Francis Bacon – The Essays

(c) Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Francis Bacon, son of Lord Keeper Nicholas Bacon, inherited his father’s position and attained Solicitor-General (1607), Attorney-General (1613) and Lord Chancellor (1618). However these positions only tell a very small side of the statesman and philosopher that published The Essays for a third and last edition in 1625. Bacon’s work seems anachronistic of the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries before the Enlightenment. John Pitcher, who has edited The Essays for Penguin Classics, notes how Bacon unsuccessfully urged Elizabeth I to create a zoo, botanical gardens, a research library and laboratories in the name of scientific advancement. He also advocated and championed the scientific method before it became popular to do so in the following century. He is therefore most deserving of the cliché, “ahead of his time”.

Bacon’s opening essay “Of Truth” is one of his most notable with the infamous line “What is truth? Said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer” which somewhat decries the nature of the subject. He also writes inspiringly about it’s pursuit, “the belief of truth, which is enjoying it, is the sovereign good of human nature”, which, if not possible, should nevertheless be sought.[1]

One prominent contradiction that runs throughout his essays and caught my attention is his belief in God and in contrast the content of many of his statements which out of context seem almost anti-religious. For instance, in “Of Revenge”, Bacon touches on the matter of free will, “why should I be angry with a man for loving himself better than me? And if any man should do wrong merely out of ill nature, why, yet it is but like the thorn or briar, which prick and scratch, because they can do no other”. [2]He is suggesting here that we cannot blame people for the way they act when it is their nature. This is one of the core arguments for a world without free will, argued vehemently against by the monotheisms that propose God has granted humans free will. He seems to pursue a similar line in “Of Great Place”, “for in evil the best condition is not to will, the second not to [be able to]”.[3]Bacon implies that some people simply cannot do ill, therefore do not have a choice in the matter, somewhat of a contradiction to the Christian doctrine.

Bacon has an admirable appreciation of both sides of an argument which could be seen as a curse or blessing, leading him to unorthodox conclusions later celebrated by key figures of the Englightenment, “atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue”.[4] He expounds this view in “Of Superstition” where he discusses the benefits of a life free of religious ties, “atheism did never perturb states, for it makes men wary of themselves…times inclined to atheism were civil times”.[5] Here Bacon almost certainly had in his mind the Epicurean philosophers, renowned for their theory of the atom and material universe in opposition to the four element theory that Bacon and the majority held. It seems rather incredible that he can hold the opinion, particularly during the religious tumult of the late sixteenth century, that a life without religion can be beneficial. He perceived that “learned times” often nurture such atheism and “troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion”.[6] Or perhaps it was precisely because of this religious tumult, the constant warfare between Catholicism and Protestantism and even subdivisions of the latter, that led Bacon to concluding religion stirred up trouble and that dispensing the whole concept was not entirely a bad thing. He even states that in superstition, “wise men follow fools”. So how, we may ask, does Bacon reconcile his religion with these views?[7]. Furthermore Bacon seems to hold quite radical judgements on “The Great Chain of Being” or at least it’s value. In the essay “Of Nobility” he scrutinises the validity of having a large or small nobility and the problems associated with each whilst  noting, “But for democracies, they need it not, and they are commonly more quiet and less subject to sedition”.[8] In the following essay “Of Seditions and Troubles” he also propounds that “money is like muck, not good except it be spread”, an incredibly radical position to take given his time of writing.[9] Anything less than an appreciation of totalitarian states in sixteenth century Europe was a considerably left view and this quotation implies a sympathy for socialist theories, quite a distance from a dynastic dictatorship. Bacon repeatedly showed astonishing perceptiveness and acknowledgement of everything his country and religion isn’t. It is this openness that has made Bacon such an eminent figure in philosophy. He both echoes the ancients and sets guidelines for the future with his admiration of the scientific method which he ultimately gave his life to, dying of pneumonia whilst observing the effects of freezing meat for preservation . Bacon’s views seem to be restrained by his time of birth when science had provided little evidence to contest religion in anything but rhetoric. His essay “Of Great Place” appears to hold the great emphasis on freedom that his American counterparts over a century later had, “it is a strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty”.[10] His praise of democracy and secularism and ardent pursuit of scientific understanding left him in somewhat of a wilderness amongst his contemporaries. Such a mind was the author of these works that he can write so eloquently and with such authority on many aspects of life which the 58 essays in this collection address.

Before my praise of him reaches insurmountable limits, Bacon, as many thinkers have done, relied heavily on the work of his forbears and Pitcher demonstrates how he doesn’t actually add much to the discussion of these topics. The abundance of references to authorities on such areas demonstrate Bacon’s salient intellectualism but also his borrowing of other’s arguments to produce, in places, unoriginal opinions. In fairness, many of the borrowed lines, from the likes of Seneca, are noteworthy, “the trappings of death terrify us more than death itself”.[11]It seems to me whatever view you hold on the afterlife, this notion holds true. What we really fear is an undignified death, a tortuous and slow end, especially one with the loss of psychical mobility and even more so with the loss of mental ability. The state of being dead is, for the religious, only, as Christopher Hitchen’s often ironically said, “where the real fun begins”. On the other hand if what I and other non-believers think is true there will be nothing to feel and therefore fear. There is room, perhaps, to mourn that the show will go on without us, that we will not be a part of the world that science propels into exciting new aspects which for now are just fantasies. It is unlikely that we will live to see the day our species reaches another planet to settle on or even comes in contact with alien life. This can keep you up at night and rightfully so. Yet it is important not to let this melancholy overcome the significance our own lives have, if only for ourselves.

In other areas Bacon makes great use of the ancients as in “Of Seditions and Troubles” where Pliny’s comment that “there is a limit to suffering but no limit to fear” seems to have influenced Bacon’s approach towards rebellion, which he sympathetically decries as a desperate plea by those mired in harsh circumstances. He takes the advice of Alonso of Aragon quite seriously when he said “the best counsellors are the dead”. Throughout his essays it is transparent that Bacon holds past intellectuals with great esteem rather than envy and he gives them their due respect. It is to this end that gives Pitcher the impression of imitation.

On top of the general arguments discussed in this text there are innumerable sayings and quotations of interest, many of which were new to me. I have not studied many of the people Bacon references so it was in many ways an introduction into their thoughts as well as his. I can only conclude that this a first-rate compendium of arguments from a range of authors, masterfully edited by Bacon and spun in his own philosophical web that also makes for an engaging read with his desirable command of the English language as Pitcher rightly praises in the introduction.

[1] Bacon, F., The Essays (Penguin Classics, 1985) ed. J. Pitcher, p. 62.

[2] Ibid., p. 72.

[3] Ibid., p. 91.

[4] Ibid., p. 110

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 107.

[7] Ibid., p. 110.

[8] Ibid., p. 99.

[9] Ibid., p. 105.

[10] Ibid., . 92.

[11] Ibid., p. 70.


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