Verie Sillie People

Keith Thomas

  • The Oxford Francis Bacon Vol. I: Early Writings 1584-96 edited by Alan Stewart, with Harriet Knight
    Oxford, 1066 pp, £200.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 818313 6

Philosopher, lawyer, essayist, historian, theorist of experimental inquiry and prophet of organised scientific research, Francis Bacon combined soaring intellectual ambition with a relentless quest for worldly advancement. The scholar who sought to reclassify the whole of human knowledge and lay the foundations for the systematic conquest of nature was also the careerist who desperately sought public office, working his way up to become James I’s lord chancellor, only to be brought down by his political opponents on a charge of corruption.

It used to be said that there was no connection between Bacon’s intellectual life and his public career. Macaulay set the pattern for this interpretation in an essay of 1837, in which he praised Bacon’s philosophy as forward-looking, but condemned his moral character and political servility, which he saw as characteristic of an outdated system of government soon to be swept away by the Civil War. More recently, there have been ingenious attempts to link the two by arguing that Bacon’s reform of natural philosophy was part of a grand programme to strengthen the crown by placing the control of knowledge in the hands of royal institutions.

It seems clear, however, that Bacon knew only too well that the calls of the court and the study were incompatible; and he never ceased to be torn between these two very different goals. In a private letter of 1592, he outlined his ‘vast contemplative ends’: ‘I have taken all knowledge to be my province,’ he declares. His plan is to emancipate intellectual inquiry from two unhelpful influences. One is that of the scholastic philosophers, with their ‘frivolous disputations, confutations and verbosities’. The other is that of the alchemists, with their ‘blind experiments and auricular traditions and impostures’. In their place, he hopes to ‘bring in industrious observations, grounded conclusions and profitable inventions and discoveries’. Bacon was profoundly aware that a project on this scale needed time and that life was short. ‘I wax now somewhat ancient,’ he fretted, ‘one and thirty years is a great deal of sand in the hour-glass.’

But the lure of political advancement was too great. As the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Elizabeth I’s second most important adviser, and the nephew of Lord Burghley, her chief counsellor, he had been born to the purple. But he was the youngest of five sons, and was still unprovided for financially when his father died suddenly in 1579, leaving the 18-year-old Francis to make his own way in the world. He was not without influential connections: his pious and intellectually formidable mother bombarded him with advice; his tutor at Cambridge was the future archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift; and his godfather, the Earl of Bedford, provided him with a seat in Parliament. But he was short of money and had expensive tastes. He became a barrister at Gray’s Inn, rising rapidly to become a highly successful advocate and legal adviser to the crown. He attached himself to Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, the dashing royal favourite, who championed his cause and urged the queen to make him her attorney-general. When that office fell to his rival Edward Coke, he set his sights on the solicitor-generalship, but with an equal lack of success. Bacon had offended Elizabeth I by his opposition in Parliament to some of her financial demands and Essex was a tactless supplicant. In a well-intentioned but almost comically ill-judged letter of 1596, Bacon suggested that his headstrong and belligerent patron should try to win the queen over by abandoning his military posture and pretending to be ‘bookish & contemplative’.

Meanwhile, the life of the mind still beckoned. In 1592 Bacon had toyed with the idea of renouncing his legal ambitions, living on his investments and becoming what he called a ‘sorry book-maker’ and a pioneer in the deep mine of truth. In 1594 he threatened to ‘retire myself with a couple of men to Cambridge, and there spend my life in my studies and contemplations, without looking back’. The next year he declared that he was ‘purposed not to follow the practice of the law … because it drinketh too much time, which I have dedicated to better purposes’. But he conceded that even philosophers needed money, and it was not long before he and Essex embarked on another fruitless quest, this time for the mastership of the Rolls.

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