*Bacon, Francis

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon



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►→see also: ►→*FRANCIS BACON (1561-1626)
►→ESSAYS, by Francis Bacon – 1601
►→NEW ATLANTIS, by Francis Bacon

Bacon, Francis

English, 1561–1626

Francis Bacon was the first master of the essay form in English and a philosopher of this and other literary formulas for spreading enlightened thought. While he wrote in an astonishing variety of styles, as to the essay he was essentially a one-book author. But there were three versions of this book. While the Essayes of 1597 marked the first appearance of the term as part of an English book title, it contained only ten compositions, and these were hardly more than little collections of sharp sayings. The Baconian masterwork in the genre is clearly the third version, The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall of 1625. Standing alone like the 1612 edition, but enlarged “both in number and weight,” it is indeed the “new work” which the dedication advertises. There are 58 essays (20 more than in 1612), and those carried over are reordered and revised, and fattened by quotation, authority, and a flow of insinuating reasoning. Of this version Bacon thought well and predicted much. While in summarizing his literary motives he called the work a “recreation,” he added at once that the Essayes had been the easy road to his fame. It was the most popular of his writings then and has been ever since. Bacon had the final version translated into Latin (with small variations) and expected that “in the universal language” it may “last as long as books last.” He included the work among the “civil and moral writings” to be inserted in The Great Instauration, his vast collection of useful arts and sciences that could give man power over his environment. The civil and moral writings show what powers are truly useful, and they elaborate on civil powers such as the nation-state and moral powers such as the work ethic.
Bacon’s Essayes is a variation on Montaigne’s Essais, which was published first in 1580 and then in its full three volumes in 1588. After 1600 a wave of imitative volumes appeared in English, most citing and quoting one of Bacon’s versions, but others showing the influence of the Essais. Bacon himself refers only once to Montaigne, but it is in the first essay, “Of Truth,” and as a sly guide in attacking truth, particularly religious truth.
“Of Truth” develops circumspectly the universality and power of falsehood, not least in religious matters. Montaigne saw the worldly passion beneath the pretense; he “saith prettily” that he who lies fears God less and men more.
Like Montaigne, Bacon found in the essay form an informal and winning appeal, which served not least to circumvent the authority of theological works. The Essayes like the Essais are first and foremost in the vernacular, the language of the layman. Each is composed of discrete little compositions, less likely to strain the ordinary attention span.
Both have a casual and even disorderly tenor; they avoid the distant formality of an oration, or even of a comedy or tragedy. Bacon no more than Montaigne imposes exhortations, or satires and laments as to virtue and vice. Also, and substantively, the Essayes like the Essais entertains men’s opinions. Each adopts a tolerant stance; neither imposes a righteous way. The Essayes is not an application of the Bible or a eulogy of ancient morals (except in quick bows to Seneca and the Stoics as the reader is maneuvered past theological morals and the Peripatetics).
Yet the work directs opinion, albeit indirectly. The Essayes is a self-help book, but the reader is directed deep into a novel spirit of self-help. The extraordinary essay “Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature” moves past charity through humanity, then redefines goodness as self-reliance, even the self-reliance of the maliciously ambitious founder of a state. At the foundation of politics is self-making and badness, rather than goodness, of nature. The Essayes appeals not so much to self-expression as to self-interest, and does so by supplying enlightened ways to satisfy one’s interest. The essays have been popular, the dedication explains, because “they come home to men’s business and bosoms.”
Typical titles are “Of Death,” “Of Love,” “Of Great Place,” “Of Riches,” and “Of Ambition.” Still, all this guidance is under an appearance of reticence. Bacon in his way, like Montaigne in his, seems most unauthoritative. In the only essay devoted to literary style, Bacon explains how literary diffidence can go with literary leadership; it was a lesson that followers like Benjamin Franklin took to heart. “The honorablest part of talk is to give the occasion; and again to moderate and pass to somewhat else; for then a man leads the dance” (“Of Discourse”).
Bacon’s collection is both more succinct and less charming than Montaigne’s. It is more “pragmatic”; his essays are “counsels civill and morall” which concentrate on advancing one’s business and state. Montaigne appears eccentric, leisurely, pleasureseeking, and bemused; he pointedly alludes to the pleasures of freedom, food, sex, talk, and friends. Bacon by contrast writes essays that are comparatively short, intense, and businesslike. The central essay of the Essais is the skeptical “Apologie de Raimond Sebond” (“Apology of Raymond Sebond”) and is as long as Bacon’s whole volume. The greatest of Bacon’s essays, “Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” advances ten compressed counsels for building a republican empire. This is a naval and economic variation on Machiavelli’s plan for a warlike and imperial republic; several examples come straight from I discorsi (1531; Discourses on Livy). While Montaigne concentrated on inducing skepticism about the old other-worldly faith and learning, reminding the reader of natural pleasures, Bacon could also offer a rival object of belief, a new project of security through a thisworldly nation-state. The Essayes are disciplined by such a plan, and by being one building block in a whole vision of progress, scientific and technological as well as economic and political.
Given the modified Machiavellianism in the content of the Essayes, one must wonder whether there is also a link in form, a relation between a Baconian essay and a Machiavellian “discourse.” Bacon writes of speech as “discourse,” and the discussions are colored by a Machiavellian concentration on efficacy: on force and fraud in literary “transmission.” Still, Bacon’s essays are more compressed and less apparently wandering than Machiavelli’s discourses, forego the stalking horse of ancient Rome, and thematically address civil, moral, and religious topics. In their focus they resemble Seneca’s Moral Epistles to Lucilius, which Bacon once mentions as an “ancient” precedent. But Bacon transforms the precedent. Seneca’s 124 compositions had little to do with politics and demonstrated little confidence in political reform. They meditate on the inevitable trials of life (e.g. “On the Futility of Planning Ahead”) and exhort to moral restraint and a philosophic life. Bacon’s essays are more devious; they follow Machiavelli’s Il principe (wr. 1513, pub. 1532; The Prince) and the Discourses in replacing morality with modes of worldly success and meditation with comprehensive planning. Such considerations also dispose of the suggestion that a Baconian essay is like a Platonic dialogue. Bacon disdains Socrates’ dialectical winnowing of opinions, as if one could get to wisdom through words rather than through managing forces. In “Of Seeming Wisdom,” Bacon identifies dialectic with a wordy pretentiousness that plays with mere seemings and is “the bane of business.”
What the essay is, and why Bacon favors it, is clarified in the formulations of literary theory in Advancement of Learning (1605) and its Latin version, De augmentis (1623).
Both recommend sharp “fragments,” rather than methodical or “magistral” texts, especially when attempting to change belief rather than confirm it. Pungent writings provoke the sharp and conceal from the dull. Being short and seminal, they encourage one’s “initiative” in reconsidering “the roots of knowledge” and in progressing for oneself. But being “enigmatical,” they baffle “vulgar capacities”; they reserve a teaching for “wits of such sharpness as can pierce the veil.” The brief writing Bacon discusses is not the essay but the clipped sentence called the aphorism: “short and scattered sentences not linked together by an artificial method.” A Baconian aphorism catches an observation at the core of matters. It catches especially the cause of an important effect.
For example: “He that has Wife and Children, hath given Hostage to Fortune, for they are Impediments to great enterprises, either of Virtue, or Mischief” (“Of Marriage and Single Life”). The aphorism is the ammunition of the Baconian essay. The first essays of 1597 were like machine-gun fire, hardly more than staccato collections of these “dispersed directions” for pursuing one’s interests.
The developed Baconian essay is typically fattened. Bland, often dense with lists, it oozes quotation and authority. This style seems both to baffle the lazy and to exhibit the politic sugar-coating recommended in De augmentis: introduce “knowledge which is new” with a gloss of the familiar, “with similitudes and comparisons.” Govern speech by policy, and therefore with a view to obstacles in the way. This explains many of the apparently traditional doctrines in the developed essays and also the disorderly interspersing of replies to predictable objections. A typical Baconian essay starts with principles that sound like religious or moral orthodoxies and then suppresses or transforms these by degrees until they are replaced. The more closely one follows the precise terms of an argument, and its successive reformulations, qualifications, and manipulation of authorities, the more clearly a direction appears. For example, “Of Riches” begins by treating “riches” in a rather Aristotelian way, as merely “the baggage of virtue.” But it jogs quickly to liberate wealth-getting from moral limit, and by the end elaborates the modes of multiplying “riches exceedingly” with only prudential limits. By adopting a disorderly receptivity to other views, one can provoke, guide, and lead—and the more effectively as one’s control is hidden. One can “lead the dance” (“Of Discourse”). Dancing with the opinions dear to others, Bacon turns traditional opinions toward enlightened opinions, doing so more effectively by disguising the transformation and the direction beneath the disorder. D’Alembert, in the “Preliminary Discourse” to the Encyclopédie, caught this art. The great Bacon used “subdivisions fashionable in his time,” even “scholastic principles,” for, despite “the most rigorous precision” of style, he was “too wise to astonish anyone.” Hence he and his followers could “prepare from afar the light which gradually, by imperceptible degrees, would illuminate the world.”
Perhaps one could show that the Essayes as a whole develops like each essay, that is, from undermining the old ways of Christian Europe to establishing enlightened new ways. It moves from corrosion of the most authoritative pieties, at its beginning (“Of Truth,” “Of Death,” “Of Unity of Religion”), to the production of a new-model, progressive nation-state and of the priority of self-preservation, in its middle (“Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” “Of Regiment of Health”), to intimations of a new-model progressive civilization, at its end (“Of Vicissitude of Things”). There seem to be four stages. The first essays (nos. 1–19) chiefly commit sedition on morality, religion, and the established hierarchy of estates, church, and king. Insofar as innovations are proposed, such as the priority of one’s own rising to great place and the priority of economic development, they borrow a traditional surface, such as duty and the priority of repulsing sedition. The second stage (20–29) tutors those under cover but consciously rising in the new politics. Counselors who seem to advance the business of kingdoms and estates can promote their own place in an expanding and rather republican nationstate.
The third stage (30–46) concentrates on what is in the new project for individuals, especially rising individuals, and becomes more open in unveiling the corresponding possibilities of a rather self-regulating civil society based on mutual utility. Moral attitudes are recast as personal incentives, channeled to attract planters of economic colonies, entrepreneurs, investors, and financiers. The final stage (47–58) shows how a superior prince provides honors and other incentives for his superior followers, such as counselors and judges who will introduce the new state of things. In turn, such enlightened public figures will help raise a founding leader to the “sovereign honor”—the dominating fame—for which he is ambitious.
The Essayes is a plan for civil nations and civil states, of a kind that will support the scientific civilization that Bacon also proposes. It supplements Bacon’s other political works, such as his models of a state-builder (The History of the Reign of Henry VII, 1622) and of a humane but autonomous scientifictechnological establishment (New Atlantis, 1626). The Baconian essay is a literary formula used to spread the new teachings to rising entrepreneurs and politicians, just as the form of political history appeals to founders and ministers of states, and that of a future-oriented scientific utopia, to visionary intellectuals.


Born 22 January 1561 in London. Studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1573–76;
Gray’s Inn, London, 1576, 1579–82; admitted to the bar, 1582. Attaché to Ambassador
Sir Amias Paulet, British Embassy, Paris, 1576–79. Member of Parliament for Melcombe
Regis, Dorset, 1584, Taunton, 1586, Liverpool, 1589, Middlesex, 1593, Southampton, 1597, Ipswich, 1604, and Cambridge University, 1614. Bencher, 1586, Lent reader, 1588, and double reader, 1600, Gray’s Inn; member of a committee of lawyers appointed to review statutes, 1588. Patronized by the Earl of Essex, from 1591, but took part in treason trial against him, 1601; queen’s counsel extraordinary, 1595–1603, and king’s counsel, from 1604; commissioner for the union of Scotland and England, 1603.
Knighted, 1603. Married Alice Barnham, 1606. Solicitor general, 1607–13; attorney general, 1613–17; member of the Privy Council, 1616; lord keeper of the great seal, 1617–18; lord chancellor, 1618. Created Baron Verulam, and admitted to the House of Lords, 1618. Accused of bribery, found guilty by the House of Lords, and stripped of offices, fined, and temporarily imprisoned, 1621; later pardoned by the king. Created Viscount St. Albans, 1621. Died in Highgate, London, 9 April 1626.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Essayes, 1597; revised, enlarged editions, as Essaies, 1612, and as The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, 1625; many critical editions, including those edited by Michael J.Hawkins (Everyman Edition), 1973, Michael Kiernan, 1985, and John Pitcher, 1985
Francis Bacon (selections), edited by Brian Vickers, 1996

