Few people have been as vilified as the philosopher, statesman and scientist Francis Bacon, argues Robert P Crease
Francis Bacon – the Elizabethan philosopher, not the 20th-century painter – seems to inflame people. Hillary Clinton has spent two decades having her every sneeze scrutinized for evidence of misconduct, but Bacon has received that treatment for the better part of four centuries.
The son of an official in Queen Elizabeth’s court, Bacon (1561–1626) grew up around the royal household. He became a barrister, member of parliament and attorney general. Bacon befriended the Earl of Essex, who advised the queen, but then helped level charges of treason against Essex, who was executed in 1601. Bacon became lord chancellor under Elizabeth’s successor, James I, but fell from power after being accused of bribery in 1621. The practice of bribery appears to have been widespread and the charges against Bacon seem to have stemmed from anti-royalist sentiment in parliament. Sensing he now lacked James’s support, Bacon prepared a defence, then dropped it and admitted the charges.
Bacon sought political influence to advance his far-sighted dream of what science on a grand scale could look like – and how it could remake England. He presented his vision in Instauratio Magna (“Great Instauration”), one of the most ambitious works ever written. Published in 1620, it outlined “a total reconstruction of sciences, arts and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations” to restore the proper relation of humanity and nature. His contemporaries almost uniformly praised Bacon for his work. The poet Abraham Cowley likened him to Moses, who led his people out of Egypt, while Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the Novum Organum (part two of Instauratio Magna) “one of the three great works since the introduction of Christianity”.
Many later writers, however, saw Bacon as initiating the evils of modern civilization. He’s been called “the most wicked man in recorded history” and a “creeping snake” with “viper eyes”. Many invoke Alexander Pope’s quotable couplet: “think how Bacon shin’d/The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind”. Pope’s lines were cited by others, including the early 19th-century British politician Lord Campbell, who claimed that Bacon was “THE MEANEST OF MANKIND!!!” using all caps and triple exclamation marks for emphasis. In 1978 Anthony Burgess blamed terrorism on “a Baconian faith”, claiming (falsely) that Bacon held that creating a new future requires destruction of the past, while in 1985, Time magazine lumped him alongside US presidents Garfield and Nixon as a famous corrupt politician.
A casual reader might therefore assume that Bacon was materialistic, utilitarian, power-hungry and heartless. But in her 600-page 1996 book Francis Bacon: the History of a Character Assassination, Nieves Mathews concludes that nearly all the charges against him are based on mistaken – or at least uncharitable – apprehensions. Even the word “meanest” in Pope’s couplet may well signify “unassuming” rather than “villainous”.
Similar misreadings characterize most other accusations. The evidence against Bacon, one could say, has been cooked.
Mathews’ book deals mainly with character assassinations, but there have also been what we might call philosophical assassinations, which regard Bacon’s vision of science as not only misguided but immoral and inhuman. In the 1920s, for example, German philosophers and sociologists from what’s known as “the Frankfurt school” saw Bacon as initiating a misplaced optimism in science and a narrow, overly rationalist approach to social problems. One early member, Max Horkheimer, even compared Bacon to a criminologist whose idea of obtaining trustworthy knowledge is the sort of thing you can only do in a police laboratory.
More recently, “ecofeminist” philosophers have charged Bacon with promoting a style of science based on patriarchal gender roles. Sandra Harding from the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, saw him as advocating the “marital rape” of nature – that is, “the husband as scientist forcing nature to his wishes”. Bacon, she wrote, “appealed to rape metaphors to persuade his audience that experimental method is a good thing”. Meanwhile, Carolyn Merchant from the University of California, Berkeley, charged Bacon with “treat[ing] nature as a female to be tortured through mechanical investigations”. She cites Bacon’s discussion of the fable of Proteus – which Bacon interprets as a parable about scientific experimentation – in which Bacon notes that Proteus must be “vexed” before he shows himself as what he is.
Recently, other scholars have argued that, when cited correctly and read in context, such passages are literary embellishments rather than substantive descriptions of Bacon’s vision. Peter Pesic of St John’s College in Santa Fe, for instance, shows that Bacon was using the word “vex” to mean something more like “perturb” than “torture”; Bacon, Pesic argues, was advising us to see how a phenomenon acts in its myriad ways before we try to say what it is.
The critical point
The assassination attempts on Bacon reveal the danger of not going back to the original sources to understand them in context. Bacon, a lawyer, was a perceptive and versatile speaker who knew the value of, and was skilled at, speaking in different ways to different audiences. This makes it easy to support contemporary misinterpretations of Baconian science – that it’s all about patriarchy, or the domination and control of nature, for instance – by picking and choosing remarks out of context.
Bacon noted that the human mind is vulnerable to certain flaws that distract us from seeing nature as it is. He called them idols, and described four: idols of the cave, the tribe, the marketplace and the theatre (June 2013). We might describe a fifth, the idol of the inkblot, referring to the human tendency to project our own feelings onto someone or something else. Analysing examples of this fallacy reveals many of the assumptions and prejudices about science that we have inherited. By studying Bacon, we can therefore learn much about our age’s attitudes to science, as well as about his.
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