Francis Bacon Biography

Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

0111200122-Bacon.jpgFrancis Bacon (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: The first to use English instead of Latin for a philosophical treatise with his Advancement of Learning, Bacon is credited with the formulation of modern scientific thought. His Essayes is widely admired for its worldly witticisms and has become a classic of the form.

Early Life

Francis Bacon was born January 22, 1561, at York House in London, to Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Seal of England, and his second wife, née Ann Cooke, who was related to nobility through her sister, the wife of Sir William Cecil, the later Lord Treasurer Burghley. In 1573, at the age of twelve, Bacon entered Trinity College, Cambridge, which he left in 1576 for Gray’s Inn, thus following in his father’s steps and beginning a legal career.

After a brief visit to the French court in the entourage of Sir Amias Paulet from 1576 until his father’s death in 1579, Bacon stayed with the Inn and was called to the bar in 1582, two years before he began to complement his legal work with an ambitiously undertaken political career that commenced with his membership in Parliament.

After advancement to the position of Queen’s Counsel in 1589, Bacon’s career stalled under Elizabeth I, whom he seemed to have offended in a parliamentary debate regarding the implementation of regal subsidiaries in 1593; his enemies at court used the opportunity to bar his way to promotion, seeing in Bacon (not wholly unjustly) not only an ambitious, prolific writer of political advice but also an unscrupulous seeker of preferment. Again, on the personal level, his friendship with the young earl of Essex did not bring him hoped-for political gain; in 1601, after Essex’s ill-considered rebellion against the queen, Bacon’s position required him to partake in the prosecution of his former friend.

Although the publication of An Advertisement Touching the Controversies of the Church of England (1589) had brought Bacon political advancement, his later work of political advice did not professionally benefit him. During a long period of arrested political development until Elizabeth I’s death, Bacon showed himself stubborn and inclined to use the common practice of patronage and favoritism to lobby for a higher position. In his own office, he became a rather successful mediator of conflicts and tried hard but finally ineffectively to smooth the waves after Essex’s insubordination preceding his open revolt against the queen.

A later painting shows Bacon as a tall, bearded officer wearing his regalia and insignia proudly; the picture suggests the reserved, somewhat unemotional yet nevertheless personally sensitive character that his later biographers have asserted on the basis of accounts from Bacon’s chaplain and secretary William Rawley. At forty-five, he married Alice Barnham, daughter of a London alderman, who survived him; they had no children.

Life’s Work

His long period of relative political inactivity under Elizabeth I gave Bacon time to write the first ten of his Essayes, which saw publication in 1597, and again, because of their popularity, in 1612 and in 1625, both times with significant enlargements that brought the total number to fifty-eight. A master of the essay form, which he helped to forge, Bacon looked at people and their government realistically, free of passionate idealism and zeal for the betterment of humankind. What his critics have called his Machiavellian and emotionless coldness nevertheless facilitated a witty discourse on the world as it really is and not as it should be in the eyes of reformers. With this was coupled political advice, as in his essays “On Dissimulation” or “On Plantations,” which portrayed the shortsightedness, greed, and abuses of his time.

The Advancement of Learning represents his first step toward the formulation of a new method of looking at the natural world—through the eyes of the experimenting and hypothesizing scientist who has purged all visions of religious allegory, Platonic metaphysics, or Aristotelian dialectics.

Bacon’s political fortunes changed in the reign of James I; he ascended from his knighthood in 1603 through the office of attorney general (1613) to the high position of Lord Keeper in 1617 before he was made Lord Chancellor and Baron Verulam and ultimately created Viscount Saint Albans in 1621, at the age of sixty.

During these years of success, Bacon wrote The Great Instauration, the planned preface for six different works, never completed, intended to describe a restoration of human knowledge. The work is a powerful model for radical change in the pattern of Western scientific thought, characterized by Bacon’s clear sense of ordering and classification. Novum Organum, also published in 1620, contains Bacon’s argument for a “new logic,” the discovery of a finite number of “natures” or “forms” lying at the base of the natural world, and an exhaustive description of natural history.

After he had reached the zenith of his power, Bacon’s fall came when old enemies charged him with bribery; he admitted to the charges because he not only had indeed taken gifts from suitors, which was more generally acceptable, but also had accepted donations from individuals whose cases were pending with him as their judge (and in which he often decided against them despite the offerings given). Bacon resigned from his office, was fined forty thousand pounds, was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London, and was banished from the court. He made slow progress at rehabilitation, but at the time of his death in the house of Sir Arundel in 1626, he had not yet received full royal pardon from the new king Charles II.