Other writings: longer works on history, law, science, religion, and politics, especially Novum organum (1620), which sets forth the experimental method of useful knowledge, The Advancement of Learning (1605), which recasts all learning, and the fable New Atlantis (1626).
Collected works edition: Works (including life and letters), edited by James Spedding, R.L.Ellis, and D.D.Heath, 14 vols., 1857–74, reprinted 1968.

Gibson, Reginald W., Francis Bacon: A Bibliography of His Works and of Baconiana to the Year 1750, Oxford: Scrivener Press, 1950; supplement privately printed, 1959

Further Reading
Adolph, Robert, The Rise of Modern Prose Style, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1968: Chapter 2
Cochrane, Rexmond C., “Francis Bacon and the Architecture of Fortune,” Studies in the Renaissance 5 (1958): 176–95
Crane, R.S., “The Relation of Bacon’s Essayes to His Program for the Advancement of Learning,” in Schelling Anniversary Papers, New York: Century, 1923
Engel, William E., “Aphorism, Anecdote, and Anamnesis in Montaigne and Bacon,” Montaigne Studies 1 (November 1989): 158–76
Faulkner, Robert K., “The Art of Enlightenment,” in his Francis Bacon and the Profect of Progress, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993: Chapter 2
Fish, Stanley, “Georgics of the Mind: The Experience of Bacon’s Essayes,” in his Self- Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972
Fuller, Jean Overton, Sir Francis Bacon, Maidstone, Kent: George Mann Books, revised edition, 1994 (original edition, 1981)
Good, Graham, “Bacon: Ramifications of Counsel,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988:43–54
Green, A.Wigfall, Sir Francis Bacon, New York: Twayne, 1966
Hall, Joan Wylie, “Bacon’s Triple Curative: The 1597 Essayes, Meditations, and Places,” Papers on Language and Literature 21, no. 4 (Fall 1985): 345–58
Jardine, Lisa, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974
Kiernan, Michael, General Introduction and Textual Introduction to The Essayes by Bacon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985
Knights, L.C., “Bacon and the Seventeenth-Century Dissociation of Sensibility,” Scrutiny 11 (1943): 268–85
Levy, F.J., “Francis Bacon and the Style of Politics,” English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 1 (Winter 1986): 101–22
Mazzeo, Joseph, Renaissance and Revolution: The Remaking of European Thought, New York: Pantheon, and London: Secker and Warburg, 1965: Chapter 4
Vickers, Brian, editor, Essential Articles for the Study of Francis Bacon, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1968; London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972
Vickers, Brian, Francis Bacon and Renaissance Prose, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968

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