4. Philosophy
Francis Bacon by Max Patrick

Bacon's optimism was persistent. It was easy to be hopeful during the glorious part of Queen Elizabeth's reign when, in his words, England had enjoyed

'continuance or stability, general good health, peace, plenty, wealth, and reasonable prices for goods: many new houses were being erected, and there were 'the like pleasures of goodly gardens and orchards, walks, pools, and parks . . . beautiful and costly tombs and monuments . . . all sorts of grounds for fencing, manuring, and all sorts of good husbandry . . . towns never better built . . . rivers cut by hand and brought into a new channel; . . . so many excellent artificers . . . new handicrafts . . . new commodities made within the realm . . . such complete and honourable provision of horse, armour, weapon, ordinance of war',

increased population, purity of religion and coinage, and mighty navy.

Since Bacon was writing for propagandist purposes in this portion of Certain Observations upon a Libel (1592), he indulged in some exaggeration, omitting to mention the problem of increasing poverty, for example. Indeed, the account reads like an anticipation of his utopian New Atlantis but it was not unjustified.

England in the later Elizabethan and Jacobean period was less happy. It was racked by changes in ideas, politics, and society which were revolutionary in pace. But Bacon, unlike some of his contemporaries, did not succumb to the disease of melancholy which Robert Burton anatomized; nor did he whine about 'all coherence gone' or complain that new philosophy calls 'all in doubt'. Bacon was not ignorant of the economic and social defects of his time, the prevalence of corruptions in government and law, the rising tensions which ultimately led to the Civil War. But he also saw the fact that England and Scotland were essentially and potentially good.

A significant instance of this optimism is to be found in the essay 'Of Plantations'. Other writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were prone to praise savages as noble and to use their reactions to European civilization as a vehicle for denouncing its weaknesses. In contrast, Bacon reverses this approach, urging that natives from overseas should be brought to England

'that they may see a better condition than their own and commend it when they return'.

Bacon was one of the first thinkers to accept and popularize the idea of progress. Unlike many men of his period, he would not dismiss defects in society and knowledge as God's will or as the unavoidable results of human depravity and God's curse after the sin of Adam and Eve. Nor would he subscribe to the prevalent doctrine that nature was decaying. In the changing circumstances and ideas of his time, Bacon saw opportunity, not reason for despair. In his opinion there was need for an efficient and systematic appraisal of man's achievements and of the obstacles which stood in the way of further advances. Based on this appraisal, there should be a programme to promote learning and speed progress. Knowledge meant power, and power meant the empire of man over himself and nature. To these ends Bacon propounded his grand design:

Francis of Verulam reasoned thus with himself, and judged it to be for the interest of the present and future generations that they be made acquainted with his thoughts.

Such is the beginning of his Instauratio Magna, The Great Renewal of Learning (1620):

.... he thought all trial should be made, whether that commerce between the mind and the nature of things, which is more Precious than anything on earth, or at least anything that is of the earth, might by any means be restored to its perfect and original condition, or, if that may not be, yet reduced to a better condition than that in which it now is.

To this end Bacon would

'commence a total reconstruction of the sciences, arts, and all human knowledge raised upon the proper foundation'.

This Great Instauration was to have six main parts. Some of the works which Bacon had already published could be fitted into it; others which he was yet to compose would complement them; the rest would have to be filled in by others:

The first part exhibits a summary or general description of the knowledge which the human race at present possesses . . . not only things already invented and known, but likewise omitted which ought to be there.

In large measure Bacon accomplished these aims in The Advancement and its Latin redaction, De Augmentis. In them he defends learning against its detractors, urges rulers to patronize it, and divides it into two kinds, the divine and the human, warning men

'that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these Learnings together'.

This separation of natural science from divinity was one of Bacon's most important doctrines, for science had been subordinated to theology and partly stifled by it. The difficult problem of how spiritual things are related to natural ones was involved. In theology, what is called the Level of Nature includes everything which may be known to a pagan who lacks the revelations of the Hebrew-Christian God: thus More's Utopians, who are in a state of nature, have knowledge of natural law, natural philosophy, natural science, and natural theology. Though they lack revealed truths, they are aware that there is a God and that laws govern the universe, ethics, politics, etc. Unknown to them is the Level of Grace or Spirit, which includes sacred mysteries, theology, the divinely ordained institution of the Church, and the like.

