Gateway to the Classics: Story Lives of Great Scientists by F. J. Rowbotham
Story Lives of Great Scientists by  F. J. Rowbotham

Francis Bacon

I N a low-roofed room, with oak-panelled walls, and windows that overlooked the garden of Gray's Inn, Holborn, a young man of about twenty years of age was pacing restlessly to and fro; stopping occasionally to gaze absently through the dusty panes at the grassy quadrangle below, now bathed in the morning sunshine, where a crowd of blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows were chattering and wrangling over a late breakfast.

Forgotten for the moment were the musty room, and the mustier books that lay open on the desk; the student for those brief moments was a student no longer, but a dreamer of dreams—the would-be designer of a great scheme that should carry his name down to posterity as a benefactor of mankind; for he placed no limits to his dreams. The law was his chain; he dragged it heavily then; he was destined to drag it still more heavily for many years to follow, ere he could cast its burden from him for ever.

In appearance the young man was comely; he had a natural grace and ease of movement that suggested the courtier rather than the student. Yet the grave earnestness which marked his looks, while it afforded the truest index to his character, served also to distinguish him from the class of young men of his day who spent their time mainly about the Court.

Nevertheless, Francis Bacon, though no an admitted student of Gray's Inn, had been reared in the atmosphere of the Court, and had imbibed something of its manners and associations. The youngest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Francis had passed many of his boyish days at the Court, where his 'quick wit and precocious gravity' had marked him out for notice, not only by the great men and women, but also by the Queen herself. Elizabeth in playful mood had even gone so far as to dub the bashful little fellow who timidly approached her throne 'her young Lord Keeper'.

Francis Bacon was born at York House, in the Strand, his father's London home, on January 22, 1561, and here passed the years of his childhood until he went to Cambridge. Though modest and shy by nature, Francis seems to have been possessed of an inquiring, not to say inquisitive, turn of mind. What he desired to know he would take extraordinary pains to find out; and he was generally successful, though it would appear that with characteristic modesty he concealed the extent of his knowledge from those about him. There is no doubt that as a boy—as afterwards, when a man—his interests were extremely wide; and every scrap of information gleaned from books or conversation, or gained by personal observation, was carefully treasured for future use. Keenly, though quietly, observant of every fact and occurrence in the world which was daily opening to his view, the boyish mind of Bacon had already embarked upon that voyage of inquiry and investigation which had no ending for him whilst he lived.

In the gardens of York House, and more especially at Gorhambury, his father's country seat in Hertfordshire, where he was brought more directly into contact with nature, Francis must have acquired his love of gardening, which he describes as 'the purest of human pleasures'.

His mother, Ann Bacon, was a daughter of Sir Antony Cook, 'a person deep in the confidence of the reforming party, who had been tutor of Edward VI.' Another of Sir Antony's daughters was married to William Cecil, afterwards the famous Lord Burghley, who thus became Francis's uncle. From his mother Francis may have inherited some of the talent for acquiring knowledge which distinguished him. Ann Bacon, we are told, was a remarkably accomplished woman—one 'exquisitely skilled in the Greek and Latin tongues', 'learned, eloquent, religious, full of affection and puritanic fervour.' How far she influenced the mind of Francis is doubtful; for he appears to have begun to think for himself on religious as well as on other great questions of the day at a very early age. It is also probably that his mother's masterful and somewhat tyrannical spirit met its match in her son.

When he had attained his twelfth year Francis accompanied his brother Antony to Cambridge, where he was entered at Trinity and placed under Dean Whitgift (afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury) and where he remained till 1576. As a boy Francis was delicate—a fact which may have conduced to his studious habits. A reference to this delicacy occurs in a letter of this time from Ann Bacon to her elder son, in which Antony is warned to look after his health and to avoid imitating his brother's ill-ordered habits. 'I verily think,' says the writer, 'your brother's weak stomach to digest hath been much caused and confirmed by untimely going to bed, and then musing nescio quid  when he should sleep, and then in consequent by late rising and long lying in bed; whereby his men are made slothful and himself continueth sickly. But my sons haste not to hearken to their mother's good counsel in time to prevent.'

It was whilst studying at Cambridge that Bacon's attention was seriously drawn to science. What was called 'Natural Philosophy' formed the principal part of the teaching at the Universities in those days; and this teaching was based upon the writings of Aristotle, to whose rules, or 'laws', all questions relating to science were invariably referred. From this authority there was no appeal, but Bacon was by no means the first to discover the shallowness and narrowness of the system of philosophy then in vogue. At fifteen he had convinced himself of the 'unfruitfulness', as he expressed it, of the Aristotelian method and of the desirability of discovering a better.

