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In “Of Studies,” Francis Bacon writes, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. . . .” This is a book to be chewed and digested, and these essays make as satisfying a meal today as when the first edition was published in 1597. Indeed, the present-day reader is amply rewarded for the effort of taking in the old fashioned English and peeking at the back of the volume for translations of the Latin quotations sprinkled liberally throughout. Most of Bacon’s Essays are as relevant as ever; others offer windows into a social order now gone but somehow familiar from its influence on our own. This is a book of moral instruction, a book that distills the wisdom of European civilization, and a book that reminds us that people are people, no matter when they lived. All of this is wrapped in prose showing flashes of brilliance lit by an authorial voice that is authoritative and often kind.
Francis Bacon was an English lawyer, statesman, and philosopher, and one of the most influential thinkers of Western civilization. Living from 1561 to 1626, Bacon contributed to the rise of the modern era by rejecting the traditional reliance on old systems and schools of thought. Like his contemporary Descartes, he wanted to put the individual thinker in the center of the effort to understand the world. Unlike Descartes, Bacon emphasized observation and experience over analysis of concepts and contemplation of ideas. Also unlike Descartes, Bacon separated our knowledge of the natural world from our knowledge of religious truths. Bacon conceived of the Essays as conveying ideas of a piece with his more technical writings,[i] but in a manner that “come[s] home, to Mens Businesse, and Bosomes.”
Francis Bacon was born to Sir Nicholas Bacon and his second wife, Anne Cooke, in 1561. Francis had an older brother named Anthony, as well as several half siblings born to Sir Nicholas’ first wife. The family was not among the most well established in England, but Bacon’s father was an important lawyer. Under Queen Elizabeth, Sir Nicholas became England’s highest judge, with the title Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.
Young Bacon was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, when he was twelve. At Cambridge, he was introduced to the Aristotelian tradition of academic thinking, which he detested.[ii] In 1576, Bacon was admitted for legal studies at Gray’s Inn, an institution where his father was a prominent figure. But rather than begin the formal study of law right away, he spent nearly three years in the party of Sir Amias Paulet, England’s ambassador to France.
Upon learning of his father’s death in 1579, Bacon returned to England. Sir Nicholas’ death was a turning point for Bacon, and historians generally agree that Bacon’s life would have been quite different if Sir Nicholas had taken pains to make better provisions for Francis in his will.[iii] As it was, Bacon was left with a very modest income for someone of his position and aspirations, so that he was necessarily concerned with his place in English society and his relationships with individuals of means. This may explain the difficulty Bacon had balancing his dual life as a politician and lawyer, on the one hand, and as a philosopher, on the other.[iv]
Bacon was admitted to the bar in 1582. He became close associates with Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex, who took on the role of promoting Bacon’s fortunes in Queen Elizabeth’s government. Essex was not the best person for this job, as his arrogance and irascibility often put him on bad terms with the Queen. Worse still, Essex’s temper and pride led him to act so badly as to warrant a charge of high treason. The Queen assigned Bacon the task of prosecuting his friend and patron, and, after Essex had been convicted and executed, required that Bacon compose an official declaration of Essex’s guilt.
More success was achieved when James ascended the throne—at least for a while. Bacon was knighted in 1603 and appointed a King’s Counsel, and his power and income rose quickly. In 1617, he attained his father’s position of Keeper of the Great Seal. In January 1618, he was promoted still further to become Lord Chancellor of England. That summer he was made a peer with the title Lord Verulam.
Bacon’s luck ran out in 1621 when Parliament turned its attention to the practice of litigants giving “gifts” to judges. Bacon pled guilty, and was sentenced to a fine and imprisonment. He was also barred from holding certain public positions, such as a seat in Parliament. Although his sentence was enforced only lightly, this turn of events left the aging Bacon once again in a situation of relative poverty and reliance on others.
Bacon’s major philosophical works were published during the reign of King James I. They include The Advancement of Learning (1605), which was revised and expanded into a Latin version titled De Augmentis Scientiarum, and the Novum Organum (1620). The Novum Organum was combined with other works to form what Bacon called The Great Instauraton.
