Philosophy had long been his refuge from affairs, if not his secret love and happiest aptitude. He had already, in 1603–5, published a noble work, The Proficience and Advancement of Learning, but that seemed to him rather a prospectus than a performance. In 1609 he had written to the Bishop of Ely, “If God give me leave to write a just and perfect volume of philosophy …”;32 and in 1610 to Casaubon, “To bring about the better ordering of man’s life … by the help of sound and true contemplations—this is the thing I aim at.”33
During those harassed years of office he had conceived—with a rash assumption of abundant days—a magisterial plan for the renovation of science and philosophy. Seven months before his fall he announced the plan in a Latin work addressed to all Europe, boldly entitled lnstauratio Magna (The Great Renewal). The title page itself was a challenge: it showed a vessel passing full sail through the Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic; and where a medieval motto had set between those pillars the warning “Ne plus ultra”([Go] no farther beyond), Bacon wrote, “Multi pertransibunt, et augebitur scientia” (Many will pass through, and knowledge will be increased). The proud proemium added, “Francis of Verulam reasoned thus with himself, and judged it to be for the interest of the present and future generations that they should be made acquainted with his thoughts.”34
Finding that “in what is now done in the matter of science there is only a whirling round about, and perpetual agitation, ending where it begins,” he concluded that
there was but one course left … to try the whole thing anew upon a better plan, and to commence a total reconstruction of sciences, [practical] arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundation; … Moreover, because he knew not how long it might be before these things would occur to any one else … he resolved to publish at once so much as he had been able to complete … that in case of his death there might remain some outline and project of that which he had conceived … All other ambition seemed poor in his eyes compared with the work which he had in hand.35
He dedicated the entire project to James I, with apologies for “having stolen from your affairs so much time as was required for this work,” but hoping that the result would “go to the memory of your name and the honor of your age”—and it did. James was a man of considerable learning and good will; if he could be persuaded to finance the plan, what progress might not be made? As Roger Bacon, far back in 1268, had sent to Pope Clement IV his Opus majus seeking aid for a proposed expansion of knowledge, so now his namesake appealed to his sovereign to undertake, as a “royal work,” the organization of scientific research and the philosophical unification of the results for the material and moral benefit of mankind. He reminded James of the “philosopher kings”—Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius—who had given good government to the Roman Empire for a century (A.D. 96–180). Was it because of his need and hope for state funds that he had consistently and ruinously supported the King?
A further preface asked the reader to look upon current science as porous with error and shamefully stagnant, for
the greatest wits in each successive age have been forced out of their own course; men of capacity and intellect above the vulgar had been fain, for reputation’s sake, to bow to the judgment of the time and the multitude; and thus, if any contemplations of a higher order took light anywhere, they were presently blown out by the winds of vulgar opinions.36
And to pacify the theologians, who were powerful with the people or the King, he cautioned his readers to “confine the sense” of his undertaking “within the limits of duty in respect of things divine.” He disclaimed any intention to deal with religious beliefs or affairs; “the business in hand … is not an opinion to be held, but a work to be done … I am laboring to lay the foundation not of any sect or doctrine, but of human utility and power.”37 He urged others to come forward and join him in the work, and trusted that successive generations would carry it on.
In an imperial prospectus, Distributio operis, he offered a plan of the enterprise. First, he would attempt a new classification of existing or desirable sciences, and would allot to them their problems and fields of research; this he accomplished in The Advancement of Learning, which he translated and expanded in De augmentis scientiarum (1623) to reach a Continental audience. Second, he would examine the shortcomings of contemporary logic, and seek a “more perfect use of human reason” than that which Aristotle had formulated in his logical treatises collectively known as the Organon; this Bacon did in his Novum Organum (1620). Third, he would begin a “natural history” of the “phenomena of the universe”—astronomy, physics, biology. Fourth, he would exhibit, in a “Ladder of the Intellect” (Scala intellectus), examples of scientific inquiry according to his new method. Fifth, as “Forerunners” (Prodromi), he would describe “such things as I myself have discovered.” And sixth, he would begin to expound that philosophy which, from sciences so pursued, would be developed and certified. “The completion, however, of this last part is … both above my strength and beyond my hope.” To us who now flounder and gasp in the ocean of knowledge and specialties, Bacon’s program seems majestically vain; but knowledge was not then so immense and minute; and the brilliance of the parts performed forgives the presumption of the whole. When he told Cecil, “I have taken all knowledge to be my province,” he did not mean that he could embrace all sciences in detail, but only that he purposed to survey the sciences “as from a rock,” with a view to their co-ordination and encouragement. William Harvey said of Bacon that he “wrote philosophy like a lord chancellor”;38 yes, and planned it like an imperial general.
