Sir Francis Bacon

The English philosopher, statesman, and author Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the chief figure of the English Renaissance. His advocacy of "active science" influenced the culture of the English-speaking world.

Francis Bacon was born in London on Jan. 22, 1561, the younger son of Sir Nicholas Bacon and his second wife, Lady Anne Bacon. Through the families of both parents he had important connections with the political and cultural life of Tudor England. His father was lord keeper of the great seal under Elizabeth I, and his maternal grandfather had been tutor to Edward VI.

Bacon entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in April 1573 and completed his studies there in December 1575. He began to study law at Gray's Inn, but his studies were interrupted for 2 1/2 years while he served with Sir Amyas Paulet, the English ambassador to France. Upon his father's death Bacon returned to England, reentered Gray's Inn, and became a barrister in June 1592.

Bacon's literary work was accomplished, for the most part, during a life taken up with affairs of state. His public career began with his first election to Parliament in 1584. He early sought a position at court and Elizabeth I did make him Queen's counsel, but his ambitions for higher positions, supported by the Earl of Essex, were frustrated.

In 1592, on the anniversary of the Queen's coronation, Essex presented an entertainment composed by Bacon. In the speech in praise of knowledge he states his lifelong theme: "the sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge … now we govern nature in opinions, but are thrall to her in necessities; but if we would be led by her in invention, we should command her in action." Bacon tied himself closely to Essex and received many favors from him but later helped prosecute him for treason. While his part in the fate of Essex has been criticized as an ungrateful betrayal, it has also been defended as a duty painfully performed.

His Publications

Bacon's first publication, in 1597, was a collection of 10 essays mainly devoted to aphorisms on political behavior. These were expanded and 29 new essays published with them in 1612. A still further enlarged edition, including 58 essays, appeared in 1625.

Bacon was knighted 4 months after the accession of James I in 1603, and in 1607 he was appointed solicitor general. In the meantime he had published The Advancement of Learning (1605), hoping to move James to support science. De sapientia veterum (On the Wisdom of the Ancients), an interpretation of ancient myths, was published in 1609. In the next dozen years Bacon's fortunes soared. In 1613 he was appointed attorney general; in 1616 to the Privy Council; in 1617 lord keeper; and in 1618 lord chancellor and Baron Verulam.

In 1620 Novum organum (New Method), was published as Part II of The Great Instauration. The entire project was never completed, and this part is not complete itself, but Bacon's reputation as a philosopher of science rests mainly upon it. The plan for the renewal of the sciences had six parts: a survey of existing knowledge, Bacon's inductive logic, an encyclopedia of all natural phenomena, examples of the New Method's application, Bacon's discoveries, and an exposition of the New Philosophy that would finally emerge.

Last Years

In 1621, on his sixtieth birthday, Bacon was at the height of his career. He celebrated the occasion with a party at York House on the Strand, his birthplace. Among the guests was Ben Jonson. Five days later Bacon was created Viscount St. Albans. Disaster struck soon after. He was convicted by the High Court of Parliament for accepting bribes, sentenced to a fine and imprisonment, and banned from public office and Parliament. Here again, the degree of Bacon's guilt, which he admitted, and its moral evaluation have raised controversy.

The last 4 years of his life he devoted to writing History of Henry VII, De augmentis scientiarum (1623), The New Atlantis (1624), Sylva sylvarum (1627), and a number of other pieces.

He died on April 9, 1626, appropriately, however unfortunately, as the combined result of a scientific experiment and a political gesture. Leaving London, he decided to try the effect of cold in inhibiting putrefaction, and he stuffed with snow a hen he purchased from a woman along the way. He caught a chill and went to the nearby house of Lord Arundel, where the servants, in deference to his importance, made available the best bed. It, disastrously, was in a room that had not been adequately warmed or aired out, and Bacon contracted the bronchitis that brought about his death a week later.

Bacon's Philosophy

Bacon developed a dislike for Aristotelian philosophy at Trinity College, and he also opposed Platonism. He felt that Aristotle's system was more suited to disputation than to discovery of new truth and that Plato's doctrine of innate knowledge turned the mind inward upon itself, "away from observation and away from things." Bacon's new method emphasized "the commerce of the mind with things." Science was to be experimental, to take note of how human activity produces changes in things and not merely to record what happens independently of what men do. This is part of what Bacon means by "active science." Still more fundamental is an ethical component. Science should be a practical instrument for human betterment. Bacon's attitude is best summed up in a passage from "Plan of the Work" in The Great Instauration, describing the sixth part, on "The New Philosophy or Active Science." "Man is the helper and interpreter of Nature. He can only act and understand insofar as by working upon her he has come to perceive her order. Beyond this he has neither knowledge nor power. For there is no strength that can break the causal chain. Accordingly these twin goals, human science and human power, come in the end to one. To be ignorant of causes is to be frustrated in action."

In the aphorism which concludes Book I of Novum organum, two rules of scientific procedure are emphasized: "to drop all preconceived notions and make a fresh start; and … to refrain for a while from trying to rise to the most general conclusions or even near to them." The fresh start requires the mind to overcome the influence of four "ldols," tendencies that inhibit the search for truth. The Idols of the Tribe are common to mankind generally. The Idols of the Cave are the tendencies of each man to see truth in relation to his own particular interests and disposition. The Idols of the Theater are the traditional philosophical systems. The Idols of the Market Place are errors that arise from language.

Science should start with what Bacon called Tables of Investigation. The Table of Presence lists instances in which the phenomenon being studied occurs. The Table of Absence in Proximity includes the important negative instances; these are the ones most like the positive instances. The Table of Comparison compares the degrees of the phenomenon.

Interpretation begins with a brief survey which will suggest the correct explanation of the phenomenon. Although this "anticipation" resembles a hypothesis, there is in Bacon's discussions no clear indication that he recognized the central scientific importance of devising and testing hypotheses. He goes on to consider "prerogative instances," those most likely to facilitate interpretation, of which he classifies 27 different types. By following the method outlined, scientific investigation is supposed to produce, almost mechanically, a gradually increasing generality of understanding, a "ladder of axioms" upon which the mind can climb up or down.

Bacon's program was too ambitious and in its particulars it has been of little influence. His approach did serve, however, to encourage detailed, concrete observation and experimentation and a system of scientific theory tied to them. His identification as the Moses of modern science or the Columbus of the mind is therefore not entirely inapt.

Further Reading on Sir Francis Bacon

The definitive edition of Bacon is James Spedding, Robert L. Ellis, and Douglas D. Heath, eds., The Works of Francis Bacon (14 vols., 1857-1874). The last seven volumes, edited by Spedding, were also printed separately as The Letters and Life of Francis Bacon Including All His Occasional Works. Among the most helpful works on Bacon are C. D. Broad, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (1926); Fulton H. Anderson, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (1948) and Francis Bacon: His Career and Thought (1962); Benjamin Farrington, Francis Bacon, Philosopher of Industrial Science (1949); Karl R. Wallace, Francis Bacon on the Nature of Man (1967); Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science (trans. 1968); and Brian Vickers, ed., Essential Articles for the Study of Francis Bacon (1968), which includes selected articles and useful bibliographical references.