Lord Francis Bacon : The New Philosophy – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation

Dante : Rise of Modern Poetry
Geoffrey Chaucer : English Life in the Fourteenth Century
Christopher Columbus : Maritime Discoveries
Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms
Michael Angelo : The Revival of Art
Martin Luther : The Protestant Reformation
Thomas Cranmer : The English Reformation
Ignatius Loyola : Rise and Influence of the Jesuits
John Calvin : Protestant Theology
Lord Bacon : The New Philosophy
Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation
John Lord

Topics Covered
Lord Bacon as portrayed by Macaulay
His great defects of character
Contrast made between the man and the philosopher
Bacon’s youth and accomplishments
Enters Parliament
Seeks office
At the height of fortune and fame
His misfortunes
Consideration of charges against him
His counterbalancing merits
The exaltation by Macaulay of material life
Bacon made its exponent
But the aims of Bacon were higher
The true spirit of his philosophy
Deductive philosophies
His new method
Bacon’s Works
Relations of his philosophy
Material science and knowledge
Comparison of knowledge with wisdom

Lord Francis Bacon : The New Philosophy

A.D. 1561-1626.

It is not easy to present the life and labors of

“The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.”

So Pope sums up the character of the great Lord Bacon, as he is generally but improperly called; and this verdict, in the main, has been confirmed by Lords Macaulay and Campbell, who seem to delight in keeping him in that niche of the temple of fame where the poet has placed him,–contemptible as a man, but venerable as the philosopher, radiant with all the wisdom of his age and of all preceding ages, the miner and sapper of ancient falsehoods, the pioneer of all true knowledge, the author of that inductive and experimental philosophy on which is based the glory of our age. Macaulay especially, in that long and brilliant article which appeared in the “Edinburgh Review” in 1837, has represented him as a remarkably worldly man, cold, calculating, selfish; a sycophant and a flatterer, bent on self-exaltation; greedy, careless, false; climbing to power by base subserviency; betraying friends and courting enemies; with no animosities he does not suppress from policy, and with no affections which he openly manifests when it does not suit his interests: so that we read with shame of his extraordinary shamelessness, from the time he first felt the cravings of a vulgar ambition to the consummation of a disgraceful crime; from the base desertion of his greatest benefactor to the public selling of justice as Lord High Chancellor of the realm; resorting to all the arts of a courtier to win the favor of his sovereign and of his minions and favorites; reckless as to honest debts; torturing on the rack an honest parson for a sermon he never preached; and, when obliged to confess his corruption, meanly supplicating mercy from the nation he had outraged, and favors from the monarch whose cause he had betrayed. The defects and delinquencies of this great man are bluntly and harshly put by Macaulay, without any attempt to soften or palliate them; as if he would consign his name and memory, not “to men’s charitable speeches, to foreign nations, and to the next ages,” but to an infamy as lasting and deep as that of Scroggs and of Jeffreys, or any of those hideous tyrants and monsters that disgraced the reigns of the Stuart kings.

And yet while the man is made to appear in such hideous colors, his philosophy is exalted to the highest pinnacle of praise, as the greatest boon which any philosopher ever rendered to the world, and the chief cause of all subsequent progress in scientific discovery. And thus in brilliant rhetoric we have a painting of a man whose life was in striking contrast with his teachings,–a Judas Iscariot, uttering divine philosophy; a Seneca, accumulating millions as the tool of Nero; a fallen angel, pointing with rapture to the realms of eternal light. We have the most startling contradiction in all history,–glory in debasement, and debasement in glory; the most selfish and worldly man in England, the “meanest of mankind,” conferring on the race one of the greatest blessings it ever received,–not accidentally, not in repentance and shame, but in exalted and persistent labors, amid public cares and physical infirmities, from youth to advanced old age; living in the highest regions of thought, studious and patient all his days, even when neglected and unrewarded for the transcendent services he rendered, not as a philosopher merely, but as a man of affairs and as a responsible officer of the Crown. Has there ever been, before or since, such an anomaly in human history,–so infamous in action, so glorious in thought; such a contradiction between life and teachings,–so that many are found to utter indignant protests against such a representation of humanity, justly feeling that such a portrait, however much it may be admired for its brilliant colors, and however difficult to be proved false, is nevertheless an insult to the human understanding? The heart of the world will not accept the strange and singular belief that so bad a man could confer so great a boon, especially when he seemed bent on bestowing it during his whole life, amid the most harassing duties. If it accepts the boon, it will strive to do justice to the benefactor, as he himself appealed to future ages; and if it cannot deny the charges which have been arrayed against him,–especially if it cannot exculpate him,–it will soar beyond technical proofs to take into consideration the circumstances of the times, the temptations of a corrupt age, and the splendid traits which can with equal authority be adduced to set off against the mistakes and faults which proceeded from inadvertence and weakness rather than a debased moral sense,–even as the defects and weaknesses of Cicero are lost sight of in the acknowledged virtues of his ordinary life, and the honest and noble services he rendered to his country and mankind.

Bacon was a favored man; he belonged to the upper ranks of society. His father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, was a great lawyer, and reached the highest dignities, being Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. His mother’s sister was the wife of William Cecil, the great Lord Burleigh, the most able and influential of Queen Elizabeth’s ministers. Francis Bacon was the youngest son of the Lord Keeper, and was born in London, Jan. 22, 1561. He had a sickly and feeble constitution, but intellectually was a youthful prodigy; and at nine years of age, by his gravity and knowledge, attracted the admiring attention of the Queen, who called him her young Lord Keeper. At the age of ten we find him stealing away from his companions to discover the cause of a singular echo in the brick conduit near his father’s house in the Strand. At twelve he entered the University of Cambridge; at fifteen he quitted it, already disgusted with its pedantries and sophistries; at sixteen he rebelled against the authority of Aristotle, and took up his residence at Gray’s Inn; the same year, 1576, he was sent to Paris in the suite of Sir Amias Paulet, ambassador to the court of France, and delighted the salons of the capital by his wit and profound inquiries; at nineteen he returned to England, having won golden opinions from the doctors of the French Sanhedrim, who saw in him a second Daniel; and in 1582 he was admitted as a barrister of Gray’s Inn, and the following year composed an essay on the Instauration of Philosophy. Thus, at an age when young men now leave the university, he had attacked the existing systems of science and philosophy, proudly taking in all science and knowledge for his realm.

