Discourse on the Life of M. Francis Bacon

Chancellor of England



The Life of Francis Bacon





In the year 1631 there was published in Paris, by the firm of Antoine de Sommaville and Andre' de Soubron, a book entitled Histoire Naturelle de Mre. Francois Bacon, Baron de Verulan (sic), Vicomte de Sainct Alban et Chancelier d'Angleterre. At first one might imagine that this was a translation of Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum, but a very slight examination shows that this is not the case. It is a treatise on natural history in French that has no counterpart in English.

The translator, who in the licence to print is said to be Pierre Amboise, tells us, in the address to the reader, that he had been aided for the most part in his translation by the author's manuscripts; but the manner of obtaining these is not explained, nor is any explanation offered of the interesting fact that these manuscripts have never appeared in English.

The book is dedicated by D.M. to the Monseigneur de Chasteauneuf, who was Ambassador Extraordinary to England from France in 1629 and 1630; but who D.M. is, or whether he had anything more to do with the work than write the epistle dedicatory, and if more, what more, there is nothing whatever to show. The following is a translation of the dedication:

To Monseigneur de Chasteauneuf, Keeper of the Seals of France.


This Chancellor, whom we have so often brought over to France, has never yet left England with so much zeal to make known to us his wonders as now since he has known the rank that we have assigned to your virtues: so that now his History, with all the fine embellishments it has formerly obtained from his pen, appears before your eyes, in like manner as did that magnificent and studious Queen, who in order to see the greatness of a Prince- Philosopher undertook a voyage with all the pomp and circumstance of which she was capable.

These are the fruits of a land where you have shown those of your prudence: or rather it is a treasure of which I can claim no more than the smallest part, since being devoted entirely to you, and having discovered it during your Embassage, it should not fall into other hands than your own.

One opinion from you of his superiority will be enough for his Glory; and I feel assured that your Name on the front of this work will make it last throughout Centuries, an end that we should not attain though we endured to the end of the World. We should value it doubtless as we value those pictures that are preserved in galleries, not for the merit of the painting, but for the portraiture of him whom they represent to our eyes. If Mr. Bacon had lived in our times, I do not doubt but that he would have taken your actions as the model for his.

And so, Monseigneur, I do not think I am far from his intentions if today I offer to you his works. It is true that it would have been easy for this great man to have found a better pen than mine to have shown forth his Genius, but I am sure when entering your house he could not have chosen a man more desirous of appearing on every occasion.


Your most humble and most obedient servant,


The Advertisement au Lecteur then follows:

Address to the Reader.

This work of Mr. Bacon's, though posthumous, does not the less deserve to be recognized as legitimate, since it has the same advantages as those that have been brought to light whilst he was living. If the Author had had the desire to see it there, we should have seen this work in the press at the same time as his other books, but having designed that it should grow more, he had intended to defer the printing until the completion of all his works.

This is a Natural History where the qualities of metals and minerals, the nature of the elements, the causes of generation and decay, the different actions of bodies upon each other, are treated with so much brilliancy, that he seems to have learned the science at the school of the first man. Of a truth, if in this he has rivalled Aristotle, Pliny, and Cardan, he has nevertheless borrowed nothing from them, as though he had intended to make it plain that these great men have not treated the subject so fully, but that there still remain many things to be said.

For my part, though I have no intention of establishing the reputation of this Author at the expense of Antiquity, I think I may always truly say that in this subject he has had a certain advantage over them; since the greater number of the Ancients, who have written upon nature, have been content to retail to us that which they have learnt from others: and, without reflecting that very often that which has been given to them as a true description is very far from the truth, they have preferred to bolster up with their arguments the tales of others rather than themselves to make original research. But Mr. Bacon, instead of stopping at the same boundaries as those who have preceded him, will have Experience joined with Reason.
And to effect this he had a country house somewhat close to London, which he retained only in order to carry on his Experiments. In this place he had an infinite number of vases and phials; some of which were filled with distilled waters, others with plants and metals in their native state some with mixtures and compounds; and leaving them exposed to the air throughout all seasons of the year, he observed carefully the different effects of cold or of heat, of dryness and of moisture, the simple productions and corruptions, and other effects of nature.

It is in this way that he has found out so many rare secrets, the discovery of which he has left to us; and that he has exposed as false so many axioms that until now have been held as inviolable among the Philosophers. If, in order to make the meaning clear, I have used in this translation many words more Latin than French, the Reader should lay the blame chiefly upon the sterility of our language, which is so defective that many things often remain unexpressed unless we have recourse to foreign languages. I shall be pleased also if the Reader will take notice that in this translation I have not exactly followed the order observed in the original English, for I have found so much confusion in the disposition of the matter that it seemed to have been broken up and dispersed rather by caprice than by reason.

Besides, having been aided for the most part by the Manuscripts of the Author, I have deemed it necessary to add to, or to take from, many of the things that have been omitted or augmented by the Chaplain of Mr. Bacon, who after the death of his Master, printed in a confused manner all the pages that he found in his cabinet. I say this, so that those who understand English will not accuse me of inaccuracy, when they encounter in my translation many things that they do not find in the original.

The Life then follows:

'Those who have known the quality of M. Bacon's mind from reading his works, will - in my opinion - be desirous to learn who he was, and to know that Fortune did not forget to recompense merit so rare and extraordinary as was his. It is true, however, that she was less gracious to his latter age than to his youth; for his life had such happy beginning, and an end so rough and strange, that one is astonished to see England's principal Minister of State, a man great both in birth and in possessions, reduced actually to the verge of lacking the necessaries of life.

I have difficulty in coinciding with the opinion of the common people, who think that greatmen are unable to beget children similar to themselves, as though nature was in that particularinferior to the art which can easily produce portraits that are likenesses: especially as history teaches us that the greatest personages have often found in their own families heirs of their virtues as well as of their possessions. And indeed, without the need of going to search for far away examples, we see that M. Bacon was the son of a father who possessed no less virtue than he: his worth secured to him the honour of being so well-beloved by Queen Elizabeth that she gave him the position of Keeper of the Seals, and placed in his hand the most important affairs of her Kingdom. And in truth it pains me to say that soon after his promotion to the first-named dignity, he was the principal instrument that she made use of in order to establish the Protestant Religion in England.

Although that work was so odious in its nature, yet if one considers it according to political maxims, we can easily see that it was one of the greatest and boldest undertakings that had been carried out for many centuries: and one ought not the less to admire the Author of it, in that he had known how to conduct a bad business so dextrously, as to change both the form of Religion, and the belief, of an entire Country, without having disturbed its transquility. M. Bacon was not only obliged to imitate the virtues of such a one, but also those of many others of his ancestors, who have left so many marks of their greatness in history that honour and dignity seem to have been at all times the spoil of his family. Certain it is that no one can reproach him with having added less than they to the splendour of his race. Being thus born in the purple [ne parmy les pourpres] and brought up with the expectation of a great career [l'esperance d'une grande fortune], his father had him instructed in "bonnes lettres" with such great and such especial care, that I know not to whom we are the more indebted for all the splendid works [les beaux ouvrages] that he has left us: whether to the mind of the son, or to the care the father had taken in making him cultivate it. But, however that may be, the obligation we are under to the father is not small. Capacity [judgment] and memory were never in any man to such a degree as in this one: so that in a very short time he made himself conversant with all the knowledge he could acquire at College. And though he was then considered capable of undertaking the most important affairs [capable des charges les plus importants] yet, so that he should not fall into the usual fault of young men of his kind (who by a too hasty ambition often bring to the management of great affairs, a mind still full of the crudities of the school), M. Bacon himself wished to acquire that knowledge which in former times made Ulysses so commendable, and earned for him the name of Wise; by the study of the manners of many different nations. I wish to state that he employed some years of his youth in travel, in order to polish his mind and to mould his opinion by intercourse with all kinds of foreigners. France, Italy, and Spain, as the most civilized nations of the whole world were those whither his desire for knowledge [curiosite] carried him. And as he saw himself destined one day to hold in his hands the helm of the Kingdom [le timon du Royaume] instead of looking only at the people and the different fashions in dress, as do the most of those who travel, he observed judiciously the laws and the customs of the countries through which he passed, noted the different forms of Government in a State, with their advantages or defects,together with all the other matters which might help to make a man able for the government of men.

Having by these means reached the summit of learning and virtue, it was fitting that he should also reach that of dignity. For this reason, some time after his return, the King, who well knew his worth, gave him several small matters to carry out, that might serve for him as stepping stones to high positions: in these he acquitted himself so well that he was in due course considered worthy of the same position that his father vacated with his life. And in carrying out the work of Chancellor he gave so many proofs of the largeness of his mind, that one can say without flattery that England owes to his wise counsels, and his good rule, a part of the repose she has so long enjoyed. And King James, who then reigned, should not take to himself alone all the glory of this, for it is certain that Mr Bacon should share it with him. we may truly say that this Monarch was one of the greatest Princes of his time, who understood thoroughly well the worth and value of men, and he made use to the fullest extent of M. Bacon's services, and relied upon his vigilance to support the greater part of the burden of the Crown. the Chancellor never proposed anything for the good of the State, or the maintenance of Justice, but was carried out by the Royal power; and the authority of the Master seconded the good intentions of the servant; so that one must avouch that this Prince was worthy to have such a minister, and he worthy of so great a King.

'Among so many virtues that made this great man commendable Prudence, as the first of all the Moral virtues, and that most necessary to those of his profession, was that which shone in him the most brightly. His profound wisdom can be most readily seen in his books, and his matchless fidelity in the signal services that he continuously rendered to his Prince. Never was there a man who so loved equity, or so enthusiastically worked for the public good as he: so that I may aver that he would have been much better suited to a Republic than to a Monarchy, where frequently the convenience of the Prince is more thought of than that of his people. And I do not doubt that, had he lived in a Republic, he would have acquired as much glory from the citizens, as formerly did Aristides and Cato, the one in Athens, the other in Rome. Innocence oppressed found always in his protection a sure refuge, and the position of the great gave them no vantage ground before the Chancellor, when suing for justice.