Various theories have been offered about the relationship between the Levels of Grace and Nature. Utter Materialists deny the former; Idealists tend to deny the latter. Bishop Berkeley in the eighteenth century argued that the two areas were separate but that God's fiat made one correspond to the other, so that spirit seemed to act on matter and vice versa. Some austerely pious men believed that the Level of Nature should be repudiated as far as possible and therefore condemned the pagan philosophies of the Ancient Greeks, the secular drama of Shakespeare, and the beauties of secular music. As a Christian Humanist,John Milton refrained from such repudiation and held that whatever is truly good on the Level of Nature conduces to truth on the Level of Grace, that the one merges into the other, that Platonic philosophy, for example, groped toward the higher truths of Christianity and conduced to them. But Bacon propounded what theologians call the Principle of Segregation, namely, that there are two quite distinct realms of truth which are irrelevant to each other and must be kept in separate compartments. Thus truth on the Level of Grace may state that the world was created by divine commands in six days and that the sun revolves around the earth. But the truth discovered on the Level of Nature may be that creation was evolutionary and that the earth revolves around the sun. By segregating such truths, Bacon helped to free science from the trammels of divinity; the examples given are not his, however. He did not deny that in the long run spiritual truth mattered most. But in the meantime, natural truth might be made practically valuable.

Bacon does not hold to the principle of segregation consistently throughout his works. At times he was closer to the Christian Humanist position. But it is folly to expect complete consistency in his teachings. In this respect they resemble the thought of Plato, who did not hesitate to assume different positions in different works, attacking poetry and music in his Republic but exalting them in some of his dialogues, for example. Bacon is consistent in his goals of seeking to advance knowledge and men's consequent empire over nature, but he willingly explores different approaches to truth and changes his mind or varies his programme to suit different times, audiences, and purposes. Most of his writings are subordinated to immediate persuasive efficacy. Thus when he wrote The Advancement, he formulated it in English for Protestant readers and took advantage of their anti-Romanism to convince them. But when he rewrote the work in Latin for a European audience, he expunged his censures of Roman Catholicism.

In The Advancement and De Augrnentis Bacon defends Learning as if she were a client on trial before the bar of public opinion — a technique which Sir Philip Sidney had used in apologizing for poetry. Bacon begins by clearing Learning's reputation from discrediting objections which rose, he said, 'all from ignorance'. The impugners of knowledge pointed to Solomon's warning that it increased anxiety and to St Paul's caveat against vain philosophy; and they alleged that lust for knowledge caused the Fall of Man and that learned times inclined to atheism and heresy. Bacon replied that these censures were inapplicable to 'the pure knowledge of nature and universality' and could be directed only against 'the proud knowledge of good and evil', that is, against man's efforts 'to give a law unto himself, and to depend no more upon God's commandments'. Though science was to be pursued independently of theology, both were important. Moreover, the learning which Bacon advocated is mixed with the 'corrective spice' of Charity: it is directed to the good of mankind and is subject to three limitations. We must not 'so place our felicity in knowledge, as to forget our mortality'. We must apply our learning 'to give ourselves repose and contentment', not to make ourselves unhappy and restless; and we must not delude ourselves that by contemplating nature we may attain the mysteries of God.

Milton was to echo something of this passage near the end of Paradise Lost. Adam, having learned how 'one greater Man' would 'restore us', remarks on the contentment which this truth gives him and indicates the proper limits of knowledge:

Greatly instructed I shall hence depart, Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill Of knowledge, what this vessel can contain; Beyond which was my folly to aspire.

He has learned to obey God and depend upon Him. The Archangel approves, and tells Adam to hope for no higher wisdom: knowledge of'all Nature's works/Or works of God', enjoyment of all worldly riches, and empire over them would not be superior. But the angel does not forbid mankind to gain this scientific knowledge: he insists on Bacon's proviso, the addition of deeds answerable to the knowledge, and of faith, virtue, patience, temperance, and love,

'By name to come call'd Charity, the soul Of all the rest.'

Bacon similarly concludes this section of his argument by urging men to

'endeavour an endless progress or Proficiency in both divinity and science: only let men beware that they apply both to charity and not to swelling [pride], to use and not to ostentation; and . . . that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these Learnings together.'