a presentation by
the late Professor Benjamin Farrington
Emeritus Professor of Classics
Francis Bacon, Philosopher of Industrial Science. 1949.
The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. 1964.
includes translations of Bacon's The Masculine Birth of Time, Thoughts and Conclusions, The Refutation of Philosophies
reprinted from Baconiana, the Journal of the Francis Bacon Society
" Evermore, it must be remembered that the least part of knowledge is subject to the use for which God hath granted it, which is the benefit and relief of the state and society of man."Francis Bacon
I need a sympathetic audience this evening,
for the subject of my lecture is far above my powers. I have not, for
instance, felt theologian enough to discuss his Confession of
Faith. It is however a subject that imposes itself, as I found
when I first attempted to write about Francis Bacon as a scientist
some dozen years ago. Then it became clear to me, not simply that
Bacon was a Christian, but that his Christianity was vital to the
understanding of his philosophy of science. Plenty of scientists
have, of course, been Christians. But the fact that Napier used his
logarithms to solve problems concerning the Number of the Beast, or
that Boyle was an ardent evangelist, or that Faraday was a
Sandemanian or Mendel a Roman Catholic, does not assist our
understanding of their contributions to mathematics, chemistry,
electricity, or the laws of inheritance. But unless we give Bacon's
Christianity a central place in our interpretation of his thought we
must be for ever content to skirt round the edges of it. So here I am
under the auspices of the New Atlantis Foundation to talk about the
author of The New Atlantis, trusting that this happy
coincidence will ensure me an indulgent hearing.
I shall need it. For I shall make bold to say at the outset that, to the best of my judgment, Bacon intended a reform of religion just as much as reform of science. Or, to be more precise, that he did not separate the two. For while it is a fact that he laboured to distinguish the realms of faith and knowledge, it is equally true that he thought one without the other useless. Edwin Abbott, an unsympathetic but competent biographer, long ago noted the religious character of Bacon's physics. It is a shrewd observation, and I should like to put you a simple question. Are the Fathers of Solomon's House in The New Atlantis priests or scientists, or both? Is the House itself a temple of or a research institute? Was it not the most natural thing in the world that the first historian of the Royal Society, Bishop Sprat, in acknowledging Francis Bacon as the inspirer of the whole enterprise, should go on to ask, "If our Church should be an enemy to commerce, intelligence, discovery, navigation, or any sort of mechanics, how could it be fit for the present genius of this nation?
The Bishop's question was a most pertinent one. He was conscious of a change in the spiritual climate of England. He talks of "the present genius of this nation" and is fully conscious of the role Bacon had played in forming it. England is to go forward with a scientific and technological revolution, and the Church is to play an active role in it. Listen to him again.
"The univeral disposition of this age is bent upon a rational religion; and therefore I renew my affectionate request that the Church of England would provide to have the chief share in its first adventures; that it would persist, as it has begun, to encourage experiments, which will be to our Church as the British Oak is to our empire, an ornament and a defence to the soil wherein it is planted."
Nor is that all. Experimental science, the Bishop claims, will overcome narrowness of mind; enable minds distracted by civil and religious differences to meet calmly on nuetral ground; and, by contriving a
"union of men's hands and reasons,"
"unite various classes and occupations-soldier, tradesman, merchant, scholar, gentleman, courtier, divine, Presbyterian, Papist, Independant, and those of Orthodox judgment."
All these, he claims, have "calmly conspired in a
mutual agreement of labours and desires." Such was the temper of
England in the first spring of the Baconian revolution. When Boyle
was simultaneously laying the foundations of modern chemistry and
expending vast effort and vast sums on the dissemination of the
Scriptures in many tongues. When Christopher Wren combined the
building of churches with original contributiions to ten or a dozen
nascent branches of natural science. The Baconian revolution, one
might say, seemed a further installment of the Reformation.
At the appearance of Bacon's masterwork The Great Instauration in 1620, George Herbert, a personal friend of his, who knew his thought well, with his usual justness and perception and precision of speech, hailed the author in a Latin poem as
Mundique et animarum sacerdos unicus,
the alone-only priest of nature and men's souls.
On the foundation of the Royal Society, the inspired Cowley was voicing a common sentiment when he wrote :
From these and all along errors of the way
in which our wandering predessors went,
And like th' old Hebrews many years did stray|
In deserts but of small extent
Bacon , like Moses, led us forth at last.