Vanity, avarice, and ambition, vices that too often attach themselves to great honours, were to him quite unknown, and if he did a good action, it was not from the desire of fame, but simply because he could not do otherwise. His good qualities were entirely pure, without being clouded by the admixture of any imperfections; and the passions that form usually the defects in great men, in him only served to bring out his virtues; if he felt hatred and rage it was only against evil doers, to shew his detestation of their crimes; and success or failure in the affairs of his country, brought to him the greater part of his joys or his sorrows. He was as truly a good man, as he was an upright judge, and by the example of his life, corrected vice and bad living, as much as by pains and penalties. And in a word, it seemed that Nature had exempted from the ordinary frailties of men him whom she had marked out to deal with their crimes. All these good qualities made him the darling of the people, and prized by the great ones of the State. But when it seemed that nothing could destroy his position, Fortune made clear that she did not yet wish to abandon her character for instability, and that Bacon had too much worth to remain so long prosperous.

It thus came about that amongst the great number of officials such as a man of his position must have in his house, there was one who was accused before Parliament of exaction, and of having sold the influence that he might have with his master. And though the probity of M. Bacon was entirely exempt from censure, nevertheless he was declared guilty of the crime of his servant, and was deprived of the power that he had so long exercised with so much honour and glory in this I see the working of monstrous ingratitude and unparalleled cruelty; to say that a man who could mark the years of his life, rather by the signal services that he had rendered to the state, than by times or seasons, should have received such hard usage, for the punishment of a crime which he never committed; England, indeed, teaches us by this that the sea that surrounds her shores, imparts to her inhabitants somewhat of its restless inconstancy. This storm did not at all surprise him, and he received the news of his disgrace with a countenance so undisturbed that it was easy to see that he thought but little of the sweets of life, since the loss of them caused discomfort so slight. He had, fairly close to London, a country house replete with everything requisite to soothe a mind embittered by public life, as was his, and weary of living in the turmoil of the great world. He returned thither to give himself up more completely to the study of books, and to pass in repose, the remainder of his life. But as he seemed to have been born rather for the rest of mankind than for himself, and as by the want of public employment he could not give his work to the people, he wished at least to render himself of use by his writings and by his books; worthy as these are to be in all the libraries of the world, and to rank with the most splendid works of antiquity.

The History of Henry VII. is one of those works which we woe to his fall, a work so well received by the whole world, that one has wished for nothing so much as the continuation of the History of the other Kings. And even yet he would not have given opportunity for these regrets, had not death cut short his plans, and thus robbed us of a work that bid fair to put all the others to shame.

The Natural History is also one of the fruits of his idleness. The praiseworthy wish that he had, to pass by nothing but to connote the nature and qualities of all things, induced his mind to make researches which some learned men may perhaps have indicated to him, but which none but himself could properly carry out. In which he has without doubt achieved so great a success, that but little has escaped his knowledge: so that he has laid bare to us the errors of the ancient Philosophy and made us see the abuses that have crept into that teaching, under the authority of the first authors of the science. But whilst he was occupied in this great work, want of means forced him to concentrate his mind on his domestic affairs. The honest manner in which he had lived was the sole cause of his poverty; and as he was ever more desirous of acquiring honour than of amassing a fortune, he had always preferred the interests of the State to those of his house; and had neglected, during the time of his great prosperity, the opportunities of enriching himself: So that after some years passed in solitude he found himself reduced to such dire necessity that he was constrained to have recourse to the King, to obtain, by his liberality, some alleviation of his misery. I know not if poverty be the mother of beauty, but I aver that the letter he wrote to the King on that occasion is one of the most beautiful examples of that style of writing ever seen. The request that he made for pension is conceived in terms so lofty and in such good taste, that one could not deny him without great injustice. Having thus obtained means to extricate himself from his difficulties, he again applied himself, as before, to unravel the great secrets of nature. And as he was engaged during a severe frost in observing some particular effects of cold, having stayed too long in the open, and forgetting that his age made him incapable of bearing such severities; the cold, acting the more easily on a body whose powers were already reduced by old age, drove out all that remained of natural heat, and reduced him to the last condition that is always reached by great men only too soon. Nature failed him while he was chanting her praise: this she did, perhaps, because being miserly and hiding from us her best, she feared that at last he would discover all her treasures, and made all men learned at her expense. Thus ended this great man, who England could place alone as the equal [en paralelle avec] of the best of all the previous centuries."


Thanks to Mather Walker for the text

Commentary on PIERRE AMBOISE's The Life of Francis Bacon

by Granville C. Cuningham .