About this time his father died, without leaving him, a younger son, a competence. Nor would his great relatives give him an office or sinecure by which he might be supported while he sought truth, and he was forced to plod at the law, which he never liked, resisting the blandishments and follies by which he was surrounded; and at intervals, when other young men of his age and rank were seeking pleasure, he was studying Nature, science, history, philosophy, poetry,–everything, even the whole domain of truth,–and with such success that his varied attainments were rather a hindrance to an appreciation of his merits as a lawyer and his preferment in his profession.

In 1586 he entered parliament, sitting for Taunton, and also became a bencher at Gray’s Inn; so that at twenty-six he was in full practice in the courts of Westminster, also a politician, speaking on almost every question of importance which agitated the House of Commons for twenty years, distinguished for eloquence as well as learning, and for a manly independence which did not entirely please the Queen, from whom all honors came.

In 1591, at the age of thirty-one, he formed the acquaintance of Essex, about his own age, who, as the favorite of the Queen, was regarded as the most influential man in the country. The acquaintance ripened into friendship; and to the solicitation of this powerful patron, who urged the Queen to give Bacon a high office, she is said to have replied: “He has indeed great wit and much learning, but in law, my lord, he is not deeply read,”–an opinion perhaps put into her head by his rival Coke, who did indeed know law but scarcely anything else, or by that class of old-fashioned functionaries who could not conceive how a man could master more than one thing. We should however remember that Bacon had not reached the age when great offices were usually conferred in the professions, and that his efforts to be made solicitor-general at the age of thirty-one, and even earlier, would now seem unreasonable and importunate, whatever might be his attainments. Disappointed in not receiving high office, he meditated a retreat to Cambridge; but his friend Essex gave him a villa in Twickenham, which he soon mortgaged, for he was in debt all his life, although in receipt of sums which would have supported him in comfort and dignity were it not for his habits of extravagance,–the greatest flaw in his character, and which was the indirect cause of his disgrace and fall. He was even arrested for debt when he enjoyed a lucrative practice at the courts. But nothing prevented him from pursuing his literary and scientific studies, amid great distractions,–for he was both a leader at the bar and a leader of the House of Commons; and if he did not receive the rewards to which he felt entitled, he was always consulted by Elizabeth in great legal difficulties.

It was not until the Queen died, and Bacon was forty-seven years old, that he became solicitor-general (1607), in the fourth year of the reign of James, one year after his marriage with Alice Barnham, an alderman’s daughter, “a handsome maiden,” and “to his liking.” Besides this office, which brought him £1000 a year, he about this time had a windfall as clerk of the Star Chamber, which added £2000 to his income, at that time from all sources about £4500 a year,–a very large sum for those times, and making him really a rich man. Six years afterward he was made attorney-general, and in the year 1617 he was made Lord Keeper, and the following year he was raised to the highest position in the realm, next to that of Archbishop of Canterbury, as Lord Chancellor, at the age of fifty-seven, and soon after was created Lord Verulam. That is his title, but the world persists in calling him Lord Bacon. In 1620, two years after the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh, which Bacon advised, he was in the zenith of his fortunes and fame, having been lately created Viscount St. Albans, and having published the “Novum Organum,” the first instalment of the “Instauratio Magna,” at which he had been working the best part of his life,–some thirty years,–“A New Logic, to judge or invent by induction, and thereby to make philosophy and science both more true and more active.”

Then began to gather the storms which were to wreck his fortunes. The nation now was clamorous for reform; and Coke, the enemy of Bacon, who was then the leader of the Reform party in the House of Commons, stimulated the movement. The House began its scrutiny with the administration of justice; and Bacon could not stand before it, for as the highest judge in England he was accused of taking bribes before rendering decisions, and of many cases of corruption so glaring that no defence was undertaken; and the House of Lords had no alternative but to sentence him to the Tower and fine him, to degrade him from his office, and banish him from the precincts of the court,–a fall so great, and the impression of it on the civilized world so tremendous, that the case of a judge accepting bribes has rarely since been known.

Bacon was imprisoned but a few days, his ruinous fine of £40,000 was remitted, and he was even soon after received at court; but he never again held office. He was hopelessly disgraced; he was a ruined man; and he bitterly felt the humiliation, and acknowledged the justice of his punishment. He had now no further object in life than to pursue his studies, and live comfortably in his retirement, and do what he could for future ages.

But before we consider his immortal legacy to the world, let us take one more view of the man, in order that we may do him justice, and remove some of the cruel charges against him as “the meanest of mankind.”

It must be borne in mind that, from the beginning of his career until his fall, only four or five serious charges have been made against him,–that he was extravagant in his mode of life; that he was a sycophant and office-seeker; that he deserted his patron Essex; that he tortured Peacham, a Puritan clergyman, when tried for high-treason; that he himself was guilty of corruption as a judge.

In regard to the first charge, it is unfortunately too true; he lived beyond his means, and was in debt most of his life. This defect, as has been said, was the root of much evil; it destroyed his independence, detracted from the dignity of his character, created enemies, and led to a laxity of the moral sense which prepared the way for corruption,–thereby furnishing another illustration of that fatal weakness which degrades any man when he runs races with the rich, and indulges in a luxury and ostentation which he cannot afford. It was the curse of Cicero, of William Pitt, and of Daniel Webster. The first lesson which every public man should learn, especially if honored with important trusts, is to live within his income. However inconvenient and galling, a stringent economy is necessary. But this defect is a very common one, particularly when men are luxurious, or brought into intercourse with the rich, or inclined to be hospitable and generous, or have a great imagination and a sanguine temperament. So that those who are most liable to fall into this folly have many noble qualities to offset it, and it is not a stain which marks the “meanest of mankind.” Who would call Webster the meanest of mankind because he had an absurd desire to live like an English country gentleman?

In regard to sycophancy,–a disgusting trait, I admit,–we should consider the age, when everybody cringed to sovereigns and their favorites. Bacon never made such an abject speech as Omer Talon, the greatest lawyer in France, did to Louis XIII, in the Parliament of Paris. Three hundred years ago everybody bowed down to exalted rank: witness the obsequious language which all authors addressed to patrons in the dedication of their books. How small the chance of any man rising in the world, who did not court favors from those who had favors to bestow! Is that the meanest or the most uncommon thing in this world? If so, how ignominious are all politicians who flatter the people and solicit their votes? Is it not natural to be obsequious to those who have offices to bestow? This trait is not commendable, but is it the meanest thing we see?

In regard to Essex, nobody can approve of the ingratitude which Bacon showed to his noble patron. But, on the other hand, remember the good advice which Bacon ever gave him, and his constant efforts to keep him out of scrapes. How often did he excuse him to his royal mistress, at the risk of incurring her displeasure? And when Essex was guilty of a thousand times worse crime than ever Bacon committed,–even high-treason, in a time of tumult and insurrection,–and it became Bacon’s task as prosecuting officer of the Crown to bring this great culprit to justice, was he required by a former friendship to sacrifice his duty and his allegiance to his sovereign, to screen a man who had perverted the affection of the noblest woman who ever wore a crown, and came near involving his country in a civil war? Grant that Essex had bestowed favors, and was an accomplished and interesting man,–was Bacon to ignore his official duties? He may have been too harsh in his procedure; but in that age all criminal proceedings were harsh and inexorable,–there was but little mercy shown to culprits, especially to traitors. If Elizabeth could bring herself, out of respect to her wounded honor and slighted kindness and the dignity of the realm and the majesty of the law, to surrender into the hands of justice one whom she so tenderly loved and magnificently rewarded, even when the sacrifice cost her both peace and life, snapped the last cord which bound her to this world,–may we not forgive Bacon for the part he played? Does this fidelity to an official and professional duty, even if he were harsh, make him “the meanest of mankind”?

In regard to Peacham, it is true he was tortured, according to the practice of that cruel age; but Bacon had no hand in the issuing of the warrant against him for high-treason, although in accordance with custom he, as prosecuting officer of the Crown, examined Peacham under torture before his trial. The parson was convicted; but the sentence of death was not executed upon him, and he died in jail.

And in regard to corruption,–the sin which cast Bacon from his high estate, though fortunately he did not fall like Lucifer, never to rise again,–may not the verdict of the poet and the historian be rather exaggerated? Nobody has ever attempted to acquit Bacon for taking bribes. Nobody has ever excused him. He did commit a crime; but in palliation it might be said that he never decided against justice, and that it was customary for great public functionaries to accept presents. Had he taken them after he had rendered judgment instead of before, he might have been acquitted; for out of the seven thousand cases which he decided as Lord-Chancellor, not one of them has been reversed: so that he said of himself, “I was the justest judge that England has had for fifty years; and I suffered the justest sentence that had been inflicted for two hundred years.” He did not excuse himself. His ingenuousness of confession astonished everybody, and moved the hearts of his judges. It was his misfortune to be in debt; he had pressing creditors; and in two cases he accepted presents before the decision was made, but was brave enough to decide against those who bribed him,–hinc illoe lacrymoe. A modern corrupt official generally covers his tracks; and many a modern judge has been bribed to decide against justice, and has escaped ignominy, even in a country which claims the greatest purity and the loftiest moral standard. We admit that Bacon was a sinner; but was he a sinner above all others who cast stones at Jerusalem?

In reference to these admitted defects and crimes, I only wish to show that even these do not make him “the meanest of mankind.” What crimes have sullied many of those benefactors whom all ages will admire and honor, and whom, in spite of their defects, we call good men,–not bad men to be forgiven for their services, but excellent and righteous on the whole! See Abraham telling lies to the King of Egypt; and Jacob robbing his brother of his birthright; and David murdering his bravest soldier to screen himself from adultery; and Solomon selling himself to false idols to please the wicked women who ensnared him; and Peter denying his Master; and Marcus Aurelius persecuting the Christians; and Constantine putting to death his own son; and Theodosius slaughtering the citizens of Thessalonica; and Isabella establishing the Inquisition; and Sir Mathew Hale burning witches; and Cromwell stealing a sceptre; and Calvin murdering Servetus; and Queen Elizabeth lying and cheating and swearing in the midst of her patriotic labors for her country and civilization. Even the sun passes through eclipses. Have the spots upon the career of Bacon hidden the brightness of his general beneficence? Is he the meanest of men because he had great faults? When we speak of mean men, it is those whose general character is contemptible.

Now, see Bacon pursuing his honorable career amid rebuffs and enmities and jealousies, toiling in Herculean tasks without complaint, and waiting his time; always accessible, affable, gentle, with no vulgar pride, if he aped vulgar ostentation; calm, beneficent, studious, without envy or bitterness; interesting in his home, courted as a friend, admired as a philosopher, generous to the poor, kind to the servants who cheated him, with an unsubdued love of Nature as well as of books; not negligent of religious duties, a believer in God and immortality; and though broken in spirit, like a bruised reed, yet soaring beyond all his misfortunes to study the highest problems, and bequeathing his knowledge for the benefit of future ages! Can such a man be stigmatized as “the meanest of mankind”? Is it candid and just for a great historian to indorse such a verdict, to gloss over Bacon’s virtues, and make like an advocate at the bar, or an ancient sophist, a special plea to magnify his defects, and stain his noble name with an infamy as deep as would be inflicted upon an enemy of the human race? And all for what?–just to make a rhetorical point, and show the writer’s brilliancy and genius in making a telling contrast between the man and the philosopher. A man who habitually dwelt in the highest regions of thought during his whole life, absorbed in lofty contemplations, all from love of truth itself and to benefit the world, could not have had a mean or sordid soul. “As a man thinketh, so is he.” We admit that he was a man of the world, politic, self-seeking, extravagant, careless about his debts and how he raised money to pay them; but we deny that he was a bad judge on the whole, or was unpatriotic, or immoral in his private life, or mean in his ordinary dealings, or more cruel and harsh in his judicial transactions than most of the public functionaries of his rough and venal age. We admit it is difficult to controvert the charges which Macaulay arrays against him, for so accurate and painstaking an historian is not likely to be wrong in his facts; but we believe that they are uncandidly stated, and so ingeniously and sophistically put as to give on the whole a wrong impression of the man,–making him out worse than he was, considering his age and circumstances. Bacon’s character, like that of most great men, has two sides; and while we are compelled painfully to admit that he had many faults, we shrink from classing him among bad men, as is implied in Pope’s characterization of him as “the meanest of mankind.”

