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Francis Bacon

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Francis Bacon
Era Renaissance philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Empiricism, materialism.

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban KC QC ( 22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626) was an English philosopher, statesman, and author. He is also known as a catalyst of the scientific revolution. Bacon was knighted in 1603, created Baron Verulam in 1618, and created Viscount St Alban in 1621; without heirs, both peerages became extinct upon his death.


Early life

Francis Bacon was born at York House on the Strand in London. He was raised as an English gentleman. He was the youngest of five sons of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Elizabeth I. His mother, Ann Cooke, was Sir Nicholas's second wife. She was a daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke and a member of the Reformed Puritan Church. His (maternal) aunt married William Cecil (Lord Burghley), the chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I.

Biographers believe that Bacon received an education at home in his early years owing to poor health - which plagued him throughout his life - receiving tuition from John Walsall, a graduate of Oxford with a strong leaning towards puritanism. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, on 5 April 1573 at the age of twelve, living for three years there with his older brother Anthony under the personal tutelage of Dr John Whitgift, future Archbishop of Canterbury. Bacon's education was conducted largely in Latin and followed the medieval curriculum. He was also educated at the University of Poitiers. It was at Cambridge that he first met the Queen, who was impressed by his precocious intellect, and was accustomed to calling him "the young Lord Keeper".

His studies brought him to the belief that the methods and results of science as then practiced were erroneous. His reverence for Aristotle conflicted with his loathing of Aristotelian philosophy, which seemed to him barren, disputatious, and wrong in its objectives.

On 27 June 1576, he and Anthony entered de societate magistrorum at Gray's Inn. A few months later, they went abroad with Sir Amias Paulet, the English ambassador at Paris. The state of government and society in France under Henry III afforded him valuable political instruction. For the next three years he visited Blois, Poitiers, Tours, also Italy and Spain where he studied language, statecraft and the civil law while performing routine diplomatic tasks. On at least one occasion he delivered diplomatic letters to England for Walsingham, Burghley and Leicester, as well as the queen.

The sudden death of his father in February 1579 made Bacon return to England. Sir Nicholas had laid up a considerable sum of money to purchase an estate for his youngest son, but he died before doing so, and Francis was left with only a fifth of that money. Having borrowed money, Bacon got into debt. To support himself, he took up his residence in law at Gray's Inn in 1579. He made rapid progress - admitted to the bar in 1582, became Bencher in 1586, and elected a reader in 1587, delivering his first set of lectures in Lent the following year.


Bacon's threefold goals were to discover truth, to serve his country, and to serve his church. Seeking a prestigious post would aid him toward these ends. In 1580, through his uncle, Lord Burghley, he applied for a post at court, which might enable him to pursue a life of learning. His application failed. For two years he worked quietly at Gray's Inn studying law, until admitted as an outer barrister in 1582.

In 1584, he took his seat in parliament for Melcombe of Dorset, and subsequently for Taunton (1586). He wrote on the condition of parties in the church, and he wrote about philosophical reform in the lost tract, Temporis Partus Maximus. Yet, he failed to gain a position he thought would lead him to success. He showed signs of sympathy to puritanism, attending the sermons of the puritan chaplain of Gray's Inn and accompanying his mother to the Temple chapel to hear Walter Travers. This led to the publication of his earliest surviving tract criticising the English church's suppression of the puritan clergy. In the Parliament of 1586, openly, he urged execution for Mary Queen of Scots.

About this time, he approached his powerful uncle for help, the result of which may be traced in his rapid progress at the bar. In 1589, he received the valuable appointment of reversion to the Clerkship of the Star Chamber, although he did not take office until 1608 - a post which was worth £16,000 per annum.

In 1592, he was commissioned to write a response to the Jesuit Robert Parson's anti-government tract entitled 'Certain observations made upon a libel' identifying England with the ideals of Republican Athens against the belligerance of the Macedons (Spain).

During this period, Bacon became acquainted with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1567–1601), Queen Elizabeth's favourite. By 1591, he acted as the earl's confidential adviser. Bacon took his seat for Middlesex when in February 1593 Elizabeth called a Parliament to investigate a Roman Catholic plot against her. Bacon's opposition to a bill that would levy triple subsidies in half the usual time offended many people. Opponents accused him of seeking popularity. For a time, the royal court excluded him.

When the Attorney-Generalship fell vacant in 1594 , Lord Essex's influence could not secure Bacon's candidacy into the office. Likewise, Bacon failed to become solicitor in 1595. To console him for these disappointments, Essex presented him with a property at Twickenham, which he sold subsequently for £1800, the equivalent of around £240,000 today.