The barren wilderness he past,
Did on the very border stand
Of the blest promis'd land,
And from the mountain's top of his exalted wit,
Saw it himself and shew'd us it.
The truth is that Francis Bacon envisaged himself and was, after his death, for a while accepted as leader of a total revolution in the conditions of life; and that this revolution consisted in the recovery by mankind of his true relation towards the world of nature; namely in the Dominion over the Universe which had been promised to Adam before the Fall. Hence the aptness of the comparison with Moses ; hence the justification for calling him the priest of nature and mankind.
A rough and ready way to bear out these claims is to make a cursory examination of The New Atlantis. You remember the story. A ship has been driven off course in the Pacific and, when supplies begin to run out and there are many sick on board, the crew sight an island, which, as they later discover, bears the Hebrew name of Bensalem, Son of Peace. This island utopia turns out to be very much a home from home. Its customs are not unfamiliar to the new arrivals; they are simply better. In James Spedding's happy phrase Bensalem is
"simply our own world as it might be made if we did our duty by it."
A boat puts out from shore to contact the ship and brings a document couched in four languages-ancient Hebrew, ancient Greek, good Latin of the School, and contemporary Spanish. The culture of the island, therefore, is not different from that of England; nor is its religion. For the scroll is stamped with the sign of the cross, which is taken as a certain presage of good. "God is manifested in this land" they exclaim soon after they come ashore. "We are come here among a Christian people full of piety and humanity." Of the first important official they meet they enquire who was the apostle of the island. "Ye knit my heart to you," he cries, "by asking this question in the first place; for it showed that you seek first the kingdom of heaven." He then explains the miraculous circumstances in which, not long after the Ascension, the islanders became possessed of a small ark of cedar wood containing all the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. For in Bensalem, as in Bacon's ideal for England, the Bible is the treasure, the Church only the ark that contains it. There is a Hebrew element in the population living in great mutual amity and respect with their neighbors-a point of some curiosity, since the Jews had been expelled from England in the XIII century and not allowed re-entry till after Bacon's time. It is owing to their presence that scientific works of Solomon, lost to Europe, have survived in Bensalem. The central instituition of the island, though its main business is science and technology, is called Solomon's House, or The College of the Six Days Works. Its chiefs are designated Fathers, and their spokesman explains :
"We have certain hyms and services we say daily, of laud and thanks to God for his marvellous works; and forms of prayer imploring his aid and blessing for the illumination of our labours, and the turning of them into good and holy uses."
Such is the setting Bacon provides for his
brilliant sketch of the scientific wonders of Bensalem, which so
strikingly anticipate the achievements of the last three centuries.
Bacon was probably about fifty years of age when he composed it. May
we take it that it represents, in its deeply religious and
consistently Biblical colouring, a permanent and life-long
charateristic of his thought?
This is certainly so. Bacon wa already Lord Chancellor of England and fifty-nine years of age before he published his Great Instauration. By the title, as he explains more than once, he indicated his intention of instructing mankind to overcome, so far as might prove possible, the consequences of the Fall and to merit the long delayed fulfilment of God's promise to Adam of dominion over the universe.
"Man by the Fall fell at the same time from the state of innocence adn from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and Faith, the latter by arts and sciences. For creation was not by th curse made altogether and forever a rebel, but in virute of that covenant 'In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread' it is now by various (labours) at length, and in some measure subdued to the supplying of man with bread : That is to the uses of human life" (Novum Organum II, end)
It is true that many students of Bacon's thought take this,and the many similar pronouncements which adorn the pages of the The Great Instauration, as insincere. Joseph de Maistre regarded it as a heavy disguise of orthodoxy laid on to conceal his real atheism and materialism from the prying eyes of James. Professor Broad, the exponent of a more moderate scepticism, says,
" It is evident that he was a sincere if unenthusiastic Christian of that sensible school which regards the Church of England as a branch of the civil service and the Archbishop of Canterbury as the British Minsiter for Divine Affairs."
But it may be that Professor Broad's tolerant
flippancy is even further from the truth thatnt he angry hostility of
de Maistre. The fact is that Bacon was a man with a mission. He was
still but a boy, according to what he later told his secretary and
literary executor, Dr. Rawley, when he became impatient of all
philosophy that was strong only in disputations and contentions and
barren of the production of works for the benefit of the life of man.
