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Brian McClinton critiques writers with a bias against Bacon

Thanks to Christina Waldman for pointing out Brian McClinton critiques writers with a bias against Bacon
Saving Bacon 4

Brian McClinton’s letter, Sept. 27, 2005, in Prospect Magazine, Nov. 20, 2005.

27th September 2005

In his travesty of the character and ideas of Francis Bacon, Terence Kealey describes him as an “unusually unpleasant” man “who collected… many bribes.” On the contrary, JG Crowther demonstrates (Francis Bacon: The First Statesman of Science, 1960) that Bacon was “fundamentally incorruptible.” Indeed he was almost alone among leading politicians in not paying James I for his offices and promotions. Nieves Mathews in Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination (1996), argues that he was completely innocent of the charges of bribery and that writers such as Macaulay were themselves guilty of slandering Bacon’s reputation and unfairly influencing later generations.

The best judges of Bacon’s character are those nearest to him. To his apothecary Peter Boener he was “a noteworthy example… of all virtue, gentleness, peacefulness, and patience.” To his editor Rawley, “if [ever] there were a beam of knowledge derived from God upon any man in these modern times, it was upon him.” Aubrey tells us that “all that were great and good loved and honoured him.”

As for his ideas, Kealey completely misrepresents his whole philosophy. Bacon’s lodestar was not power, as he suggests, but truth. He spells it out himself in his beautiful Proem: “For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things (which is the chief point), and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to reconsider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture. So I thought my nature had a kind of familiarity and relationship with Truth.”

In other words, Bacon’s “method” is as provisional as that of Popper, who completely misrepresents him. If modern science is based upon the presumption of error and fallibility, then Bacon remains its true trumpeter. Nor did he rely only on induction, as Kealey implies, for he insisted on a continual interchange between theory and experiment. When he wrote that “knowledge itself is power” he meant not worldly success or useful technology but the proof of scientific theories: “Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known, the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule” (Novum Organum). In short, only by making nature act in a certain way—exercising power—can we be sure that we understand how it does act, and only by knowing that can we control it. Bacon realised that science could be useful for the good of mankind but he also believed in knowledge and work for their own sake as “pledges of truth.”

Finally, Kealey goes off the rails altogether in his paean to private funding of science. It was the co-operative and collaborative nature of scientific discovery that concerned Bacon, not the issue of the state’s role.

Frankly, it is a puzzle why so many writers in England persistently misrepresent one of the world’s greatest geniuses. Most of them would improve their scholarship if they read Bacon himself instead of parroting his unreliable commentators.

Brian McClinton, Author of

Lisburn, Northern Ireland
Academic journals

26th September 2005 Letters.