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.”

A more obvious reason for Bacon’s failure to gain preferment was that his early alliance with the glamorous but temperamental Earl of Essex rapidly turned into a liability. Sent to Ireland to crush Tyrone’s rebellion in 1599, Essex bungled the campaign, returned to England without permission, and was placed under house arrest. Failing to regain Elizabeth’s favor, he hatched a plot to seize the Queen and overthrow the court, at which point he was seized himself and executed for high treason within the month. Bacon was nearly brought down by his fall, and only managed to rescue his own position by agreeing to act as one of Essex’s prosecutors at his trial. Nieves Mathews has shown that Bacon made some efforts to save Essex before turning against him, but Bacon’s conduct was seen as basely ungrateful at the time, and his close association with the losing faction at court undoubtedly cost him any chance of preferment in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign.

Bacon must have hoped for better things after the accession of James I in 1603, but he still found his aspirations thwarted by powerful enemies. The most implacable of these was his cousin, Robert Cecil, who had succeeded his father, Lord Burghley, as treasurer in 1598. Cecil appears to have harbored a genuine hatred for Bacon, and certainly helped to prevent his appointment as attorney general when the post fell vacant in 1593 and again in 1607. Scarcely less serious was Bacon’s quarrel with Sir Edward Coke, perhaps the greatest common lawyer of the age. A personal rivalry exacerbated their antagonism, for when Burghley’s kinsman Sir William Hatton died in 1597, leaving a rich young widow, Bacon aspired to relieve his chronic insolvency by marrying her. Not only did he find himself spurned, but two years later Lady Hatton chose to marry Sir Edward Coke. By then the two men were locked in professional enmity, for Coke had made it brutally clear that he regarded Bacon as unsuitable for any kind of legal appointment, and had joined with the Cecils to make sure that his promotion was blocked.

It looks as if the enmity of Robert Cecil may have been the decisive factor, for as soon as he died in 1612 Bacon suddenly found it possible to climb the greasy pole. In 1613 he was at last rewarded with the attorney generalship for which he had been petitioning since the early 1590s. Acting in that role, he had the satisfaction of helping to bring about Sir Edward Coke’s dismissal as chief justice in 1616. A year later he was made Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, the position his own father had occupied under the reign of Elizabeth. When he took possession of his official residence in August 1617, he was at the same time re-entering the house in which he had been born. A few months later, his powerful but absent father (who had died when Bacon was eighteen) was finally surpassed. Bacon was raised to the peerage as Baron Verulam and granted the title of Lord Chancellor, thereby becoming the highest law officer in the land.

As an admirer of Machiavelli, Bacon must have been familiar with the thought that sudden success is rarely lasting, and that the goddess of Fortune likes to dispose ironically of human affairs. Sure enough, the closing years of Bacon’s life were filled with distressing ironies. To begin with, Fortune’s wheel turned against him so suddenly that he fell from power almost as quickly as he rose. In March 1621 two accusations were presented to Parliament alleging that he had accepted bribes while presiding in the Court of Chancery. There seems little doubt that Bacon had indeed been taking money from people with cases before the court, and Parliament resolved on his immediate impeachment in the House of Lords. After studying his situation Bacon abandoned any attempt at a defense, and in a written submission acknowledged that the charges against him contained “matter sufficient and full” to establish his guilt. He was instantly dismissed, fined the colossal sum of å£40,000, briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London, and thereafter condemned to a life of retirement by way of being banned from holding any further public offices.

Withdrawing to his estates outside London, Bacon was at last able to return to the studies he had neglected in his long and exhausting quest for political power. He seized the opportunity with evident relish, and between his fall in 1621 and his death exactly five years later he labored unremittingly at his books. By a further irony, however, the two most enduring works he managed to complete during this period were contributions not to the sciences but to the humanistic disciplines he had surveyed with such skepticism in his Advancement of Learning nearly twenty years before.

Bacon’s first act after his disgrace was to throw himself into the composition of his History of the Reign of King Henry VII, which he completed in fourteen weeks and published in 1622.2 Repeated efforts have been made to show that this was Bacon’s attempt to apply to politics his scientific ideal of writing objective natural histories. But John Tinkler has persuasively questioned this line of interpretation in his contribution to the recent Cambridge Companion to Bacon (an exceptionally valuable collection of articles). Bacon’s Henry VII, he shows, is in essence a typically humanist meditation on a well-worn Renaissance topos about the relative roles of virtue and good fortune in bringing political success.3

The other major achievement of Bacon’s retirement was the completion of his Essays, which were published in their definitive form in 1625.4 These too largely consist of meditations on such familiar humanist topics as virtue, fortune, ambition, honor, nobility, and praise. Alongside these moral themes, as Markku Peltonen has recently shown, the Essays also embody a typically humanist vision of politics, especially in their preoccupation with glory and greatness as the primary goals of the state.5 A further group of essays reflects Bacon’s evident fascination with Machiavelli’s political theory, a fascination suggested by such titles as “Of Cunning,” “Of Revenge,” “Of Simulation and Dissimulation,” and “Of Wisdom for a Man’s Self.” Consciously worldly, dramatically laconic, endlessly quotable, the Essays have never lost their freshness or their power to provoke, and have always remained the most widely read of Bacon’s works.

