Bacon's Seventeenth Century


Harvey Wheeler



     It was during the Great Depression , when I was fourteen and I first explored the New Atlantis, a book that was to become crucial for me a half century later. It was at a small used book store in Indianapolis on Meridian Street just north of The Circle, about mid way between the Kissel and the Cord luxury auto showrooms.  In 1938 in that used bookstore in Indianapolis I didn't yet know that a new world was  emerging. I did know first hand about the Great Depression. My father wore his two-tone brown and white summer shoes in the dead of winter, putting wads of paper inside to pad their worn out soles.  He was from Texas and a Democrat by birth.  I was puzzled when he cautioned me not to mention F.D.R.'s New Deal out loud among other kids in Indianapolis.

     I loved that bookstore and the owner always gave me large discounts - the more he approved of my choices the less they cost me.  This particular choice cost me sixteen cents.  It was Ideal Empires and Republics and included three other utopias in addition to New Atlantis. I loved that book; kept it with me through college and lugged it in my duffle bag throughout World War II.  It started my interest in both the author and in political theory and now stands to my right in my Francis Bacon bookcase. At first I knew only that I had in hand a book by a forbiddingly great man whose Essays were included in all collections of the Great Books. I was not then aware that many different brands of scholars and philosophers had come to think ill of its author's philosophic and scientific contributions.  In fact, I didn't even look into any of those controversial works until after a long study of Francis Bacon's legal and constitutional writings, which didn't begin until I was twenty-seven.

     In 1945 I was discharged from World War II into a Cold War America whose pundits debated constitutionalism versus dictatorship the way pre-9/11 America debated welfare versus privatization. In the Spring of 1947 I finished college on the G.I. Bill and was doing my M.A. at Indiana University under Francis D. Wormuth who together with Charles H. McIlwain was a leading theorist of constitutionalism. Wormuth concentrated on the foundations of American constitutionalism and the seminal writings of the republican theorists of the 17th century English Civil Wars.  McIlwain concentrated on the medieval origins of English constitutionalism. Both men were established authorities on the English seventeenth century, the staging ground for most academic battles over constitutionalism. It is a bit nostalgic to recall that one argument was over the presidential and parliamentary forms. This in turn related to a long standing dispute over the role of political parties; should they be like the American or the British party systems?  American parties feature collections of candidates from decentralized State-based party confederations and present slightly different models, like Fords and Chevrolets, competing for the same market.  American candidates choose their parties rather than the other way around and finance their own campaigns. There is little party discipline In Congress, except during "Presidential Wars".

     British parties are membership associations like unions and clubs. They establish platforms, choose candidates, finance campaigns and exercise party discipline in Parliament. The foundations for both were laid in the 17th century and my fellow utopian, Francis Bacon, was one of their founders.

     The English seventeenth century, the century that invented "The Modern", opened with Shakespeare and Jonson, produced the King James Version, and included Bacon, Hooke, Milton,  Newton, Harrington, Hobbes, and Locke. The Gutenberg Galaxy emerged in English print, carrying in its orbit modern science and constitutionalism.  The British constitution always was and always remained "unwritten."  It rested on "conventions" like the unwritten code of the gentleman.  Its rules were developed and maintained informally by members of Parliament acting like members of an exclusive club.  The Rule of Law, as a set of limits on government, emerged the way the rules of evidence emerged as a set of limits on adjudication. Foundations derive from The Petition of Right (1628), which staked Parliament's claim to unwritten common law rights. The Bill of Rights of 1688-89 and the Act of Settlement of 1701 had and have no more than statutory authority.

     Stuart England was like today's America in a vivid sense: a cauldron of trouble and turmoil.  The poet's lament was "all coherence gone."  Inherited ways and wisdoms were fusing, fissioning and recombining into a mitosis of strange new inventions and institutions.

     The negative state of classical liberalism, "anarchy plus the street constable," was undermined by World War I and made obsolete by the Great Depression.  The 1930s, '40s and mainly World War II, introduced the positive Liberal Welfare State that has been privatizedby both parties since Reagan introduced neo-liberalism -Sky War Keynesiansim and deficit financed privatization. Britain's welfare socialism was Reaganized by Maggie Thatcher and Clintonized by Tony Blair.

     In the Middle East Saddam and the Ayatolla Kumeni were different brand names for a Yankee-bred totalitarianism seldom previously known to history - we financed  good corporatized authoritarianism and bombed  bad socialist totalitarianism. Their 1990s labels ranged from Ross Perot and Newt Gingrich to Boris Yeltsin and Francois Mitterand; the Radical Right vs Clinton Liberalism: Faldwell and Robertson agreed that 9-11was induced by our secular humanitarianism.