In September, 1576, Francis left Cambridge to proceed to France in the suite of Sir Amyas Paulet, the English Ambassador. This step had been taken by Sir Nicholas Bacon with the object of enabling the youth to pick up a knowledge of the politics and manners of the French Court. Francis divided his time between Paris, Blois, Tours, and Poitiers. In Paris he found ample stores of literature in the libraries of the university—not then, however, as earlier, the seat of learning, where his great namesake and predecessor, Roger Bacon, had taught three centuries before.

If politics formed the chief subject of Bacon's studies during his residence in France, his favourite subject was not neglected. We know for certain that he devoted a part of his leisure to inventing a system of cipher-writing—a method which as Dean Church reminds as, 'was of daily and indispensable use for rival statesmen and rival intriguers'; though to Bacon it may have been chiefly interesting 'as an example of the discovery of new powers by the human mind'.

In March, 1579, Francis was recalled to England by his father's death, to find himself deprived by this unlooked-for event of the worldly means and prospects which he had been confidently led to expect. He chose the law as a profession, actuated by the hope that he might thereby become qualified to take some post in the Queen's service that would make him independent of the ordinary practice at the Bar, the more so because he was the bearer from France of a dispatch from Sir Amyas Paulet to the Queen, in which the Ambassador referred to young Francis Bacon as one 'of great hope, endued with many good and singular parts', one who, 'if God gave him life, would prove a very able and sufficient subject to do her Highness good and acceptable service.'

Shortly after his return Francis took up his residence at Gray's Inn and settled down to the study of the law. In the forefront of his desires he placed the obtaining of a post in the Queen's service, and the influence he needed to further his interests he now hoped to find in the person of his powerful relative, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's Secretary of State. As Dean Church reminds us: 'Bacon was ambitious—, in the first place, of the Queen's notice and favour. He was versatile, brilliant, courtly, besides being his father's son.'

Apart from this desire for personal advancement, Bacon well knew that as a poor man he would be unable to carry out the resolution which he had formed whilst yet a student at Cambridge, to devote his knowledge and powers to the service of the human race.

So far time had failed to reveal any practical result from his uncle's mediation, and Bacon in his Gray's Inn retreat, knitting his brows over the musty books of the law, began to grow impatient at the delay. He was young and generous-minded, and he had yet to be convinced (it was a truth hard to be received by a son of one so respected and beloved as Sir Nicholas Bacon) that loyalty and devotion were in themselves poor qualities for recommendation, even when, as in his own case, they were accompanied by gifts of no common order. Thus was begun, at the period at which our story opens, that system of importuning and paying court to those high in favour and power with the sovereign, which was never abandoned; it warped and undermined the better side of his nature; it rendered him incapable of acting up to the standard of his noble ideals, and it cramped and dwarfed his highest intellectual efforts.

For ten years Bacon continued to drudge on at the law, hoping against hope; but for some reason or other, strange though it must appear, beyond empty promises or half-promises, his appeals produced no effect. He saw others promoted to post of greater or less emolument, and himself passed over without a word of explanation or apology. They were years not idly spent, for, apart from his legal studies, Bacon had manfully sought to raise himself from obscurity without the aid of his friends in the Government. In 1584, when twenty-three, he had entered Parliament as member for Melcombe Regis, and he had become a Bencher of his Inn in 1586. There is no doubt also that he spent a part of his time in maturing his great scheme for the benefiting of mankind. From this time we are to imagine him as pondering his great problem at all times and in all places, as amassing observation and inquiry and arrange and re-arranging these accumulations so as to fit them into his vast scheme, and as waiting and longing in his innermost heart for that day when, favoured by wealth and leisure, he could give himself up wholly to the fulfilment of his life task.

In the meantime he published his first collection of Essays, in 1597. The number in subsequent editions was raised from ten to fifty-eight, the last edition being published in 1625 shortly before Bacon's death.

It is said that Bacon himself had a tender regard for these Essays, as representing the happiest of his compositions (they were his first literary venture), penned in moments of comparative freedom from care, and that he kept the book constantly by his side, altering and adding to the material as fresh thoughts or ideas occurred to his mind. The ground which they cover is extremely wide: 'Truth,' 'Love,' 'Friendship,' 'Fortune,' 'Youth and Age,' 'Studies,' 'Praise,' 'Building,' 'Gardens,' 'Plantations,' 'Beauty,' 'Health,' 'Marriage,' 'Cunning,' 'Travel,' 'Counsel,' 'Wisdom,' 'Expense,' 'Parents and Children,' 'Sedition,' 'Empire.'

It would be easy to fill pages with wise precepts and pithy sayings culled from these 'Counsels, moral and political', as Bacon himself styles them. 'To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament is affectation.' 'Crafty men contemn studies; simple men admire them; and wise men use them.' 'Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.' 'Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.' It is worth noting that Macaulay quotes these passages as an example of Bacon's power of compressing much thought into a small space.

The reign of Elizabeth came to a close without witnessing any material advance in Bacon's fortunes, and it was not until her successor has been seated on the throne for several years that Bacon's persevering endeavours to make himself indispensable to James were at length rewarded. Thenceforth his promotion was rapid. In June, 1607, he was appointed Solicitor-General, being then forty-seven; six years later—viz. in October, 1613 he became Attorney-General, the post for which he had waited for thirty years. In March 1617, he attained the highest point of his ambition by succeeding Lord Ellesmere as Lord Chancellor. In July, 1618, he was created a peer, taking the title of Baron Verulam, and in January, 1621, he was raised a step higher in the peerage as Viscount St. Albans.

Amidst the cares and claims of a busy official life, however, he had found time to construct and elaborate his plans for his great philosophical work, and in 1605 he opened his design to the world by the publication of the Advancement of Learning  forming the first of the three works of which we have now to speak:—

1. The Advancement of Learning  (1605).

2. The Novum Organum  (1620)

3. The De Augmentis Scientiarum  (1623).

These three works comprise Bacon's 'system' of philosophy—the De Augmentis  being an expanded version (translated into Latin) of the Advancement, in nine books. The Advancement, as first written, was intended merely as the Preface in a series of treatises which were ultimately to form an Instauratio Magna (Great Instauration), but the Novum Organum  (New Instrument), itself imperfect, was, says Dean Church, 'the crown of all Bacon lived to do.' The Novum Organum  was followed two years later, by two separate treatises (the History of the Winds, the History of Life and Death), which Bacon intended as materials for the new method to work upon. Other papers were prepared or sketched out, but were never published, and the great scheme was left uncompleted.

The Advancement of Learning  (which, it is interesting to note, was published in October, 1605, 'at a bookshop at the gateway of Gray's inn in Holborn') is described by Dean Church as 'a careful and balanced report on the existing stock and deficiencies of human knowledge.' But Bacon himself warns us that his endeavours are 'but as an image in a cross-way, that may point out the way, but cannot go it'. The Advancement, indeed, 'shadowed out, but only shadowed out, the lines of his proposed reform of philosophical thought; it showed his dissatisfaction with much that was held to be sound and complete, and showed the direction of his ideas and hopes.' There he left it for the time, and when in later years he took up the thread again it was to write a separate book, the Novum Organum, which was published in 1620, on the eve of his fall.

The Novum Organum  (to quote Dean Church once more) is 'the avowed challenge to the old philosophies, the engine and instrument of thought and discovery which was to put to shame and supersede all others, containing, in part at least, the principles of that new method of the use of experience which was to be the key to the interpretation and command of nature, and, together with the method, an elaborate but incomplete exemplification of its leading processes. Here were summed up, and stated with the most solemn earnestness, the conclusions to which long study and continual familiarity with the matters in question had led him. And with the Novum Organum  was at length disclosed, though only in outline, the whole of the vast scheme in all its parts, object method, materials, results, for the 'Instauration' of human knowledge, the restoration of powers lost, unused, neglected, latent, but recoverable by honesty, patience, courage and industry. It was twelve years in hand, and twelve times underwent his revision. Severe as it is, it is instinct with enthusiasm. The Latin in which it is written answers to it; it has the conciseness, the breadth, the lordliness of a great philosophical legislation'.

The printed works of Bacon represent only a tithe of the labour expended upon their production. The amazing fertility of his resources—the inexhaustible stores of knowledge at his command—together with is varied powers of expression, seemingly made it difficult at times to decide upon the form in which his ideas should be presented; and we are told that 'some of the freshest and most felicitous forms of his thoughts' are contained in abandoned chapters and essays.

