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Outlines of English and American Literature
Francis Bacon
by Long, William J.

"My name and memory I leave to foreign nations, and to mine own country after some time is passed over," said Bacon in his will. That reference to the future meant, not that England might learn to forget and forgive (for Bacon was not greatly troubled by his disgrace), but that she might learn to appreciate his Instauratio Magna. In the same document the philosopher left magnificent bequests for various purposes, but when these were claimed by the beneficiaries it was learned that the debts of the estate were three times the assets. This high-sounding will is an epitome of Bacon's life and work.


Bacon belongs with Sidney and Raleigh in that group of Elizabethans who aimed to be men of affairs, politicians, reformers, explorers, rather than writers of prose or poetry. He was of noble birth, and from an early age was attached to Elizabeth's court. There he expected rapid advancement, but the queen and his uncle (Lord Burghley) were both a little suspicious of the young man who, as he said, had "taken all knowledge for his province."

Failing to advance by favor, Bacon studied law and entered Parliament, where he rose rapidly to leadership. Ben Jonson writes of him, in that not very reliable collection of opinions called Timber:

"There happened in my time one noble speaker who was full of gravity in his speaking.... No man ever spake more neatly, more pressly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered.... The fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end."

His Triumph

When Elizabeth died, Bacon saw his way open. He offered his services to the royal favorite, Buckingham, and was soon in the good graces of King James. He was made Baron Verulam and Viscount St. Albans; he married a rich wife; he rose rapidly from one political honor to another, until at sixty he was Lord High Chancellor of England. So his threefold ambition for position, wealth and power was realized. It was while he held the highest state office that he published his Novum Organum, which established his reputation as "the first philosopher in Europe." That was in 1620, the year when a handful of Pilgrims sailed away unnoticed on one of the world's momentous voyages.

His Disgrace

After four years of power Bacon, who had been engaged with Buckingham in selling monopolies, and in other schemes to be rich at the public expense, was brought to task by Parliament. He was accused of receiving bribes, confessed his guilt (it is said to shield the king and Buckingham, who had shared the booty), was fined, imprisoned, banished from court, and forbidden to hold public office again. All these punishments except the last were remitted by King James, to whom Bacon had been a useful tool. His last few years were spent in scientific study at Gorhambury, where he lived proudly, keeping up the appearance of his former grandeur, until his death in 1626.

Such a sketch seems a cold thing, but there is little of divine fire or human warmth in Bacon to kindle one's enthusiasm. His obituary might well be the final word of his essay "Of Wisdom for a Man's Self":

"Whereas they have all their time sacrificed to themselves, they become in the end sacrifices to the inconstancy of fortune, whose wings they thought by their self-wisdom to have pinioned."

Ben Jonson had a different and, possibly, a more just opinion. In the work from which we have quoted he says:

"My conceit of his person was never increased towards him by his place or honours; but I have and do reverence him for his greatness that was only proper to himself, in that he seemed to me ever by his work one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages. In his adversity I ever prayed that God would give him strength; for greatness he could not want."

Works of Bacon

The Essays of Bacon are so highly esteemed that the critic Hallam declares it would be "derogatory to a man of the slightest claim to polite letters" to be unacquainted with them. His first venture was a tiny volume called Essays, Religious Meditations, Places of Persuasion and Dissuasion (1597). This was modeled upon a French work by Montaigne (Essais, 1580) and was considered of small consequence by the author. As time went on, and his ambitious works were overlooked in favor of his sketches, he paid more attention to the latter, revising and enlarging his work until the final edition of fifty-eight essays appeared in 1625. Then it was that Bacon wrote, "I do now publish my Essays, which of all my works have been most current; for that, as it seems, they come home to men's business and bosoms."

Quality of the Essays

The spirit of these works may be judged by the essay "Of Friendship." This promises well, for near the beginning we read, "A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talking is but a tinkling cymbal where there is no love." Excellent! As we read on, however, we find nothing of the love that beareth all things for a friend's sake. We are not even encouraged to be friendly, but rather to cultivate the friendship of other men for the following advantages: that a friend is useful in saving us from solitude; that he may increase our joy or diminish our trouble; that he gives us good counsel; that he can finish our work or take care of our children, if need be; and finally, that he can spare our modesty while trumpeting our virtues:

"How many things are there which a man cannot, with any face or comeliness, say or do himself! A man can scarce allege his own merits with modesty, much less extol them; a man cannot sometimes brook to supplicate or beg; and a number of the like. But all these things are graceful in a friend's mouth, which are blushing in a man's own."

In old Arabic manuscripts one frequently finds a record having the appearance of truth; but at the very end, in parenthesis, one reads, "This is all a lie," or "This was my thought when I was sick," or some other enlightening climax. Bacon's essay "Of Friendship" might be more in accord with the verities if it had a final note to the effect that the man who cultivates friendship in the Baconian way will never have or deserve a friend in the world.

So with many other Baconian essays: with "Love" for example, in which we are told that it is impossible for a man to love and be wise; or with "Negotiations," which informs us that, unless a man intends to use his letter to justify himself (lo! the politician), it is better to deal by speech than by writing; for a man can "disavow or expound" his speech, but his written word may be used against him.

Bacon's View of Life

To some men, to most men, life offers a problem to be solved by standards that are eternally right; to others life is a game, the object is to win, and the rules may be manipulated to one's own advantage. Bacon's moral philosophy was that of the gamester; his leading motive was self-interest; so when he wrote of love or friendship or any other noble sentiment he was dealing with matters of which he had no knowledge. The best he could offer was a "counsel of prudence," and many will sympathize with John Wesley, who declared that worldly prudence is a quality from which an honest man should pray God to be delivered.

What to Read

It is only when Bacon deals with practical matters, leaving the high places of life, where he is a stranger, to write of "Discourse" or "Gardens" or "Seeming Wise" that his essays begin to strike home by their vigor and vitality. Though seldom profound or sympathetic, they are notable for their keen observation and shrewd judgment of the ambitious world in which the author himself lived. Among those that are best worth reading are "Studies," "Wisdom for a Man's Self," "Riches," "Great Place," "Atheism," and "Travel."

The style of these essays is in refreshing contrast to most Elizabethan prose, to the sonorous periods of Hooker, to the ramblings of Sidney, to the conceits of Lyly and Shakespeare. The sentences are mostly short, clear, simple; and so much meaning is crystallized in them that they overshadow even the "Poor Richard" maxims of Franklin, the man who had a genius for packing worldly wisdom into a convenient nutshell.

Ambitious Works

Other works of Bacon are seldom read, and may be passed over lightly. We mention only, as indicative of his wide range, his History of Henry VII, his Utopian romance The New Atlantis, his Advancement of Learning and his Novum Organum. The last two works, one in English, the other in Latin, were parts of the Instauratio Magna, or The Great Institution of True Philosophy, a colossal work which Bacon did not finish, which he never even outlined very clearly.

The aim of the Instauratio was, first, to sweep away ancient philosophy and the classic education of the universities; and second, to substitute a scheme of scientific study to the end of discovering and utilizing the powers of nature. It gave Bacon his reputation (in Germany especially) of a great philosopher and scientist, and it is true that his vision of vast discoveries has influenced the thought of the world; but to read any part of his great work is to meet a mind that seems ingenious rather than philosophical, and fanciful rather than scientific. He had what his learned contemporary Peter Heylyn termed "a chymical brain," a brain that was forever busy with new theories; and the leading theory was that some lucky man would discover a key or philosopher's stone or magic sesame that must straightway unlock all the secrets of nature.

Meanwhile the real scientists of his age were discovering secrets in the only sure way, of hard, self-denying work. Gilbert was studying magnetism, Harvey discovering the circulation of the blood, Kepler determining the laws that govern the planets' motions, Napier inventing logarithms, and Galileo standing in ecstasy beneath the first telescope ever pointed at the stars of heaven.

His Vast Plans

Of the work of these scientific heroes Bacon had little knowledge, and for their plodding methods he had no sympathy. He was Viscount, Lord Chancellor, "high-browed Verulam," and his heaven-scaling Instauratio which, as he said, was "for the glory of the Creator and for the relief of man's estate" must have something stupendous, Elizabethan, about it, like the victory over the Armada. In his plans there was always an impression of vastness; his miscellaneous works were like the strange maps that geographers made when the wonders of a new world opened upon their vision. Though he never made an important discovery, his conviction that knowledge is power and that there are no metes or bounds to knowledge, his belief that the mighty forces of nature are waiting to do man's bidding, his thought of ships that navigate the air as easily as the sea,--all this Baconian dream of mental empire inspired the scientific world for three centuries. It was as thoroughly Elizabethan in its way as the voyage of Drake or the plays of Shakespeare.


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