Sir Francis Bacon was a prolific writer as well as a philosopher, and he practised that central creed of a writer’s bible – he kept notebooks all of his life and jotted down everything, random thoughts and quotations, witticisms and wordplay – his main focus was that of human nature. No doubt, these helped to inform the fifty-eight essays he published, and his philosophical stance was “objectivity.”
He was also a great scholar and he knew his law, his science, his natural history and his Latin – but none of this prevented him from being thrown into the Tower of London for alleged wrongdoing.
Bacon: A Cynic and a Realist
Francis Bacon was born in London, in York House in The Strand, and he was the younger son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal for Elizabeth I. Francis Bacon received his education at Trinity College, Cambridge, and went on to practise law.
During his lifetime, Bacon achieved high-ranking political positions. He became Solicitor-General in 1607, Attorney-General in 1613, Lord Keeper of the Seal in 1617 and, finally Lord Chancellor in 1618, after which he fell victim to the charges of corruption.
In his book, Francis Bacon (1561-1626, Our Greatest Writers, John Carrington describes Bacon as being both a cynic and a realist. Carrington quotes some worldly-wise statements from the essays:
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In his essay, “Of Adversity,” Bacon says:
“Virtue is like precious odours, most fragrant when they are incensed or crushed.”
In “On Envy” he says:
“For he that cannot possibly mend his own case will do what he can to impair another.”
These are challenging observations, and it is possible to discern from them uncomfortable truths about human nature.
Bacon also has some more optimistic sayings to help us live our lives in the most constructive way, as we see in his essay “Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature.” He says:
“The parts and signs of goodness are many. If a man be gracious to strangers, it shews he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them.”
Knowledge is Power, but Beware of Spiders and Ants!
Francis Bacon was, in a sense, a breath of fresh air for philosophy and a pioneer for a new system which discarded two major schools of thought at that time. Firstly, he regarded the rationalists as flawed because they believed that language, the meaning and content of words, were the path to knowledge. In “Sir Francis Bacon,” Jeremy Harwood quotes Bacon’s description of the rationalist who were, he claimed: “spiders which make cobwebs out of their own substance.”
Secondly, he had no approving words for Aristotelians, who, he believed, “ran around like ants to amass raw data.” The trouble was, they had no meaningful way of interpreting that information.
He encouraged proving a hypothesis through the means of experiment, but he also advocated not being afraid to disprove such a hypothesis. A negative result could be as useful as a positive one.
Jeremy Harwood in “Sir Francis Bacon” explains: “If a definition is correct, it cannot contain any negative instances. Therefore, a negative result is the only way of knowing for certain that an assumption is false.”
A Revolution in Thinking
Francis Bacon advocated the inductive method of thinking. This is a method that moves from the particular to the general, which is the opposite of “deduction.” Deduction is when the conclusion of an argument follows logically from the initial premise. In other words, it moves from the general to the particular.
It cannot be certain that induction will lead to a true result. According to Jeremy Harwood, “Some philosophers, (notably David Hume and Karl Popper) have questioned whether it should be classed as a genuinely logical process, or as a psychological one.”
Francis Bacon showed strong faith in his new, revolutionary method, declaring that he would analyse and experiment, and that inevitable exclusions and rejections would ultimately lead him to a conclusion.
“He believed that science,” says Harwood, “if properly understood, offered humanity its best possibility of understanding the natural world and, by so doing, becoming master of it.”
Bacon was the ultimate Philosopher of Science, always maintaining that truth could not be reached through mere argument, and that only his new, revolutionary scientific method could advance scientific knowledge and truth.
Francis Bacon is Thrown in the Tower of London
The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’s article “Francis Bacon,” says:
“In 1621, however, Bacon, after being created Viscount of St. Alban, was impeached by Parliament for corruption. He fell victim to an intrigue in Parliament because he had argued against the abuse of monopolies, indirectly attacking his friend, the Duke of Buckingham who was the king’s favourite. In order to protect Buckingham the king sacrificed Bacon whose enemies had accused him of taking bribes in connection with his position as a judge.”
John Carrington, in Our Greatest Writers, explains that “Bacon admitted it” and left it at that, but the Encylopedia of Philosophy seems to imply that, in truth, he could “see no way out and declared himself guilty.”
As a result of this unsavoury incident, Francis Bacon was, says Jeremy Harwood, “fined, imprisoned and banished from the Royal Court.”
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English does not deny Bacon’s guilt, but explains that his most jealous rival was Sir Edward Coke, former Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and it was he who had originally instigated the charge against Bacon. The Cambridge Guide says: “Bacon admitted accepting bribes, but denied he had ever perverted the course of justice.” Sadly, after his brief spell in the Tower, Bacon then retired, in disgrace, a tragic ending to a brilliant career that was diamond-studded with acclaim and achievement.
However, Carrington maintains that not only the events of 1621 tarnished Bacon’s reputation, but also his prosecution of the Earl of Essex in 1601 when Essex plotted against the Queen’s counsellors. The Earl of Essex was, at that time, patron of Francis Bacon, but when the Crown appointed Bacon to prosecute his friend, he had no compunction in using his formidable legal skills to bring about a conviction.
Clearly, the charge against Bacon for corruption was a contentious and complex case with a volatile history. Later, King James I pardoned Bacon; nevertheless it was too late to prevent the incident from ending an eminent career.
“A century later,” says Carrington, “Pope was tartly to describe Bacon as “the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.”
Francis Bacon’s Legacy
Francis Bacon’s first work was political, the Temporis Pastus Masculus (1584) which was about tolerance and moderation. Following this was a Letter of Advice to Queen Elizabeth I, which prescribed anti-Catholic measures. Ten of his famous Essays were published in 1597, but a later work published in 1625 contained 58 essays. Following this came the Advancement of Learning (1605) and The Wisdom of the Ancients (1619) and then his celebrated Novum Organum (1620.)
The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh appeared in 1622, and Apophthegms New and Old in 1624. Sylva Sylvarum: or A Natural History and an unfinished fiction work The New Atlantis appeared in print simultaneously in 1627, but this was a year after Francis Bacon died. While studying the properties of snow on his estate in Gorhambury, Bacon caught a chill which killed him.
Why We Admire Sir Francis Bacon
We admire him today for his beautiful and concise writing style and his programme of intellectual achievements, especially in scientific reform, comprising a clear, empirical conception of nature and the world in which we live. According to Harwood’s “Sir Francis Bacon,” Karl Popper, an important philosopher of the 20th century, credited Francis Bacon for illuminating his own philosophical work, maintaining that science, as we know it, would not exist without Bacon.