« Bacon, Benjamin Wisner Bacon, Francis Bacon, Leonard »

Bacon, Francis



English philosopher and statesman; b. in London Jan. 22, 1561, son of Sir Nicholas Bacon (b. 1509; d. 1579), Lord Keeper 415 of the Great Seal under Elizabeth; d. at Highgate, near London, Apr. 9, 1626. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1573-75, and in 1576 was admitted to Gray’s Inn. He entered parliament in 1584, became one of the leading lawyers of England, and rose through various posts in the public service until he reached the Lord Chancellorship in 1618. The same year he was raised to the peerage as Baron Verulam, and three years later was made Viscount St. Albans. In 1621 he was charged with accepting bribes, and was tried and found guilty; his offices were taken from him, he was sentenced to a fine of £40,000, to imprisonment during the king’s pleasure, and was disabled from sitting in parliament and coming within twelve miles of the court. Feeling his disgrace keenly, he went into retirement and devoted the remainder of his life to study and literary work. The parliamentary sentence, however, was not imposed, for the king (James I) practically remitted his fine and in 1622 he was allowed to come to London.

Bacon’s Philosophy.

As philosopher and man of letters Bacon’s fame is in bright contrast to his sad failure in public life. His philosophy is contained chiefly in the various parts and fragments of a work which he called Instauratio magna and which he left incomplete; the most important part is the Novum organum (published 1620). His philosophy is a method rather than a system; but the influence of this method in the development of British thought can hardly be overestimated. As Luther was the reformer of religion, so Bacon was the reformer of philosophy. Luther had claimed that the Scripture was to be interpreted by private judgment, not by authority. The problem of Bacon was to suggest a method of interpreting nature. The old method afforded no fruits. It “flies from the senses and particulars" to the most general laws, and then applies deduction. This is the “anticipation of nature.” To it Bacon opposes the “interpretation of nature.” Nature is to be interpreted, not by the use of the deductive syllogism, but by the induction of facts, by a gradual ascent from facts, through intermediate laws called “axioms,” to the forms of nature. Before beginning this induction, the inquirer is to free his mind from certain false notions or tendencies which distort the truth. These are called “Idols" (idola), and are of four kinds: “Idols of the Tribe" (idola tribus), which are common to the race; “Idols of the Den" (idola specus), which are peculiar to the individual; “Idols of the Marketplace" (idola fori), coming from the misuse of language; and “Idols of the Theater" (idola theatri), which result from an abuse of authority. The end of induction is the discovery of forms, the ways in which natural phenomena occur, the causes from which they proceed. Nature is not to be interpreted by a search after final causes. “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.” Philosophy will then be fruitful. Faith is shown by works. Philosophy is to be known by fruits.


In the application of this method in the physical and moral world, Bacon himself accomplished but little. His system of morals, if system it may be called, is to be gathered from the seventh and eighth books of his De augmentis scientiarum (1623; a translation into Latin and expansion of an earlier English work; the Advancement of Learning, 1605), and from his Essays (first ed., 10 essays, 1597; ed. with 38 essays, 1612; final ed., 58 essays, 1625). Moral action means action of the human will. The will is governed by reason. Its spur is the passions. The moral object of the will is the good. Bacon, like the ancient moralists, failed to distinguish between the good and the right. He finds fault with the Greek and Roman thinkers for disputing about the chief good. It is a question of religion, not of ethics. His moral doctrine has reference exclusively to this world. Duty is only that which one owes to the community. Duty to God is an affair of religion. The cultivation of the will in the direction of the good is accomplished by the formation of a habit. For this Bacon lays down certain precepts. No general rules can be made for moral action under all circumstances. The characters of men differ as their bodies differ.

Relation Between Philosophy and Religion.

Bacon separates distinctly religion and philosophy. The one is not incompatible with the other; for “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” Bacon has been sometimes regarded as a defender of unbelief, because he opposed the search after final causes in the interpretation of nature. But it is one thing to discourage the search after final causes in science, it is another thing to deny the existence of final causes. “I had rather believe,” he says, “all the fables in the Legend and the Talmud and the Alcoran than that this universal frame is without a mind" (Essay on Atheism). The object of scientific inquiry should be the “form,” not the final cause.

While philosophy is not atheistic it does not inform religion. Tertullian, Pascal, and Bacon agree in proclaiming the separation of the two domains. Tertullian and Pascal do it to save religion from rationalism; Bacon does it to save philosophy from the “Idols.” Credo quia absurdum is expressed in the following words: “But that faith which was accounted to Abraham for righteousness was of such a nature that Sarah laughed at it, who therein was an image of natural reason. The more discordant, therefore, and incredible, the divine mystery is, the more honor is shown to God in believing it, and the nobler is the victory of faith" (De augmentis, bk. ix). Religion comes, therefore, not from the light of nature, but from that of revelation. “First he breathed light upon the face of the matter, or chaos, then he breathed light into the face of man, and still he breatheth and inspireth light into the face of his chosen" (Essay on Truth). One may employ reason to separate revealed from natural truth, and to draw inferences from the former; but we must not go to excess by inquiring too curiously into divine mysteries, nor attach the same authority 416 to inferences as to principles. If Bacon was an atheist, as some claim, his writings are certainly not atheistic. He must, in that case, have been a hypocrite in order to be a flatterer, and, if a flatterer, a most foolish one. Yet the inductive method has given natural theology the facts which point most significantly to God.

Bibliography: Bacon’s religious works are thus enumerated by Prof. Thomas Fowler: (1) the Meditationes sacrœ (published with the Essays, 1597); (2) A Confession of Faith (written before 1603, published 1648); (3) a Translation of Certain Psalms into English Verse (composed during a fit of sickness 1624, published 1625); (4) three prayers, The Student’s Prayer, The Writer’s Prayer, and a third composed during his troubles (1621). The most complete and best edition of Bacon’s Works is by J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath, 7 vols., London, 1857-59, new ed., 1870, which is supplemented by Spedding’s Letters and Life, 7 vols., 1861-74; abridged ed., 2 vols., 1878. Of numerous editions of special works, mention may be made of The Advancement of Learning by W. Aldis Wright, 4th ed., Oxford, 1891; the Essays by Archbishop Whately, London, 1856, 6th ed., 1864; by W. Aldis Wright, Cambridge, 1862; and by E. A. Abbott, 2 vols., London, 1876; and the Novum organum, translation and text by G. W. Kitchin, Oxford, 1855; text with introduction, notes, etc., by Thomas Fowler, 2d ed., ib. 1889. For the life of Bacon and criticism, consult Macaulay’s famous essay (handy ed., by Longmans, 1904), which, however, is considered incorrect and unfair; Thomas Fowler, Francis Bacon, in the series of English Philosophers, London, 1881; idem, in DNB, ii, 328-360 (the best summary); R. W. Church, in the English Men of Letters, London, 1894; E. A. Abbott, Francis Bacon: Account of his Life and Works, ib. 1885; J. Nichol, Francis Bacon, his Life and Philosophy, 2 vols., ib. 1888-89, reissued, 1901.

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