Bacon—New Ways of Wisdom
HEN we are little, there are many things we cannot understand;
we puzzle about them a good deal perhaps, and then we ask
questions. And sometimes the
The fact is, though perhaps I ought not to tell you,
It was upon a cold day in January in 1560 that Francis Bacon "came crying into the world." He was born in a fine house and was the child of great people, his father being Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. But although his father was one of the most important men in the kingdom, we know little about Francis as a boy. We know that he met the Queen and that he must have been a clever little boy, for she would playfully call him her "young Lord Keeper." Once too when she asked him how old he was, he answered, "Two years younger than your Majesty's happy reign." So if you know when Elizabeth began to reign you will easily remember when Bacon was born.
Francis was the youngest of a big family, and when he was little more than twelve years old he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. Even in those days, when people went to college early, this was young.
For three years Bacon remained at college and then he went to France with the English ambassador. While he was in France his father died and Bacon returned home. At eighteen he thus found himself a poor lad with his future to make and only his father's great name and his own wits to help him. He made up his mind to take Law as his profession. So he set himself quietly to study.
He worked hard, for from the very beginning he meant to get on, he meant to be rich and powerful. So he bowed low before the great, he wrote letters to them full of flattery, he begged and promised.
Bacon is like a man with two faces. We look at one and we see a kindly face full of pity and sorrow for all wrong and pain that men must suffer, we see there a longing to help man, to be his friend. We look at the other face and there we see the greed of gain, the desire for power and place. Yet it may be that Bacon only strove to be great so that he might have more power and freedom to be pitiful. In spite of Bacon's hard work, in spite of his flattery and begging, he did not rise fast. After five years we find him indeed a barrister and a Member of Parliament, but among the many great men of his age he was still of little account. He had not made his mark, in spite of the fact that the great Lord Burleigh was his uncle, in spite of the fact that Elizabeth had liked him as a boy. Post after post for which he begged was given to other men. He was, he said himself, "like a child following a bird, which when he is nearest flieth away and lighteth a little before, and then the child after it again, and so in infinitum. I am weary of it."
But one friend at court he found in the Earl of Essex, the favorite of Elizabeth, the rival of Raleigh. Essex, however, who could win so much favor for himself, could win none for Francis Bacon. Being able to win nothing from the Queen, on his own account Essex gave his friend an estate worth about 1800 pounds. But although that may have been some comfort to Bacon, it did not win for him greatness in the eyes of the world, the only greatness for which he longed. As to the Queen, she made use of him when it pleased her, but she had no love for him. "Though she cheered him much with the bounty of her countenance," says an early writer of Bacon's life, his friend and chaplain, "yet she never cheered him with the bounty of her hand." It was, alas, that bounty of the hand that Bacon begged for and stooped for all through his life. Yet he cared nothing for money for its own sake, for what he had, he spent carelessly. He loved to keep high state, he loved grandeur, and was always in debt.
Essex through all his brilliant years when the Queen smiled upon him stuck by his friend, for him he spent his "power, might, authority and amity" in vain. When the dark hours came and Essex fell into disgrace, it was Bacon who forgot his friendship.
You will read in history-books of how Essex, against the Queen's orders, left Ireland, and coming to London, burst into her presence one morning before she was dressed. You will read of how he was disgraced and imprisoned. At first Bacon did what he could for his friend, and it was through his help that Essex was set free. But even then, Bacon wrote to the Earl, "I confess I love some things much better than I love your lordship, as the Queen's service, her quiet and contentment, her honour, her favour, the good of my country, and the like. Yet I love few persons better than yourself, both for gratitude's sake, and for your own virtues."
Set free, Essex rushed into passionate, futile rebellion. Again he was made prisoner and tried for high treason. It was then that Bacon had to choose between friend and Queen. He chose his Queen and appeared in court against his friend. To do anything else, Bacon told himself, had been utterly useless. Essex was now of no more use to him, he was too surely fallen. To cling to him could do no good, but would only bring the Queen's anger upon himself also. And yet he had written: "It is friendship when a man can say to himself, I love this man without respect of utility. . . . I make him a portion of my own wishes."
He wrote that as a young man, later he saw nothing in friendship beyond use.
The trial of Essex must have been a brilliant scene. The Earl
himself, young, fair of face, splendidly clad, stood at the bar.
He showed no fear, his bearing was as proud and bold as ever,
"but whether his courage were borrowed and put on for the time or
natural, it were hard to judge."
The Lord Treasurer, the Lord
High Steward, too were there and
As the trial went on, however, Bacon spoke, not to save, but to
condemn. Did no memory of past kindliness cross his mind as he
likened his friend to "Cain, that first murderer," as he
complained to the court that too much favor was shown to the
prisoner, that he had never before heard "so ill a defense of
such great and notorious treasons." The Earl answered in his own
defense again and yet again. But at length he was silent. His
case was hopeless, and he was condemned to death. He was
Perhaps Bacon could not have saved his friend from death, but had he used his wit to try at least to save instead of helping to condemn, he would have kept his own name from a dark blot. But a greater betrayal of friendship was yet to follow. Though Essex had been wild and foolish the people loved him, and now they murmured against the Queen for causing his death. Then it was thought well, that they should know all the blackness of his misdeeds, and it was Bacon who was called upon to write the story of them.
Even from this he did not shrink, for he hoped for great rewards. But, as before, the Queen used him, and withheld "the bounty of her hand"; from her he received no State appointment. He did indeed receive 1200 pounds in money. It was scarcely as much as Essex had once given him out of friendship. To Bacon it seemed too small a reward for his betrayal of his friend, even although it had seemed to mean loyalty to his Queen. "The Queen hath done somewhat for me," he wrote, "though not in the proportion I hoped." And so in debt and with a blotted name, Bacon lived on until Queen Elizabeth died. But with the new King his fortunes began to rise. First he was made Sir Francis Bacon, then from one honor to another he rose until he became at last Lord High Chancellor of England, the highest judge in the land. A few months later, he was made a peer with the title of Baron Verulam. A few years later at the age of sixty he went still one step higher and became Viscount St. Albans.
Bacon chose the name of Baron Verulam from the name of the old
Roman city Verulamium which was afterwards called St. Albans. It
He had now reached his highest power. He had published his great work called the Novum Organum or New Instrument in which he taught men a new way of wisdom. He was the greatest judge in the land and a peer of the realm. He had married too, but he never had any children, and we know little of his home life.
It seemed as if at last he had all he could wish for, as if his
life would end in a blaze of glory. But instead of that in a few
short weeks after he became Viscount
He had always loved splendor and pomp, he had always spent more
than he could afford. Now he was accused of taking bribes, that
is, he was accused of taking money from people and, instead of
judging fairly, of judging in favor of those who had given him
most money. He was accused, in fact, of selling justice. That
he should sell justice is the blackest charge that can be brought
against a judge. At first Bacon could not believe that any one
would dare to attack him. But when he heard that it was true, he
sank beneath the disgrace, he made no resistance. His health
gave way. On his
He made his confession and stood to it. "My lords," he said, "it is my act, my hand, my heart. I beseech your lordships be merciful to a broken reed."
Bacon was condemned to pay a fine of 40,000 pounds, to be imprisoned during the King's pleasure, never more to have office of any kind, never to sit in Parliament, "nor come within the verge of the Court."
"I was the justest judge that was in England these fifty years," said Bacon afterwards. "But it was the justest censure in Parliament that was these two hundred years."
Bacon's punishment was not as heavy as at first sight it seems, for the fine was forgiven him, and "the king's pleasure," made his imprisonment in the Tower only a matter of a few days.
And now that his life was shipwrecked, though he never ceased to long to return to his old greatness, he gave all his time to writing and to science. He spent many peaceful hours in the garden that he loved. "His lordship," we are told, "was a very contemplative person, and was wont to contemplate in his delicious walks." He was generally accompanied by one of the gentlemen of his household "that attended him with ink and paper ready to set down presently his thoughts."
He was not soured or bitter. "Though his fortunes may have changed," says one of his household, "yet I never saw any change in his mien, his words, or his deeds, towards any man. But he was always the same both in sorrow and joy, as a philosopher ought to be."
Bacon was now shut out from honorable work in the world, but he had no desire to be idle. "I have read in books," he wrote, "that it is accounted a great bliss to have Leisure with Honour. That was never my fortune. For time was I had Honour without Leisure; and now I have Leisure without Honour. But my desire is now to have Leisure without Loitering." So now he lived as he himself said "a long cleansing week of five years." Then the end came.
It was Bacon's thirst for knowledge that caused his death. One
winter day when the snow lay on the ground he drove out in his
coach. Suddenly as he drove along looking at the
This little story of how Bacon came by his death gives a good idea of how he tried to make use of his philosophy. He was not content with thinking and speculating, that is, looking at ideas. Speculate comes from the Latin speculari, to spy out. He wanted to experiment too. And although in those days no one had thought about it, we now know that Bacon was quite right and that meat can be kept by freezing it. And it is pleasant to know that before Bacon died he was able to write that the experiment had succeeded "excellently well."
In his will Bacon left his name and memory "to men's charitable
speeches, to foreign nations and to the next ages," and he was
right to do so, for in spite of all the dark shadows that hang
about his name men still call him great. We remember him as a
great man among great men; we remember him as the
And yet, although Bacon's English is clear, strong, and fine, although Elizabethan English perhaps reached in him its highest point, he himself despised English. He did not believe that it was a language that would live. And as he wanted his books to be read by people all over the world and in all time to come, he wrote his greatest books in Latin. He grieved that he had wasted time in writing English, and he had much that he wrote in English translated into Latin during his lifetime.
It seems strange to us now that in an age when Spenser and Shakespeare had show the world what the English tongue had power to do that any man should have been able to disbelieve in its greatness. But so it was, and Bacon translated his books into Latin so that they might live when English books "were not."
I will not weary you with a list of all the books Bacon wrote. Although it is not considered his greatest work, that by which most people know him is his Book of Essays. By an essay, Bacon meant a testing or proving. In the short chapters of his essays he tries and proves many things such as Friendship, Study, Honor; and when you come to read these essays you will be surprised to find how many of the sentences are known to you already. They have become "household words," and without knowing it we repeat Bacon's wisdom. But we miss in them something of human kindliness. Bacon's wisdom is cool, calm, and calculating, and we long sometimes for a little warmth, a little passion, and not so much "use."
The essays are best known, but the New Atlantis is the book that you will best like to read, for it is something of a story, and of it I will tell you a little in the next chapter.