Here, we feel, is a powerful mind—a man, one in a century, at home equally in philosophy and politics. It would be interesting to know what this philosopher thought in politics, and what this politician thought in philosophy.
Not that he had any system in philosophy, or left any orderly exposition of his thought, except in logic. The trend of his ideas is clear, but their form is that of a man who had to rush repeatedly out of the calm of philosophy to try a case in law, to fight an opposition in Parliament, or to counsel an unteachable King. We must gather his views from incidental remarks and literary fragments, including his Essays (1597, 1612, 1625). With the vanity inherent in authorship, Bacon wrote, in dedicating these to Buckingham, “I do conceive … [the] volume may last as long as books last.” In his letters his style is labored and involved, so that his wife confessed, “I do not understand his enigmatical folded writing”;50 in the Essays he concealed still intenser labor, disciplined his pen to clarity, and achieved such compact force of expression that very few pages in English prose can match them for significant matter pressed with luminous similes into perfect form. It is as if Tacitus had taken to philosophy, and had condescended to be clear.
Bacon’s wisdom is worldly. He leaves metaphysics to the mystical or the rash; even his vaulting ambition rarely leaped from the fragment to the whole. Sometimes, however, he seems to plunge into a determinist materialism: “In nature nothing really exists besides individual bodies performing pure individual acts according to a fixed law”;51 and “inquiries into nature have the best result when they begin with physics and end in mathematics”;52 but “nature” here may mean only the external world. He preferred the skeptical pre-Socratic philosophers to Plato and Aristotle, and he praised the materialistic Democritus.53 But then he accepts a sharp distinction between body and soul,54 and anticipates Bergson’s chiding of the intellect as a “constitutional materialist”: “The human understanding is infected by the sight of what takes place in the mechanical arts … and so imagines that something similar goes on in the universal nature of things.”55 He rejects in advance the mechanistic biology of Descartes.
With careful ambivalence he “seasons” his philosophy “with religion as with salt.”56 “I had rather believe all the fables in the [Golden] Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind.”57 He puts atheism in its place in a famous passage twice repeated.58 His analysis of the causes of atheism illuminates the theme of this volume:
The causes of atheism are divisions in religion, if they be many; for any one main division addeth zeal to both sides, but many divisions introduce atheism. Another is scandal of priests. And lastly, learned times, specially with peace and prosperity; for troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion.59
He lays it down as a rule that “all knowledge is to be limited by religion.”60 According to his chaplain, Rawley, he “repaired frequently, when his health would permit him, to the services of the church … and died in the true faith established in the Church of England.”61 Nevertheless, like his great predecessor William of Ockham, he availed himself of the distinction between theological and philosophical truth: faith might hold to beliefs for which science and philosophy could find no evidence, but philosophy should depend only on reason, and science should seek purely secular explanations in terms of physical cause and effect.62
Despite his zest for knowledge, Bacon subordinates it to morality; there would be no gain to humanity if the extension of knowledge brought no gain in benevolence. “Of all virtues and dignities of the mind, goodness is the greatest.”63 However, his usual enthusiasm subsides when he speaks of the Christian virtues. Virtue should be practiced in moderation, for the wicked may take advantage of the indiscreetly good.64 A little dissimulation is necessary to success, if not to civilization. Love is a madness, and marriage is a noose. “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises … The best works, and of the greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men.” Like Elizabeth and Hildebrand, Bacon approved of clerical celibacy. “A single life doth well with churchmen, for charity will hardly water the ground when it must first fill a pool.”65 (Note his flair for metaphor and Anglo-Saxon brevity.) Friendship is better than love, and married men make unsteady friends. Bacon talks of love and marriage in the strain of a man who has sacrificed the tender emotions to ambition, and who could rule a kingdom better than his home.
His political philosophy faced conditions rather than theories. He had the courage to say a good word for Machiavelli, and candidly accepted the principle that states are not bound by the moral code taught to their citizens. He felt, like Nietzsche, that a good war halloweth any cause. “Neither is the opinion of some of the Schoolmen to be received, that a war cannot be justly made but upon a precedent injury or provocation … A just fear of an imminent danger, though there be no blow given, is a lawful cause of war.” In any event, “a just and honorable war is the true exercise” to keep a nation in trim.66 “For empire and greatness it is of most importance that a nation profess arms as their principal honor, study, and occupation.” A powerful navy is a guarantee of neighborly respect; “to be master of the sea is the very epitome of monarchy.”67 “In the youth of a state arms do flourish; in the middle age of a state, learning; and then both of them together for a time; in the declining age of a state, mercantile acts and merchants.”68Townsmen make poor warriors, peasants better, yeomen best. Hence Bacon, like More, condemned enclosures, as reducing the proportion of landowners in the population. He deprecated the concentration of wealth as a chief cause of sedition and revolt. Of these
the first remedy or prevention is to remove by all means possible that material cause … which is want and poverty…. To which purpose serveth the opening and well-balancing of trade; the cherishing of manufactures; the banishing of idleness; the repression of waste and excess by sumptuary laws; the improvement and husbanding of the soil; the regulating of prices of things vendible; the moderation of taxes … Above all things good policy is to be used that the treasures and monies in a state be not gathered into a few hands … Money is like muck, not good except it be spread.69
Bacon distrusted Parliament as composed of uneducated and intolerant landowners and merchants or their agents; he thought James I by comparison informed and humane; even the King’s theoretical absolutism seemed benevolent as the alternative to greedy factions and violent creeds. Like his contemporary Richelieu, he considered the centralization of authority in the king, and the royal subordination of the great landlords, a necessary step in the evolution of orderly government; and like Voltaire, he thought it easier to educate one man than a multitude. His own great wealth did not disturb him, and James proved obdurately wedded to extravagance, taxes, and peace.
Bacon had smiled at “the philosophers” who “make imaginary laws for imaginary commonwealths; their discourses are as the stars, which give little light because they are so high.” But in his tired age he yielded to the temptation to picture the kind of society in which he would have men live. He had doubtless read More’s Utopia (1516); Campanella had just published his City of the Sun (1623); now (1624) Bacon wrote The New Atlantis. “We sailed from Peru (where we had continued for the space of one whole year) for China and Japan by the South Sea.” A long calm, failing rations, a providential isle, a people living happily under laws made for them by a late King Salomon. Instead of a parliament, a Salomon’s House—an aggregation of observatories, laboratories, libraries, zoological and botanical gardens—manned by scientists, economists, technicians, physicians, psychologists, and philosophers, chosen (as in Plato’s Republic) by equal tests after equal educational opportunity, and then (without elections) governing the state, or, rather, ruling nature in the interest of man. “The end of our Foundation,” one of these rulers explains to the barbarians from Europe, “is the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things, and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”70 Already, in this South Pacific enchantment, the Salomonic wizards have invented microscopes, telescopes, self-winding clocks, submarines, automobiles, and airplanes; they have discovered anesthetics, hypnosis, and ways of preserving health and lengthening life; they have found ways of grafting plants, generating new species, transmuting metals, and transmitting music to distant places. In Salomon’s House government and science are bound together, and all the tools and organization of research that Bacon had begged James to provide are there part of the equipment of the state. The island is economically independent; it avoids foreign trade as a snare to war; it imports knowledge, but not goods. So the humbled philosopher replaces the proud statesman, and the same man who had advised an occasional war as a social tonic now in his closing years dreams of a paradise of peace.