We feel the range and sharpness of Bacon’s mind as we follow him in The Advancement of Learning. He offers his ideas with unwonted modesty, as “not much better than that noise … which musicians make while they are tuning their instruments”;39 but he strikes here nearly all his characteristic notes. He calls for the multiplication and support of colleges, libraries, laboratories, biological gardens, museums of science and industry; for the better payment of teachers and researchers; for ampler funds to finance scientific experiments; for better intercommunication, co-operation, and division of labor among the universities of Europe.40 He does not lose his perspective in the worship of science; he defends a general and liberal education, including literature and philosophy, as promoting a wise judgment of ends to accompany the scientific improvement of means.41 He tries to classify the sciences in a logical order, to determine their fields and bounds, and to direct each to major problems awaiting inquiry and solution. Many of his demands have been met by the sciences—for better clinical records, for the prolongation of life by preventive medicine, for the careful examination of “psychical phenomena,” and for the development of social psychology. He even anticipated our contemporary studies in the technique of success.42
The second and boldest part of the Great Renewal was an attempt to formulate a new method of science. Aristotle had recognized, and occasionally preached, induction, but the predominant mode of his logic was deduction, and its ideal was the syllogism. Bacon felt that the old Organon had kept science stagnant by its stress on theoretical thought rather than practical observation. His Novum Organum proposed a new organ and system of thought—the inductive study of nature itself through experience and experiment. Though this book too was left incomplete, it is, with all its imperfections, the most brilliant production in English philosophy, the first clear call for an Age of Reason. It was written in Latin, but in such lucid, pithy sentences that half of it radiates epigrams. The very first lines compacted a philosophy, announcing the inductive revolution, foreshadowing the Industrial Revolution, and giving the empirical key to Hobbes and Locke and Mill and Spencer.
Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much, and so much only, as he had observed, in fact or in thought, of the course of Nature; beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything … Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the course is not known, the effect cannot be produced. Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.I
And as Descartes seventeen years later, in the Discourse on Method, would propose to begin philosophy by doubting everything, so Bacon here demands an “expurgation of the intellect” as the first step in the Renewal. “Human knowledge as we have it is a mere medley and ill-digested mass, made up of much credulity and much accident, and also of the childish notions which are at first imbibed.”44 Therefore we must, at the start, clear our minds, so far as we can, of all preconceptions, prejudices, assumptions, and theories; we must turn away even from Plato and Aristotle; we must sweep out of our thought the “idols,” or time-honored illusions and fallacies, born of our personal idiosyncrasies of judgment or the traditional beliefs and dogmas of our group; we must banish all logical tricks of wishful thinking, all verbal absurdities of obscure thought. We must put behind us all those majestic deductive systems of philosophy which proposed to draw a thousand eternal verities out of a few axioms and principles. There is no magic hat in science; everything taken from the hat in works must first be put into it by observation or experiment. And not by mere casual observation, nor by “simple enumeration” of data, but by “experience … sought for, experiment.” Thereupon Bacon, so often belittled as ignoring the true method of science, proceeds to describe the actual method of modern science:
The true method of experience first lights the candle [by hypothesis], and then by means of the candle shows the way, commencing as it does with experience duly ordered … and from it educing axioms [“first fruits,” provisional conclusions], and from established axioms again new experiments … Experiment itself shall judge.45
However, Bacon was wary of hypotheses; they were too often suggested by tradition, prejudice, or desire—i.e., again by “idols”; he distrusted any procedure in which hypothesis, consciously or not, would select from experience confirmatory data and gloss over, or be blind to, contrary evidence. To avoid this pitfall, he proposed a laborious induction by accumulation of all facts pertinent to a problem, their analysis, comparison, classification, and correlation, and, “by a due process of exclusion and rejection,” the progressive elimination of one hypothesis after another, until the “form” or underlying law and essence of a phenomenon should be revealed.46 Knowledge of the “form” would give increasing control of the event, and science would gradually remake the environment and possibly man himself.
For this, Bacon felt, is the ultimate aim—that the method of science shall be applied to the rigorous analysis and resolute remolding of human character. He urges a study of the instincts and emotions, which bear the same relation to the mind as winds to the sea.47 But here especially the fault lies not merely in the seeking of knowledge but in its transmission. Man could be remade by an enlightened education, if we were willing to draw first-rate minds into pedagogy by giving them adequate remuneration and honor.48Bacon admires the Jesuits as educators and wishes they were “on our side.”49 He condemns compendiums, approves college dramatics, and pleads for more science in the curriculum. Science and education so conceived would be (as in The New Atlantis)not the tool and handmaid, but the guide and goal, of government. And the confident Chancellor concludes, “I stake all on the victory of art over Nature in the race.”