Influence

Although his public fall from grace as a result of misconduct in office linked Bacon to his literary model Seneca, who showed similar excellence in thought and corruption in public life, the British naturalist and statesperson must be remembered for his new, practical approach toward the natural environment; his proposed outlook at science contains the seeds of modern scientific thought.

In his last, unfinished work, New Atlantis, posthumously published in 1627, Bacon argues that there is no conflict between the free pursuit of scientific exploration and the dogmas of the Christian religion. He sums up the ancient Hebrew view of the natural world as there to use and explore rather than as the manifestation of sundry natural deities, and he connects this thought to the idea that scientific research is ultimately undertaken so that God (the final spiritual authority) “might have the more glory” in the “workmanship” of the scientists and people “the more fruit” in the “use” of their discoveries.

On a final note, Bacon’s idea, expressed in the utopian New Atlantis, for an organization dedicated to the free pursuit of all natural sciences that would collect and display its findings in central “houses,” has been realized in the British Royal Society and the British Museum.

Additional Reading

Anderson, Fulton H. Francis Bacon: His Career and His Thought. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1962. Discusses the public life of Francis Bacon. Based on a series of lectures, the book links Bacon’s philosophy to his politics. Attempts to relate Bacon’s philosophy to twentieth century problems are not entirely successful.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. A very readable and interesting biography that brings Bacon to life but is still historically accurate. The author’s favorable treatment forgives Bacon for all of his faults except his coldness toward women.

Church, R. W. Bacon. London, 1881. A nineteenth century biography that has stayed amazingly fresh over the years. The author’s readable, precise style provides an enjoyable encounter with Bacon. Emphasizes Bacon’s personality.

Farrington, Benjamin. The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1964. A valuable discussion of Bacon’s philosophical concepts. The author includes good translations of Bacon’s minor Latin writings; making them available to a broader audience.

Jardine, Lisa. Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Begins with a discussion of the dialectical methods of sixteenth century Europe. Discusses Bacon’s theory of knowledge, which Bacon referred to as logic. Analyzes Bacon’s major writings and gives clear evaluations of them. Author includes a good bibliography; divided into time periods.

Sessions, William A. Francis Bacon Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. This book by a leading Bacon scholar begins with an excellent biographical sketch and a chronology of Bacon’s life, including the rise and fall of his political career. Integrates his major writings with the events of his life. Last chapter emphasizes Bacon’s utopian work, New Atlantis. Bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Stephens, James. Francis Bacon and the Style of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. Emphasizes Bacon’s concern about the communication of knowledge, specifically the need for a philosophy of communication. Includes Bacon’s attempt to use science in this philosophy. Discusses Bacon’s psychology of discovery, his plan to exploit human passions and imagination, and his doctrine of literate experience (uniting philosophy and rhetoric). Examines Bacon’s approval of fable-making as a way to pass knowledge on to future generations.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Social Context of Innovation: Bureaucrats, Families, and Heroes in the Early Industrial Revolution, as Foreseen in Bacon’s New Atlantis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. An interesting discussion of how Bacon’s ideas in New Atlantis paved the way for many of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Includes twenty-five illustrations of those inventions and how Bacon’s political positions helped promote them.

White, Howard B. Peace Among the Willows: The Political Philosophy of Francis Bacon. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. Title based on an actual event when Bacon prayed among a grove of willow trees for peace in the world. Author discusses how others have shared that dream, with the same disappointments. Includes Bacon’s hope that science would be used to improve conditions in the world.

Bibliography updated by Glenn L. Swygart

Francis Bacon Biography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

A noted lawyer and statesman of Renaissance England, Bacon defended the prerogatives of the crown and endorsed the divine right theory of monarchy. In a rapid rise to power, he became England’s attorney-general in 1613 and lord chancellor in 1618. In 1621, however, his political career ended when he was convicted of taking bribes from litigants while their cases were pending. Forced into retirement, Bacon spent the remainder of his life writing on philosophy and literature. The most influential of his thirty works included The Advancement of Learning (1605, expanded in 1623), The New Organon and Related Works (1622), The New Atlantis (1626), and several volumes of essays.

Although Bacon was not a practicing scientist, he is considered one of the prophets of modern science because of his popularization of the inductive method in research. In place of speculation and the deductive logic emphasized by the Scholastic philosophers, he proposed a “new method of reasoning” that derives general principles from the study of particular facts or instances, with the use of experiments when possible. While he remained a faithful member of the Church of England, he taught that scientists should assume the existence of a mechanistic and materialistic universe, and he proclaimed a sharp separation between scientific knowledge based on empirical methods and religious faith based on divine revelation.

