Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was an English lawyer, statesman, essayist, and philosopher. His public career stretched from Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558–1603) to King James I’s (1603–25), witnessing the changes of political atmosphere of the early Stuart period.

His essays unveiled beauty of modern English language and pleased the witty and pithy taste of English gentility. His advocacy of scientific reasoning helped initiate the English scientific revolution and his academic esotericism fascinated European intellectuals of future generations.

The son of a prominent lawyer, Bacon entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of 12, where he mastered Greek wisdom, medieval Scholastic philosophies, and new Renaissance humanism. Afterward, he took up residence at Gray’s Inn in 1580, and was admitted as an outer barrister two years later.

He took a seat in the House of Commons in 1584, and made himself famous for his advocacy of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in the Parliament of 1586. During his political ascendance, he became acquainted with Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex and a personal confidant of Queen Elizabeth. The earl made young Bacon his confidential adviser and offered him generous financial support.

But, in the courtly battle of 1601, the earl kidnapped the queen in an attempt to force her to dismiss his political enemies from the court. Bacon subsequently played an instrumental role in prosecuting and convicting the earl, his patron, and became very much disliked by his colleagues.

Bacon received rapid promotion after the accession of James I. For his loyal and effective service to the king, he was rewarded with office of solicitor in 1607, made attorney general in 1613, appointed to the position of lord chancellor and elevated to be baron verulam in 1618, and ultimately created viscount St. Albans in 1621.

Francis Bacon and the members of the Parliament
Francis Bacon and the members of the Parliament

In Parliament, he often vehemently defended royal prerogatives, and thus gradually alienated himself from a group of intelligent, ambitious, and eccentric gentlemen in the House of Commons.

This group of men was driven by a new sense of assertiveness, willing to challenge the king, an insatiable Scot by their biased calculation, for his breaching laws, customs, and parliamentary rules of England. Meanwhile, Bacon always lived in debt and his careless lifestyle was often under the scrutiny and criticism of his peers.

At the very peak of his political career in 1621, a parliamentary committee charged him with 23 counts of corruption. He was convicted, suffered a heavy fine, and was committed to the Tower of London for a short period of time. But his life was spared, and he escaped from being deprived of his noble title.

Although Bacon’s political career ended in disgrace, his scholarship earned respect from both his friends and foes. He made great efforts to transcend the limits that medieval Scholasticism set on human minds. While criticizing deductive syllogism, he argued forcefully that human minds should be freed from “idols,” the erroneous notions and fallacious tendencies that distorted truth.

He saw himself as the intellectual Christopher Columbus, discovering a new world of natural science, where he collected and analyzed data to establish a hypothesis, and experimented to reach and verify truth. His new method was so enlightening that many of the first generation of modern English scientists viewed themselves as his disciples.

His essays in the form of fables and aphorisms revealed his insightful and ambiguous worldview. He believed that, if understood correctly, Greek wisdom and the Judeo-Christian truth were complementary, and the Bible and the Book of Nature were compatible. Scientific knowledge, if applied properly, could bring humans back to the original divine Garden of Eden.

In his fictional New Atlantis published posthumously in 1627, he imagined an island kingdom ruled by the monarchy, which coexisted with Christianity in harmony, and an Academy of Scientists to stand at the pinnacle of its internal hierarchy. The kingdom was located on a hill as the light of the world, because there the progress of scientific knowledge expanded human capacity to its full to meet the perfect plan of God.

New Atlantis revived the idealism of the Greek philosophers, who had anticipated philosophical kingship as the perfect form of human government. This fictional kingdom might explain why Francis Bacon, a brilliant scientific mind, would defend so staunchly King James I and the Church of England at the awakening moment of parliamentary consciousness.