As Gordon Haight wrote in 1942, “Francis Bacon’s reputation has suffered from the world’s insistence that a moralist should follow his own advice; having recognized vice and folly, he should avoid them.” Sir Francis Bacon was born in London in 1561, the son of the Sir Nicholas, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (a position Cromwell later held). The younger Bacon saw wealth and status as key to his true ambition, which was to integrate scientific understandings with classical (mainly Roman) wisdom. Ironically, after a meteoric rise in the court of King James I (under whom the King James bible was published), it was a swift fall that gave him the time to pursue these more cerebral goals.
Despite having tremendous personal connections, Bacon floundered politically under Queen Elizabeth I, but James seemed to take a liking to him, knighting him and granting him several titles and positions, including his father’s, Attorney General, Viscount St. Albans, and Lord High Counsellor. A bribery scandal, which Bacon admitted to, led to a swift fall and time in the Tower of London, but also to an early retirement in which he followed his literary pursuits. Equally ironic was that Bacon’s utopia, New Atlantis, depicts an official who accepts bribes as “twice paid.”
Bacon’s goal was an Instaratio Magna (Great Restoration), which he hoped would supplant the works of Aristotle, “whose influence, particularly in the natural sciences, was impeding research” (Haight, 1942, xiii). His actual output was series of shrewd essays on the nature of “man,” not as he ought to be, but as “he” was. He intellectual preeminence in the period made him one of the first candidates for the true identity of Shakespeare. Below are pithy excerpts of one of the pithiest pieces of politico-philosophical writing from “one of the world’s greatest thinkers, and … monuments of English literature” (Haight, 1942, xvi):
Of Truth (Essay 1)
What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.
Of Death (Essay 2)
Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.
Of Riches (Essay 34)
I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue; the Roman word is better, impedimenta; for as baggage is to an army, so is riches to virtue; it cannot be spared nor left behind, but it hundredth the march; yea, and the care of it sometimes loseth or disturbeth the victory. Of great riches there is no real use, except it be in the distribution; the rest is conceit.
Of Ambition (Essay 36)
Ambition is like choler [bile; one of four bodily “humors” along with blood, phlegm, and “melancholy” (black bile)], which is a humor that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it not be stopped and cannot have its way, it becometh adust [fiery], and thereby malign and venomous. So ambitious men, if they find the way open for their rising, and still get forward, they are rather busy than dangerous; but if they be checked in their desires, they become secretly discontent, and look upon men with an evil eye, and are best pleased when things go backward; which is the worst property in a servant of a prince or state.
Of Usury [Money lending with interest] (Essay 41)
… the usurer is the drone that Virgil speakest of:
Drive from their hives the drones, a lazy herd;
[Ignavum fucos pecus a praesibus arcent]
that the usurer breaketh the first law that was made for mankind after the fall, which was, in the sweat of the thy face should thou eat thy bread; not in the sweat of another’s face … I say this only, that usury is a concession to the hardness of men’s hearts; for, since there must be borrowing and lending, and men are so hard of heart as they will not lend freely, usury must be permitted … [however] few have spoken of usury usefully.
Of Vainglory (Essay 54)
They that are glorious must needs be factious [belligerant]; for all bravery stands upon comparisons.
…according to the French proverb, Beaucoup be bruit, pen de fruit;-much bruit [noise], little fruit.