Portrait of Lord Francis Bacon by Paul Van Somer

Portrait of Lord Francis Bacon by Paul Van Somer

We now take leave of the man, to consider his legacy to the world. And here again we are compelled to take issue with Macaulay, not in regard to the great fact that Bacon’s inquiries tended to a new revelation of Nature, and by means of the method called induction, by which he sought to establish fixed principles of science that could not be controverted, but in reference to the ends for which he labored. “The aim of Bacon,” says Macaulay, “was utility,–fruit; the multiplication of human enjoyments, … the mitigation of human sufferings, … the prolongation of life by new inventions,”–dotare vitam humanum novis inventis et copiis; “the conquest of Nature,”–dominion over the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air; the application of science to the subjection of the outward world; progress in useful arts,–in those arts which enable us to become strong, comfortable, and rich in houses, shops, fabrics, tools, merchandise, new vegetables, fruits, and animals: in short, a philosophy which will “not raise us above vulgar wants, but will supply those wants.” “And as an acre in Middlesex is worth more than a principality in Utopia, so the smallest practical good is better than any magnificent effort to realize an impossibility;” and “hence the first shoemaker has rendered more substantial service to mankind than all the sages of Greece. All they could do was to fill the world with long beards and long words; whereas Bacon’s philosophy has lengthened life, mitigated pain, extinguished disease, built bridges, guided the thunderbolts, lightened the night with the splendor of the day, accelerated motion, annihilated distance, facilitated intercourse; enabled men to descend to the depths of the earth, to traverse the land in cars which whirl without horses, and the ocean in ships which sail against the wind.” In other words, it was his aim to stimulate mankind, not to seek unattainable truth, but useful truth; that is, the science which produces railroads, canals, cultivated farms, ships, rich returns for labor, silver and gold from the mines,–all that purchase the joys of material life and fit us for dominion over the world in which we live. Hence anything which will curtail our sufferings and add to our pleasures or our powers, should be sought as the highest good. Geometry is desirable, not as a noble intellectual exercise, but as a handmaid to natural philosophy. Astronomy is not to assist the mind to lofty contemplation, but to enable mariners to verify degrees of latitude and regulate clocks. A college is not designed to train and discipline the mind, but to utilize science, and become a school of technology. Greek and Latin exercises are comparatively worthless, and even mathematics, unless they can be converted into practical use. Philosophy, as ordinarily understood,–that is, metaphysics,–is most idle of all, since it does not pertain to mundane wants. Hence the old Grecian philosopher labored in vain; and still more profitless were the disquisitions of the scholastics of the Middle Ages, since they were chiefly used to prop up unintelligible creeds. Theology is not of much account, since it pertains to mysteries we cannot solve. It is not with heaven or hell, or abstract inquiries, or divine certitudes, that we have to do, but the things of earth,–things that advance our material and outward condition. To be rich and comfortable is the end of life,–not meditations on abstract and eternal truth, such as elevate the soul or prepare it for a future and endless life. The certitudes of faith, of love, of friendship, are of small value when compared with the blessings of outward prosperity. Utilitarianism is the true philosophy, for this confines us to the world where we are born to labor, and enables us to make acquisitions which promote our comfort and ease. The chemist and the manufacturer are our greatest benefactors, for they make for us oils and gases and paints,–things we must have. The philosophy of Bacon is an immense improvement on all previous systems, since it heralds the jubilee of trades, the millennium of merchants, the schools of thrift, the apostles of physical progress, the pioneers of enterprise,–the Franklins and Stephensons and Tyndalls and Morses of our glorious era. Its watchword is progress. All hail, then, to the electric telegraph and telephones and Thames tunnels and Crystal Palaces and Niagara bridges and railways over the Rocky Mountains! The day of our deliverance is come; the nations are saved; the Brunels and the Fieldses are our victors and leaders! Crown them with Olympic leaves, as the heroes of our great games of life. And thou, O England! exalted art thou among the nations,–not for thy Oxfords and Westminsters; not for thy divines and saints and martyrs and poets; not for thy Hookers and Leightons and Cranmers and Miltons and Burkes and Lockes; not for thy Reformation; not for thy struggles for liberty,–but for thy Manchesters and Birminghams, thy Portsmouth shipyards, thy London docks, thy Liverpool warehouses, thy mines of coal and iron, thy countless mechanisms by which thou bringest the wealth of nations into thy banks, and art enabled to buy the toil of foreigners and to raise thy standards on the farthest battlements of India and China. These conquests and acquisitions are real, are practical; machinery over life, the triumph of physical forces, dominion over waves and winds,–these are the great victories which consummate the happiness of man; and these are they which flow from the philosophy which Bacon taught.

