Who Was Francis Bacon?
Francis Bacon served as attorney general and Lord Chancellor of England, resigning amid charges of corruption. His more valuable work was philosophical. Bacon took up Aristotelian ideas, arguing for an empirical, inductive approach, known as the scientific method, which is the foundation of modern scientific inquiry.
Statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon was born in London on January 22, 1561. His father, Sir Nicolas Bacon, was Lord Keeper of the Seal. His mother, Lady Anne Cooke Bacon, was his father's second wife and daughter to Sir Anthony Cooke, a humanist who was Edward VI's tutor. Francis Bacon’s mother was also the sister-in-law of Lord Burghley.
The younger of Sir Nicholas and Lady Anne's two sons, Francis Bacon began attending Trinity College, Cambridge, in April 1573, when he was 12 years old. He completed his course of study at Trinity in December 1575. The following year, Bacon enrolled in a law program at Honourable Society of Gray's Inn, the school his brother Anthony attended. Finding the curriculum at Gray's Inn stale and old fashioned, Bacon later called his tutors "men of sharp wits, shut up in their cells if a few authors, chiefly Aristotle, their dictator." Bacon favored the new Renaissance humanism over Aristotelianism and scholasticism, the more traditional schools of thought in England at the time.
A year after he enrolled at Gray's Inn, Bacon left school to work under Sir Amyas Paulet, the British ambassador to France, during his mission in Paris. Two and a half years later, he was forced to abandon the mission prematurely and return to England when his father died unexpectedly. His meager inheritance left him broke. Bacon turned to his uncle, Lord Burghley, for help in finding a well-paid post as a government official, but Bacon’s uncle shot him down. Still just a teen, Francis Bacon was scrambling to find a means of earning a decent living.
Counsel and Statesman
Fortunately for Bacon, in 1581, he landed a job as a member for Cornwall in the House of Commons. Bacon was also able to return to Gray's Inn and complete his education. By 1582, he was appointed the position of outer barrister. Bacon's political career took a big leap forward in 1584 when he composed A Letter of Advice to Queen Elizabeth, his very first political memorandum.
Bacon held his place in Parliament for nearly four decades, from 1584 to 1617, during which time he was extremely active in politics, law and the royal court. In 1603, three years before he married heiress Alice Barnham, Bacon was knighted upon James I's ascension to the British throne. He continued to work his way swiftly up the legal and political ranks, achieving solicitor general in 1607 and attorney general six years later. In 1616, his career peaked when he was invited to join the Privy Council. Just a year later, he reached the same position of his father, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. In 1618, Bacon surpassed his father's achievements when he was promoted to the lofty title of Lord Chancellor, one of the highest political offices in England. In 1621, Bacon became Viscount St. Albans.
In 1621, the same year that Bacon became Viscount St. Albans, he was accused of accepting bribes and impeached by Parliament for corruption. Some sources claim that Bacon was set up by his enemies in Parliament and the court faction, and was used as a scapegoat to protect the Duke of Buckingham from public hostility. Bacon was tried and found guilty after he confessed. He was fined a hefty 40,000 pounds and sentenced to the Tower of London, but, fortunately, his sentence was reduced and his fine was lifted. After four days of imprisonment, Bacon was released, at the cost of his reputation and his long- standing place in Parliament; the scandal put a serious strain on 60-year-old Bacon's health.
Philosopher of Science
Bacon remained in St. Alban's after the collapse of his political career. Retired, he was now able to focus on one of his other passions, the philosophy of science. From the time he had reached adulthood, Bacon was determined to alter the face of natural philosophy. He strove to create a new outline for the sciences, with a focus on empirical scientific methods—methods that depended on tangible proof—while developing the basis of applied science. Unlike the doctrines of Aristotle and Plato, Bacon's approach placed an emphasis on experimentation and interaction, culminating in "the commerce of the mind with things." Bacon's new scientific method involved gathering data, prudently analyzing it and performing experiments to observe nature's truths in an organized way. He believed that when approached this way, science could become a tool for the betterment of humankind.
