Francis Bacon

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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.


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

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