Francis Bacon – Literary Life and Works

Author Feature: Francis Bacon

Men like Drayton, Hooker, Jonson, already wear their learning with a certain accustomed and substantial grace characteristic of the new time. But the most conspicuous example in literature of this expanding learning is Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, Viscount St. Albans.

This prodigy, born in 1561 of a family associated with the Court, was from twelve to fourteen a student at Cambridge, at fifteen a professional student of law, at twenty-three in Parliament, at twenty-four gravely giving Queen and statesmen advice far beyond their times, lord chancellor at fifty-seven, for thirty years the wisest statesman of his time, and most enlightened adviser to Elizabeth and James, only to die in aged disgrace, the victim of less able enemies, in 1626. A major prophet in politics, he was also knowingly the seer for science and modern philosophy, who planned and partly wrote out a program for a new and more reliable search for truth, not only of science but truth throughout the province of the human mind.

Back in his student days, he had been disgusted with the calm traditional acceptance of “principles” from Aristotle and other ancientry, without putting them to the test of the facts of life and Nature. Let us, therefore, he said, appeal to the facts, searching them anew, organizing them by a new sensible method, freed from the old prejudices and errors of procedure, so that they will lead inductively to new principles and facts hitherto unknown and undreamed of. The laying down of this inductive method has won for Bacon the frequent title of “the father of modern experimental science.” Surely he is its greatest prophet.

Bacon planned to embody his program in a vast work called The Great Instauration in six parts. His  Advancement of Learning written in English, and the Novum Organum in Latin, make up Parts 1 and 2, the only parts completed. But they contain all of Bacon’s essential quality. He disposes of the old habits of error of the human mind, divides the vast province of human knowledge, suggests the inductive method· But let the modern reader turn these pages casually for their pungent common sense, the electric energy which leaps again and again from the aphorisms charged with that mighty mind, the wealth of pat comparisons, the vigour and latent poetry of his images.

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.. . It is my intention to make the circuit of knowledge, noticing what parts lie waste and uncultivated, and abandoned by the industry of man, with a view to engage, by a faithful mapping out of the deserted tracks, the energies of public and private persons in their improvement… My hope, however, is, that, if the extreme love of my subject carries me too far, I may at least obtain the excuse of affection. It is not granted to man to love and be wise.[Advancement, 2.1]

With quick and final strokes he demolishes what he calls the idols of the tribe, of the den, of the market, and of the theatre –that is the fallacies or errors which we might call social, personal, of common words, and of preconceived theory. At the end of these few expert pages, the ground looks pretty well cleared for the new and more durable building.

This prodigy of mind was sincerely devoted to his country’s best interests, and indeed the best interests of all mankind. His ultimate services can hardly be matched. Yet all his life he was condemned by fate to give advice so shrewd, discerning, and wise, that no one could be induced to follow it, neither Elizabeth, nor his charming young friend, the Earl of Essex, nor narrow-minded James, nor Charles. Had the kings listened to his interpretations of events, his warnings, his pointing of the way, there need have been no war between King and Parliament, Cavalier and Puritan, and the liberties purchased at such cost might well have been had as soon or sooner. Yet of these liberties Bacon had no vision. He put his faith rather in a wise, strong, and efficient monarchy.

But this marvel of intellect seems curiously devoid of some personal quality–charm, the personal instinct which is the medium of unspoken intimations between man and man; and it may be this defect which makes so great and disinterested a man seem strangely immoral, or unmoral. The technique of his world included simulation, flattery, risk of disloyalty, subtle dishonesties, and he conformed to this technique in a manner which a man of his distinction could not afford, whatever we may expect of grosser men. The acts of venality for which he was deposed from the chancellorship and disgraced were not acts of corrupt motive, but they were certainly careless–for one so eminent as Bacon.

Bacon was a busy man of affairs, and one wonders where he got all the time necessary for his scientific and literary work. Among his many-sided works is his historical biography of Henry VII, the basis of most subsequent conceptions of that king and his times. A more imaginative work is the New Atlantis, probably written, as it happens, early in the migrations to New England. It is an incomplete sketch, in the manner of Utopia and many another ideal commonwealth. Plato’s lost Atlantis, Bacon avers, is America, and the New Atlantis a wonderful island in the Pacific where the people were all wise and good. The “Lanthorne of this Kingdome,” and the noblest foundation on earth, was a college or society, called Solomon’s House, and “dedicated to the Study of the Works and Creatures of God.” It is thought to have prompted the “college of philosophy” in 1645, which grew after 1660 into the Royal Society; and it is known to have inspired scientific societies on the Continent.

But of all his works the one which has come nearest to winning men’s hearts is the little book of fifty-eight brief essays on a wide variety of topics–marriage, love, high position or great place, friendship, gardens, reading, honour, and “The Vicissitude of Things.” They are as it were the easy overflow of that abundant and prolific mind. We have the great man of the world to ourselves in a comfortable corner by the fire, and he is talking casually of his observation of men. He speaks no longer in the swelling and ornate rhetoric of the Elizabethans, but in the new prose of short sentences, which looks impromptu, and which has been called “baroque.” Each sentence falls softly but distinctly upon the ear, in Bacon’s natural grave subdued tone, charged with wit and wisdom; and each sentence seems like a precious new find which one must keep safely somewhere within reach at a moment’s practical need. The essays make a book to read a bit at a time, lay down and take up again, pondering its weight, delighting in the man’s rich collection of wisdom and anecdote from others, the brilliance of his own remark, the grave and measured music of the cadences, which grow the sweeter the more familiar they become. Speaking of conversation,

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The most honourable part of talk is to give the occasion, and again to moderate and pass to somewhat else; for then a man leads the dance.

Speech of a man’s self ought to be seldom, and well-chosen. I knew one was wont to say in scorn: “He must needs be a wise man, he speaks so much of himself.”

Or of Riches:

I cannot call Riches better than the baggage of virtue. The Roman word is better, impedimenta. For as baggage is to an army, so is Riches to virtue. It cannot be spared, nor left behind, but it hindereth the march; yea, and the care of it, sometimes, loseth or disturbeth the victory. Of great Riches there is no real use, except it be in the distribution; the rest is but conceit [imagination].

Charles Grosvenor Osgood, The Voice of England, 2nd Ed., 1935, 1952 Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York.