In which mind, adds Rawley, he continued till his dying day.
Here, as it seems to me, it is all important to consider what Bacon meant by a philosophy productive of works for the benefit of the life of man. It we take it to mean, as most of his commentators seem to do, that what he had in mind was the mere multiplication of comforts and commodities, then it becomes impossible to understand the passion with which Bacon , throughout his life, pursued so trivial an ambition.
It becomes impossible to understand why he should solemly pronounce it his "only earthly wish." But that this is not the sense in which Bacon intended the words is beyond dispute. I have mentioned the prayers that were in use in Solomon's house in The New Atlantis. Here is the beginning of the prayer that Bacon composed for use in scientific institutes such as he tried all his life to get set up in England.
"To God the Father, God the Word, God the Spirit, we pour out our humble and burning prayers, that mindful of the miseries of the human race and this our mortal pilgrimage in which we wear out evil days and few, he would send down upon us ne streams from the fountain of his mercy for the relief of our distress."
And to the prospective student, the reluctant neophyte being initiated into the new philosophy of works, the promises he holds out are these :
"My dear, dear boy," he says, '"that which I purpose is to unite you with things themselves in a chaste, holy, and legal wedlock; form which association you will secure an increase beyond all the hopes and prayers of ordinary marriages, to wit, a blessed race of Heroes and Supermen who will overcome the immeasurable helplessness and poverty of the human race, which are the source of more destruction than all giants, monsters, or tyrants, and will make you peaceful, happy, prosperous, and secure."
It is only when we take the philosophy of works in
this universal and philanthropic sense that we can begin to
understand how it has for Bacon religious significance.
The words I have just quoted come from the writing called The Masculine Birth of Time. This title is eloquent of the belief which animates all Bacon's writings; that he was destined to be the herald of unimaginable change in the fortunes of the human race. The words quoted were written in 1603, when Bacon was forty-two. Seventeen years later he expressed the same thought in still stronger terms.
" The sixth part of my work,"
he says in The Great Instauration,
" for which the rest are but a preparation, will reveal the philosophy which is the product of that legitimate, chaste, and severe mode of enquiry which I have taught and prepared. But to pefect this last part is a thing both above my strength and beyond my expectation. What I have been able to do is to give it, as I hope, a not contemptible start. The destiny of the human race will supply the issue, and that issue will perhaps be such as men in the present state of their fortunes and of their understandings cannot easily grasp or measure. For what is at stake is not merely a mental satisfaction but the very reality of man's well-being and all his power of action."
To interpret his thought in historical terms and express it more concretely, Bacon had observed that while antiquity had not failed to create a whole encyclopedia of the sciences (the word is Greek and was in use in the sense in which we employ it already in the second century before Christ) those sciences were of such a kind as to give mankind little control over nature, little power of action. They were barren of works for the benefit of the life of man. For Bacon this was not simply a problem of the state of learning. When he wrote cautiously he so desribed it, being well aware of the obstacles which would confront him if he disclosed the full depth of his thought. But for Bacon the real problem was not an academic one. It was a problem of life and death. He took the same view of the situation in England in his own day as the more serious scientists do in our day of the situation in the world, and felt the same desperation. We have associations for the advancement of science just as Bacon wrote books in support of the advancement of learning. But we still lack an association for the liquidation of world poverty. It is respectable to hoist the academic banner, not so respectable then or now to point to the "immeasurable helplessness and poverty of the human race." But we shall not begin to understand Bacon until we take him at his word and accept his protestation that to overcome poverty was the primary business of science. In that sense he called it his only earthly wish.
In England, as the historian of philanthropy (Philanthropy of England, 1480-1660 by W.K. Jordan, p.57) tell us,
" the sixteenth century was deeply concerned with the problem of poverty; its literature and documents are filled with the question; its discussion of causes, of extent, andof methods of action mount as the century wears on."
Like other public men Francis Bacon was deeply involved. When the Parliament of 1597 discussed the whole problem of poverty and its relief he spoke of the blighting effect of the enclosures and was subsequently one of the members of the commision appointed to sort out the tangle of remedial legislation proposed in some ten or dozen different bills. But Bacon, though fully apprised of the nature of the problem, was not satisfied with the remedies proposed. The beginning of the century had seen More's wistful but dubious glance at the solution of poverty proposed by the spokesman in his Utopia- the solution of an equal distribution of property. This had no appeal for Bacon. Neither did the actual course which charity took wholly satisfy him. W.K. Jordan, the historian of this remarkable movement, the beneficial effects of which are with us still, being knit into the very foundations of the social life of England, has revealed by a patient examination of the testamentary dispositions of the age what a vast volume of private wealth was poured by the merchants and industrialists who made fortunes at this time into carefully planned and well endowed charitable trusts. But just as Bacon had seen no solution of the problem of poverty in Thomas More's egalitarianism- which was only fair shares in poverty and not the creation of plenty- so also he disliked that form of society in which a few individuals make vast fortunes in the midst of widespread poverty and seek to redress the balance at the end of their lives by the distribution of what, soberly speaking, is no longer even theirs, since, as everybody knows, you can't take it with you.
The solution in which Bacon believed depended first on the structure of society itself. It must not breed poverty and riches at opposite poles and delude itself with the fancy that men who have spent their lives inth amassing of private gain will on their deathbeds have such a wise understanding of public needs that they can be safely entrusted with the creation of of permanent institutions for dealing with them. Instead he tried to turn the eyes of his fellow countrymen the example presented by tlhe Low Countries,
"who could never have endured and continued so inestimable and insupportable charges, either by their natural frugality or by their mechanical industry, were it not also that their wealth was dispersed in many hands, and not ingrossed in few; and those hands not so much of the nobility, but most and generally of inferior conditions." (The True Greatness of the Kingdom of Britain)
That was one requirement. The other was, of
course, the creation of of a new kind of science, which unlike the
encyclopedia of sciences inherited from the Greeks, should be
constructed from the foundation up to be a means of producing works
for the benefit of the life of man. Such were Bacon's two
requirements, nor were they unconnected with one another. Both the
new society, in which wealth would be more equally distributed, and
the new science in which knowledge would be power, must, he was
convinced, rest upon a revaluation of the role of the mechanical arts
in the development of civilisation. The mechanical arts were innocent
of theory and of but limited efficacy, and yet it was entirely due to
them that, in the small measure to which they were effective, nature
had by various labours been subdued to the supplying of man with
bread. If a science of works was to be created, the mechanical arts
must provide the foundation.
If only when we place ourselves at this view point, when we bear in mind both the problem of poverty and the nature of the remedies Bacon had in mind, that we can begin to discuss the religious character of his thought. The plague of Baconian scholarship has been that his commentators, with few exceptions, try to fit his philosophy into a category too narrow to contain it. Thus, his philosophy of works, which ought to be accorded a major place in the philosophy of history, is often cut about and cruelly mangled in order to make it fit into the history of smaller movements of thought, and the man who, in Albert Schweitzer's phrase, "drafted the programme of the modern world view," has become merely one of the contributers to inductive logic,or to the growth of rationalism, or the history of English Erastianism or something of the sort.
For my part I propose to take him at his face value as he presents himself to his readers. That is to say, he was a man whom the circumstances of his age presented with the problem of poverty; who saw the solution of that problem in elevating to the dignity and power of a theroretical science the craft knowledge implicit in the mechanical arts, who found the traditional philosophy derived from the Greeks of no avail for two great reasons, one moral and the other intellectual; and who consequently turned his back upon the Greeks and discovered for himself in the Bible a world outlook and a morality on which he could base his new philosophy of works.
This new world-outlook is succintly defined in the twelve brief Sacred Meditations which Bacon brought out in 1597 as his first publication together with the more familiar Essays. The religious thought of these meditations is strongly marked by the practical morality which had increasingly characterised English thought from the days of Colet and Erasmus. The first meditation is no more than one hundred words in length. The gist of it lies in these words,
"God saw the works of his hands and they were exceeedingly good; when man turned to consider the works of his hands, behold all was vanity and vexation of spirit. Whereof if you will do God's works your sweat will be like aromatic balm and your rest like the Sabbath of God; for you will work in the sweat of a good conscience and rest in the leisure of sweet contemplation."
