He continued working to the end. A year after his retirement he published a History of the Reign of Henry VII. It set a new standard for historiography: a clear account, in fine, strong prose, of issues, policies, and events; a just, impartial, penetrating sketch of a ruler unidealized, illuminatingly real.71 A medley of treatises followed: History [i.e., a study] of Winds, History of Density and Rarity, History of Life and Death, Sylva Sylvarum, and further essays. He had unexpected leisure now—no place, no children, no friends, for the place seekers who had crowded about him in his days of power were scraping before other doors. “What comrades have you in your work?” he asked a correspondent. “As for me, I am in the completest solitude.”72
Seeking to test how long snow could keep flesh from putrefaction, he interrupted a journey one day in spring to buy a fowl. He killed it and stuffed it with snow, then found himself chilled. He went to the nearby home of Lord Arundel and was there put to bed. He thought the trouble would soon pass; he wrote that the experiment had “succeeded excellently well.” He had preserved the fowl—but he lost his life. Fever consumed him, phlegm choked him; on April 9, 1626, he died, aged sixty-five, the glowing candle suddenly snuffed out.
He was not, as Pope thought, “the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.”73 Montaigne was wiser, Voltaire brighter, Henry VIII meaner; and Bacon’s enemies called him kindly, helpful, and quick to forgive. He was self-seeking to the verge of servility, and proud enough to anger the gods; but we share these faults sufficiently to pardon his humanity for the light that he shed. His egotism was the wind in his sails. To see ourselves as others see us would be crippling.
He was not a scientist, but a philosopher of science. His range of observation was immense, but his field of speculation was too vast to allow him much time for special investigations; he attempted some, with little result. He fell far behind the progress of contemporary science. He rejected the Copernican astronomy, but gave excellent reasons for doing so.74 He ignored Kepler, Galileo, and Napier. He often noted (as in The New Atlantis), but still underrated, the role of imagination, hypothesis, and deduction in scientific research. His proposal for a patient collection and classification of facts worked well in astronomy, where the stellar observations and records of thousands of students gave Copernicus inductive material for his revolutionary deductions; but it bore small resemblance to the actual methods that in his time discovered the laws of planetary motions, the satellites of Jupiter, the magnetism of the earth, and the circulation of the blood.
He did not claim to have discovered induction; he knew that many men had practiced it before him. He was not the first to “overthrow Aristotle”; men like Roger Bacon and Petrus Ramus had been doing this for centuries past. And the Aristotle whom they deposed was not (as Francis Bacon sometimes realized) the Greek who had often used and praised induction and experiment, but the transmogrified ille philosophus of the Arabs and the Scholastics. What Bacon wanted to overthrow was the mistaken attempt to deduce medieval creeds from ancient metaphysics. In any event, he helped to free Renaissance Europe from too cramping a deference to antiquity.
He was not the first to emphasize knowledge as the road to power; Roger Bacon had done it, and Campanella had said, with Baconian pithiness, “Tantum possumus quantum scimus”—Our power is proportioned to our knowledge.75 Perhaps the statesman stressed unduly the utilitarian ends of science. Yet he recognized the value of “pure” as compared with “applied” science—of “light” as distinct from “fruits.” He urged a study of ends as well as of means, and knew that a century of inventions would create greater problems than it solved if it left human motives unchanged. He might have discovered in his own moral laxity the abyss created by the progress of knowledge beyond the discipline of character.
What remains after all these hindsight deductions? This: that Francis Bacon was the most powerful and influential intellect of his time. Shakespeare, of course, stood above him in imagination and literary art; but Bacon’s mind ranged over the universe like a searchlight peering and prying curiously into every corner and secret of space. All the exhilarating enthusiasm of the Renaissance was in him, all the excitement and pride of a Columbus sailing madly into a new world. Hear the joyful cry of this Cock Robin announcing the dawn:
Thus have I concluded this portion of learning touching Civil Knowledge; and with civil knowledge have concluded Human Philosophy; and with human philosophy, Philosophy in General. And being now at some pause, looking back into that I have passed through, this writing seemeth to me, as far as a man can judge of his own work, not much better than that noise or sound which musicians make while they are tuning their instruments; which is nothing pleasant to hear, but yet is a cause why the music is sweeter afterwards. So have I been content to tune the instruments of the muses that they may play that have better hands. And surely, when I set before me the condition of these times, in which learning hath made her third visitation or circuit, in all the qualities thereof; as the excel lency and vivacity of the wits of this age; the noble helps and lights which we have by the travails of ancient writers; the art of printing, which communicateth books to men of all fortunes; the openness of the world by navigation, which hath disclosed multitudes of experiments, and a mass of natural history; … I cannot but be raised to this persuasion, that this third period of time will far surpass that of the Græcian and Roman learning. … As for my labours, if any, if any man shall please himself or others in the reprehension of them, they shall make that ancient and patient request, Verbere sed audi [Strike me if you will, only hear me]; let men reprehend them, so they observe and weigh them.76
Because he expressed the noblest passion of his age—for the betterment of life through the extension of knowledge—posterity raised to his memory a living monument of influence. Scientists were stirred and invigorated not by his method but by his spirit. How refreshing, after centuries of minds imprisoned in their roots or caught in webs of their own wishful weaving, to come upon a man who loved the sharp tang of fact, the vitalizing air of seeking and finding, the zest of casting lines of doubt into the deepest pools of ignorance, superstition, and fear! Some men in that age, like Donne, thought the world was decaying, hastening to a consumed or shattered end; Bacon announced to his times that they were the youth of a world rampant with effervescent life.
Men would not listen to him at first; in England, France, and Germany they preferred to carry the competition of faiths to the arbitrament of arms; but when that fury had cooled, those who were not fettered with certainties organized themselves in the spirit of Bacon for the enlargement of man’s empire not over men but over the conditions and hindrances of human life. When Englishmen founded the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (1660), it was Francis Bacon who was honored as its inspiration, and Salomon’s House in The New Atlantis probably pointed the goal.77 Leibniz hailed Bacon as the regenerator of philosophy.78 And when the philosophes of the Enlightenment put together their world-shaking Encyclopédie (1751), they dedicated it to Francis Bacon. “If,” said Diderot in the prospectus, “we have come to it successfully, we shall owe most to the Chancellor Bacon, who proposed the plan of a universal dictionary of sciences and arts at a time when, so to speak, neither arts nor sciences existed. That extraordinary genius, at a time when it was impossible to write a history of what was known, wrote one of what it was necessary to learn.” And d’Alembert, in a frenzy of enthusiasm, called Bacon “the greatest, the most universal, and the most eloquent of philosophers.” When the Enlightenment had burst into the French Revolution the Convention had the works of Bacon published at the expense of the state.79 The tenor and career of British thought from Hobbes to Spencer—excepting Berkeley and Hume and the English Hegelians—followed Bacon’s line. His tendency to conceive the external world in Democritean terms gave Hobbes the impetus to materialism; his emphasis on induction spurred Locke to an empirical psychology in which the study of the mind would be freed from the metaphysics of the soul; and his stress on “commodities” and “fruits” shared with the philosophy of Helvétius in leading Bentham to identify the useful and the good. The Baconian spirit prepared England for the Industrial Revolution.
Therefore we may place Francis Bacon at the head of the Age of Reason. He was not, like some of his successors, an idolator of reason; he distrusted all cogitations unchecked by actual experience, and all conclusions tainted with desire. “The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called ‘sciences as one would.’ For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes.”80 Bacon preferred “that reason which is elicited from facts…. From a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational … much may be hoped.”81
Nor did he, like the philosophes of the eighteenth century, propose reason as an enemy of religion or as a substitute for it; he made room for both of them in philosophy and life. But he repudiated the reliance upon traditions and authorities; he required rational and natural explanations instead of emotional presumptions, supernatural interventions, and popular mythology. He raised a banner for all the sciences, and drew to it the most eager minds of the succeeding centuries. Whether he willed it or not, the enterprise that he called for—the comprehensive organization of scientific research, the ecumenical expansion and dissemination of knowledge—contained in itself the seeds of the profoundest drama of modern times: Christianity, Catholic or Protestant, fighting for its life against the spread and power of science and philosophy. That drama had now spoken its prologue to the world.
I. The famous phrase “Knowledge is power” does not occur, in that form, in Bacon’s extant works; but in a fragment of his Meditationes sacrae he writes, “… ipsa scientia protestas est”—knowledge itself is power.43 The idea, of course, runs all through Bacon’s writings.