The Magazine

Modern Times

Science, Religion, and Francis Bacon

Feb 7, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 20 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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If the good of the body -- hygiene, comfort, longevity, protection from illness, relief from pain, and availability of pleasure -- is the standard by which we judge, then the past doesn't stand a chance against modern times. Whatever nobility, magnificence, or wisdom previous ages might have had, the present is the age of ages -- and Francis Bacon is universally acknowledged as its founder, the father of the modern scientific project whose goal is nothing less than the eradication of human misery.

Yet the question remains whether we actually live the sort of life Bacon desired for his descendants under the new dispensation of modern knowledge. Seeing the machine guns and mustard gas of World War I, Albert Einstein suggested that our technological know-how is like an ax in the hands of a psychopath. But even the benefits science has brought us are troubling. The better off the body is, the more painful seem the ills it continues to suffer, the more urgent the pleasures it does not enjoy, and the less we concern ourselves with the needs of the soul.

That Bacon is responsible in no small part for our modern condition seems undeniable. And yet, it's equally undeniable that he wanted a place for the soul in the new order and was not quite able to shed the beliefs of the old world from which his modern children would make their break. Bacon was a man of parts, and the parts did not always add up to a coherent whole. The author of the Essays sounds quite unlike the author of The New Organon, as though each book were written by a part of Bacon that the other parts were unaware of. Even from essay to essay and one passage of The New Organon to another, there are chasms not easily bridged. And how are we to fit in the fact that Bacon was also a political man, active in the highest reaches of English public life?

Two recent books about Bacon point out the fissures in his nature. The biography Hostage to Fortune, by Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, history professors at the University of London, is devoted almost exclusively to his worldly career, and leaves the reader feeling that Bacon spent most of his time living someone else's life. The critical study Francis Bacon, by Perez Zagorin, is a largely sound and sensible introduction to Bacon's thought, but it papers over the gap that sometimes opens between his scientific boldness and his Christian piety. The story is more complicated than Zagorin allows.

A Renaissance man, Bacon was a lawyer, parliamentarian, and courtier. Doggedly ambitious, he rose as high in the legal profession as a man could go: the lord chancellorship of England. Talent and tenacity were in the blood. His father Nicholas made his way from modest beginnings to be Queen Elizabeth's lord keeper of the Great Seal. Francis was born in 1561, and the queen made much of the clever young boy, calling him her "little lord keeper." At twelve, Bacon went off to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, where, the story goes, he developed his antipathy toward Aristotle. Having taken in what Cambridge had to offer, he proceeded to study law at Gray's Inn until his father secured him a place in the entourage of the ambassador to France. But his three years in Paris came to an end with his father's death, and -- as Nicholas Bacon did not provide for Francis in his will -- he was obliged to earn his living. He resumed his legal training, and at twenty was elected to the House of Commons, where he would serve for most of his life.

Bacon knew he was cut out for great things, but he had a hard time convincing others. When the queen sought parliamentary approval for onerous new taxes in 1593, Bacon spoke out in opposition, suggesting that the levy be parceled out in six years rather than three. The queen was furious, and she stayed that way. His protests that he had followed his conscience failed to mollify her. She kept him around court, but the choice positions he sought would not come his way during her lifetime.

Bacon never gave up trying, and he never again made the mistake of preferring the promptings of his conscience to the wishes of royal power. During the early 1590s, Bacon became a devoted adherent of the Earl of Essex, who was establishing himself, through personal charm and martial prowess, as the queen's favorite. Not even Essex's patronage could alter the queen's acquired distaste for Bacon, but the rising star did what he could for his protege, and they might even be said to have become something like friends.