Memorial to Francis Bacon, in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge

Queen's Counsel

In 1596, Bacon became Queen's Counsel, but missed the appointment of Master of the Rolls. During the next few years, his financial situation remained bad. His friends could find no public office for him, a scheme for retrieving his position by a marriage with the wealthy and young widow Lady Elizabeth Hatton failed, after she broke off their relationship upon accepting marriage to a wealthier man. Years later, Bacon still wrote of his regret that the marriage to Elizabeth had never taken place.In 1598 Bacon was arrested due to his debts. Afterwards however, his standing in the queen's eyes improved. Gradually, Bacon earned the standing of one of the learned counsels, though he had no commission or warrant and received no salary. His relationship with the queen further improved when he severed ties with Essex, a shrewd move since Essex was executed for treason in 1601.

With others, Bacon was appointed to investigate the charges against Essex, his former friend and benefactor. Bacon pressed the case hard against Essex. To justify himself, Bacon wrote A Declaration of the Practices and Treasons, etc., of ... the Earl of Essex, etc. He received a gift of a fine of £1200 on one of Essex's accomplices.

The accession of James I brought Bacon into greater favour. He was knighted in 1603. In another shrewd move, Bacon wrote Apologie (defence) about his proceedings in the case of Essex, as Essex had favoured James to ascend to throne. The following year, during the course of the uneventful first parliament session Bacon married Alice Barnham. In 1608, Bacon began working as the Clerkship of the Star Chamber. In spite of a generous income, old debts and spendthrift ways kept him indebted. He sought further promotion and wealth by supporting King James and his arbitrary policy.

Bacon gained reward with the office of Solicitor in June 1607. In 1610 the famous fourth parliament of James met. Despite Bacon's advice to him, James and the Commons found themselves at odds over royal prerogatives and the king's embarrassing extravagance. The House dissolved in February 1611. Through this, Bacon managed to stay in favour of the king while retain the confidence of the Commons.

In 1613, Bacon became attorney general, after advising the king to shuffle judicial appointments. As attorney general, Bacon prosecuted Somerset in 1616. The parliament of April 1614 objected to Bacon's presence in the seat for Cambridge and to the various royal plans which Bacon had supported. Although he was allowed to stay, parliament passed a law that forbade the attorney-general to sit in parliament. His influence over the king inspired resentment or apprehension in many of his peers. Bacon continued to receive the King's favour. In 1618, King James appointed Bacon to the position of Lord Chancellor.

Public disgrace

His public career ended in disgrace in 1621. After having fallen into debt, a Parliamentary Committee on the administration of the law charged him with twenty-three counts of corruption. To the lords, who sent a committee to inquire whether a confession was really his, he replied, "My lords, it is my act, my hand, and my heart; I beseech your lordships to be merciful to a broken reed." He was sentenced to a fine of £40,000, remitted by the king, to be committed to the Tower of London during the king's pleasure (his imprisonment lasted only a few days). More seriously, parliament declared Bacon (known as Lord St Alban since 1621) incapable of holding future office or sitting in parliament. Narrowly, he escaped being deprived of his titles. Thenceforth the disgraced viscount devoted himself to study and writing.

It has been argued by Nieves Mathews that Bacon was innocent of the bribery charges; Bacon himself said that he plead guilty by force so to save King James from a political scandal, stating:

"I was the justest judge that was in England these last fifty years. When the book of all hearts is opened, I trust I shall not be found to have the troubled fountain of a corrupt heart. I know I have clean hands and a clean heart. I am as innocent of bribes as any born on St Innocents Day."

Personal relationships

Francis Bacon

Biographers continue to debate about Bacon's sexual inclinations and the precise nature of his personal relationships. When he was 36, Francis engaged in the courtship of Elizabeth Hatton, a young widow of 20. Reportedly, she broke off their relationship upon accepting marriage to a wealthier man. Years later, Bacon still wrote of his regret that the marriage to Elizabeth had never taken place.

At the age of forty five, Bacon married Alice Barnham (1592–1650), the fourteen year old daughter of a well-connected London alderman and M.P. Francis wrote 3 Sonnets proclaiming his love for Alice. The first Sonnet was written during his courtship and the second Sonnet on his wedding day 10 May 1606. The third Sonnet was written years later "when by special Warrant of the King, Lady Bacon was given precedence over all other Court ladies" when Bacon was appointed "Regent of the Kingdom": Let not my Love be call'd Idolatry. Reports of increasing friction in his marriage to Alice Barnham appeared, with speculation that some of this may have been due to financial resources not being as readily available to Alice as she was accustomed to having in the past. Alice was reportedly interested in fame and fortune, and when reserves of money were no longer available, there were complaints about where all the money was going. A. Chambers Bunten wrote in Life of Alice Barnham that, upon their descent into debt, she actually went on trips to ask for financial favours and assistance from their circle of friends. Francis disinherited her upon discovering her secret romantic relationship with John Underhill. He rewrote his will, which had previously been very generous to her (leaving her lands, goods, and income), to revoke it all.