Tradition holds that Bacon contracted his fatal illness while experimenting on preservation of flesh by cold. As Bertrand Russell puts it, “. . . he died of a chill caught while experimenting on refrigeration by stuffing a chicken full of snow.”[v] Francis Bacon died 9 April 1626, his reputation and social status un-restored.
Bacon’s era was characterized by challenges to authority and hierarchy in religion, philosophy, and politics. But the sands in these three related arenas did not shift quite in tandem. The Protestant Reformation, which is said to have started in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, challenged the authority of the pope and thereby the hierarchy of access to religious truth. In philosophy, Bacon, along with some of his contemporaries, challenged the authority of the long-dominant Aristotelian schools of thought. We can see the political analog of these changes in the temporary abolition of the monarchy following the English civil wars of the mid-1600s, and, later, in the French and American revolutions. Bacon himself rejected the authority of tradition in philosophy while embracing the authority of the nobility in English society and politics.
Bacon’s break from the authority of Aristotelianism was based on objections to that tradition’s conceptions of knowledge, as well as a general aversion to accepting claims as axiomatic simply because they appear in respected texts. Tradition does not make good grounds for truth:
It is idle to expect any great advancement in science from the superinducing and engrafting of new things upon old. We must begin anew from the very foundations, unless we would revolve for ever in a circle with mean and contemptible progress.[vi]
On the other hand, as we can see from his frequent use of quotations from classical sources, Bacon in no way abandoned old wisdom. Instead, he adopted an “eclecticism,”[vii] which was cautiously respectful of a plurality of sources:
Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.[viii]
The source of a claim is not as important as what we do with it.
Historian of philosophy Stephen Gaukroger explains Bacon’s eclecticism as reflecting a sensibility according to which rejecting an author or system out of hand would be ungentlemanly. Bacon disdained the usual adversarial approaches to academic discourse as mere verbal disputation, as aimed at winning rather than at truth, and as ungracious.[ix] In the England of Bacon’s time, the status of gentleman, with the associated manners and expectation of high character, was a sign of trustworthiness in all things, including science (“natural philosophy”): “Gentility was a massively powerful instrument in the recognition, constitution, and protection of truth.”[x] The gentleman is free to be honest because he is free from the petty worries of losing money by losing the favor of one who might want the truth hidden. The Essays provide clear examples of Bacon’s own gentlemanly approach to knowledge even as they offer instruction as to how the reader might become more gentlemanly.
In traditional philosophy, the model of scientific knowledge—what Aristotle called episteme—was the conclusion of a logically valid syllogistic argument from first principles, where first principles are known with certainty and are independent of observation. In his Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written around 1628), Descartes embraced a similar model, using the word scientia with somewhat the same sense as Aristotle’s episteme. Leibniz also had a logic-oriented notion of knowledge based on analysis of concepts. These theories of knowledge can be characterized as deductive due to their reliance on arguments that allow strict logical validity and necessity based on concepts and definitions. By contrast, Bacon’s model of proper investigation emphasized drawing judicious generalizations from careful observation—an inductive method.
Of first importance in this method is avoiding the “Idols that beset men’s minds”—the tendencies and influences that draw the mind away from truth. Having collected a store of legitimate observations, the investigator may begin to build generalizations, taking care not to over-generalize or to posit unobserved connecting causes:
There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immoveable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.[xi]
Bacon’s principal intellectual legacy is his promotion of this inductive method—our ideal of scientific enquiry.
Despite lasting disputes concerning Bacon’s character (for instance, whether he showed disloyalty in his prosecution of Essex), no one disputes the fact that Bacon’s writings had an enormous impact on the rise of modern science. Indeed, the inductive method laid down by Bacon—and refined through the generations—simply is the core of science as we know it. And while other thinkers of the time (e.g., Galileo) were engaged in observation and induction, Bacon’s works became the voice of this new approach to learning.
While it is common today to picture Isaac Newton as a singular beacon of science at the dawn of the modern era, Bacon was very much Newton’s equal in the eyes of many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers. For instance, Thomas Jefferson commissioned portraits of Bacon, Newton, and John Locke—the three “great minds.” David Hume even compared Bacon to the ancient philosopher Thales of Miletus. Thales is considered the very first philosopher, a thinker who put Greek thought on an entirely new track by attempting to explain the world through physical causes rather than myth. Hume suggests that Bacon did the same for England and the modern world in general. Bacon’s influence was in no way limited to the English-speaking world, however. The twelfth of Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques is devoted entirely to Bacon; Denis Diderot’s work owes a great debt to Bacon, as well.[xii]
As one keen observer of intellectual history put it: “. . . the unwary reader of Bacon will hardly avoid according to him the kind of response which became stereotyped in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: ‘How true’, he will find himself feeling, ‘how profoundly true!’”[xiii] Based on this characteristic, some scholars categorize the Essays in the genre of “commonplace books.”[xiv] Commonplace books are notebooks, published or private, containing useful or memorable quotations and observations. Bacon himself remarked on the usefulness of commonplaces, although he complains that many merely reflect a school of thought rather than reflecting the true nature of things.
The Essays were tremendously popular when they were first published, and pirated editions circulated. Bacon prepared new editions in which the pieces were rearranged and additional essays added. A second edition was published in 1612; a third edition, expanded still further, appeared in 1625. The Essays deal with human subjects—manners, character, relationships—by drawing on observation, useful quotations and analogies to the physical world. The idea that we can draw analogies between nature and human beings is particularly fertile here. For instance, in “Of Great Place” we find the observation that “. . . as in nature things move violently to their place, and calmly in their place, so virtue in ambition is violent, in authority settled and calm.”
The essay “Of Friendship” is a particularly rich offering in this vein. Here Bacon prescribes friendship as medicine for the heart by drawing analogies to curatives for other organs:
We know diseases of stoppings and suffocations are the most dangerous in the body; and it is not much otherwise in the mind; you may take sarza to open the liver, steel to open the spleen, flower of sulphur for the lungs, castorem for the brain; but no receipt openeth the heart but a true friend. . . .
On reading this, we might begin to believe, with the American essayist Christopher Morley, that books themselves can be our friends. In Bacon’s Essays you will find a long and worthwhile relationship.
Kenneth A. Richman is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Health Care Ethics at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He is co-editor of The New Hume Debate (Routledge, 2000) and author of Ethics and the Metaphysics of Medicine (MIT Press, 2004).
[i] Green, A. Wigfall. Sir Francis Bacon (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966), p. 76.
[ii] Smeaton, Oliphant. Introd. to In “Essays,” by Francis Bacon. (New York: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1906), pp. x–xi.
[iii] Smeaton, p. 19; Jardine, Lisa, and Alan Stewart. Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), p. 67.
[iv] Zagorin, Perez. Francis Bacon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 3–4.
[v] Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945), p. 542.
[vi] Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum. 1620. Ed. Robert Leslie Ellis and James Spedding. London: Routledge, No date, Book I, §31, 52.
[vii] Gaukroger, Stephen. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 31.
[viii] “Of Studies.”
[ix] Gaukroger, pp. 9–11.
[x] Shapin, Steven. A Social History of Truth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 42.
[xi] Novum Organum, Book I, §19, 50.
[xii] Vickers, Brian. “Bacon, Francis.” In “The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment.” Eds. John W. Yolton, Roy Porter, Pat Rogers, and Barbara Maria Stafford. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 51.
[xiii] Willey, Basil. The Seventeenth Century Background: Studies in the Thought of the Age in Relation to Poetry and Religion (London: Chatto and Windus, 1949), p. 24.
[xiv] Gaukroger, p. 32; Blair, Ann. “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book.” Journal of the History of Ideas 53 (4 Oct. –Dec. 1992): 542.