'We may, as we trust,' said Bacon, 'make no despicable beginnings. The destinies of the human race must complete it, in such a manner perhaps as men looking only at the present world would not readily conceive. For upon this will depend, not only a speculative good, but all the fortunes of mankind, and all their power.' Bacon in this passage clearly shows his confidence in his powers of bringing men to a new way of acquiring knowledge—and not only a new, but a sure way as well—with results that shall be free from speculation or doubt, and that shall lead directly to the advancement of the powers and the fortunes of posterity. But he overlooked the important consideration with regard to science, viz.: that the mere collecting of facts is useless in itself unless it furnishes us with the means of deducing  from such facts an explanation, or hypothesis, regarding the working of natural laws. And this brings us to the startling truth with regard to Bacon's method; not only did it bear no fruit under his own hands, but the scientific men who lived in his own time, or who followed after him, could make nothing of it; whilst modern scientific men have rejected it as worthless from the point of view of practical science.

'Bacon,' writes Mr. Spedding, 'failed to devise a practicable method for the discovery of the Forms of Nature because he misconceived the conditions of the case…. For the same reason he failed to make any single discovery which holds its place as one of the steps by which science has in any direction advanced. The clue with which he entered the labyrinth did not reach far enough; before he had nearly attained his end he was obliged either to come back or to go on without it.'

Unlike his great contemporary, Galileo, he entered the field of scientific labour by half-equipped in the sense of a mind capable of estimating the value of Truth wherever it was to be found, and but feebly equipped as regards those branches of knowledge which are essential for the successful prosecution of scientific research. Himself ignorant of mathematics (the foundation on which Galileo was so surely building), he imagined that mathematics were unnecessary as a means of probing the secrets of nature; consequently he missed the one great avenue by which Truth was obtainable. He deliberately shut the door against deductive  science, and heaped ridicule upon those who upheld this method, claiming that by the observation of facts alone would men in the future be able to read the history of nature and comprehend the working of her laws.

What, then, made Bacon great? 'The great and wonderful work which the world owes to Bacon,' says Dean Church, 'was in the idea, and not in the execution.' It is this idea, this certainty of a new unexplored Kingdom of Knowledge within the reach and grasp of man—this announcement of a new system of thought, a prize and possession such as man had not yet imagined—this weighty and solemn call to learning, than which nothing had before existed to equal it in its ardour of hope and promise of future glory—which placed Bacon amongst the great discoverers of the human race. 'Aristotle first, and for his time more successfully, and Bacon after him, ventured on the daring enterprise of 'taking all knowledge for their province', and in this they stood alone.'

'Bacon,' says Mr. Balfour, 'was a prophet and a seer. . . . . What he saw was the neglect by the scientific mind, engaged in verbal disputes, of the patient and childlike attitude of those who come to Nature, not to impose upon Nature their own ideas, but to learn from Nature what it is that she had to teach us. . . . Bacon had fine hopes of what man could discover in order that the kingdom of man over Nature could be established. He was full of courage, full of insight, yet knowing how slow must be this process of gradually building up learning, and recognising how small was the actual contribution which he and his contemporaries could make towards it, and how great was the final structure of which he and his contemporaries were laying the first layer. . . . He always looked on the estate of man with pity, and to improve the estate of man in succeeding generations was one of his great objects. . . . Surely that imagination which foresaw all that science could do for the estate of man was no imagination that crawled upon the ground, that could not look up to Heaven, could not see the magnificence of the prospect which was, as he believed, opening out to humanity. I should like to ask how soon this prophesy of Bacon really began to be accomplished. Though dates cannot be fixed, I believe it will be found that it is within the last three of four generations that industry has really been the child of scientific discovery. Bacon did for science all that a philosopher can do—as a great philosopher and a great writer, as distinguished from an investigator, can do. He created the atmosphere in which scientific discovery flourishes.'

The story of Bacon's fall must be read elsewhere; in the years that followed, the ex-Lord Chancellor gave himself wholly to science, and it only remains to tell how Bacon died. An old man at 85, yet active in mind to the last, the manner of his death was a tribute to the science he had so earnestly advocated. On a cold day in March, 1626, whilst driving through the snow towards Highgate, he resolved to try an experiment to determine whether extreme cold would arrest putrefaction. Stopping his coach at a cottage he bought a dead hen from the woman, and proceeded to stuff the hen with snow. The exposure brought on a severe chill, which forced him to stop at the house of a stranger (Lord Arundel) by the way. The illness increased, and he could not be removed; and here, a few days later, on Easter morning, April 9, 1626, he died.

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