Monument to Bacon at his burial place, St Michael's Church in St Albans

In April 1626, Sir Francis Bacon came to Highgate near London, and died at the empty (except for the caretaker) Arundel mansion. A famous and influential account of the circumstances of his death was given by John Aubrey in his Brief Lives. Aubrey has been criticized for his evident credulousness in this and other works; on the other hand, he knew Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher and friend of Bacon. Aubrey's vivid account, which portrays Bacon as a martyr to experimental scientific method, has him journeying to Highgate through the snow with the King's physician when he is suddenly inspired by the possibility of using the snow to preserve meat. "They were resolved they would try the experiment presently. They alighted out of the coach and went into a poor woman's house at the bottom of Highgate hill, and bought a fowl, and made the woman exenterate it". After stuffing the fowl with snow, he happened to contract a fatal case of pneumonia. He then attempted to extend his fading lifespan by consuming the fowl that had caused his illness. Some people, including Aubrey, consider these two contiguous, possibly coincidental events as related and causative of his death: "The Snow so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not return to his Lodging ... but went to the Earle of Arundel's house at Highgate, where they put him into ... a damp bed that had not been layn-in ... which gave him such a cold that in 2 or 3 days as I remember Mr Hobbes told me, he died of Suffocation."

Being unwittingly on his deathbed, the philosopher wrote his last letter to his absent host and friend Lord Arundel:

"My very good Lord,—I was likely to have had the fortune of Caius Plinius the elder, who lost his life by trying an experiment about the burning of Mount Vesuvius; for I was also desirous to try an experiment or two touching the conservation and induration of bodies. As for the experiment itself, it succeeded excellently well; but in the journey between London and Highgate, I was taken with such a fit of casting as I know not whether it were the Stone, or some surfeit or cold, or indeed a touch of them all three. But when I came to your Lordship's House, I was not able to go back, and therefore was forced to take up my lodging here, where your housekeeper is very careful and diligent about me, which I assure myself your Lordship will not only pardon towards him, but think the better of him for it. For indeed your Lordship's House was happy to me, and I kiss your noble hands for the welcome which I am sure you give me to it. I know how unfit it is for me to write with any other hand than mine own, but by my troth my fingers are so disjointed with sickness that I cannot steadily hold a pen."

He died at Lord Arundel's homeon 9 April 1626, leaving assets of about £7,000 and debts to the amount of £22,000.

This account appears in a biography by William Rawley, Bacon's personal secretary and chaplain:

"He died on the ninth day of April in the year 1626, in the early morning of the day then celebrated for our Saviour's resurrection, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, at the Earl of Arundel's house in Highgate, near London, to which place he casually repaired about a week before; God so ordaining that he should die there of a gentle fever, accidentally accompanied with a great cold, whereby the defluxion of rheum fell so plentifully upon his breast, that he died by suffocation."

At his April 1626 funeral, over thirty great minds collected together their eulogies of him. It is clear from all these eulogies that he was not only loved deeply, but that there was something about his character which led men even of the stature of Ben Jonson to hold him in reverence and awe. A volume of the 32 eulogies was published in Latin in 1730. Bacon's peers refer to him as "a supreme poet" and "a concealed poet," and also link him with the theatre.


Bacon's works include his Essays, as well as the Colours of Good and Evil and the Meditationes Sacrae, all published in 1597. His famous aphorism, " knowledge is power", is found in the Meditations. He published The Proficience and Advancement of Learning in 1605. Bacon also wrote In felicem memoriam Elizabethae, a eulogy for the queen written in 1609; and various philosophical works which constitute the fragmentary and incomplete Instauratio magna (Great Renewal), the most important part of which is the Novum Organum (New Instrument, published 1620); in this work he cites three world-changing inventions:

" Printing, gunpowder and the compass: These three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes, in so much that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries."

Bacon's Utopia

In 1623 Bacon expressed his aspirations and ideals in The New Atlantis. Released in 1627, this was his creation of an ideal land where "generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendor, piety and public spirit" were the commonly held qualities of the inhabitants of Bensalem. In this work, he portrayed a vision of the future of human discovery and knowledge. The plan and organization of his ideal college, "Solomon's House", envisioned the modern research university in both applied and pure science.