The significance of these words for Bacon is in inverse proportion to their length. By recalling the fact that God had not only created the world but seen that it was good, he rejected the long tradition of contempt for this world which had come down from the Orphics through Plato and neo-Platonists, the gnostics and the mystics, the pseudo-Dionysus and the Florentine platonists, and was still active in his own day. That early Baconian, the poet John Milton, echoes his thought when he says (or makes his Satan say) :
O Earth, how like to heaven, if not preferr'd
More justly, Seat worthier of God's, as built
With second thoughts, reforming what was old;
For what God after better worse would build?
Furthermore, if Nature is God's handiwork, there
can be no study more pleasing to him than natural philosophy.
On one condition, however- which is the subject of the second meditation,on the mircacles of the Saviour. God the Father made the world good, but the works of man's hands are vanity and vexation of spirit. For this there is only one remedy, that every action should be motivated by love. This was not clear until the appearance on earth of God the Word. In Old Testament days the prophets brought all sorts of calamities on their enemies, which even the Apostles imitated, Peter striking Ananias dead and Paul making Elymas blind.
Not so for Jesus. He never performed a miracle except upon the human body and that for the purpose of healing it.
"He restored motion to the lame, light to the blind, speech to the dumb, health to the sick, cleanness to the lepers, sound mind to them that were possessed with devils, life to the dead. There was no miracle of judgment, but all of mercy, and all upon the human body."
The third meditation could hardly be more
pertinent to the actual role Bacon had designed for himself. It is on
The Innocence of the Dove and the Wisdom of the Serpent, and it
considers the case of a man who aspires, not to a solitary and
private goodness, but to a fructifying and begetting good involving
the lives of others. The business of such a man will be with the
world; and, though his purpose may be as innocent as the dove, it
will be necessary for him to show himself acquainted with the
cynicism and villainy of the world or risk being taken for a pious
simpleton. He must arm himself with the wisdom of the serpent, but
need not on that account fear pollution any more than a sunbeam which
shines into a privy.
The meditation that deals with hypocrites has again the same practical ends in view. Hypocrites make a display of public worship, which costs them nothing. They are exposed when directed towards works of mercy, reminded that pure religion and undefiled is to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction, and asked how a man who does not love his brother whom he hath seen can love God whom he has not seen.
Religious literature is the subject of another meditation which deals with three types of imposture. The first consists of the tedious trivialities of the Schoolmen, who create a specious appearance of system by the use of technical terms, the piling up of distinctions, the propounding of these, and arguments pro and con. Then there are the lives of the fathers and the compositions of ancient heretics in which the poetic fancy is given free reign to invent every kind of example that could appeal to men's minds. Finally there are the mysterious and magniloquent writings, filled with allegories and allusions, of mystical and gnostic heretics. the first is a trap, the second a bait, the third a riddle, and all mislead. The remedy lies int he study of the Bible and of nature. The Scriptures reveal the will of God, Nature reveals the power of God. Bible reading and natural philosophy are the cures respectively for superstition and atheism. The Bible and Nature are God's two books.
These brief meditations, I am well aware, could easily appear nothing more than a jejune and perfunctory set of typical seventeenth century commonplaces. But that, I am sure would be to mistake their significance. Bacon shared with this age the predilection for the Bible as the true guide to religion and morality. But his conviction of the necessity and desirability of a scientific and technological revolution was peculiar to himself and the special purpose of the meditations was to supply a Biblical inspiration and justification for this revolution. It would be easy, even tempting, to dismiss this as a mere policy; to imagine that Bacon did not genuinely owe any of the inspiration which prompted his reform to Biblical sources, but pretended to do so in order to win acceptance for his proposals. Is this the truth? Let us consider the facts.
That the sciences current in his own day had come down from the Greeks Bacon knew and acknowledged. His complaint was that while intellectually brilliant and beautifully articulated in their logical structure they were practically useless. Fertile in arguments, barren of arts. Beneath this strange paradox he detected an attitude to nature, and a relation between man and nature, which he could not accept. Such arts as were known to the Greeks were regarded by them as imitations of nature. All that man could do, or ever expect to do, was to learn some of nature's tricks and copy them, perhaps slight modifications and adjustments to suit himself. A radical transformation of nature was out of the question. But Bacon saw things differently. He aimed, in his own words , "to shake nature in her foundations," and the justificaton for this ambition he found in the Bible. God, who created nature, made man in ; his own image. Man must therefore be a creator. Not a child of nature but a lord of nature. And this, precisely, was what God , according to the Scriptures, had designed man to be. He as to exercise dominion over nature. True, this could only be done by studying nature. To conquer nature one must obey her. But that need not mean that man's ambitions must be limited to reproducing nature's work's. The esential character of an artificial thing is that it is not natural. It is something that could not have existed without the art and agency of man. The history of the mechanical arts, limited as their achievement has been, has yet shown that man can create something that would not have existed without him. This is the process that must be carried forward. If man is to solve his problems of poverty and disease it can only be the creation of new arts. Not merely improved arts, but radically new arts, examples of which, though they be too few, yet exist in history. Over the mantlepiece in his father's home Francis Bacon read the words in which Lucretius describes the transition from a food-gathering to a food-producing stage.
"In days of od Athens, of glorious memory, spread among the hungry tribes of men knowledge of grain-bearing crops and thereby fashioned for them a new life."
What was to prevent the industrial revolution, the evidence of which was everywhere to be observed in Francis Bacon's England, from effecting a similar revolution in the life of the modern world? Was this not what God had promised Adam when he promised him dominion over the rest of creation? That Bacon believed so I cannot doubt, and for this reason, from 1603 to 1620, when he drafted and re-drafted his statement of his plan, the approved title was always The Great Instauration of the Dominion of Man over the Universe.
But why had the Greeks with all their brilliance
failed? Why did it seem hopeless to expect that the modern world, so
long as it was content to follow in the footsteps of the Greeks,
could ever escape the same futility? This question also the
Bible answered. The failure was a moral oneintellectual pride.
Through intellectual pride philosophy had failed in two ways. Lacking
the patience and humility to piece together the image of the
unviverse by faithful study of Nature, one of God's books,
philosophers, both ancient Greek and modern Italian make empty
logical contructions which are but superficial pictures of reality.
With these, men find it possible to remain satisfied, only because
they ignore the lesson of the Bible, that the prime function of
knowledge is to serve mankind. What more reasonable, then, that
God should smite this presumptuous and uncharitable wisdom with
Here is the account o fhte matter in Bacon's own words :
"Without doubt we are paying for the sin of our first parents and imitating it. They wanted to be like Gods; we their posterity, still more so. We create worlds. We prescribe laws to nature and lord it over her. We want to have all things as suits our fatuity, not as fits the Divine Wisdom, not as they are found in nature. We impose the seal of our image on the creatures and works of God, we do not diligently seek to discover the seal of God on things. Therefore not undeservedly have we again fallen from our dominion over the creation; and though after the Fall of mans some dominion over rebellious nature still remainedto the extent at least that it could be subdued and controlled by true and solid artseven that we have for the most part forfeited by our pride, because we wanted to be like gods and follow the dictates of our own reason. Wherefore, if there by any humility towards the Creator, if there be any reverence and praise of his works; if there be any charity towards men, and zeal to lessen human wants and sufferings; it there be any love of truth in natural things, any hatred of darkness, any desire to purify the understanding; men are to be entreated again and again that they should dismiss for a while or at least put aside those inconstant and preposterous philosophies which prefer these to hypotheses, have led experience captive, and triumphed over the works of God; that they should humbly and with a certain reverence draw near to the book of Creation; that there should make a stay, that on it they should meditate, and that then washed and clean they should in chastity and integrity turn them from opinion. This is that speech and language which has gone out to all the ends of the earth, and has not suffered the confusion of Babel; this must men learn, and resuming their youth, they must become as little children and deign to take its alphabet into their hands. (History of the Winds, 1623)
This extraordinary burst of eloquence, which has suffered at my hands in being translated from its original Latin, was written in 1623, when Bacon was sixty-two years of age, after his disgrace and fall from power, when he was trying to crowd into the remaining years of his life the scientific labours whihc he had neglected during his years of political servitude. He had already written his Last Will and Testament in which he bequeathed his soul to God above, his body to be buried obscurely, and his name to the next of ages and foreign nations. Twenty-seven strenous years had gone by since he had composed his Sacred Meditations, butthe thoughts remain the same. Only the conviction is stronger, the vision clearer, the accents more prophetic. Finally and this is the point at whihc I am trying to arrive, the ideal of science here presented is unlike anything derived from the Greek tradition. It is less metaphysical, less ideal, less logical, less intellectual. It is more religious, more practical, more experimental, more ethical. It is not pure science, but science understood as a means of worshipping God and serving mankind. Or to put the matter in another way, it is a development of Biblical thought and not of Greek. It is, not merely in expression but in substance, Christian, and post-Reformation Christian at that. And it is this the neglect of this character of Bacon's thought that has made the accounts of his contribution given by historians of science so unsatisfactory. The usual fate of historians when faced with the problem of Bacon's place in the history of science is to find themselves reduced to the conclusion that he really contributed nothing except his eloquence. In fact he contributed a new conception of the role of science which has been, and still may be, of great consequence for mankind.
It is a curious reflection that when we utter the word ATHENS it is for us a symbol of th past whereas the word JERUSALEM is a symbol of the future. We look back to the Glory that was Greece, but we think of building Jerusalem. Athens is a memory Jerusalem an aspiration. Out of compliment to Athens we go to school in academies or lyceums, but who could imagine a popular gathering singing about building Athens in England's green and pleasant land? The origin of this distincion lies far back in time. But with the rise of vernacular translations of the Bible it began to be of fundamental importance for the culture of the English people; and from the time of Colet onward the resentment at Aristotle's being allowed to usurp the seat of St. Paul became more and more vocal. To this mounting tide of feeling Francis Bacon gave a new twist. It had been a theological issue for some generations, though not for that reason devoid of significance for the growth of the national character. Bacon extended it to cover the whole field of learning, insisting that what St. Paul called "science falsely so called" was not merely an obstacle to the religious life of the nation, but an effectual bar to her material progress as well.
with regard to the Greek tradition as still taught in the universities in his day, "this philosophy, if it be carefully examined, will be found to advance certain points of view which are deliberately designed to convince men that nothing really great, nothing by which nature can be commanded and subdued, is to be expected from human art and human labour. Such teachings, if they be justly appraised, will be found to tend to nothing less than a wicked effort to curtail human power over nature and to produce a deliberate and artificial despair. This despair in its turn confounds the promptings of hope, cuts the springs and sinews of industry, and makes men unwilling to put anything to the hazard of trial."
These, which were not idle words but words born of much bitter experience, were first penned in Thoughts and Conclusions in 1607, repeated in the Novum Organum in 1620, and begain to have effect with the foundation of the Royal Society. In the context of Bacon's writings they were a manifesto in favour of the industrial expansion of England, with Greek philosophy appearing in the role of villain and the Bible in the role of liberator. Thus it was that Bacon did not, could not, choose the Academy or the Lyceum as his symbol when he sought to liquidate poverty in England by the application of science to industry. If England was to be transformed into Bensalem it could only be under the auspices of Solomon's House.
I have already referred to the Sacred
Meditation on three kinds of imposture in writing. It was a
warning against Scholasticism, that is against letting the quibbling
Aristotelian logic of the Schools usurp the spirituality of
St. Paul. It was a warning against the element of pious fable in
church history and in the lives of the saints. It was a warning
against mystical works like the Celestial Hierarchy of the
pseudo-Dionysus. If it means little to us, that is because the three
types of literature here condemned, went rapidly out of favour. In
the fifty or sixty years after 1600 England passed from a mainly
medieval to a mainly modern outlook on the world, the chief agents in
the change being the two causes championed by Baconthe Bible
and the new philosophy of nature.
But apart from the literature of imposture countenanced by the Church and indeed fostered by it and nurtured in its bosom, there were two other contemporary types of imposture against which a genuine philosophy of nature had to wage victorious struggle if it were to prevail. These were alchemy and magic. Both these powerful movements had roots going far back into pagan antiquity, and, what is more they had, in Bacon's view, certain claims to consideration which the Church lacked. The Church, in its pre-occupation with the affairs of the next world, had neglected the affairs of this. Not so the magicians and the alchemists. They had kept alive a dream, expelled from the bosum of the church, that it might be possible to make some other use of a knowledge of nature than St. Augustine allowed. For St. Augustine the justification of natural philosophy was that it might be of help for the understanding of the Bible. Francis Bacon had sharply departed from him on this point, advancing instead his view that God was the author of two books, not one; and that while the Bible was indispensible for the knowledge of God's will, it was from God's other book, Nature, that we could learn to understand his power. In this stand Bacon was much closer to the alchemists and the magicians than to the orthodox view, for they had always kept alive the dream that it might be possible, by acquiring knowledge of Nature, to effect great and dramatic alterations in man's state.
Historically speaking it would be true to say that alchemy and magic had drained off from the tradition of Greek science those elements in it which aimed at controlling nature, leaving to the orthodox tradition the barren satisfaction of contemplation. In short the alchemists and magicians kept alive the concept of knowledge as power, and Bacon did no more than borrow if from them. Hence the many traces of alchemical and magical thought in Bacon's writings, which made him in a certain sense the heir of his thirteenth century name-sake Roger, who had strugggled in his own day to have the concept of knowledge as power openly accepted and approved by the church.
Nevertheless Bacon was throughout his whole life the sworn foe of the alchemists and magicians. And again his condemnation of them is more than intellectual. When he keeps speaking throughout his writings of his method of science as being chaste , holy, legitimate and so forth, the explanation of this somewhat surprising terminology is his detestation of the moral and spiriutual atmosphere which hung about the practice of these two professions. He condemned them because, though they believed in knowledge as power they did not set before them the great public goal of the relief of man's estate. Instead they sought possession of certain secret processes which would put power into their own hands. He condemned them because their writings were deliberately engimatic and obscure. He condemned them because of their pretence that the kind of knowledge they sought could only be attained by a limited number of persons who happened to be endowed with more than natural powers. He condemned them beacause, working under these conditions, their results were in fact meagre, while their boasts were as magnificient as they were unjustified.
Looking at his achievement from the strictly scientific point of view some ofthe more perceptive ofthe modern historians, Zilsel and Needham , for instance, agree in recognising Bacon as
"the first writer in the history of mankind to realise fully the basic importance of modern scientific research for the advancement of human civilisation."
This is true and finely said. But it is necessary also to insist that his greatness lies, not in the inductive process he made an abortive attempt to describe in his Novum Organum, but in his conception of the true goal of science, the spirit in which it must be undertaken, and the manner in which it must be organised. Its goal must be, at least until this object has been attained, the relief of man's estate. The spirit in which it is pursued must be humble, sincere, unpretentious. The organisation must be public, democratic, and co-operative.
It was characteristic of the England of the seventeenth century that in one department after another of life and thought the ecclesisastical gave place to the secular. In descriptions of this process the terminology preferred is often to say that the religious gave place to the secular. This is unfortunate. Religion is not much good unless it is as closely identified with the secular as two faces of a coin. Jerusalem is no good unless we try to build it in England's green and pleasant land. For this reason I have found it impossible to give a full account of what Bacon was after without including it in the history of religion as well as in the history of science. Of course some of his opinions about the Bible are as out of date as are so many of his explanations of natural phenomena, his astronomy, cosmology, anthropology, or what not. But if the true description of any religion is to be found not simply in its starting point but in its history, then Baconianism is a chapter in the history of Christianity. And, while its scientific significance is obvious, it has also an inescapable religious significance. Bacon called the fulfilment of his programme his "only earthly wish" thereby keeping the door open for the conviction, which he certaintly held, that there is more to us than what is seen to happen between the cradle and the grave. Furthermore, like so many modern scientists, he found it impossible to derive the moral ideals he served from the natural science he was trying to create. He therefore accepted the law of love as a revelation, a mystery beyond the reach of human reason. In short, he was, as his private secretary asserts, and as his friendships and his writings proclaim, a religious man. What I have tried to do is show how his Christianity is knit into the very substance of his philosophy, and I would venture to suggest that it is one of the most original and fruitful developments of Christianity of which we have any record. It is also, to my way of thinking, so wise and so tolerant, so set to avoid theological disputes and be judged only by its fruits, that it can, does, and will continue to enter into that slow spiritual process by which the human race, if it survives, will evolve for itselfwhat does not yet existgenuine world religion. The goal of such a religion might well be described in Spedding's phrase
"Our world as it might be made if we did our duty by it."
Bacon is generally misjudged as one concerned only with the know-how of this processthat is as a scientist. But he was at least as much concerned to reveal it as a duty. This lies outside the purview of science and gives his thought its religious character.
SirBacon.org - Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning