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as forward-looking, but condemned his moral character and political servility, which he saw as characteristic of an outdated system of government soon to be swept away by the Civil War.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.

It was during these years of frustrated ambition and conflicting objectives that Bacon composed the works contained in the collection edited by Alan Stewart with Harriet Knight. The Oxford Francis Bacon is a major scholarly project conceived by the late Graham Rees and administered nowadays by an editorial advisory board of 16 experts under the direction of Brian Vickers, the leading Baconian scholar. Early Writings 1584-96 is the seventh volume to be published and there will be 15 altogether. They are intended to supersede the great 19th-century edition of Bacon’s works on which generations of scholars have been content to rely. Published between 1857 and 1874, that edition’s 14 volumes were overwhelmingly the work of one man, James Spedding, a remarkable figure whom Tennyson, who had been a fellow Apostle at Trinity College, Cambridge, thought ‘the wisest man I know’. Spedding had been the secretary to the Ashburton Commission, which negotiated the north-eastern boundary between Canada and the US in 1842, and he later turned down the permanent under-secretaryship of the Colonial Office. Instead, he chose to devote thirty years of his life to editing Bacon. He had two coeditors, but Robert Leslie Ellis, who had been assigned the philosophical works, had to drop out because of illness, and the role of his other colleague, Douglas Denon Heath, was limited to editing the legal works. The result ranks among the greatest works of Victorian scholarship. Thomas Carlyle called it ‘the hugest and faithfullest bit of literary navvy work I have ever met with in this generation’. Spedding received no payment for his vast labours, but was allowed to buy copies of the finished work at the trade price.

He professed to have no complaints on that score, but in other respects his experience with his publishers was unhappy. He disliked the practice of issuing the volumes as numbered parts of a series rather than as individual titles. He hated the advertisements on the inside of the cloth binding: ‘Open Bacon’s Philosophical Works,’ he complained, ‘and the most conspicuous page you see is inscribed “Modern Cookery for Private Families”.’ He also thought the books too large. ‘Here is volume I,’ he wrote, ‘containing 868 pages – with an inner margin for the binder of not more than three-quarters of an inch! Is there a reader who can handle it with any comfort?’

One can guess what Spedding’s reaction would have been to Volume I of the Oxford Francis Bacon, with its 1066 pages and inner margin of only half an inch. He would also have gaped at the vast amount of scaffolding which modern editorial practice seems to require. Only a third of the volume is taken up by the texts of writings by or attributed to Bacon. The rest is occupied by the editorial apparatus. This begins with a terrifying seven and a half pages of abbreviations and sigla, which readers will not find easy to keep in their heads. Thereafter, each of the two dozen or so texts is accompanied by an introduction; a detailed account of the surviving manuscript or printed ‘witnesses’; two banks of footnotes listing textual variants, sometimes climbing halfway up the page; and a commentary (unhelpfully located at the back of the book) which puts each work in context, identifies topical allusions, translates passages in foreign languages, and provides cross-references to other parts of Bacon’s oeuvre.

Editorial packaging on such a scale makes this a book to be consulted rather than read. But scholars will be grateful for the vast amount of labour it embodies. It fully justifies Graham Rees’s belief that a fresh edition of Bacon’s work was needed. New writings by him have been discovered since Spedding’s day, and better versions of the old ones. Spedding’s preference for modernised spelling has been abandoned. So has his artificial division of Bacon’s oeuvre into three distinct categories: ‘Philosophical Works’, ‘Literary and Professional Works’ and ‘Occasional Works’. Instead, Bacon’s writings are now arranged chronologically. This makes it easier to follow the development of his thought; and, by its juxtaposition of compositions on a wide range of subjects, it reminds the reader of the multifarious nature of his preoccupations.

Yet Stewart and Knight also omit much that Spedding included. They leave out Bacon’s parliamentary speeches, on the grounds that their contents are known only from secondhand abstracts and reports, and they exclude his correspondence, unless, like his ‘letters of advice’ to the queen and other notables, it was intended for wider circulation. This is a pity, for it was in his private letters, like the one to Burghley in 1592, that Bacon was most explicit about his personal and intellectual objectives. Only one relatively unimportant item in this volume was published at the time. None of the other pieces appeared in print until long after his death. A few circulated in manuscript under his name; others were disseminated anonymously or issued as the work of the queen’s secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, or Bacon’s patron, the Earl of Essex. Some are the work of several hands. In a number of cases, Bacon’s authorship cannot be proved with absolute certainty and the dating is often uncertain. There are legal readings and opinions; papers on the political and religious issues of the day; letters of advice; contributions to public entertainments; and collections of material for use in future compositions. Much of this work was commissioned by others, so it is not always easy to know when Bacon was expressing his own opinions and when he was acting as a hired advocate or propagandist. Yet occasional and often scrappy though these early writings are, they do throw light on his intellectual aspirations and evolving view of the world.

Bacon’s attitude to the religious conflicts of his time was that of a politique whose main concern was to prevent the ship of state from being wrecked by fanatics. Wherever possible, he favoured tolerance and compromise. In a succession of papers he warned against persecuting Catholics so long as they remained loyal to the queen, and argued that the bishops were unnecessarily harsh in their treatment of the Puritans. He regarded public disputes about ceremonies and ‘things indifferent’ as highly undesirable, and he was even-handed in his judgments on those who engaged in them. He dismissed the scurrilous language of the Marprelate Tracts against the bishops as reprehensible, but he also said that the Established Church had only itself to blame for the abuses these satires exposed. He held that conscience, however perverse, was to be respected. Only when it turned into faction, as with the Presbyterian attempt to overthrow the Church’s hierarchy, or treason, as with the Jesuit plots against the queen, was it to be repressed.

Certaine Obseruations vppon a Libell (1593) was Bacon’s reply to a Catholic tract attacking the government’s persecution of seminary priests and Jesuits. In this, his most substantial piece of writing before the Essayes of 1597, Bacon denounced as enemies of ‘comon societie’ all those who published libels against rulers or plotted their deaths. He claimed that the queen made no ‘windowes into mens hartes & secret thoughtes’, an expression which Elizabeth would make famous. But he reiterated that there should be no mercy for those who attempted to seduce the people from their allegiance to her, and he denounced the plots and conspiracies by which Elizabeth was constantly beset.

His True Report of the Detestable Treason Intended by Doctor Roderigo Lopez (1594) was probably commissioned by Essex, who had been active in prosecuting the queen’s Jewish doctor for allegedly conspiring to poison her. In it, Bacon blamed Philip II for a plot which was ‘not onely against all Christianity and Religion, but against Nature, the Law of Nations, the Honour of Arms, the Civil Law, [and] the Rules of Morality and Pollicy’. In a memorandum of 1594 he suggested that the best defence against the plots of English Catholic exiles was not so much a good system of intelligence as a reputation for having one. Like modern believers in the deterrent value of speed cameras, even when they are not switched on, he observed that setting up booths for watching ‘theevish places’ brought an end to robberies, even when the watchmen were absent or asleep: ‘the empty booth is strength & safegard enough.’

Throughout the 1590s, Bacon was an active propagandist for the Elizabethan regime. He rebutted the Catholics’ allegation that the nobility had been overthrown and the people oppressed. Instead he portrayed a rich and prosperous country, dotted with stately houses and gardens, and notable for its rising population, productive agriculture, flourishing trade and a mighty navy which made England ‘the ladie of the Sea’. Even though the queen, unlike Philip II of Spain, was unable to draw on the treasure of the Indies, her taxes were relatively light: the Englishman was ‘the least bitten in his purse of anie Nacion of Europe’. Running through his political writings in these years is a firm commitment to the existing structure of authority. Bacon was an intellectual revolutionary but not a social one. He held that religious differences should not be allowed to subvert the ‘civell bondes of bloude, alliaunce … seruice, and subieccion’. They did not entitle a good son to separate himself from a bad father, or a believing wife from an unbelieving husband. Age was superior to youth, and ‘self conceyted young men’ a constant menace. ‘The greatest number of Papists’ were ‘very yonge men’ and the most contentious Puritans were ‘for the most parte … men of yong yeeres & superficiall vnderstanding’. As for the common people, they were not entitled to participate in matters of state. They loved ‘ever to runne from one extreame to another’ and were ‘no meet iudg or arbitratour’ in religious disputes, which should be left to ‘the quiet modest & private assemblies and conferences of the learned’. Bacon dismissed the radical sect of Brownists as ‘at the most a verie small number of verie sillie and base people’. Admittedly, one of their leaders, Henry Barrow, was ‘a gentleman of a good howse’, but he had frequented the common eating-houses in London ‘and ther learned to argue in Table-talke’.

Like Thomas Hobbes, whom he would later employ to accompany him on his walks and note down his thoughts as they occurred to him, Bacon recognised the political importance of public opinion. He believed that subjects were forbidden to defame ‘personages of excellente callinge’, ‘not onely openly, but even where we are most private and retired, not somuch as within our Chambers, noe not within our breastes; but [we] are expressely willed to drawe our very thoughtes within a modest & reverente conceite of their doinges.’ Bacon had a keen understanding of the bonds that held political societies together. He listed them succinctly in An Aduertisement Touching Seditious Writing (c.1589-93): ‘Relligion and Conscience restinge in the devine ordinaunce whereby princes raigne; Feare of the settled power of the presente estate; Love in Recognition of benefittes enioyed, with apprehencion of the manyfolde evills of Innovacion; and Custome of obedience fortefying all the rest’. This was a remarkable piece of political analysis, unmatched in its time, so far as I know, for its acuity and comprehensiveness.

It was surely because he was so torn between the active and the contemplative existence that Bacon in these years repeatedly returned to the theme of how life should be lived and what goals human beings should pursue. This debate about the ends of life is implicit in his letters of advice on foreign travel, sent in Essex’s name to Roger Manners, the fifth earl of Rutland; and it is brilliantly dramatised in three separate works of the early 1590s. Tribuit (c.1591-92) consists of four speeches in praise, respectively, of Fortitude, Love, Knowledge and the Queen, who is represented as embodying all the virtues. The Orations at Graies Inne Revells (1594-95) contain six pieces of advice to a mock prince, each urging a different objective for his government: war, contemplation, ‘Buildings and Foundations’, ‘Absoluteness of State and Treasure’, ‘Vertue’ and ‘Passtimes and Sports’. In Essex’s Device, an entertainment for the queen’s Accession Day in 1595, a Hermit, a Soldier and a Secretary make the case for their different ways of life – respectively, contemplation, warfare and state business. In each of these literary exercises Bacon assumes that the way we live is a matter of conscious choice. One of his favourite mottos was Faber quisque fortunae suae: ‘Every man is the architect of his own fortune.’

Bacon’s own preferences are clear. Literary and intellectual achievement always comes top. The Hermit in Essex’s Device declares that ‘the monumentes of witt survive the monumentes of power’: poetry endures while states and empires decay. The letters to Rutland explain that the purpose of travel is to improve the mind and acquire knowledge, ‘which is not onely the excellentest thinge in man, but the very excellencie of man’. Although the young nobleman was far more interested in hunting than in books, Bacon encourages him to study logic, rhetoric, foreign languages and history. He also commends natural philosophy, which ‘teacheth many thinges both delightfull and profittable, and doth whett the witt of many excedinglye’.

The speech in Tribuit in praise of knowledge is a key document in Bacon’s intellectual history. Here, possibly even earlier than in his famous letter of 1592, Bacon outlines the programme for the reform of learning and the relief of man’s estate which would be announced years later in The Advancement of Learning (1605), New Atlantis (1627) and the unfinished sequence of works known as The Great Instauration. The truest delights, the speaker declares, are those of the intellect. Knowledge does not just bring pleasure. It can reveal ‘the riches of natures warehouse’ and ‘endow the life of man with infinite new Commodities’. To do that, however, it had to be a new form of knowledge. Neither the Aristotelians nor the alchemists were to be followed: ‘The one never faileth to multiply wordes, & thother ofte faileth to multiple goulde.’ Many of the scholastics were men of ‘great wittes, farre aboue myne owne’, but they had produced nothing. ‘All the learneinge that hath byne thiese many hundered years’ had not resulted in a single invention or brought to light ‘one effecte of nature before vnknowne’. Craftsmen had devised small technical improvements, but the crucial inventions of printing, gunpowder and the mariner’s compass were ‘stumbled vppon and lighted on by chance’. The ‘Soueraignetie of man’ still lay ‘hidd in knowledge’, waiting to be discovered.

This suggestion that the investigation of nature could transform human life foreshadows the wonderful passage in The Advancement of Learning where Bacon explains that the end of knowledge is not to be ‘a couch, whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a terrace, for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale’, but ‘a rich storehouse, for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate’. Similarly, in the Graies Inne Revells, the speaker in favour of contemplation urges a systematic exploration of ‘what soeuer is hidden and secret in the world’. This will be made possible by the aid of ‘a most perfect and generall librarie’; ‘a most spacious and wonderfull gardin’, stocked with rare animals, birds and fish; ‘a goodlie huge Cabinett’ of ‘whatsoeuer the hand through exquisit arte and engine hath made rare in forme or motion’; and a ‘still-house’ or laboratory, ‘furnished with mills, furnaces, instruments and vessels’. Here in embryo is Solomon’s House, the utopian institution of New Atlantis, which exists for ‘the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible’.

Most of Bacon’s early writings are too context-specific to gain a wide modern readership. They are nevertheless important because they provide crucial evidence that Bacon’s central ideas were maturing long before they appeared in print. Time and again, they employ turns of phrase which will recur in his more famous works. ‘A contentious retayneinge of custom is a turbulent thing aswell as innovation,’ he warns the bishops in 1589. Thirty-six years later this sentence appears in more polished form in the third edition of the Essayes: ‘a Froward Retention of Custome is as turbulent a Thing as an Innovation.’

Bacon’s achievement was to have been the philosopher and propagandist of the Scientific Revolution. But he is also remembered as the supreme master of the aphorism. Among his early writings is Promus of Formularies and Elegancies (1594-95), a fascinating collection of 1600 classical tags, vernacular proverbs and striking phrases, which he wrote out from memory for his own use. Many would subsequently appear in his Essayes; indeed those assembled under the heading ‘Play’ are a virtual essay in themselves. Some provide a prophetic commentary on his own career: ‘Better sitt still then rise and fall’; ‘He doth like the ape that the higher he clymbes the more he shews his ars.’ Others have gained a new relevance in modern times. When a speaker in Tribuit declares that ‘nothing is to bee feared but fear it selfe,’ we think of Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1933. When Bacon urges the Elizabethan bishops to ignore the Marprelate Tracts, because ‘he that replieth multiplieth,’ we recognise a piece of cautionary advice which reviewers who find their judgments criticised on the letters page of the LRB would do well to heed.