     We have been several Americas: Puritan, Federalist, Secessionist- Reconstructionist, Progressive,Gilded, New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier; Reaganomics; and into the present Anti-Terrorist frontier.  All the Americas of our history have shared a distinctive feature.  They have been "people of the book;" first the Bible, then the Constitution, and various combinations of the two.  All our prior Americas have clothed their fights in Constitutional rights.  The New Deal used the Commerce Clause to expand Federal authority over the States. The Supreme Court, after Gingrich's Contract with America victory, used the Commerce Clause to outlaw a Federal regulation prohibiting guns around school yards. The electoral coup of 2000 was ratified by an obiter dictating Court.  From the first debates over the Constitution down to the present; from Shay's Rebellion to the Oklahoma City bomb, from Waco to George II Americans have conducted their most divisive fights in terms of constitutionalism - the theory and practice of constitutional law.  The American Constitution has always had the status of holy writ but like fundamentalists arguing over the gospels, neo-liberals arguing over income tax reduction, there is little understanding  of its theoretical foundations.

   Constitutionalism is the applied theory of establishing and maintaining a democratic self-governing and self-rectifying free society with core institutions capable of eliciting from average citizens government in the general interest and according to the rule of law.

In 1947, Spring, at Indiana University my problem ostensibly was to finish my M.A. Actually it was to figure out what that definition really means.  I did not realize that its meaning is locked away in the seventeenth century and that Lord Verulam holds the key.  The seventeenth century advent of the Modern Age confronted the theory of Stuart kingship with new and insoluble problems, the way the twenty- first century Information Age confronts constitutionalism with new, possibly insoluble problems. On a Spring day in 1947 Francis Wormuth paused hardly more than two seconds when I asked him about a topic for my Master's essay.

   "Hmm... there's an unresolved problem in "Calvin's Case" - 'might start by looking into it,"

I had not the slightest idea what he was talking about. I knew only that it had to be something in the seventeenth century - his playground.  John Calvin, I thought - ugh.  But no; it was Robert Calvin, a Scot neonate who was born after 1603 - after King James VI of Scotland had succeeded Elizabeth as King James I of England, unifying, so the king hoped, the two realms into a new Great Britain.  James had property bought in England in the name of young Robert Calvin and then contrived a law suit in London in Calvin's name hoping to have English courts recognize him as a fully entitled Englishman.  The Attorney for the Crown was, of course, none other than the author of my New Atlantis. Unresolved the problem was indeed and I've spent a good part of my academic life wrestling with it, starting with my Master's essay, Calvin's Case and the Empire, a Study in Seventeenth-Century Theories of Kingship. It led me into disputes over kingship and then through time into the study of how the English invented modern constitutionalism.  By extension of course this led to the study of how the English common law case method of law-finding was invented and how this paved the way for the invention of  scientific empiricism.  A slight detour led to thediscovery of how Plato invented philosophy. Formerly literacy had been used by the Athenians primarily to process official and business archives rather than knowledge. Plato with stylus and scroll, like Bacon with the Gutenberg Gallaxy, the literacy tools of the day - stylus and scroll - to the Socratic dialogue, and invented  knowledge processing.  These "side bar" ventures can be understood only after exploring Calvin's Case and how in Bacon's hands it shifted history on its axis.


Remember that Bacon was not a common attorney. He always had special treatment and quarters at the Inns of Court. However he also gave lectures - as on the Statute of Uses.

And he was familiar with "Law French" which had been used for some common law opinions since the Norman Conquest.

Moreover, as Coleridge pointed out he was a reverse Platonist - a Platonist of things, not words. In the diplomatic service he communicated in code.He differed with Plato on the meaning of Heraclitus' LOGOS. In short, Bacon was always a semiotician - one who sought evidence about the meanings referred to by words - demotic expressions. This became the basis of the New Organon - it reversed Plato's doctrine of Idea and Appearence.  Hence the "adminicle" logic of his new "Scientific Empiricism." Scholars who do not follow Bacon in his quest for an unwritten meaning behind words cannot dojustice to his theory of "Natural History" and "Scientific Empiricism." Kant did, however, and based his revolution in thought (2nd edit; CPR) on what Bacon did earlier.

In doubt, follow New Atlantis. In it Bacon tells the truth about his "eliminative" logic "Adminicle" - and makes the jump from law to science. Solomon's House is a science chancery. Everything in Bensalem is under a "common law" (constitutionalized) form of unwritten "Scientific Empiricism" expressed in apothegms so as to facilitate progressive re-statement as knowledge and evidence increase.

It remains more relevant in today "real person" corporatology than at any time previously.

 Harvey Wheeler's list of publications : /wheelerbooks.html - Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning