As was no doubt inevitable in the case of a thinker and gifted writer who saw his work as a major initiative toward a fresh orientation of human knowledge, Francis Bacon has engaged the attention of many scholars in various fields, particularly historians of science. Whereas the proliferation of studies focusing on this intriguing early seventeenth century thinker has made possible a more discriminating understanding of his contribution, the increasing specialization of these studies has served other specialists better than nonspecialist readers, and Bacon is both interesting and important enough to deserve the attention of the latter group.
Professor Perez Zagorin has not undertaken a detailed life of his subject but rather a study of his philosophical writings in the context of an active and ambitious life strewn with evidences of the follies and frailties that as a thinker he recognized and, in his famous essays, analyzed dispassionately. In his essay “Of Ambition,” Bacon recommends that princes select ministers more motivated by sense of duty than determination to rise; yet to rise in the service of the two monarchs of his time, Queen Elizabeth I and her successor King James I, Bacon was capable of betraying friends and neglecting an intellectual project that he must have realized required all of his powers and constituted his best chance at an enduring achievement. As Zagorin points out in his introductory chapter, Bacon could not resist the attractions and challenges of the political life. Although James I eventually appointed him lord chancellor, he was convicted of corruption (to a considerable extent, to be sure, through the efforts of the political enemies he had no trouble in making) and banished from that office and the hope of any future one. Even then, with his magnum opus unfinished, Bacon in his seventh decade kept soliciting the king for further public responsibilities. Zagorin hardly exaggerates in attributing to Bacon “two lives.”
Bacon’s energy was ferocious, however, and his works constitute fourteen substantial volumes in the still definitive nineteenth century edition of his works, to which an edition currently in progress will add other materials more recently discovered. From the early 1590’s on, Bacon committed his intellectual life to a reform and reordering of human knowledge. He saw early that this project required a new philosophy that would jettison the assumptions and attitudes of the ancient and medieval world as well as many characteristic of the more promising Renaissance worldview. Aside from his Essays (1597), which most scholars do not regard as part of this scheme, his first important work, The Advancement of Learning, appeared in 1605, while he was still fruitlessly attempting to obtain a position of some consequence from James, who had succeeded to the throne at Elizabeth’s death two years earlier. In Book I, nominally a defense of learning against its detractors, Bacon, a tireless classifier, distinguishes three chief varieties of “vain learning.” The first, which he disposes of briefly, consists of meaningless words, ones which do not pertain to “matter.” To exemplify the second vanity, matter that is itself vain, he cites the “cobwebs of learning” of the medieval Scholastic philosophers, contentious but insubstantial and unprofitable. The third distemper of learning, outright deceitfulness, he finds well illustrated in such pseudo- sciences as astrology, natural magic, and alchemy. These and other errors have given learning itself a bad name. In Book II, Bacon proceeds to divide true learning into three branches: history, poetry, and philosophy, corresponding to the faculties of memory, imagination, and reason, respectively. The most important of these for Bacon is philosophy, encompassing, among other things, all that is now thought of as science. One of the most interesting parts of Book II is the discussion of the various ways learning is presented, or, as Bacon usually puts it, “delivered.” He favors the aphorism, a spare kind of presentation that, eschewing examples in favor of the writer’s pith, readily reveals the quality of his thought. Bacon always suspects a style he calls “magistral,” wherein the reader is offered a finished product that encourages belief and easy satisfaction, whereas a “probational” delivery engages the reader to inquire actively into the soundness of what is being presented.
Bacon’s Instauratio Magna (“The Great Instauration”) appeared fifteen years later, in 1620. Composed in Latin to ensure its availability to the educated readers of Western Europe, it consists of a proemium (a kind of preliminary announcement), a dedication to King James, an eloquent preface, and the plan of the work, which was to be in six parts, beginning with...
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