CHAPTER XVI. BACON, AND THE RISE OF THE NEW PHILOSOPHY.
Birth and Early Life. Treatment of Essex. His Appointments. His Fall.
Writes Philosophy. Magna Instauratio. His Defects. His Fame. His
BIRTH AND EARLY LIFE OF BACON.
Contemporary with Shakspeare, and almost equal to him in English fame at least, is Francis Bacon, the founder of the system of experimental philosophy in the Elizabethan age. The investigations of the one in the philosophy of human life, were emulated by those of the other in the realm of general nature, in order to find laws to govern further progress, and to evolve order and harmony out of chaos.
Bacon was born in London, on the 22d of January, 1560-61, to an enviable social lot. His father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, was for twenty years lord keeper of the great seal, and was eulogized by George Buchanan as “Diu Britannici regni secundum columen.” His mother was Anne Cook, a person of remarkable acquirements in language and theology. Francis Bacon was a delicate, attractive, and precocious child, noticed by the great, and kindly called by the queen “her little lord keeper.” Ben Jonson refers to this when he writes, at a later day:
England's high chancellor, the destined heir
In his soft cradle to his father's chair.
Thus, in his early childhood, he became accustomed to the forms and grandeur of political power, and the modes by which it was to be striven for.
In his thirteenth year he was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, then, as now, the more mathematical and scientific of the two universities. But, like Gibbon at Oxford, he thought little of his alma mater, under whose care he remained only three years. It is said that at an early age he disliked the Logic of Aristotle, and began to excogitate his system of Induction: not content with the formal recorded knowledge, he viewed the universe as a great storehouse of facts to be educed, investigated, and philosophically classified.
After leaving the university, he went in the suite of Sir Amyas Paulet, the English ambassador, to France; and recorded the observations made during his travels in a treatise On the State of Europe, which is thoughtful beyond his years. The sudden death of his father, in February, 1579-80, recalled him to England, and his desire to study led him to apply to the government for a sinecure, which would permit him to do so without concern as to his support. It is not strange—considering his youth and the entire ignorance of the government as to his abilities—that this was refused. He then applied himself to the study of the law; and whatever his real ability, the jealousy of the Cecils no doubt prompted the opinion of the queen, that he was not very profound in the branch he had chosen, an opinion which was fully shared by the blunt and outspoken Lord Coke, who was his rival in love, law, and preferment. Prompted no doubt by the coldness of Burleigh, he joined the opposition headed by the Earl of Essex, and he found in that nobleman a powerful friend and generous patron, who used his utmost endeavors to have Bacon appointed attorney-general, but without success. To compensate Bacon for his failure, Essex presented him with a beautiful villa at Twickenham on the Thames, which was worth L2,000.
TREATMENT OF ESSEX.—Essex was of a bold, eccentric, and violent temper. It is not to the credit of Bacon that when Essex, through his rashness and eccentricities, found himself arraigned for treason, Bacon deserted him, and did not simply stand aloof, but was the chief agent in his prosecution. Nor is this all: after making a vehement and effective speech against him, as counsel for the prosecution—a speech which led to his conviction and execution—Bacon wrote an uncalled-for and malignant paper, entitled “A Declaration of the Treasons of Robert, Earl of Essex.”
A high-minded man would have aided his friend; a cautious man would have remained neutral; but Bacon was extravagant, fond of show, eager for money, and in debt: he sought only to push his own fortunes, without regard to justice or gratitude, and he saw that he had everything to gain from his servility to the queen, and nothing from standing by his friend. Even those who thought Essex justly punished, regarded Bacon with aversion and contempt, and impartial history has not reversed their opinion.
HIS APPOINTMENTS.—He strove for place, and he obtained it. In 1590 he was appointed counsel extraordinary to the queen: such was his first reward for this conduct, and such his first lesson in the school where thrift followed fawning. In 1593 he was brought into parliament for Middlesex, and there he charmed all hearers by his eloquence, which has received the special eulogy of Ben Jonson. In his parliamentary career is found a second instance of his truckling to power: in a speech touching the rights of the crown, he offended the queen and her ministers; and as soon as he found they resented it, he made a servile and unqualified apology.
