The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. The Beginnings of English Philosophy

§ 9. Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was the younger of the two sons of Sir Nicholas Bacon, lord keeper of the great seal, by his second wife Anne, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke and sister-in-law of lord Burghley. He was born at York house, London, on 22 January, 1561. In April, 1573, he was sent, along with his brother Anthony, to Trinity college, Cambridge, where he remained (except for an absence of about six months when the plague raged there) till Christmas, 1575. Of his studies in Cambridge, we know little or nothing; and it would be easy to lay too great stress on the statement long afterwards made to Rawley, his first biographer, that, before he left the university, he “fell into the dislike of the philosophy of Aristotle; not for the worthlessness of the author, to whom he would ever ascribe all high attributes, but for the unfruitfulness of the way.” In 1576, he was sent by his father to France with Sir Amyas Paulet, the ambassador, and in his suite he remained until recalled home by Sir Nicholas’s sudden death in February, 1579. This event had an unfortunate effect upon his career. A sum of money which his father had set apart to purchase an estate for him had not been invested and he inherited a fifth Part of it only. He had, therefore, to look to the bar for an income and to the grudging favour of the Cecils for promotion. He was called to the bar in 1582, and entered parliament in 1584: sitting in each successive House of Commons until he became lord keeper. But office was long in coming to him. The queen had been affronted by an early speech of his in parliament in which he had criticised the proposals of the court; and the Cecils always proved more kin than kind. The objects which he sought were never unworthy nor beyond his merits; but he sought them in ways not always dignified. He pleaded his cause in many letters to Burghley and Salisbury and Buckingham; and the style of his supplications can hardly be accounted for altogether by the epistolary manners of the period. In 1589, Burghley got him the reversion of an office in the Star chamber, worth about £1600 a year; but to this he did not succeed till 1608. From about 1597, he had come to be employed regularly as one of the queen’s learned counsel. In 1604, he was made one of his ordinary counsel by king James, with a salary of £40; and this, Bacon reckoned as his first preferment. He was made solicitor-general in 1607, attorney-general in 1613, privy councillor in 1616, lord keeper in 1617, lord-chancellor in 1618. He was knighted in 1603, but, to his chagrin, along with a crowd of three hundred others; he was created baron Verulam in 1618, and viscount St. Albans in 1621. A few weeks later, charges of having received bribes from suitors in his court were brought against him in the newly-summoned House of Commons; these were remitted to the House of Lords for trial; he was convicted on his own confession, and sentenced to deprivation of all his offices, to imprisonment in the tower during the king’s pleasure, to a fine of £40,000, to exclusion from the verge of the court and to incapacity from sitting in parliament. The imprisonment lasted a few days only; the fine was made over to trustees for Bacon’s benefit; the exclusion from the verge was soon removed; but, in spite of many entreaties, he was never allowed to sit in parliament again.

In the midst of the legal and political work which crowded these years, Bacon never lost sight of his larger ambitions. He published the first edition of his Essays in 1597, the second (enlarged) edition appearing in 1612 and the third (completed) edition in 1625. The Advancement of Learning was published in 1605, addressed to king James, De Sapientia Veterum in 1609, Novum Organum in 1620. After his disgrace, he lived at Gorhambury, the paternal estate to which he had succeeded on the death of his brother Anthony in 1601, and there he devoted himself to writing. The History of Henry VII appeared in 1622, and De Augmentis Scientiarum in 1623; the New Atlantis was written in 1624; at his death, he was at work on Sylva Sylvarum, and he left behind him many sketches and detached portions of his great but incomplete design. Bacon had been married in 1616 to Alice Barnham, the daughter of an alderman. He died on 9 April, 1626, from the effects of a chill caught by moving out of his carriage in order to try an experiment on the antiseptic properties of snow.

Bacon’s plan for the renewal of the sciences was never fully elaborated by himself, and it has never been deliberately followed by others. In his personal career, too, there are some events that still remain obscure. But material is not lacking for forming a judgment on his philosophy and on his life. We cannot expect to remove either from the range of controversy. But the life-long devotion of Spedding may be said with confidence to have made one thing clear. Pope’s famous epigram—“the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind”—and the brilliant elaboration of the same in Macaulay’s essay are false, and cannot be made to fit the facts. We can understand Bacon aright only if we do not assume any such absurd antithesis, but remember that life and philosophy are revelations of the same mind, and allow for one shedding light on the other. It is on this account that it is necessary to attempt an estimate of Bacon’s character and to touch upon the disputed events in his career, although the questions cannot be discussed at length, and little more can be done than to indicate results.

In a fragment written about 1603, and, apparently, intended as a preface to his great work, Bacon set forth the ambitions which guided his life; and there is no reason for doubting the substantial accuracy of his account. Believing (he begins) that he was born for the service of mankind, he set himself to consider for what service nature had fitted him best. He saw that the good effects wrought by practical statesmen

  • extend over narrow spaces and last but for short times; whereas the work of the Inventor, though a thing of less pomp and shew, is felt everywhere and lasts for ever.
  • And for this end he thought nature had destined him.
  • I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things (which is the chief point), and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture. So I thought my nature had a kind of familiarity and relationship with Truth.
  • His first object, therefore, was the knowledge that would extend and establish the empire of man over nature. But birth and education had introduced him to the service of the state; and “a man’s own country has some special claims upon him.” For these reasons, he sought civil employment: the service of the state may be said to have been his second object in life. Finally, he adds:
  • I was not without hope (the condition of Religion being at that time not very prosperous) that if I came to hold office in the state, I might get something done too for the good of men’s souls.
  • According to Bacon’s own account, therefore, the service of mankind to which he held himself born was to be carried out by devotion to three objects: the discovery of truth, the welfare of his country and the reform of religion. And of these three objects the first always held the highest place in his thoughts. “I confess” he wrote to Burghley about 1592, “that I have as vast contemplative ends as I have moderate civil ends: for I have taken all knowledge to be my province.”

    This greatness of design was characteristic of the mind of the period as well as of Bacon personally. But it was accompanied by inadequate preparation in the methods and principles of the exact sciences as understood at the time, and often by an imperfect grasp of details. If the latter defect may be traced in his intellectual work, it is still more apparent in his practical activity. It is not fanciful to connect with this characteristic some of the actions for which he has been most censured. Throughout his career he was never free from financial difficulties; and, when he had obtained high preferment, he maintained a magnificent style of living without exercising any effective control over the expenditure of his household. When the charge of taking bribes was made against him he was much surprised, but he had no defence. It may be true, as he asserted, that he never allowed a present from a suitor to influence his decision; nor do any of his judgments appear to have been reversed on this ground. It may be true, also, that Bacon only followed the custom of his time; though, on this point, it is difficult to get evidence. But he himself saw the impropriety of a judge being “twice paid”—to quote the mild term of censure used in his New Atlantis. And he took no care to guard against the impropriety in his own conduct. In the main, he was probably a just, as well as an efficient, judge. But he was too tenacious of his office as he had been too eager to obtain it; and it is hardly possible to resist the evidence for the conclusion that, on one occasion at least, he allowed the court favourite Buckingham to influence his decision. In another matter—that of the trial of the earl of Essex—Bacon’s conduct has been unjustly blamed. The benefits which he had received at the hands of Essex would not have been a sufficient reason for his standing aside when the need arose for his taking part in the prosecution. The rebellion of Essex had been a real danger to the state and not merely an explosion of bad temper. It was essential that the prosecution should not fail through the case being badly presented; and Bacon’s intervention was not merely excusable: it was his duty to safeguard the interests of the state, and to subordinate to them the claims of private friendship and gratitude in spite of the tragedy of the personal situation. At the same time, it has to be said that the record of the trial does not suggest that he felt the tragedy. Judging from the manner in which he pressed home the charge, the personal factor seems to have touched him but slightly. And this, perhaps, is characteristic. He was capable of high enthusiasm for ideas and for causes. His philosophical works are inspired by the former; and his writings on public affairs show a spirit of devotion to the common weal as well as political wisdom. But, on the side of personal sentiment, his nature seems to have been not easily stirred to the love or hate which unite and divide mankind.