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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.