Sir Francis Bacon (Baron Verulam, 1st Viscount St Alban) (1561 – 1626) was an English philosopher, statesman, essayist and scientist of the late Renaissance period. He was an astute and ambitious politician in the turbulent and poisonous political climate of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. But, despite his sometimes nefarious dealings and constant battles against debt, he was also the possessor of a brilliant mind.
His major contribution to philosophy was his application of inductive reasoning (generalizations based on individual instances), the approach used by modern science, rather than the a priori method of medieval Scholasticism and Aristotelianism. He was an early proponent of Empiricism and the scientific method.
Francis Bacon was born in London, England on 22 January 1561. His father was Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Queen Elizabeth I; his mother was Ann Cooke, Sir Nicholas’ second wife, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, and sister-in-law of William Cecil (Lord Burghley) (chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth). He was therefore raised as an English gentleman, and had many contacts in the royal court of the day. He was the youngest of his father’s five sons and three daughters.
Bacon’s early education was conducted at home owing to poor health, which plagued him throughout his life. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge at the age of twelve (living in Cambridge for three years with his older brother, Anthony), and it was there that he first met the Queen, who was impressed by his precocious intellect. In 1576, he briefly entered the upper class part of Gray’s Inn, but was soon granted the opportunity to travel (with Sir Amias Paulet, the English ambassador at Paris) throughout France, Italy and Spain, including some time spent at the University of Poitiers in France and at the French court. There were unsubstantiated rumours that he became romantically involved during this time with Marguerite de Valois, sister of the French king).
In February 1579, he returned to England on the sudden death of his father, although his inheritance was much less than anticipated, and he returned to Gray’s Inn to study law in order to support himself. He was admitted as a junior barristerin 1582, but his ambitions (which he described as to discover truth, to serve his country and to serve his church) led him into politics. He served as Member of Parliament for Melcome Regis in 1584, and then Taunton (1586), Southampton and Ipswich (1597), Liverpool (1589), Middlesex (1593) and St Albans and Ipswich (1604).
His early opposition to Elizabeth’s tax program retarded his political advancement, but, with the help of his powerful uncle, Lord Burghley, he rose quickly in the legal profession, receiving the valuable appointment of reversion to the Clerkship of the Star Chamber in 1589. During this period, he also became acquainted with Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and by 1591, he was acting as the earl’s confidential adviser. He continued to use his contacts to advance his career, including an appointment to Queen’s Counsel in 1596, although his money problems continued and, in 1598, he was briefly arrested for his bad debts. He was an astute politician and managed to sever his ties with the Duke of Essex before Essex was executed for treason in 1601 (even publicly arguing against his old benefactor).
With the accession of King James I after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Bacon’s star continued to rise and he was knighted in the same year. In 1606, he married Alice Barnham, the 14-year old daughter of a well-connected London MP (he was later to disinherit her on the discovery of her infidelity). Despite the generous income from his various legal positions, old debts and his spendthrift ways kept him indebted. He managed to negotiate the political obstacles of King James’ reign, and continued to receive the King’s favour, although he was not always so popular with his peers. He was rewarded with one prestigious appointment after another, including Solicitor General (1607), Attorney General (1613), Privy Councillor(1616), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (1617), Lord High Chancellor (1618), Baron Verulam of Verulam (1618) and Viscount St. Albans (1621).
Sir Francis played a leading role in creating the British colonies in the New World, especially in Virginia, the Carolinas and Newfoundland. His government report on “The Virginia Colony” was made in 1609, and he helped form the Newfoundland Colonization Company which sent John Guy to found a colony in Newfoundland in 1610.
Sir Francis Bacon’s public career ended in disgrace in 1621, when a Parliamentary Committee on the administration of the law charged him with twenty-three counts of corruption and bribery. Although his imprisonment in the Tower of London was short-lived, he was declared incapable of holding future office or sitting in parliament, and only narrowly escaped being deprived of his titles. He was banishedfrom London, and he retired to his estate at Gorhambury (near St. Albans) to devote himself to writing and scientific work.
He died, aged 66, at the home of Lord Arundel in Highgate, London on 9 April 1626, leaving substantial debts. At his funeral at Saint Michael’s Church in St. Albans, over thirty famous thinkers of the day collected together their eulogies of him, suggesting that, among many political enemies, he also had many scholarly and literary friends.
Since his death, several controversies and conspiracy theories have arisen regarding Bacon, including his possible homosexuality, the possibility that he (and also the Earl of Essex) may have been Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate and unacknowledged son, that he was the real author of many of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, that he was deeply involved with various secret societies such as the Rosicrucians and Freemasons, and that he faked his own death. In the 20th Century, some Ascended Master Teachings organizations in the United States went so far as to claim that that Francis Bacon had never died, and had since become an Ascended Master.
For Bacon, the only knowledge of importance to man was empirically rooted in the natural world, and a clear system of scientific inquiry would assure man’s mastery over the world. He had a great reverence for Aristotle, although he found Aristotelian philosophy barren, disputatious and wrong in its objectives.
Bacon argued that, while philosophy at the time generally used the deductive syllogism (see the section on Logic) to interpret nature, it should instead proceed through inductive reasoning, from fact to axiom to law. However, he cautioned that before beginning this induction, the philosopher must free his mind from certain false notions or tendencies which distort the truth, which he characterized as the four Idols: “Idols of the Tribe” (common to the race); “Idols of the Den” (peculiar to the individual); “Idols of the Marketplace” (from the misuse of language); and “Idols of the Theatre” (from the abuse of authority).
In Ethics, he distinguished between duty to the community (an ethical matter) and duty to God (a religious matter). He believed that any moral action is the action of the human will (which is governed by belief and spurred on by the passions), that good habit is what aids men in directing their will toward the good, but that no universal rules can be made, as both situations and men’s characters differ. One of his many aphorisms was that “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to Atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion”.
Among his earlier publication were the “Essays”, the “Colours of Good and Evil”, the “Meditationes Sacrae” (which includes his famous aphorism, “knowledge is power”, an early expression of Pragmatism), and the “Proficience and Advancement of Learning”. In 1620, his “Novum Organum” (“The New Instrument”), the most important part of his fragmentary and incomplete “Instauratio Magna” (“The Great Renewal”), was published, and a second part, “De Augmentis Scientiarum” (“The Advancement of Learning”), was published in 1623.
“The New Atlantis”, written in 1623 and published after his death in 1627, expressed Bacon’s aspirations and ideals in the form of an idealized utopia and a vision of the future of human discovery and knowledge. In it, he envisioned a land where there would be greater rights for women, the abolition of slavery, elimination of debtors prisons (a rather personal note), separation of church and state, and freedom of religious and political expression. It includes his idea for a cooperative research institution, which was instrumental in the plans and preparations for establishing the Royal Society for science in the 17th Century.
From his early studies, Bacon was persuaded that the methods and results of scienceas then practiced (largely based on the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle) were erroneous. While many Aristotelian ideas ( such as the position of the earth at the centre of the universe) had been overturned, his methodology (based on the premise that scientific truth could be reached by way of authoritative argument) was still being used. Bacon argued strongly that truth required evidence from the real world (Empiricism), and urged full investigation in all cases, avoiding theories based on insufficient data. Although not himself a distinguished scientist, his importance is in the way he articulated what was to become the dominant mode of thought.