• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Advancement of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon

by Perez Zagorin
Princeton University Press, 286 pp., $35.00


Francis Bacon has always been given a leading part to play in the grand narratives about the origins of modern thought. The philosophers of the Enlightenment made him a hero of their story about the triumph of reason over superstition and ignorance. Immanuel Kant, for example, hails him in the preface to The Critique of Pure Reason as one of the revolutionary thinkers who first enabled the study of nature “to enter upon the highway of science.” More recently, however, Bacon has been recast in the role of arch villain. Both Heidegger and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School have held him responsible more than anyone for the catastrophic error of identifying science with technology. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, Bacon’s confusion has condemned us to living in a mechanized world in which nature has been made an object of domination and “no obstacles” have been left to “compliance with the world’s rulers” and “the enslavement of men.”

Francis Bacon was born in 1561 into the highest ranks of the English political elite. His uncle, Lord Burghley, was Queen Elizabeth I’s chief counselor; his father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal for nearly twenty years. The young Bacon proved startlingly precocious, and was sent at the tender age of twelve to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his tuition from the master of the college, John Whitgift. One of the main features of the curriculum was the study of Aristotelian logic, but Bacon soon learned to distrust ancient learning and set himself to think anew about the methodology of the sciences. By 1592 we find him telling Lord Burghley in a famous letter that he has been meditating “vast contemplative ends” and that “I have taken all knowledge to be my province.”

No less startling was the precocity with which Bacon set himself to emulate his father’s career in public life. As early as 1576 he joined the embassy to France and stayed in Paris for three formative years. Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart in their impressive new biography, Hostage to Fortune, have uncovered fresh evidence that, within a year of his arrival, Bacon was entrusted with secret letters to carry to Elizabeth’s court, and was able to hand them over in the presence of the Queen. He was just sixteen years old at the time. Back in England in 1579, Bacon gained election to the House of Commons and duly sat in the Parliament of 1581. By 1584 he was ready to issue his first political tract, a letter of advice to the Queen in which—with an interesting touch of aggression—he questioned the policy of persecuting the Puritans recently initiated by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, his former teacher John Whitgift. Before the end of the decade he made another skillful move when he joined the entourage of the Earl of Essex, the Queen’s new favorite after the death of the Earl of Leicester. Here too Jardine and Stewart have new evidence to report, this time about the extent to which Bacon’s work for Essex centered on the gathering of secret foreign intelligence. So successful were Bacon’s efforts that, by June 1588, we already find him writing confidently about his prospects of gaining some official post.

Throughout these hectic years Bacon somehow found time to keep up with his philosophical and scientific pursuits. The first outcome was The Advancement of Learning, originally published in 1605 and subsequently reissued in a much-extended Latin form in 1623.1 Beginning with an eloquent tribute to the dignity of learning, Bacon goes on to explain how its dignity has been compromised by three prevailing vices. The first he associates with the humanist literary culture of the Renaissance, whose exponents pay far too much attention to delicacies of style and not enough to “weight of matter” and “soundness of argument.” The second vice is that of Aristotle and his followers in the universities, who spin useless webs of invented learning without any regard for the world of experience. The last and most serious vice is that of the credulous, who accept everything on authority without making observations for themselves or reflecting critically on what they have observed.

Bacon extended and deepened this critique in his New Organon, on which he worked for many years before finally publishing it in a fragmentary form in 1620. His secretary later declared that he had seen the text in a dozen different drafts. As Perez Zagorin has rightly emphasized in his valuable new survey of Bacon’s thought, the renewed assault in Part I of the New Organon on the “I dols” or “false notions” that hinder the progress of knowledge is Bacon’s most original contribution to the philosophy of the sciences. First Bacon examines what he calls the I dols of the Tribe, the ineradicable limitations of human intelligence and perceptual capacity that lead us to misinterpret the world. Next he turns to the I dols of the Cave, by which he means the individual defects of education and prejudice that further “refract and discolour the light of nature.” He then considers the I dols of the Marketplace, his way of referring to the disorienting power of language to “overrule the understanding” and give rise to “empty controversies and idle fancies.” He ends with the I dols of the Theatre, at which point he makes clear his radical skepticism about all existing systems of knowledge. Taken together, he concludes, these systems provide us with nothing better than “so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion.”

If these are the problems, what is the solution? Bacon’s immensely ambitious answer is already implicit in the title of his treatise. Given that Aristotle’s logical writings were generally known as the Organon, to speak of a new Organon was to imply that nothing less than a reformed system of logic will be needed if the sciences are to advance. This is the proposal that Bacon duly takes up in Part II of the New Organon, in which he lays out a methodology for the sciences designed to overcome or at least allow for all the deficiencies of human understanding he has isolated.

Bacon’s system takes the form of what he calls a method of “true induction” derived from “natural and experimental histories.” When he speaks of histories in this context, what he has in mind is that the initial task of the scientist, like that of the historian, should be to assemble as much evidence as possible about some given subject matter with a minimum of “premature speculation” about its significance. The next and crucial step must then be to exclude irrelevant information (although Bacon is far from lucid on how this can be done) and thereby build up a positive picture of the nature or “form” of the phenomenon under investigation. The eventual aim is to use this process of induction to arrive at a number of axioms or generalizations about the causes of the given phenomenon and its expected behavior.

Bacon’s attempt to articulate a new scientific method forms the heart of his intellectual enterprise. This is a claim worth underlining, if only because of a recent tendency among commentators to argue that Bacon was at least as much concerned with “policy”—that is, with political and moral questions—as with science. B.H.G. Wormald, for example, has made it the thesis of his important study that Bacon had “two programs” for the reconstruction of knowledge, and that his project of writing civil as well as natural histories served to unify his moral and scientific thought. But as Zagorin has correctly pointed out, Bacon himself always placed his main emphasis on the reformation of the sciences, and above all on the need to make them “operative,” capable of producing results of benefit to human life.

It must be admitted, however, that Bacon made little progress with what he himself described as this “Great Instauration.” After publishing The Advancement of Learning he devoted a surprising amount of his time to the purely speculative aspects of his philosophy, concentrating on such issues as celestial motion, vital spirits, and the relations between science and religion. The various sketches he wrote have now been superbly edited by Graham Rees, and they turn out to contain much fascinating information about the sources of Bacon’s thought. But it is evident that Bacon himself remained unsatisfied, and none of this material was published or even completed by the time of his death. Nor did he make much better progress with the grandiose project outlined in the New Organon. The finished work was designed to be in six parts, of which the third was meant to include the various natural histories which, as Bacon himself had stressed, formed the basis of his entire system. He published a preface in which he listed 130 histories that urgently needed to be written, but he only managed to complete three of them, and the other sections of the Organon were never written at all.


If Bacon felt frustrated by these failures, he was even more vocally and resentfully frustrated by his failure to achieve his expected advancement in public life. By the time James I succeeded Elizabeth on the throne in 1603, Bacon had been a member of Parliament for over twenty years. But in spite of his precocious start he remained without public office or recognition of any kind. In his pursuit of power, he complained, he was beginning to feel “like a child following a bird, which when he is nearest flieth away.”

Jardine and Stewart address themselves at length to the question of why Bacon was passed over, and make much of the possibility that his homosexuality may have been the cause. (Their entire index entry on Bacon’s character reads “eloquence, extravagance, male friends.”) They may be right, but the issue is more complicated than they allow. Some of Bacon’s latest biographers have remained skeptical about the evidence concerning Bacon’s sexual tastes. Nieves Mathews in particular has complained in her fiercely polemical book, Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination, that most of the surviving reports about Bacon’s sexual behavior come from witnesses who were writing long afterward and are in any case “entitled to very little credit.” Furthermore, even if Bacon was in fact a practicing homosexual, it is not clear why this should have rendered him unemployable. Jardine and Stewart sometimes seem to assume a greater degree of prejudice than may have existed in the circles in which Bacon moved.

On the basic question of Bacon’s sexual orientation, however, Jardine and Stewart are almost certainly correct. It is true that they accept as evidence a number of anecdotes that scarcely seem to bear the sexual connotations they place on them. But they rightly point out that Bacon’s preferences were notorious at the time. His fellow member of Parliament Sir Simonds D’Ewes was only one of several who commented on his “horrible and secret sin of sodomy.” To this Jardine and Stewart interestingly add that the subsequent concealment of the facts appears to have been owing in part to the prudish and hagiographic traditions of later scholarship. John Aubrey’s near-contemporary biography provides a good example. Although Aubrey (generally reliable in matters of gossip) roundly informs us that Bacon “was a pederast,” he is careful to leave the word in the decent obscurity of the original Greek. A clergyman who preached against Bacon in 1619 seems to have suffered a comparable form of censorship. According to the published transcript of his sermon, what he complained about was the scandal of Bacon’s Latinities. But Jardine and Stewart have gone back to the original document, and are able to inform us in one of their best scholarly asides that what it says is not “Latinities” but “catamites.”

  1. 1

    An excellent new edition is contained in Francis Bacon, edited by Brian Vickers, Oxford Authors series (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 120-299.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print