Now Macaulay does not directly say all these things, but these are the spirit and gist of the interpretation which he puts upon Bacon’s writings. The philosophy of Bacon leads directly to these blessings; and these constitute its great peculiarity. And it cannot be denied that the new era which Bacon heralded was fruitful in these very things,–that his philosophy encouraged this new development of material forces; but it may be questioned whether he had not something else in view than mere utility and physical progress, and whether his method could not equally be applied to metaphysical subjects; whether it did not pertain to the whole domain of truth, and take in the whole realm of human inquiry. I believe that Bacon was interested, not merely in the world of matter, but in the world of mind; that he sought to establish principles from which sound deductions might be made, as well as to establish reliable inductions. Lord Campbell thinks that a perfect system of ethics could be made out of his writings, and that his method is equally well adapted to examine and classify the phenomena of the mind. He separated the legitimate paths of human inquiry, giving his attention to poetry and politics and metaphysics, as well as to physics. Bacon does not sneer as Macaulay does at the ancient philosophers; he bears testimony to their genius and their unrivalled dialectical powers, even if he regards their speculations as frequently barren. He does not flippantly ridicule the homoousian and the homoiousian as mere words, but the expression and exponent of profound theological distinctions, as every theologian knows them to be. He does not throw dirt on metaphysical science if properly directed, still less on noble inquiries after God and the mysteries of life. He is subjective as well as objective. He treats of philosophy in its broadest meaning, as it takes in the province of the understanding, the memory, and the will, as well as of man in society. He speaks of the principles of government and of the fountains of law; of universal justice, of eternal spiritual truth. So that Playfair judiciously observes (and he was a scientist) “that it was not by sagacious anticipations of science, afterwards to be made in physics, that his writings have had so powerful an influence, as in his knowledge of the limits and resources of the human understanding. It would be difficult to find another writer, prior to Locke, whose works are enriched with so many just observations on mere intellectual phenomena. What he says of the laws of memory, of imagination, has never been surpassed in subtlety. No man ever more carefully studied the operation of his own mind and the intellectual character of others.” Nor did Bacon despise metaphysical science, only the frivolous questions that the old scholastics associated with it, and the general barrenness of their speculations. He surely would not have disdained the subsequent inquiries of Locke, or Berkeley, or Leibnitz, or Kant. True, he sought definite knowledge,–something firm to stand upon, and which could not be controverted. No philosophy can be sound when the principle from which deductions are made is not itself certain or very highly probable, or when this principle, pushed to its utmost logical sequence, would lead to absurdity, or even to a conflict with human consciousness. To Bacon the old methods were wrong, and it was his primal aim to reform the scientific methods in order to arrive at truth; not truth for utilitarian ends chiefly, but truth for its own sake. He loved truth as Palestrina loved music, or Raphael loved painting, or Socrates loved virtue.

Now the method which was almost exclusively employed until Bacon’s time is commonly called the deductive method; that is, some principle or premise was assumed to be true, and reasoning was made from this assumption. No especial fault was found with the reasoning of the great masters of logic like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, for it never has been surpassed in acuteness and severity. If their premises were admitted, their conclusions would follow as a certainty. What was wanted was to establish the truth of premises, or general propositions. This Bacon affirmed could be arrived at only by induction; that is, the ascending from ascertained individual facts to general principles, by extending what is true of particulars to the whole class in which they belong. Bacon has been called the father of inductive science, since he would employ the inductive method. Yet he is not truly the father of induction, since it is as old as the beginnings of science. Hippocrates, when he ridiculed the quacks of his day, and collected the facts and phenomena of disease, and inferred from them the proper treatment of it, was as much the father of induction as Bacon himself. The error the ancients made was in not collecting a sufficient number of facts to warrant a sound induction. And the ancients looked out for facts to support some preconceived theory, from which they reasoned syllogistically. The theory could not be substantiated by any syllogistic reasonings, since conclusions could never go beyond assumptions; if the assumptions were wrong, no ingenious or elaborate reasoning would avail anything towards the discovery of truth, but could only uphold what was assumed. This applied to theology as well as to science. In the Dark Ages it was well for the teachers of mankind to uphold the dogmas of the Church, which they did with masterly dialectical skill. Those were ages of Faith, and not of Inquiry. It was all-important to ground believers in a firm faith of the dogmas which were deemed necessary to support the Church and the cause of religion. They were regarded as absolute certainties. There was no dispute about the premises of the scholastic’s arguments; and hence his dialectics strengthened the mind by the exercise of logical sports, and at the same time confirmed the faith.

The world never saw a more complete system of dogmatic theology than that elaborated by Thomas Aquinas. When the knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew was rare and imperfect, and it was impossible to throw light by means of learning and science on the texts of Scripture, it was well to follow the interpretation of such a great light as Augustine, and assume his dogmas as certainties, since they could not then be controverted; and thus from them construct a system of belief which would confirm the faith. But Aquinas, with his Aristotelian method of syllogism and definitions, could not go beyond Augustine. Augustine was the fountain, and the water that flowed from it in ten thousand channels could not rise above the spring; and as everybody appealed to and believed in Saint Augustine, it was well to construct a system from him to confute the heretical, and which the heretical would respect. The scholastic philosophy which some ridicule, in spite of its puerilities and sophistries and syllogisms, preserved the theology of the Middle Ages, perhaps of the Fathers. It was a mighty bulwark of the faith which was then, accepted. No honors could be conferred on its great architects that were deemed extravagant. The Pope and the clergy saw in Thomas Aquinas the great defender of the Church,–not of its abuses, but of its doctrines. And if no new light can be shed on the Scripture text from which assumptions were made; if these assumptions cannot be assailed, if they are certitudes,–then we can scarcely have better text-books than those furnished to the theologians of the Middle Ages, for no modern dialetician can excel them in severity of logic. The great object of modern theologians should be to establish the authenticity and meaning of the Scripture texts on which their assumptions rest; and this can be done only by the method which Bacon laid down, which is virtually a collation and collection of facts,–that is, divine declarations. Establish the meaning of these without question, and we have principia from which we may deduce creeds and systems, the usefulness of which cannot be exaggerated, especially in an age of agnosticism. Having fundamental principles which cannot be gainsaid, we may philosophically draw deductions. Bacon did not make war on deduction, when its fundamental truths are established. Deduction is as much a necessary part of philosophy as induction: it is the peculiarity of the Scotch metaphysicians, who have ever deduced truths from those previously established. Deduction even enters into modern science as well as induction. When Cuvier deduced from a bone the form and habits of the mastodon; when Kepler deduced his great laws, all from the primary thought that there must be some numerical or geographical relation between the times, distances, and velocities of the revolving bodies of the solar system; when Newton deduced, as is said, the principle of gravitation from the fall of an apple; when Leverrier sought for a new planet from the perturbations of the heavenly bodies in their orbits,–we feel that deduction is as much a legitimate process as induction itself.

But deductive logic is the creation of Aristotle; and it was the authority of Aristotle that Bacon sought to subvert. The inductive process is also old, of which Bacon is called the father. How are these things to be reconciled and explained? Wherein and how did Bacon adapt his method to the discovery of truth, which was his principal aim,–that method which is the great cause of modern progress in science, the way to it being indicated by him pre-eminently?

The whole thing consists in this, that Bacon pointed out the right road to truth,–as a board where two roads meet or diverge indicates the one which is to be followed. He did not make a system, like Descartes or Spinoza or Newton: he showed the way to make it on sound principles. “He laid down a systematic analysis and arrangement of inductive evidence.” The syllogism, the great instrument used by Aristotle and the School-men, “is, from its very nature, incompetent to prove the ultimate premises from which it proceeds; and when the truth of these remains doubtful, we can place no confidence in the conclusions drawn from them.” Hence, the first step in the reform of science is to review its ultimate principles; and the first condition of a scientific method is that it shall be competent to conduct such an inquiry; and this method is applicable, not to physical science merely, but to the whole realm of knowledge. This, of course, includes poetry, art, intellectual philosophy, and theology, as well as geology and chemistry.

And it is this breadth of inquiry–directed to subjective as well as objective knowledge–which made Bacon so great a benefactor. The defect in Macaulay’s criticism is that he makes Bacon interested in mere outward phenomena, or matters of practical utility,–a worldly utilitarian of whom Epicureans may be proud. In reality he soared to the realm of Plato as well as of Aristotle. Take, for instance, his Idola Mentis Humanae, or “Phantoms of the Human Mind,” which compose the best-known part of the “Novum Organum.” “The Idols of the Tribe” would show the folly of attempting to penetrate further than the limits of the human faculties permit, as also “the liability of the intellect to be warped by the will and affections, and the like.” The “Idols of the Den” have reference to “the tendency to notice differences rather than resemblances, or resemblances rather than differences, in the attachment to antiquity or novelty, in the partiality to minute or comprehensive investigations.” “The Idols of the Market-Place” have reference to the tendency to confound words with things, which has ever marked controversialists in their learned disputations. In what he here says about the necessity for accurate definitions, he reminds us of Socrates rather than a modern scientist; this necessity for accuracy applies to metaphysics as much as it does to physics. “The Idols of the Theatre” have reference to perverse laws of demonstration which are the strongholds of error. This school deals in speculations and experiments confined to a narrow compass, like those of the alchemists,–too imperfect to elicit the light which should guide.

Bacon having completed his discussion of the Idola, then proceeds to point out the weakness of the old philosophies, which produced leaves rather than fruit, and were stationary in their character. Here he would seem to lean towards utilitarianism, were it not that he is as severe on men of experiment as on men of dogma. “The men of experiment are,” says he, “like ants,–they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course; it gathers the material from the flowers, but digests it by a power of its own…. So true philosophy neither chiefly relies on the powers of the mind, nor takes the matter which it gathers and lays it up in the memory, whole as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding, to be transformed and digested.” Here he simply points out the laws by which true knowledge is to be attained. He does not extol physical science alone, though doubtless he had a preference for it over metaphysical inquiries. He was an Englishman, and the English mind is objective rather than subjective, and is prone to over-value the outward and the seen, above the inward and unseen; and perhaps for the same reason that the Old Testament seems to make prosperity the greatest blessing, while adversity seems to be the blessing of the New Testament.

One of Bacon’s longest works is the “Silva Sylvarum,”–a sort of natural history, in which he treats of the various forces and productions of Nature,–the air the sea, the winds, the clouds, plants and animals, fire and water, sounds and discords, colors and smells, heat and cold, disease and health; but which varied subjects he presents to communicate knowledge, with no especial utilitarian end.

The Advancement of Learning” is one of Bacon’s most famous productions, but I fail to see in it an objective purpose to enable men to become powerful or rich or comfortable; it is rather an abstract treatise, as dry to most people as legal disquisitions, and with no more reference to rising in the world than “Blackstone’s Commentaries” or “Coke upon Littleton.” It is a profound dissertation on the excellence of learning; its great divisions treating of history, poetry, and philosophy,–of metaphysical as well as physical philosophy; of the province of understanding, the memory, the will, the reason, and the imagination; and of man in society,–of government, of universal justice, of the fountains of law, of revealed religion.

And if we turn from the new method by which he would advance all knowledge, and on which his fame as a philosopher chiefly rests,–that method which has led to discoveries that even Bacon never dreamed of, not thinking of the fruit he was to bestow, but only the way to secure it,–even as a great inventor thinks more of his invention than of the money he himself may reap from it, as a work of creation to benefit the world rather than his own family, and in the work of which his mind revels in a sort of intoxicated delight, like a true poet when he constructs his lines, or a great artist when he paints his picture,–a pure subjective joy, not an anticipated gain;–if we turn from this “method” to most of his other writings, what do we find? Simply the lucubrations of a man of letters, the moral wisdom of the moralist, the historian, the biographer, the essayist. In these writings we discover no more worldliness than in Macaulay when he wrote his “Milton,” or Carlyle when he penned his “Burns,”–even less, for Bacon did not write to gain a living, but to please himself and give vent to his burning thoughts. In these he had no worldly aim to reach, except perhaps an imperishable fame. He wrote as Michael Angelo sculptured his Moses; and he wrote not merely amid the cares and duties of a great public office, with other labors which might be called Herculean, but even amid the pains of disease and the infirmities of age,–when rest, to most people, is the greatest boon and solace of their lives.

Take his Essays,–these are among his best-known works,–so brilliant and forcible, suggestive and rich, that even Archbishop Whately’s commentaries upon them are scarcely an addition. Surely these are not on material subjects, and indicate anything but a worldly or sordid nature. In these famous Essays, so luminous with the gems of genius, we read not such worldly-wise exhortations as Lord Chesterfield impressed upon his son, not the gossiping frivolities of Horace Walpole, not the cynical wit of Montaigne, but those great certitudes which console in affliction, which kindle hope, which inspire lofty resolutions,–anchors of the soul, pillars of faith, sources of immeasurable joy, the glorious ideals of true objects of desire, the eternal unities of truth and love and beauty; all of which reveal the varied experiences of life and the riches of deeply-pondered meditation on God and Christianity, as well as knowledge of the world and the desirableness of its valued gifts. How beautiful are his thoughts on death, on adversity, on glory, on anger, on friendship, on fame, on ambition, on envy, on riches, on youth and old age, and divers other subjects of moral import, which show the elevation of his soul, and the subjective as well as the objective turn of his mind; not dwelling on what he should eat and what he should drink and wherewithal he should be clothed, but on the truths which appeal to our higher nature, and which raise the thoughts of men from earth to heaven, or at least to the realms of intellectual life and joy.

And then, it is necessary that we should take in view other labors which dignified Bacon’s retirement, as well as those which marked his more active career as a lawyer and statesman,–his histories and biographies, as well as learned treatises to improve the laws of England; his political discourses, his judicial charges, his theological tracts, his speeches and letters and prayers; all of which had relation to benefit others rather than himself. Who has ever done more to instruct the world,–to enable men to rise not in fortune merely, but in virtue and patriotism, in those things which are of themselves the only reward? We should consider these labors, as well as the new method he taught to arrive at knowledge, in our estimate of the sage as well as of the man. He was a moral philosopher, like Socrates. He even soared into the realm of supposititious truth, like Plato. He observed Nature, like Aristotle. He took away the syllogism from Thomas Aquinas,–not to throw contempt on metaphysical inquiry or dialectical reasoning, but to arrive by a better method at the knowledge of first principles; which once established, he allowed deductions to be drawn from them, leading to other truths as certainly as induction itself. Yea, he was also a Moses on the mount of Pisgah, from which with prophetic eye he could survey the promised land of indefinite wealth and boundless material prosperity, which he was not permitted to enter, but which he had bequeathed to civilization. This may have been his greatest gift in the view of scientific men,–this inductive process of reasoning, by which great discoveries have been made after he was dead. But this was not his only legacy, for other things which he taught were as valuable, not merely in his sight, but to the eye of enlightened reason. There are other truths besides those of physical science; there is greatness in deduction as well as in induction. Geometry–whose successive and progressive revelations are so inspiring, and which, have come down to us from a remote antiquity, which are even now taught in our modern schools as Euclid demonstrated them, since they cannot be improved–is a purely deductive science. The scholastic philosophy, even if it was barren and unfruitful in leading to new truths, yet confirmed what was valuable in the old systems, and by the severity of its logic and its dialectical subtleties trained the European mind for the reception of the message of Luther and Bacon; and this was based on deductions, never wrong unless the premises are unsound. Theology is deductive reasoning from truths assumed to be fundamental, and is inductive only so far as it collates Scripture declarations, and interprets their meaning by the aid which learning brings. Is not this science worthy of some regard? Will it not live when all the speculations of evolutionists are forgotten, and occupy the thoughts of the greatest and profoundest minds so long as anything shall be studied, so long as the Bible shall be the guide of life? Is it not by deduction that we ascend from Nature herself to the God of Nature? What is more certain than deduction when the principles from which it reasons are indisputably established?

Is induction, great as it is, especially in the explorations of Nature and science, always certain? Are not most of the sciences which are based upon it progressive? Have we yet learned the ultimate principles of political economy, or of geology, or of government, or even of art? The theory of induction, though supposed by Dr. Whewell to lead to certain results, is regarded by Professor Jevons as leading to results only “almost certain.” “All inductive inference is merely probable,” says the present professor of logic, Thomas Fowler, in the University of Oxford.

And although it is supposed that the inductive method of Bacon has led to the noblest discoveries of modern times, is this strictly true? Galileo made his discoveries in the heavens before Bacon died. Physical improvements must need follow such inventions as gunpowder and the mariners’ compass, and printing and the pictures of Italy, and the discovery of mines and the revived arts of the Romans and Greeks, and the glorious emancipation which the Reformation produced. Why should not the modern races follow in the track of Carthage and Alexandria and Rome, with the progress of wealth, and carry out inventions as those cities did, and all other civilized peoples since Babal towered above the plains of Babylon? Physical developments arise from the developments of man, whatever method may be recommended by philosophers. What philosophical teachings led to the machinery of the mines of California, or to that of the mills of Lowell? Some think that our modern improvements would have come whether Bacon had lived or not. But I would not disparage the labors of Bacon in pointing out the method which leads to scientific discoveries. Granting that he sought merely utility, an improvement in the outward condition of society, which is the view that Macaulay takes, I would not underrate his legacy. And even supposing that the blessings of material life–“the acre of Middlesex”–are as much to be desired as Macaulay, with the complacency of an eminently practical and prosperous man, seems to argue, I would not sneer at them. Who does not value them? Who will not value them so long as our mortal bodies are to be cared for? It is a pleasant thing to ride in “cars without horses,” to feel in winter the genial warmth of grates and furnaces, to receive messages from distant friends in a moment of time, to cross the ocean without discomfort, with the “almost certainty” of safety, and save our wives and daughters from the ancient drudgeries of the loom and the knitting-needle. Who ever tires in gazing at a locomotive as it whirls along with the power of destiny? Who is not astonished at the triumphs of the engineer, the wonders of an ocean-steamer, the marvellous tunnels under lofty mountains? We feel that Titans have been sent to ease us of our burdens.

But great and beneficent as are these blessings, they are not the only certitudes, nor are they the greatest. An outward life of ease and comfort is not the chief end of man. The interests of the soul are more important than any comforts of the body. The higher life is only reached by lofty contemplation on the true, the beautiful, and the good. Subjective wisdom is worth more than objective knowledge. What are the great realities,–machinery, new breeds of horses, carpets, diamonds, mirrors, gas? or are they affections, friendships, generous impulses, inspiring thoughts? Look to Socrates: what raised that barefooted, ugly-looking, impecunious, persecuted, cross-questioning, self-constituted teacher, without pay, to the loftiest pedestal of Athenian fame? What was the spirit of the truths he taught? Was it objective or subjective truth; the way to become rich and comfortable, or the search for the indefinite, the infinite, the eternal,–Utopia, not Middlesex,–that which fed the wants of the immaterial soul, and enabled it to rise above temptation and vulgar rewards? What raised Plato to the highest pinnacle of intellectual life? Was it definite and practical knowledge of outward phenomena; or was it “a longing after love, in the contemplation of which the mortal soul sustains itself, and becomes participant in the glories of immortality”? What were realities to Anselm, Bernard, and Bonaventura? What gave beauty and placidity to Descartes and Leibnitz and Kant? It may be very dignified for a modern savant to sit serenely on his tower of observation, indifferent to all the lofty speculations of the great men of bygone ages; yet those profound questions pertaining to the [Greek: logos] and the [Greek: ta onta], which had such attractions for Augustine and Pascal and Calvin, did have as real bearing on human life and on what is best worth knowing, as the scales of a leuciscus cephalus or the limbs of a magnified animalculus, or any of the facts of which physical science can boast. The wonders of science are great, but so also are the secrets of the soul, the mysteries of the spiritual life, the truths which come from divine revelation. Whatever most dignifies humanity, and makes our labors sweet, and causes us to forget our pains, and kindles us to lofty contemplations, and prompts us to heroic sacrifice, is the most real and the most useful. Even the leaves of a barren and neglected philosophy may be in some important respects of more value than all the boasted fruit of utilitarian science. Is that which is most useful always the most valuable,–that, I mean, which gives the highest pleasure? Do we not plant our grounds with the acacia, the oak, the cedar, the elm, as well as with the apple, the pear, and the cherry? Are not flowers and shrubs which beautify the lawn as desirable as beans and turnips and cabbages? Is not the rose or tulip as great an addition to even a poor man’s cottage as his bed of onions or patch of potatoes? What is the scale to measure even mortal happiness? What is the marketable value of friendship or of love? What makes the dinner of herbs sometimes more refreshing than the stalled ox? What is the material profit of a first love? What is the value in tangible dollars and cents of a beautiful landscape, or a speaking picture, or a marble statue, or a living book, or the voice of eloquence, or the charm of earliest bird, or the smile of a friend, or the promise of immortality? In what consisted the real glory of the country we are never weary of quoting,–the land of Phidias and Pericles and Demosthenes? Was it not in immaterial ideas, in patriotism, in heroism, in conceptions of ideal beauty, in speculations on the infinite and unattainable, in the songs which still inspire the minds of youth, in the expression which made marble live, in those conceptions of beauty and harmony which still give shape to the temples of Christendom? Was Rome more glorious with her fine roads and tables of thuja-root, and Falernian wines, and oysters from the Lucrine Lake, and chariots of silver, and robes of purple and rings of gold,–these useful blessings which are the pride of an Epicurean civilization? And who gave the last support, who raised the last barrier, against that inundation of destructive pleasures in which some see the most valued fruits of human invention, but which proved a canker that prepared the way to ruin? It was that pious Emperor who learned his wisdom from a slave, and who set a haughty defiance to all the grandeur and all the comforts of the highest position which earth could give, and spent his leisure hours in the quiet study of those truths which elevate the soul,–truths not taught by science or nature, but by communication with invisible powers.

Ah, what indeed is reality; what is the higher good; what is that which perishes never; what is that which assimilates man to Deity? Is it houses, is it lands, is it gold and silver, is it luxurious couches, is it the practical utilitarian comforts that pamper this mortal body in its brief existence? or is it women’s loves and patriots’ struggles, and sages’ pious thoughts, affections, noble aspirations, Bethanies, the serenities of virtuous old age, the harmonies of unpolluted homes, the existence of art, of truth, of love; the hopes which last when sun and stars decay? Tell us, ye women, what are realities to you,–your carpets, your plate, your jewels, your luxurious banquets; or your husbands’ love, your friends’ esteem, your children’s reverence? And ye, toiling men of business, what is really your highest joy,–your piles of gold, your marble palaces; or the pleasures of your homes, the approbation of your consciences, your hopes of future bliss? Yes, you are dreamers, like poets and philosophers, when you call yourselves pack-horses. Even you are only sustained in labor by intangible rewards that you can neither see nor feel. The most practical of men and women can really only live in those ideas which are deemed indefinite and unreal. For what do the busiest of you run away from money-making, and ride in cold or heat, in dreariness or discomfort,–dinners, or greetings of love and sympathy? On what are such festivals as Christmas and Thanksgiving Day based?–on consecrated sentiments that have more force than any material gains or ends. These, after all, are realities to you as much as ideas were to Plato, or music to Beethoven, or patriotism to Washington. Deny these as the higher certitudes, and you rob the soul of its dignity, and life of its consolations.


Bacon’s Works, edited by Basil Montagu; Bacon’s Life, by Basil Montagu; Bacon’s Life, by James Spedding; Bacon’s Life, by Thomas Fowler; Dr. Abbott’s Introduction to Bacon’s Essays, in Contemporary Review, 1876; Macaulay’s famous essay in Edinburgh Review, 1839; Archbishop Whately’s annotations of the Essays of Bacon; the general Histories of England.

Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation