now, when we go out a days pleasuring, which is seldom moreover, we ride part of the way -- and go into a fine inn, and order the best of dinners, never debating the expense -- which, after all, never has half the relish of those chance country snaps, when we were at the mercy of uncertain usage, and a precarious welcome. (Charles Lamb, "Old china")
Shakespeare's was evidently an uneducated mind, both in the freshness of his imagination and in the variety of his views; as Milton's was scholastic in the texture both of his thoughts and feelings. Shakespeare had not been accustomed to write themes at school in favour of virtue or against vice. To this we owe the unaffected but healthy tone of his dramatic morality. If we wish to know the force of human genius we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning we may only study his commentators. (William Hazlitt, "On the Ignorance of the Learned")
It is as easy to write a gaudy style without ideas as it is to spread a pallet of showy colours or to smear in a flaunting transparency. ‘What do you read?’ – ‘Words, words, words.’ – ‘What is the matter?’ – ‘Nothing’, it might be answered. The florid style is the reverse of the familiar. The last is employed as an unvarnished medium to convey ideas; the first is resorted to as a spangled veil to conceal the want of them. When there is nothing to be set down but words, it costs little to have them fine. (William Hazlitt, "On Familiar Style")
Yet still one dreams of a prose that has never yet been written in English, though the language is made for it and there are minds not incapable of it, a prose dealing with the greatest things quietly and justly as men deal with them in their secret meditations, seeming perhaps to wander, but always advancing in an unbroken sequence of thought, with a controlled ardour of discovery and the natural beauties of a religious mind. Johnson might have written it, if he had had a stronger sense of beauty and more faith in the flights of reason; Newman if he had been a greater master of words and less afraid of his own questioning; Henry James if he had exercised his subtlety on larger things. But the best of our prose writers, living or dead, are not civilized enough, or too much in love with something else, or not enough in love with anything, to write the prose we dream of. The English Plato is still to be. (Arthur Clutton-Brock, "The Defects of English Prose")
When the world is normally cheerful and comfortable, we hold the paradoxical belief that philosophers were wise men, but that we should be fools to imitate them. We are convinced that, while philosophers are worth reading, material things are worth bothering about. It is as though we enjoyed wisdom as a spectacle – a delightful spectacle on a stage which it would be unseemly for the audience to attempt to invade. Were the Greeks and the Romans made differently? Did the admirers of Socrates and Epictetus really attempt to become philosophers, or were they like ourselves, hopeful of achieving wisdom, not by practice but through a magic potion administered by a wiser man than they? To become wise without effort – by listening to a voice, by reading a book – is at once the most exciting and the most soothing of dreams. In such a dream I took down Epictetus. And, behold, it was only a dream. (Robert Lynd, "On Not Being a Philosopher")