Biographer Loren Eisley described Bacon's compelling desire to invent a new scientific method, stating that Bacon, "more fully than any man of his time, entertained the idea of the universe as a problem to be solved, examined, meditated upon, rather than as an eternally fixed stage upon which man walked." Bacon himself claimed that his empirical scientific method would spark a light in nature that would "eventually disclose and bring into sight all that is most hidden and secret in the universe."
During his young adulthood, Bacon attempted to share his ideas with his uncle, Lord Burghley, and later with Queen Elizabeth in his Letter of Advice. The two did not prove to be a receptive audience to Bacon's evolving philosophy of science. It was not until 1620, when Bacon published Book One of Novum Organum Scientiarum (novum organum is Latin for "new method"), that Bacon established himself as a reputable philosopher of science.
According to Bacon in Novum Organum, the scientific method should begin with the "Tables of Investigation." It should then proceed to the "Table of Presence," which is a list of circumstances under which the event being studied occurred. "The Table of Absence in Proximity" is then used to identify negative occurrences. Next, the "Table of Comparison" allows the observer to compare and contrast the severity or degree of the event. After completing these steps, the scientific observer is required to perform a short survey that will help identify the possible cause of the occurrence. Unlike a typical hypothesis, however, Bacon did not emphasize the importance of testing one's theory. Instead, he believed that observation and analysis were sufficient in producing a greater comprehension, or "ladder of axioms," that creative minds could use to reach still further understanding.
During his career as counsel and statesman, Bacon often wrote for the court. In 1584, he wrote his first political memorandum, A Letter of Advice to Queen Elizabeth. In 1592, to celebrate the anniversary of the queen's coronation, he wrote an entertaining speech in praise of knowledge. The year 1597 marked Bacon's first publication, a collection of essays about politics. The collection was later expanded and republished in 1612 and 1625.
In 1605, Bacon published The Advancement of Learning in an unsuccessful attempt to rally supporters for the sciences. In 1609, he departed from political and scientific genres when he released On the Wisdom of the Ancients, his analysis of ancient mythology.
Bacon then resumed writing about science, and in 1620, published Novum Organum, presented as Part Two of The Great Saturation. In 1622, he wrote a historical work for Prince Charles, entitled The History of Henry VII. Bacon also published Historia Ventorum and Historia Vitae et Mortis that same year. In 1623, he published De Augmentis Scientarium, a continuation of his view on scientific reform. In 1624, his works The New Atlantis and Apothegms were published. Sylva Sylvarium, which was published in 1627, was among the last of his written works.
Although Bacon's body of work covered a fairly broad range of topics, all of his writing shared one thing in common: It expressed Bacon's desire to change antiquated systems.
Death and Legacy
In March 1626, Bacon was performing a series of experiments with ice. While testing the effects of cold on the preservation and decay of meat, he stuffed a hen with snow near Highgate, England, and caught a chill. Ailing, Bacon stayed at Lord Arundel's home in London. The guest room where Bacon resided was cold and musty. He soon developed bronchitis. On April 9, 1626, a week after he had arrived at Lord Arundel's estate, Francis Bacon died.
In the years after Bacon's death, his theories began to have a major influence on the evolving field of 17th-century European science. British scientists belonging to Robert Boyle's circle, also known as the "Invisible College," followed through on Bacon's concept of a cooperative research institution, applying it toward their establishment of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in 1662. The Royal Society utilized Bacon's applied science approach and followed the steps of his reformed scientific method. Scientific institutions followed this model in kind. Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes played the role of Bacon's last amanuensis. The "father of classic liberalism," John Locke, as well as 18th-century encyclopedists and inductive logicians David Hume and John Mill, also showed Bacon's influence in their work.
Today, Bacon is still widely regarded as a major figure in scientific methodology and natural philosophy during the English Renaissance. Having advocated an organized system of obtaining knowledge with a humanitarian goal in mind, he is largely credited with ushering in the new early modern era of human understanding.
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