Although Bacon never made any major scientific discoveries in the course of his life, two famous anecdotes have always constructed the manner of his death as perfectly appropriate for the patron saint of the experimental sciences. One story is told by Bacon himself in a letter to his friend Lord Arundel. Writing to apologize for using Arundel’s house in his absence, Bacon explains that he was forced to stop there when suddenly taken ill on his way home after conducting “an experiment or two, touching the conservation and induration [hardening] of bodies.” He apologizes at the same time for dictating his letter, adding that “my fingers are so disjointed with this fit of sickness, that I cannot steadily hold a pen.” The other story comes from Thomas Hobbes, who was acting as one of Bacon’s amanuenses around this time. Hobbes later informed John Aubrey that Bacon’s final experiment had involved stuffing a chicken with snow to see if the cold would preserve the flesh. Bacon’s letter and Hobbes’s recollection agree that Bacon caught a chill and died (probably of pneumonia) shortly afterward.

Jardine and Stewart contribute a further irony at this juncture by deconstructing this story with a vengeance. Bacon’s letter, they declare, contains a secret message that Arundel would undoubtedly have been able to “read between the lines.” They recall that, in one of his natural histories, Bacon had spoken of “taking opiates and nitre, for prolongation of life, and by inhalation.” What Bacon is really telling Arundel “in a barely veiled allusion” is that “he has been inhaling remedial substances” to restore his health. As for the fact that his fingers became numb, we need to remember that this is “an unfortunate side-effect of opiates.” So Bacon’s death, according to this conjecture, was not after all that of a dedicated experimental scientist; it was simply the death of an addict who took an overdose.

Bacon remains an important figure, but not because of his views about the logic of the sciences. These seem unlikely to recover from the critical battering they received in two of the most influential works of twentieth-century philosophy of science. Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, originally published in the 1930s, is essentially a protest against the Baconian assumption that what it means to hold a genuinely scientific belief is to arrive at it by inductively building up evidence in its favor. According to Popper, the only rational way to construct a theory is to put forward hypotheses and then look for evidence against them rather than in their support. Bacon had hoped that, as he explained at the start of the New Organon, the outcome of applying his method would be “to establish progressive stages of certainty” and end with “demonstrable knowledge.” Popper insists by contrast that all scientific theories are merely provisional in character; what we call scientific knowledge is merely a body of beliefs that have so far resisted our attempts to falsify them.

The other influential text in which we find the Baconian program directly addressed is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962. Kuhn’s picture of science strongly contrasts with that of Popper, thereby offering an element of comfort to admirers of the Baconian approach. Kuhn observes that “normal science” rarely proceeds along the lines suggested by Popper’s account. Rather than tryto falsify hypotheses, scientists generally operate within agreed paradigms for the conduct of their discipline, seeking to confirm their findings and using the prestige of existing theories to dis-pose of apparent counterexamples. But at the same time Kuhn challenges the most basic postulate of the Baconian approach. Whereas Bacon had argued that the first step in constructing a theory must be to assemble as much factual information with as few preconceptions as possible, Kuhn insists that the impact of preexisting paradigms is such as to determine in advance what is capable of being counted as a fact. The very idea of collecting empirical data in the absence of preconceptions is left looking absurdly naive.

Bacon remains important, however, for his views about the motivations and justifications for engaging in the sciences. He states his basic principle at the outset of the New Organon in the form of his celebrated proposition that “human knowledge and human power meet in one.” If we set ourselves the task of finding out the causes of things, we can hope to learn how to produce or inhibit their corresponding effects. But if we can discover how to manipulate these effects, we can begin not merely to intervene in natural processes but to learn, in Bacon’s phrase, how to command nature herself. Knowledge, in short, is power, and the aim of science is to supply us with that power on an ever-increasing scale.

As Paolo Rossi has argued in a classic work, and has recently reaffirmed, Bacon drew this image of science from Renaissance traditions of alchemy and natural magic.6 But Bacon saw no reason to view the quasi-magical powers of experimental scientists with any anxiety. He believed with an almost puritanical fervor that the outcome of increasing our ability to manipulate and control our environment will be to improve the lot of everyone. As he makes clear in The Advancement of Learning, his animating hope is that “the last or furthest end of knowledge” will be the creation of “a rich storehouse, for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.”

This may yet turn out to be the most ironic aspect of Bacon’s legacy. Aiming to liberate us from want, the Baconian project of controlling the environment runs the risk of rendering it uninhabitable. Christopher Marlowe, Bacon’s exact contemporary, eerily foreshadowed the danger in Dr. Faustus, his portrait of a Renaissance magus in the Baconian mold. Greedily summoning up the forces that enable him to dominate the world, Faustus sells his soul in the process and ends by destroying himself. Where Bacon had seen the power of science as wholly redemptive, Marlowe sees inevitable catastrophe. Which is the truer insight? We are still waiting to find out.

This Issue

November 4, 1999