What Francis Bacon Means To Me
The accomplishments of Francis Bacon were so incredible we might think of them as mythological, except that, when we examine the account in mythology closest to the story of Francis Bacon, we find it falls far short. The Titan, Prometheus, (so runs the myth) lit a torch from the sun, brought it down to earth, and gave mankind the gift of fire. His gift endowed man with innumerable benefits. It let him warm his dwellings; make weapons, with which to subdue animals; make tools with which to cultivate the earth to provide himself food; fashion artifacts from metal, thus introducing the arts; and coin money, thus giving birth to trade and commerce.
The accomplishments of Francis Bacon go far beyond those of the mythological Prometheus. The gift he gave man is much more important. "The story of Francis Bacon", said Benjamin Farrington, "is that of a life devoted to a great idea. The idea gripped him as a boy, grew with the varied experience of his life, and occupied him on his deathbed." What was this idea? Francis Bacon put it in the following words:
"If a man could succeed, not in striking out some particular
invention, however useful, but in kindling a light in nature-
a light which should in its very rising touch and illuminate
all the border-regions that confine upon the circle of our
present knowledge; and so spreading further and further
should presently disclose and bring into sight all that is
most hidden and secret in the world,- that man would be
the benefactor indeed of the human race,- the propagator
of man's empire over the universe, the champion of liberty,-
the conqueror and subduer of necessities."
This light Francis Bacon kindled in nature was the light of science. Loren Eiseley has very justly pointed out that science requires a very unique soil in which to flourish; that great civilizations of the past flourished without possessing either science, or the benefits of science; that it was to Bacon alone, that our present civilization is indebted for this gift; and that without Bacon it is very probable that we would have never had this gift.
We, who live today, dwell on the apex of a vast pyramid of human achievement; achievement accumulated through many long struggles in the service of science and technology. We reap these benefits each day in a thousand ways: electricity, television, telephones, aeronautics, and medicine; without giving thought to our debt. But it all goes back to Bacon. He set it all in motion. He was the one who prepared the unique soil that enabled it to grow, and he was the one who planted the unique seed from which it grew. Prometheus was a myth. Francis Bacon was real, and his achievements far greater than any imagination could conceive.
The actual facts of his life and the actual span of his achievements are far too incredible to provide material for a mere myth. The immensity of his genius was so great those who have written about him could only perceive fragments of his total achievement.
Experimenters such as Galileo and William Harvey were active in Bacon's time. Such men had existed in every age. Bacon was unique. He had the towering intellect capable of seeing the whole picture with a vision of crystal clarity. He saw the necessity of turning man into an actively anticipatory creature rather than a backward yearning one. He saw the necessity of multiplying researchers, establishing the continuity of the scientific tradition, and promoting government supported research for those studies which lay beyond private means. He saw the need for propaganda to bring this vision to the public view. He had the superb verbal skills necessary to achieve this, and above all, he had the unfaltering will to achieve this.
Bacon inspired the French Encyclopedists. Bacon inspired the gathering of many men to focus their efforts on scientific experiments. He inspired the founding of the Royal Society without which Newton's works would have been lost.
When all the facts are weighed it becomes evident that it was due to Bacon, and to Bacon alone, that the scientific revolution came about. He engineered the tremendous upward surge of learning which began in the first half of the 17th century. He dominated the forward rush of science, and centuries later Darwin himself would say, "I have worked on true Baconian principles."
For his generosity Prometheus was chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus where a vulture perpetually devoured his liver as fast as grew back. And for his generosity Bacon has been subject to the perpetual vulture gnawing of second rate minds not capable of perceiving what he really was.
What was Francis Bacon, really? We do not know. He towers far beyond any vision our limited minds can grasp. In all likelihood we will never know.
But there are interesting ideas we can explore. In the East, for example, there is the legend of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is the being who has attained the highest state of enlightenment possible for man, and stands at the doorway to Nirvana : the realm of perfect and eternal bliss, but out of his infinite compassion renounces Nirvana for the selfless life of leading others to enlightenment. The East has always been oriented toward spiritual values, while often leading a life of the most abject material deprivation. But the West is more oriented toward material things. We might view Francis Bacon as the Bodhisattva of the West. He had attained a higher state of enlightenment than we can possibly imagine. He stood at the doorway to the realm beyond humanity and the miseries of our paltry planet, but renounced it for a life of service to mankind. He gave humanity the gift of science, and the benefits that science and technology bestows on man. He fashioned and gave mankind its greatest global language. As he says of himself (Prospero) in The Tempest, speaking to mankind (Caliban):
"I pitied thee, took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour one thing or other. When thou wouldst gabble like a thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes with words that made them known."
And he did this without anticipating or realizing any thanks from mankind for his great gift. Caliban's response to Prospero is mankind's respond to Bacon:
"You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse.The red plague rid you for learning me your language!"
Francis Bacon's achievement of bringing the gift of the light of science to mankind would have been enough for any man, or any 1000 men, but Francis Bacon did much more. Francis Bacon brought the gift of light to mankind, not only in science, but also in the realm of literature, drama, and poetry. Francis Bacon not only authored the works under his own name; he authored a host of works under his various masks: the Shakespeare plays; Don Quixote; the essays of Montaigne; the plays of Marlowe; the poetry of Spenser. It is too incredible to be believed, and it is not, except by a few who have had the perception, and taken the time and trouble to thoroughly investigate the facts connected with this man. And he has left much more of which we are not yet aware, concealed in the plays as in a time capsule, waiting to be opened by some future age. In the book where he has translated and edited the prophecies of Nostradamus, Henry C. Roberts expresses the opinion that the following quatrain refers to Francis Bacon:
"For five hundred years no account shall be made
Of him who was the ornament of his time.
Then of a sudden he shall give so great a light,
That for that age he shall make them to be most contented."
Isaac Newton said that in his quest for knowledge he had been like a small boy wandering along a beach, picking up a pretty shell here and there, while the vast ocean of truth lay all beyond. Francis Bacon used the device of a ship of discovery, sailing past the gates of Hercules, out of the small Mediterranean sea into the vast Atlantic ocean beyond, along with the motto "plus ultra" (More Beyond) to describe the knowledge he offered mankind. But what Francis Bacon presents to us always has more meaning than is apparent on the surface. In his device, he presents more than the knowledge he offers us - he presents himself. He is the vast, unexplored ocean, the great mystery that lies outside the small Mediterranean sea of our knowledge. No matter how far we sail on this vast ocean there will always be "More Beyond". This is what Francis Bacon means to me, and this is what constitutes my unending fascination with Francis Bacon.
Mather Walker is a contributing writer and researcher on the life and work of Francis Bacon. For more of his writings see The Bacon-Shakespeare Essays of Mather Walker
SirBacon.org - Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning