The Reading Room
Francis Bacon: An Enlightenment Man before the Enlightenment
“All students and undergraduates should lay aside their various authors and only follow Aristotle and those who defend him. . . . [Avoid] all sterile and inane questions departing or disagreeing from ancient and true philosophy.” —From the Trinity College, Cambridge University, charter of 1546
A question for historiography: The seventeenth century’s discoveries in science, especially in astronomy and physics, and writings on scientific method as well as “reason,” became the foundation of the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. The confidence in reason, observation, and experiment—opening the book of nature (“God’s creation”) to reason—laid the foundations for Enlightenment philosophies. So, shouldn’t the “Enlightenment” include the seventeenth century as well as the eighteenth?
Historians (I am generalizing) reply that the seventeenth century is best seen as the “Age of Science,” the eighteenth century as the “Age of Enlightenment.” But they make at least one major concession: the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth-century scientist, philosopher, and Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon (1561–1626).
Though not within the official dates of the Enlightenment, Bacon is admitted because quite simply he established its foundations. He became the first great advocate of empiricism and also the separation of science and theology. Skepticism plus scientific method could enable scientists to stop deceiving themselves.
Understanding Bacon’s influence, which persisted for centuries, requires grasping the state of philosophical and scientific knowledge—and education—at the beginning of the seventeenth century). In every European university, in the church, and in scholarship wherever it prevailed, the worldview was Aristotelian-Aristotle’s ideas, including those on science, had been appropriated by the early Christian “fathers” like Augustine and over centuries “integrated” with Christian scripture, leading to the final synthesis of reason and faith by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy was adopted as the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. Those who studied, debated, defended, and taught this official position were the Scholastics. The chief end of education was the preparation of clergymen. (Adam Smith, for example, attended Trinity on a scholarship for future clergymen of the Church of Scotland.)
In Bacon’s time, Aristotelian-Scholasticism was the reigning orthodoxy. This philosophical theology was the authority from which knowledge and application of knowledge was derived by deductive logic. Arriving undergraduates at Trinity (see epigraph, above) were warned not to buy other books or toy with (by definition) rash and irresponsible ideas opposed to or outside Aristotelian-Scholasticism. Their text--and this continued for centuries--was the Organon of Aristotle. Its supposed virtues were its age (it was time tested), its universal acceptance and use, and its systematizing of knowledge. In short, it was authority—the authority of tradition in natural philosophy (science) and theology.
Bacon published a replacement, Novum Organum (1620), six years before his death at sixty-five, that became the new handbook of the sciences and of thinkers about scientific method throughout Europe (but only gradually in the universities). Aristotelian-Scholasticism had been unquestioned authority, the method of applying it “disputation”—arguing from authority to various derivations and applications. The Novum Organum, published in Latin, earned Bacon the historical designation “the father of empiricism.” (Even earlier, however, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), in Italy, had polemicized against the Aristotelian scholastic philosophy with great effectiveness.)
University of Pennsylvania intellectual historian Alan Charles Kors writes in The Birth of the Modern Mind: “In it he set forth his ‘Great Instauration’ [“Great New Beginning”]. The New Organon had four essential and profoundly influential themes. Knowledge is human power. Natural philosophy (science) is separate from theology. Scientific knowledge requires the method of induction, from particulars to generalizations, always tested by experiment and open to revision. Science is a dynamic, cooperative, and cumulative enterprise.”
In time, the “New,” or Novum Organum intended to supersede Aristotle’s Organon, changed everything. Now, investigation of nature, understanding its laws, would become associated with the “new philosophy”), discovery of God, God’s nature, God’s relationship to men. In the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment—following a century of science that saw Copernicus’s heliocentric theory (1543), Galileo’s improved telescope mathematics of Copernicus’s theory, Kepler and Brahe’s work on elliptical orbits (1609), and Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687)—to name a very few—optimism in Europe would become a tidal wave. Science had proven that man could understand the book of nature, and thus God’s nature, and that God created the universe not for himself (a perfect Being did not need anything) but for man—the best of all possible worlds because God is perfect.
A great aphorist, Bacon had summed up the motivation for his book: “If we are to achieve things never before accomplished we must employ methods never before attempted.” That insight was the Enlightenment’s gift from seventeenth-century science, especially astronomy, which the Aristotelian-Scholastic view held in highest esteem.
Any reader troubled that a lifetime of involvement in offices of government or business might preclude important work on the direction of philosophy or culture must take heart from the life of Francis Bacon.
Born into a notable London family, his father Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Francis Bacon was homeschooled apparently because of his poor health. At age thirteen, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he lived with his older brother, both receiving personal schooling from Dr. John Witgift, who would become Archbishop of Canterbury.
Education was conducted in Latin and strictly in the medieval Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition. In his studies, Bacon chafed at that traditional authority. In time, the student would lead in replacing what his teacher had revered. Being well connected, Bacon met and impressed Queen Elizabeth, which led to a career as a politician in high office. After three years as an aide to the English ambassador to Paris, traveling in France, Italy, and Spain, his father’s sudden death in 1579 brought him back to England.
Bacon was known at that time to have stated three goals in life: first, uncover truth; second, serve his country; and third, serve his church (he remained an Anglican). He began his political rise with a post at Gray’s Inn, becoming a barrister in 1582, a year after his election to Parliament from Cornwall.
At this time, he began writing. He seems to have conceived a sympathy for Puritanism and his first surviving tract criticized the Church of England’s suppression of Puritanism. In Parliament in 1586, he supported the execution of Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.
As Bacon moved up in politics, he did not fail to support the Crown; however, he pursued reforms to amend and simplify the law, opposed feudal privilege and dictatorial powers, and lessened religious persecution. In and out of favor with Queen Elizabeth, then James I, he held high offices such as Attorney General and Queen’s Counsel. For a time, he was in disgrace. There is little doubt he took bribes that earned him a fine and a very brief imprisonment in the Tower of London. (This disgrace, in 1621, which forced him out of public life, came just a year after publication of The New Organum.)
Through it all, Bacon remained a devout Anglican but a thinker with ideas that would define the Enlightenment. He believed proper study of philosophy and the natural world required induction. He rejected authority, including the authority of the past, by arguing that knowledge is cumulative—not just a preservation of past wisdom. “Knowledge is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” And “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
At this time, anyone who attained any public notice affirmed the existence of God the creator of the universe. Bacon’s task was to Christianize science even as he worked to create a more effective scientific method. He opposed any division among Christians, which he saw as an invitation to atheism.
Bacon’s personal life involved marriage at age forty-five to thirteen-year-old Alice Barnham, daughter of a powerful London alderman, to whom Bacon pledged his love in sonnets. Appointed Lord High Chancellor by the king, he had many court ladies to pursue but reportedly had a loving and respectful marriage, and his wife remembered and honored him until his death and after. Money problems arose nonetheless, and Alice’s longing for both fame and fortune created friction in the marriage. Alice’s plying of her circle of friends for financial assistance may have led to her clandestine romantic relationship with Sir John Underhill. Bacon promptly wrote her out of his will, which had left her lands, goods, and income. (Among his best-known sayings: “It is impossible to love and to be wise.”)
Bacon died in early spring, 1626, of pneumonia. One account, given by John Aubrey in Brief Lives, suggests that Bacon might have been a martyr to science, traipsing through the snow with the king’s physician when he was seized with an inspiration for using snow to preserve meat. Aubrey suggests that this foray may have led to Bacon’s pneumonia and death.
Bacon is buried in St. Michael’s church in St. Albans. A collection of eulogies by great thinkers of the time were collected and published in Latin. At the time of his death, Bacon’s debts, at more than £23,000 (about £4,000,000 at present value), vastly outweighed his total personal fortune. But his legacy to Christians was a warning against worshiping false “Idols” of the mind, of which he named four: Idols of the Tribe (sources of error in human nature), Idols of the Cave (sources of error in our personal biases), Idols of the Marketplace (sources of error in the ambiguity of words), and Idols of the Theater (received philosophical tradition).
Bacon’s entire approach, and the foundation of his lasting contributions, might be summed up in a question he asked in Novum Organum: “But why should we think that what is preserved in time for us is truest and wisest?”