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have argued that Bacon was not as idealistic as Atlantis might suggest. A year prior to the release of New Atlantis, Bacon published an essay that reveals a version of himself not often seen in history. This essay, a lesser-known work entitled, "An Advertisement Touching an Holy War," advocated the elimination of detrimental societal elements by the English and compared this to the endeavors of Hercules while establishing civilized society in ancient Greece. He saw the "extirpation and debellating of giants, monsters, and foreign tyrants, not only as lawful, but as meritorious, even divine honour..." Laurence Lampert has interpreted Bacon's treatise An Advertisement Touching a Holy War as advocating "spiritual warfare against the spiritual rulers of European civilization."

Baconian Philosophy

Bacon did not propose an actual philosophy, but rather a method of developing philosophy. He wrote that, whilst philosophy at the time used the deductive syllogism to interpret nature, the philosopher should instead proceed through inductive reasoning from fact to axiom to law. Before beginning this induction, the inquirer is to free his mind from certain false notions or tendencies which distort the truth. These are called "Idols" (idola), and are of four kinds: "Idols of the Tribe" ( idola tribus), which are common to the race; "Idols of the Den" ( idola specus), which are peculiar to the individual; "Idols of the Marketplace" ( idola fori), coming from the misuse of language; and "Idols of the Theatre" ( idola theatri), which result from an abuse of authority. The end of induction is the discovery of forms, the ways in which natural phenomena occur, the causes from which they proceed.

Derived through use of his methods, Bacon explicates his somewhat fragmentary ethical system in the seventh and eighth books of his De augmentis scientiarum (1623). He distinguishes between duty to the community, an ethical matter, and duty to God, a religious matter. Bacon claimed that any [1] moral action is the action of the human will, which is governed by belief and spurred on by the passions; good habit is what aids men in directing their will toward the good; [3]no universal rules can be made, as both situations and men's characters differ.

Regarding faith, in De augmentis, he writes that "the more discordant, therefore, and incredible, the divine mystery is, the more honour is shown to God in believing it, and the nobler is the victory of faith." He writes in "The Essays: Of Atheism" that "a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion."

Bacon contrasted the new approach of the development of science with that of the Middle Ages. He said:

"Men have sought to make a world from their own conception and to draw from their own minds all the material which they employed, but if, instead of doing so, they had consulted experience and observation, they would have the facts and not opinions to reason about, and might have ultimately arrived at the knowledge of the laws which govern the material world."


Bacon's ideas about the improvement of the human lot were influential in the 1630s and 1650s among a number of Parliamentarian scholars. During the Restoration, Bacon was commonly invoked as a guiding spirit of the Royal Society founded under Charles II in 1660. In the nineteenth century his emphasis on induction was revived and developed by William Whewell, among others.

There are some scholars who believe that Bacon's vision for a Utopian New World in North America was laid out in his novel The New Atlantis. He envisioned a land where there would be greater rights for women, the abolishing of slavery, elimination of "debtors prisons", separation of church and state, and freedom of religious and political expression. Francis Bacon played a leading role in creating the British colonies, especially in Virginia, the Carolinas and Newfoundland. His government report on “The Virginia Colony” was made in 1609. Francis Bacon and his associates formed the Newfoundland Colonization Company and in 1610 sent John Guy to found a colony in Newfoundland. In 1910 Newfoundland issued a stamp to commemorate Francis Bacon's role in establishing Newfoundland. The stamp states about Bacon, "the guiding spirit in Colonization Schemes in 1610."

Francis Bacon's influence can also be seen on a variety of religious and spiritual authors, and on groups that have utilized his writings in their own belief systems.

Historical controversies

Parentage theories

Various authors have theorized that Francis Bacon was the unacknowledged son of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and that Elizabeth's other secret biological son was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (whom the Queen forced Bacon to prosecute for treason). There is documented evidence that Elizabeth visited Nicholas Bacon's house at Gorhambury at least twice and was entertained by the eight or nine year old Francis.

It is claimed that by the age of fifteen he was frequently present at Queen Elizabeth's Court, and that it was there that he learned for the first time that he was her son. Robert Cecil, Lord Burleigh's son, whispered the secret of the parentage of Francis to the ladies of the Court. The Queen, overhearing one of them, Lady Scales, repeating the story, seized the girl and beat her furiously. Francis, who supposedly walked into the room while the fracas was taking place, intervened. He learned the truth — and the cause of the incident — from the Queen's own lips, and, enraged that he should have taken the girl's part, she added: "Though you are my own child, I bar you from the Succession for withstanding your mother." That same evening, Anne Bacon confirmed the truth of the story, adding that the Queen was married to Robert Dudley in a secret ceremony on January 21 1561 in the house of Lord Pembroke, and that Nicholas Bacon had been one of the witnesses.

Francis was sent off to France with ambassador Amyas Paulet, arriving at Calais on 25 September 1576, and went with him straight to the Court of Henry III of France. Pierre Ambroise, in the first biography of Francis Bacon in published in 1631, wrote: "He was born to the Purple and brought up with the expectation of a great career. He employed several years of his youth in travelling France, Italy, and Spain. He saw himself destined one day to hold in his hand, the Helm of the Kingdom."

Bacon and Shakespeare

The Shakespeare authorship question, which ascribes the famous plays to various contemporaries instead of Shakespeare of Stratford, has produced a large number of candidates, of whom Bacon is one of the most popular. An 1888 two-volume book, "The Great Cryptogram", by American journalist and adventurer Ignatius Donnely, had much to do with this. Donnely developed complex numerical schemes for working out hidden messages within the plays, but his methods "were so flexible that one could literally use them to obtain any desired text." Donnely himself used them to discover that Bacon had written not only Shakespeare, but Montaigne and Marlowe as well. After Donnely the Baconian theory became extremely popular and gave birth to many further studies of Bacon's cipher. Edward Clark's late 19th century "The Tale of the Shakspere Epitaph by Francis Bacon" referred to an inscription on a bust of Shakespeare which he asserted concealed the sentence, "FRA BA WRT EAR AY", an abbreviation of "Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays." Another author, Francis Carr, has suggested that Bacon wrote not only Shakespeare's plays but Don Quixote as well, while Dr Orville Owen, in his monumental (5 volumes) "Francis Bacon's Cipher Story" (1893-95), recounted his success in using a special machine to prove Bacon the true author of Shakespeare and the son of the Earl of Leicester and Elizabeth I. Even Mark Twain was a Baconian arguing vigorously for Bacon and ridiculing the "Stratfordolators" and the "Shakespearoids" in "Is Shakespeare Dead?" (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1909). Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Ecce Homo (II, 4), also opined that Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare's plays, despite mockingly referring to Donnely as a "muddlehead and blockhead."

Fringe theories about Bacon

Secret societies

Francis Bacon often gathered with the men at Gray's Inn to discuss politics and philosophy, and to try out various theatrical scenes that he admitted writing. Bacon's alleged connection to the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons has been widely discussed by authors and scholars in many books. However others, including Daphne du Maurier (in her biography of Bacon) have argued there is no substantive evidence to support claims of involvement with the Rosicrucians. Historian Dame Frances Yates does not make the claim that Bacon was a Rosicrucian, but presents evidence that he was nevertheless involved in some of the more closed intellectual movements of his day. She argues that Bacon's movement for the advancement of learning was closely connected wit the German Rosicrucian movement, while Bacon's The New Atlantis portrays a land ruled by Rosicrucians. He apparently saw his own movement for the advancement of learning to be in conformity with Rosicrucian ideals.

In 1618 Francis Bacon decided to secure a lease for York House. This had been his boyhood home in London next to the Queen's York Place before the Bacon family had moved to Gorhambury in the countryside. Upon the passing of Lord Egerton (Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England), it now was available for Bacon to lease it. During the next four years this mansion on the Strand (so large that it had 40 fireplaces) served as the home for Francis and Alice Bacon. Over the next four years Bacon would host banquets at York House that were attended by the leading men of the time, including poets, scholars, authors, scientists, lawyers, diplomats, and foreign dignitaries. Within the banquet hall, Francis gathered the greatest leaders in literature, art, law, education, and social reform. On 22 January, 1621 in honour of Sir Francis Bacon's sixtieth birthday, a select group of men assembled in the large banquet hall in York House without fanfare for what has been described as a Masonic banquet. This banquet was to pay tribute to Sir Francis Bacon. Only those of the Rosicrosse (Rosicrucians) and the Masons who were already aware of Bacon's leadership role were invited. The tables were T-tables with gleaming white drapery, silver, and decorations of flowers. The poet Ben Jonson, a long-time friend of Bacon, gave a Masonic ode to Bacon that day. He had once remarked of Bacon, "I love the man and do honour his memory above all others."

There was a depth of love by a large body of men toward Bacon, similar to some degree in the manner that disciples love a Master. This is especially true when taking into account his membership (and some say leadership) of secret societies such as the Rosicrucians and Freemasons. In the inner esoteric membership, which included Francis Bacon, vows of celibacy for spiritual reasons were encouraged.


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