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Essay : The Esoteric Francis Bacon

by Ryan Murtha

The writings of Francis Bacon contain numerous discussions of esotericism. In a general sense, the essay “Of Simulation and Dissimulation” stresses the importance of knowing “what things are to be laid open, and what to be secreted, and what to be showed at half lights, and to whom and when.” In New Atlantis, members of the scientific fraternity “take all an oath of secrecy, for the concealing of those [inventions and discoveries] which we think fit to keep secret.” In The Advancement of Learning Bacon distinguishes between “disclosed” (exoteric) and “enigmatical” (esoteric) writing, the latter allowing the author “to remove the vulgar capacities from being admitted to the secrets of knowledges, and to reserve them to selected auditors, or wits of such sharpness as can pierce the veil.” In Valerius Terminus he again extols the practice of esoteric writing “both for the avoiding of abuse in the excluded, and the strengthening of affection in the admitted.” Hence it is possible that we do not yet fully understand Bacon; the first serious attempt to investigate his religious opinions was Steven Matthews’s excellent 2008 book Theology and Science in the Thought of Francis Bacon. In the present essay, I argue that Bacon was prone to visionary or religious experiences, about which he wrote in the form of alchemical tracts published under a number of pseudonyms.

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