At this time he began to write his Essays, which will be referred to hereafter, and published two treatises, one on The Common Law, and one on The Alienation Office.
In 1603 he was, by his own seeking, among the crowd of gentlemen knighted by James I. on his accession; and in 1604 he added fortune to his new dignity by marrying Alice Barnham, “a handsome maiden,” the daughter of a London alderman. He had before addressed the dowager Lady Hatton, who had refused him and bestowed her hand upon his rival, Coke.
In 1613 he attained to the long-desired dignity of attorney-general, a post which he filled with power and energy, but which he disgraced by the torture of Peacham, an old clergyman, who was charged with having written treason in a sermon which he never preached nor published. As nothing could be extorted from him by the rack, Bacon informed the king that Peacham “had a dumb devil.” It should be some palliation of this deed, however, that the government was quick and sharp in ferretting out treason, and that torture was still authorized.
In 1616 he was sworn of the privy council, and in the next year inherited his father's honors, being made lord keeper of the seal, principally through the favor of the favorite Buckingham. His course was still upward: in 1618 he was made lord high chancellor, and Baron Verulam, and the next year he was created Viscount St. Albans. Such rapid and high promotion marked his great powers, but it belonged to the period of despotism. James had been ruling without a parliament. At length the necessities of the government caused the king to summon a parliament, and the struggle began which was to have a fatal issue twenty-five years later. Parliament met, began to assert popular rights, and to examine into the conduct of ministers and high officials; and among those who could ill bear such scrutiny, Bacon was prominent.
HIS FALL.—The charges against him were varied and numerous, and easy of proof. He had received bribes; he had given false judgments for money; he had perverted justice to secure the smiles of Buckingham, the favorite; and when a commission was appointed to examine these charges he was convicted. With abject humility, he acknowledged his guilt, and implored the pity of his judges. The annals of biography present no sorrier picture than this. “Upon advised consideration of the charges,” he wrote, “descending into my own conscience, and calling my memory to account so far as I am able, I do plainly and ingenuously confess that I am guilty of corruption, and do renounce all defence. O my lords, spare a broken reed!”
It is useless for his defenders, among whom the chief are Mr. Basil Montagu and Mr. Hepworth Dixon, to inform us that judges in that day were ill paid, and that it was the custom to receive gifts. If Bacon had a defence to make and did not make it, he was a coward or a sycophant: if what he said is true, he was a dishonest man, an unjust judge. He was sentenced to pay a fine of L40,000, and to be imprisoned in the Tower at the king's pleasure; the fine was remitted, and the imprisonment lasted but two days, a result, no doubt foreseen, of his wretched confession. This was the end of his public career. In retirement, with a pension of L1,200, making, with his other means, an annual income of L2,500, this “meanest of mankind” set himself busily to work to prove to the world that he could also be the “wisest and brightest;" a duality of fame approached by others, but never equalled. He was, in fact, two men in one: a dishonest, truckling politician, and a large-minded and truth-seeking philosopher.
BEGINS HIS PHILOSOPHY.—Retired in disgrace from his places at court, the rest of his life was spent in developing his Instauratio Magna, that revolution in the very principles and institutes of science—that philosophy which, in the words of Macaulay, “began in observations, and ended in arts.” A few words will suffice to close his personal history. While riding in his coach, he was struck with the idea that snow would arrest animal putrefaction. He alighted, bought a fowl, and stuffed it with snow, with his own hands. He caught cold, stopped at the Earl of Arundel's mansion, and slept in damp sheets; fever intervened, and on Easter Day, 1626, he died, leaving his great work unfinished, but in such condition that the plan has been sketched for the use of the philosophers who came after him.
He is said to have made the first sketch of the Instauratio when he was twenty-six years old, but it was much modified in later years. He fondly called it also Temporis Partus Maximus, the greatest birth of Time. After that he wrote his Advancement of Learning in 1605, which was to appear in his developed scheme, under the title De Augmentis Scientiarum, written in 1623. His work advanced with and was modified by his investigations.
In 1620 he wrote the Novum Organum, which, when it first appeared, called forth from James I. the profane bon mot that it was like the peace of God, “because it passeth all understanding.” Thus he was preparing the component parts, and fitting them into his system, which has at length become quite intelligible. A clear notion of what he proposed to himself and what he accomplished, may be found in the subjoined meagre sketch, only designed to indicate the outline of that system, which it will require long and patient study to master thoroughly.
THE GREAT RESTORATION, (MAGNA INSTAURATIO.)—He divided it into six parts, bearing a logical relation to each other, and arranged in the proper order of study.
I. Survey and extension of the sciences, (De Augmentis Scientiarum.) “Gives the substance or general description of the knowledge which mankind at present possesses.” That is, let it be observed, not according to the received system and divisions, but according to his own. It is a new presentation of the existent state of knowledge, comprehending “not only the things already invented and known, but also those omitted and wanted,” for he says the intellectual globe, as well as the terrestrial, has its broils and deceits.
In the branch “De Partitione Scientiarum,” he divides all human learning into History, which uses the memory; Poetry, which employs the imagination; and Philosophy, which requires the reason: divisions too vague and too few, and so overlapping each other as to be of little present use. Later classifications into numerous divisions have been necessary to the progress of scientific research.
II. Precepts for the interpretation of nature, (Novum Organum.) This sets forth “the doctrine of a more perfect use of the reason, and the true helps of the intellectual faculties, so as to raise and enlarge the powers of the mind.” “A kind of logic, by us called,” he says, “the art of interpreting nature: differing from the common logic ... in three things, the end, the order of demonstrating, and the grounds of inquiry.”
Here he discusses induction; opposes the syllogism; shows the value and the faults of the senses—as they fail us, or deceive us—and presents in his idola the various modes and forms of deception. Theseidola, which he calls the deepest fallacies of the human mind, are divided into four classes: Idola Tribus, Idola Specus, Idola Fori, Idola Theatri. The first are the errors belonging to the whole human race, ortribe; the second—of the den—are the peculiarities of individuals; the third—of the market-place —are social and conventional errors; and the fourth—those of the theatre—include Partisanship, Fashion, and Authority.
III. Phenomena of the Universe, or Natural and Experimental History, on which to found Philosophy, (Sylva Sylvarum.) “Our natural history is not designed,” he says, “so much to please by vanity, or benefit by gainful experiments, as to afford light to the discovery of causes, and hold out the breasts of philosophy.” This includes his patient search for facts—nature free, as in the history of plants, minerals, animals, etc.—nature put to the torture, as in the productions of art and human industry.
IV. Ladder of the Understanding, (Scala Intellectus.) “Not illustrations of rules and precepts, but perfect models, which will exemplify the second part of this work, and represent to the eye the whole progress of the mind, and the continued structure and order of invention, in the most chosen subjects, after the same manner as globes and machines facilitate the more abstruse and subtle demonstrations in mathematics.”
V. Precursors or anticipations of the second philosophy, ( Prodromi sive anticipationes philosophiae secundae.) “These will consist of such things as we have invented, experienced, or added by the same common use of the understanding that others employ”—a sort of scaffolding, only of use till the rest are finished—a set of suggestive helps to the attainment of this second philosophy, which is the goal and completion of his system.
VI. Second Philosophy, or Active Science, (Philosophia Secunda.) “To this all the rest are subservient—to lay down that philosophy which shall flow from the just, pure, and strict inquiry hitherto proposed.” “To perfect this is beyond both our abilities and our hopes; yet we shall lay the foundations of it, and recommend the superstructure to posterity.”
An examination of this scheme will show a logical procession from the existing knowledge, and from existing defects, by right rules of reason, and the avoidance of deceptions, with a just scale of perfected models, to the second philosophy, or science in useful practical action, diffusing light and comfort throughout the world.
In a philosophic instead of a literary work, these heads would require great expansion in order adequately to illustrate the scheme in its six parts. This, however, would be entirely out of our province, which is to present a brief outline of the works of a man who occupies a prominent place in the intellectual realm of England, as a profound philosopher, and as a writer of English prose; only as one might introduce a great man in a crowd: those who wish to know the extent and character of his greatness must study his works.
They were most of them written in Latin, but they have been ably translated and annotated, and are within the ready reach and comprehension of students. The best edition in English, is that by Spedding, Ellis, and Heath, which has been republished in America.
BACON'S DEFECTS.—Further than this tabular outline, neither our space nor the scope of our work will warrant us in going; but it is important to consider briefly the elements of Bacon's remarkable fame. His system and his knowledge are superseded entirely. Those who have studied physics and chemistry at the present day, know a thousand-fold more than Bacon could; for such knowledge did not exist in his day. But he was one of those—and the chief one—who, in that age of what is called the childhood of experimental philosophy, helped to clear away the mists of error, and prepare for the present sunshine of truth. “I have been laboring,” says some writer, (quoted by Bishop Whately, Pref. to Essay XIV.,) “to render myself useless.” Such was Bacon's task, and such the task of the greatest inventors, discoverers, and benefactors of the human race.
Nor did Bacon rank high even as a natural philosopher or physicist in his own age: he seems to have refused credence to the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, which had stirred the scientific world into great activity before his day; and his investigations in botany and vegetable physiology are crude and full of errors.
His mind, eminently philosophic, searched for facts only to establish principles and discover laws; and he was often impatient or obstinate in this search, feeling that it trammelled him in his haste to reach conclusions.
In the consideration of the reason, he unduly despised the Organon of Aristotle, which, after much indignity and misapprehension, still remains to elucidate the universal principle of reasoning, and published his new organon—Novum Organum—as a sort of substitute for it: Induction unjustly opposed to the Syllogism. In what, then, consists that wonderful excellence, that master-power which has made his name illustrious?
HIS FAME.—I. He labored earnestly to introduce, in the place of fanciful and conjectural systems—careful, patient investigation: the principle of the procurement of well-known facts, in order that, by severe induction, philosophy might attain to general laws, and to a classification of the sciences. The fault of the ages before him had been hasty, careless, often neglected observation, inaccurate analysis, the want of patient successive experiment. His great motto was experiment, and again and again experiment; and the excellent maxims which he laid down for the proper conduct of experimental philosophy have outlived his own facts and system and peculiar beliefs. Thus he has fitly been compared to Moses. He led men, marshalled in strong array, to the vantage ground from which he showed them the land of promise, and the way to enter it; while he himself, after all his labors, was not permitted to enjoy it. Such men deserve the highest fame; and thus the most practical philosophers of to-day revere the memory of him who showed them from the mountain-top, albeit in dim vision, the land which they now occupy.
II. Again, Bacon is the most notable example among natural philosophers of a man who worked for science and truth alone, with a singleness of purpose and entire unconcern as to immediate and selfish rewards. Bacon the philosopher was in the strongest contrast to Bacon the politician. He left, he said, his labors to posterity; his name and memory to foreign nations, and “to (his) own country, after some time is past over.” His own time could neither appreciate nor reward them. Here is an element of greatness worthy of all imitation: he who works for popular applause, may have his reward, but it is fleeting and unsatisfying; he who works for truth alone, has a grand inner consequence while he works, and his name will be honored, if for nothing else, for this loyalty to truth. After what has been said of his servility and dishonesty, it is pleasing to contemplate this unsullied side of his escutcheon, and to give a better significance to the motto on his monument—Sic sedebat.
HIS ESSAYS.—Bacon's Essays, or Counsels Civil and Moral, are as intelligible to the common mind as his philosophy is dry and difficult. They are short, pithy, sententious, telling us plain truths in simple language: he had been writing them through several years. He dedicated them, under the title of Essays, to Henry, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King James I., a prince of rare gifts, and worthy such a dedication, who unfortunately died in 1612. They show him to be the greatest master of English prose in his day, and to have had a deep insight into human nature.
Bacon is said to have been the first person who applied the word essay in English to such writings: it meant, as the French word shows, a little trial-sketch, a suggestion, a few loose thoughts—a brief of something to be filled in by the reader. Now it means something far more—a long composition, dissertation, disquisition. The subjects of the essays, which number sixty-eight, are such as are of universal interest—fame, studies, atheism, beauty, ambition, death, empire, sedition, honor, adversity, and suchlike.
The Essays have been ably edited and annotated by Archbishop Whately, and his work has been republished in America.