By teaching that scientists should pursue truth without the “idols” of traditional assumptions, Bacon encouraged skepticism and rejection of religious censorship, at least in the realm of empirical science. Bacon’s writings later inspired and influenced Denis Diderot and other liberals of the Enlightenment. Although Bacon has been held in high esteem by twentieth century philosophers, they typically argue that he did not pay sufficient attention to the necessity of using deductive logic and theoretical hypotheses in guiding research.

Since Bacon was a contemporary with Giordano Bruno and Galileo, conservative Roman Catholic theologians were naturally alarmed by the implications of his method. The Roman Catholic church also disliked his strong criticisms of medieval philosophy, as well as his tendency toward materialism. In 1640, all of his works were proscribed by the Spanish Inquisition, and they were also placed on Sotomayor’s Index. In 1668, The Advancement of Learning was placed on the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, where it remained as late as 1948. Bacon was commonly classified with Thomas Hobbes as a materialist, although Bacon does not appear to have been an atheist or a consistent proponent of materialism.

Francis Bacon Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Bacon’s chief contribution to the history of philosophy was his effort to reconstruct completely the conception and practice of science. His own novel method of induction figures prominently in his reconstruction, which helped to launch the modern period of philosophy. His approach, however, was quickly surpassed by better accounts of scientific methodology. In ethics, the Essayes was Bacon’s main work. These essays were published in three editions (1597, 1612, 1625), the second one an enlargement upon the first, and the third a completion of the whole. No systematic moral theory is presented; Bacon’s style is more aphoristic than philosophical. The Essayes offers practical advice on moral and social questions. Bacon’s major preoccupation as a philosopher was to point the way in which individuals could be restored to a position of superiority over nature. His views about ethics exhibit a hint of this same spirit. Thomas Hobbes, who is best known for his own elaborate political and moral philosophy, was Bacon’s apprentice for a time. His emphasis on overcoming the state of nature may have been reinforced by his association with Bacon. On a personal note, Bacon pleaded guilty in 1621 to charges of political corruption. For this offense he paid a fine, was imprisoned in the notorious Tower of London for a brief time, and was permanently banned from political office. Although his particular actions clearly were illegal, the morality of a law that would impugn them has been disputed. As a happy consequence of the leisure thus afforded him, Bacon composed most of his writings during the last five years of his life.

Francis Bacon Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Francis Bacon, founder of the inductive method of modern science, philosopher, essayist, politician, and historian, was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, an Anglican, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Queen Elizabeth I. Bacon’s mother, Anne Bacon, a Calvinist, second wife of Sir Nicholas, was a Greek and Latin scholar, and the family was prosperous. Bacon’s uncle by the marriage of his aunt was Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, one of the most important men in England.

Young Francis Bacon was often seen at court in the company of his father and was known to Queen Elizabeth, who thought the boy extremely clever. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in April, 1573, when he was twelve years old. There he achieved a notable academic record and became known for criticizing the logic and science of his teachers. It seemed to the young student that the logic and philosophy of Aristotle were not adequate as a practical way to knowledge of the world, a criticism that provided the theoretical ground for Bacon’s philosophy of science.

After leaving Trinity College in 1575 Bacon became a student of law at Gray’s Inn in 1576. His studies were interrupted by a stay of two and a half years in Paris as a member of the staff of the English ambassador, Sir Amias Paulet. During this time he traveled widely and encountered the new ideas that were gradually supplanting Scholasticism in Europe. Recalled to England in February, 1579, because of the death of his father, he discovered that he had been left practically penniless, largely because his father had not finalized the division of his estate among his sons. After borrowing money to complete his law studies, Bacon was admitted to the bar in 1582.

Continuing to reflect on the need for new methods in science, Bacon entertained hopes of achieving a philosophy that would liberate students of nature from the artificial restraints of ancient logic and allow their work to have practical value in the world. At the same time he had political ambitions and prepared to set himself up as a man of power at court. In pursuit of this objective, he became a member of Parliament in 1584. He gradually ingratiated himself with Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex, and attempted to use his influence with Essex, who was six years his junior, to secure for himself a responsible position at court. Although Essex was wealthy enough and friendly enough to rescue Bacon from debt and even from debtor’s prison, he could not persuade the queen to make an appointment of his friend. This lack of preferment was partly Bacon’s fault, for he was not always politic in his criticism of the queen’s policies. He finally managed to be granted an unofficial position in the Queen’s Learned Council.

In 1597 Bacon’s first published work appeared, a volume of ten essays that contained some of his basic opinions about the need for observation and science and were distinguished by their literary charm. The book established Bacon’s reputation for a terse, Senecan style in an age given to more elaborate rhetoric, and it remains one of Bacon’s most popular works.

When Essex became too confident of his own power and attempted a march on London, he was arrested for treason. Bacon, commissioned to prosecute his former friend and patron, performed his duties diligently. This has been interpreted by some as a sign of Bacon’s devotion to duty and to the queen and by others as a sign of his putting personal advancement above friendship. Essex was executed in 1601.

When James I ascended the throne two years later, Bacon managed, through his uncle’s petition, to be knighted at the coronation; thereafter his personal, economic, and political fortunes improved. In 1605 he wrote Advancement of Learning, the first part of a great philosophic work that he intended would be titled Instauratio Magna. Although the work was never completed, the parts that were published were sufficient to make Bacon’s reputation as one of the most important thinkers of his time. In 1607 he married Alice Barnham, an alderman’s daughter. He became attorney general in 1613 and four years later received his father’s office as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. In 1617 or 1618 he became Lord Chancellor, and he was made Lord Verulam that same year and Viscount St. Albans in 1921. His The Wisdom of the Ancients, an examination of classical myths as symbols, came out in English in 1619.

In his Novum Organum, published in 1620, Bacon presented his conclusions about the proper mode of scientific inquiry. He built his ideas on the principle that the study of nature could not proceed from ideas taken a priori, as true without reference to experience, but only from a study of particular cases. In order to attain knowledge, he argued, one must free oneself from certain pernicious preconceptions or “idols.” Bacon suggested that the study of particular events proceed to a consideration of forms, or general features, and that the generalizations be tested by further observation of particular instances. This work was the first significant formulation of the inductive method in science.

Yet Bacon’s philosophical acumen did not save him from prosecution when in 1621 he was charged with accepting bribes as Lord Chancellor. While admitting his guilt, Bacon attempted to excuse himself by ingenious distinctions and references to the immorality of the times. However, he was fined forty thousand pounds and sentenced to a prison term in the Tower of London. Although the sentence was soon remitted, Bacon was forced to leave Parliament and to give up his positions at court. For the next five years he lived in retirement and continued his philosophical writings about scientific procedures. Among the products of that period are The Historie of the Raigne of King Henry the Seventh, the Historia Vitae et Mortis, and New Atlantis, his conception of a scientific Utopia.

He died at Highgate in 1626 of pneumonia contracted as a result of an experiment in preserving meat by freezing it. On his deathbed he wrote, “The experiment succeeded, excellently well.”

Francis Bacon Bibliography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Anderson, Fulton H. Francis Bacon: His Career and His Thought. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1962. Discusses the public life of Francis Bacon. Based on a series of lectures, the book links Bacon’s philosophy to his politics. Attempts to relate Bacon’s philosophy to twentieth century problems are not entirely successful.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. A very readable and interesting biography that brings Bacon to life but is still historically accurate. The author’s favorable treatment forgives Bacon for all of his faults except his coldness toward women.

Farrington, Benjamin. The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1964. A valuable discussion of Bacon’s philosophical concepts. The author includes good translations of Bacon’s minor Latin writings, making them available to a broader audience.

Jardine, Lisa. Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Begins with a discussion of the dialectical methods of sixteenth century Europe. Discusses Bacon’s theory of knowledge, which Bacon referred to as logic. Analyzes his major writings and gives clear evaluations of them. Includes a good bibliography divided into time periods.

Sessions, William A. Francis Bacon Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. Begins with an excellent biographical sketch and a chronology of Bacon’s life, including the rise and fall of his political career. Integrates his major writings with the events of his life. Last chapter emphasizes Bacon’s utopian work, New Atlantis. Includes primary and secondary bibliographies.

Stephens, James. Francis Bacon and the Style of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. Emphasizes Bacon’s concern about the communication of knowledge, specifically the need for a philosophy of communication. Includes Bacon’s attempt to use science in this philosophy. Discusses Bacon’s psychology of discovery, his plan to exploit human passions and imagination, and his doctrine of literate experience (uniting philosophy and rhetoric). Examines Bacon’s approval of fable-making as a way to pass knowledge on to future generations.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Social Context of Innovation: Bureaucrats, Families, and Heroes in the Early Industrial Revolution, as Foreseen in Bacon’s “New Atlantis.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. An interesting discussion of how Bacon’s ideas in New Atlantis paved the way for many of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Includes twenty-five illustrations of those inventions and how Bacon’s political positions helped promote them.

Zagorin, Perez. Francis Bacon. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A study of the development of Francis Bacon’s intellectual life, with attention to his thought in the areas of science, morals, politics, language, law, and history.