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An Appreciation of Francis Bacon

ISSUE:  Autumn 1998
Francis Bacon. By Perez Zagorin. Princeton. $29. 95.

In the sumptuously appointed Master’s Lodge of Trinity College, Cambridge University hang adjacent to one another portraits of Francis Bacon and Elizabeth I. This proximity would have caused some pain to Bacon, one of Trinity’s most illustrious graduates. For it was the fabled British monarch Elizabeth who in large part caused Bacon the series of deep disappointments around which his life took shape. It was also she who unknowingly caused him to plumb the darker side of the human condition and advance learning so decisively as to justify yet another critical study of Francis Bacon (1561—1626).

Who was Francis Bacon? And do we need bother asking in order to accept or simply appreciate his works? Many have stepped up to the bat to answer these questions. In a masterfully concise 24 pages, Perez Zagorin handles both questions in his introduction to an exhaustively researched and impressively accessible new study. The early death of Bacon’s father, coupled with the absence of a significant inheritance for his widow and two children, left the plainly brilliant young Francis in the predicament of having to work for a living. Like his father, Francis chose to earn his living as a courtier in royal service, one dependent upon the good will of the queen. Law was Francis’s chosen profession, philosophy and science his passion.

Bacon continues to help us with his astute advice on how to compete for social advantage, power, and the gifts of fortune. Conception of this advice seemed to come easier than its execution, however, for Bacon’s unfortunate schemes for self-advancement in the crown’s service (aggrandizing himself through craft, flattery, and displaying himself in the best possible light) rarely worked. Alas, those whom Bacon sought to flatter and manipulate (including the queen herself) sometimes saw through his artifice and punished him for it. Similarities of Machiavelli’s biography spring to mind while reading through this introduction. Zagorin shows us that despite Bacon’s rejection of Machiavelli’s famously immoral standpoint, the Englishman’s thought reflects the influence of the Italian. Bacon shared the Florentine theorist’s instrumental approach to human affairs and his calculated appraisal of means. No less than the latter did he insist on accommodation to times and circumstances as the pathway to success. In the advice Bacon gave to those who aspired to rise socially, he recommended masking and role-playing, the manipulation of others, and a dissimulation that could easily become outright dishonesty. It is gospel Machiavelli.

As he matured, Bacon came to understand the anguished cry of Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII: “Wretched is the man who hangs upon a prince for favors!” Zagorin concludes that the tragedy of Bacon’s life in politics was that he was compelled to humble himself repeatedly to intellectually inferior men in order to survive in the royal court. Zagorin’s point in combining biography with critical exegesis is well taken. “Bacon was never a detached philosopher contemplating the human or natural world from a haven of serene seclusion. His political career, with its many frustrations, disappointments, and constant dependency on more powerful men, left deep traces on his personality. It also had a significant effect in shaping his outlook on man and society, giving to his thought in this domain its extreme worldliness, its markedly prudential character, and its preoccupation with success and the creation of one’s own fortune.” These frustrations hold a gossipy appeal that Zagorin negotiates tactfully. Bacon’s coldly judgmental mother, whose Puritan zeal he did not share, suspected both of her sons of harboring desires to know the bodies of other men, apparently with good reason. Where other biographers have focused on this aspect of Bacon’s personality, Zagorin judiciously allows the question only in order to ponder what effect homosexual activity and its necessary denial might have had on Bacon’s advice to us for effective self-promotion.

As part of his worldly wisdom, Bacon took a keen interest in dissimulation and cunning. It was professional failure ultimately, not homosexuality, that gave rise to the most secretive and torturous side of Bacon’s personality. In a culture that has readily absorbed the general insights of psychoanalysis, however, non-specialist readers might well have liked to follow Zagorin into a discussion of what damage Bacon’s mother might have done to Francis. Zagorin, for better or for worse, does not lead us there.

Zagorin balances nicely the personal aspects of Bacon’s life with a critical assessment of Bacon’s philosophical and scientific achievements. Bacon wrote despite, or perhaps because of, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. When things went badly at work, Bacon went home to write philosophy. Failure and the cruelty of others created time for Bacon’s private ruminations. Bacon must have learned something important from reading Montaigne, one of our greatest commentators on human cruelty. Zagorin unfortunately does not explore Bacon’s debt to Montaigne, preferring instead to focus on Bacon’s scientific achievement. It is particularly in the course of his examination of Bacon’s scientific contributions that Zagorin’s work rewards our attention.

For centuries many have credited Descartes with the creation of a distinctly modern philosophy. Zagorin and other recent writers, however, have demonstrated that this honor might more correctly be bestowed on Bacon. Descartes’s Rules for the Direction of the Mind laid great stress on the necessity of a method to investigate the truth of things, while his subsequent Discourse on Method (1637) gave classic expression to the attempt to propound a method for the guidance of thought that would establish a foundation of absolute certainty for both the existence of God and a number of fundamental observations about the world. Well before Descartes, method was a subject of widespread interest among 16th-century philosophers, and to none more so than to Bacon, who saw in it the key to the renewal of natural philosophy. Bacon’s exposure of the causes of intellectual error and their remedies may stand alongside Descartes’s rules of method as a major effort to show how the mind ought to proceed in its quest for truth. Zagorin leaves us wondering whether Descartes had read Bacon, but appreciating the boldness of Bacon’s vision nonetheless.

In explaining the historical reasons for the backwardness of natural philosophy, Bacon always assigned a large importance to the role of religion. Zagorin criticizes others for having devoted much more attention to Bacon’s concepts of philosophy and science than to his view of the relationship between philosophy and religion and theology. Some of the most engaging moments in Zagorin’s study emerge from his discussion of religion. It was religious devotion that to a significant extent hindered scientific progress. Belief that Adam’s fall condemned mortals to ignorance and that intellectual aspirations belied the cardinal sin of pride crippled the human race by discouraging scientific inquiry.

Of all the obstacles to the progress of science and the undertaking of the new tasks needed for its advance, Bacon believed that the greatest lay in the fact “that men despair and think things impossible.” To eliminate this despair was one of the foremost objectives of Bacon’s work. Zagorin argues cogently that Bacon’s main and permanent significance is as a thinker about science: the conditions favorable to its growth; the changes and procedures required to insure its progress; its contribution to the inauguration of a new regime of knowledge; and its technological and moral realization in works to improve the human condition.

In a decade in which the idea of another critical study of Bacon might seem superfluous, Perez Zagorin has succeeded not only in persuading us that other accounts have fallen somehow short, but also of helping us to appreciate Bacon’s genius anew. As a skilled biographer, Zagorin lets the reader decide what Bacon wanted more: to help us live better lives (through science), or to be celebrated as someone (the one) who helped us lead better lives?

The details of Bacon’s private suffering invite speculation on whether his moral and scientific studies would merit ongoing study had he risen to the social ascendancy he long craved. We see that the same accident of fortune that separated Bacon from political success in Elizabeth’s court enriched the essays that have earned for Bacon his reputation as one of the keenest psychologists in history, as well as of a pioneer of scientific method. Zagorin’s book tells two interesting stories: what modern scientific method owes to Bacon and that, for some of us at least, life is what happens when making other plans. Both stories come to life in the hands of the author, who has given us clearer reason to admire Francis Bacon.


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