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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
II. Francis Bacon
By Dr. Ernest Bernbaum
WE honor Francis Bacon as the prophetic inspirer of modern science. In perusing the long list of the activities of that scientific establishment which is described in the closing pages of “The New Atlantis,” 1 we are astonished by again and again recognizing in its imaginary methods and achievements precise anticipations of what is actually being done in modern medicine, meteorology, engineering, aeronautics, etc. Bacon himself, to be sure, modestly protested that he was but “stirring the earth a little about the roots of science.” He was indeed no great discoverer of data, and from Harvey to Huxley the scientific specialists have sneered at his rather futile experiments. Even his method, which he sincerely believed a new and rapid way to complete mastery of our environment, is now considered somewhat impractical. Yet the prefaces to his “Instauratio Magna,” 2 though no longer accurate guideposts, are revered as monuments in the history of scientific progress. They served an even nobler purpose than to show the scientist just where to go; they sent him forth to seek his way with a new and conquering spirit, the spirit of confidence and of cooperation. The works of Bacon instilled in his successors the faith that by united effort they would presently understand, and thus control, those physical forces which in the past had toyed with the life of man, and exposed him to poverty, disease, and all the accidents of circumstance. In this hope were undertaken the Royal Society and the French “Encyclopédie”—leading enterprises in advancing respectively the discovery and the dissemination of rational knowledge. “We shall owe most,” says Diderot in his prospectus to the “Encyclopédie,” “to the Chancellor Bacon, who threw out the plan of a universal dictionary of sciences and arts at a time when, so to speak, neither sciences nor arts existed. That extraordinary genius, at a time when it was not possible to write a history of what was known, wrote one of what it was necessary to learn.” Wherever experimental investigators are to-day discovering new laws of nature, and thus more and more subjecting the physical world to the welfare of man, the spirit of Bacon is fruitfully at work.  1

  Among writers on education, the very magnitude of Bacon’s position in the history of science has tended to overshadow his influence in other respects. Yet he urged the development of science because in his day it was relatively the most neglected and chaotic department of human endeavor, and not because he thought it absolutely and forever the most important. Newman himself does not insist more strongly than Bacon on the truth that science, though great, is not the complete satisfier of human needs. In “The Advancement of Learning,” the first part of the “Instauratio Magna,” Bacon pleads for the discovery and application to life, not merely of pure scientific truth, but also of clear ideals of mental, moral, and spiritual well-being. Religion and the so-called liberal studies had his eloquent and loyal support. “The New Atlantis” presents us not only with the model of a public institution of scientific research, but also with ideals of social and personal character. His Utopia was not, as some mistakenly declare, a merely industrial civilization, but a Christian commonwealth which exalted the humane feelings, family life, and artistic beauty.

  Both in the prefaces to the “Instauratio Magna” and in “The New Atlantis,” Bacon is thinking of the world as he believed it should and would become. The assumption that he had a similar purpose in his famous “Essays” 3 unfortunately misleads many modern critics, and tends to obscure the peculiar merits of his most popular work. Yet Bacon himself tells us that in his opinion we already had enough books which enthusiastically described moral ideals, and that what we really needed were accurate observations on the extent to which those ideals were attainable, and on the methods by which, under the actual conditions of everyday life, they might be put into practice. What he wished to present in the essays was human life, not as it ought to be, but as it is. “Let us know ourselves,” he said, “and how it standeth with us.”

  The result is a portrait of mankind beneath which may be inscribed his characteristic sentence: “It is good to retain sincerity.” So accurate and candid an observer of human life is instinctively disliked by persons of sentimental temperament, and they call Bacon cynical and heartless. Ignoring his realistic intention, they turn, for instance, to the essays on love and on marriage, 4 expecting eloquent praise of what love and marriage may be at the very best; and they are disappointed, perplexed, and sometimes disgusted with what they find. In their haste they exclaim: “What a cold and calculating creature! All he says of the love between husband and wife is ‘Nuptial love maketh mankind!”’ These accusations, which may substantially be found in one of the best known editions of the “Essays,” are as inaccurate as they are typical. Any careful reader, not led astray by the usual misconception of Bacon’s purpose, will observe that the kind of love which he discusses in his essay on that subject is “the wanton love which corrupteth and embaseth,” the condemnation of which should hardly be considered objectionable. As for family life (which, as I have mentioned, he idealizes in “The New Atlantis”), it is true that he dispatches it briefly in the essay on love; but in the essay on marriage he does not estimate it as cynically as we are led to suppose. He points out, to be sure, that, as a matter of sober fact, marriage may interfere with extraordinary public ambition; but he gives it preference over a selfish single life, he scorns those who consider children mere “bills of charges” instead of “dearest pledges,” and he calls matrimony a “discipline of humanity,” that is, a school of kindness or a humane education. To study the comparative merits and defects of many conditions of human life, to mark the extent and the limitations of human faculties, and to do so with even handed justice, is his ruling purpose.

  To create an ideal of life is a noble task; but to penetrate some of the perplexing realities of existence is as difficult and at least as serviceable. This Bacon does with supreme success. A lawyer, judge, and statesman, he knew the vicissitudes of life and the varieties of human character. He observed his fellow men with the eye of a genius, pondered their motives with the thoughtfulness of a student, and recorded his observations with the precision of a scientist. Time has wrought superficial changes in some of the social and political conditions he examined; but human nature and human intercourse are essentially immutable, and the impressive truth of his judgments is enduring. To this day he guides his readers in the conduct of life; and if it be too much to say that those who heed his advice will make no mistakes, it is certain that they will blunder less frequently than does the average man who knows him not.

  Bacon does more than enrich us with practical maxims applicable to particular situations; he trains us to think more wisely in the face of any and all occasions. He begins by informing, he ends by educating. His essays, valuable as discussions of special topics, are precious as exercises in a peculiar way of approaching all aspects of life. This way is one unusual and not inborn; it runs counter to the ways of the untrained mind. Just as children are apt to regard a person as either “nice” or “horrid,” many of larger growth tend to look on anything as wholly good or wholly bad. Bacon methodically weighs advantages and disadvantages, and seeks to discover which predominate. In many of his essays he reasons somewhat after this manner: “This thing is good in this respect, but bad in that; it is useful to this extent, but harmful beyond; it will aid this kind of person, but will hinder that sort.” For example, in describing youth and age he assigns distinct superiority to neither, but points out the special strength and the special weakness of each. Innovation, to the radical pure delight, to the conservative mere destructiveness, is to him neither the one nor the other. “Discriminate!” is his motto: things that men call by the same name are really of different values; “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” What he says about any given subject, we may forget; but by frequent recourse to him we shall form the judicious habit of mind.

  Most of us can be judicious on a few occasions, especially on occasions in which we are not deeply interested; but to be so habitually has always been among the rarest of virtues. It probably never was more rare than in this country at this time. In approaching the intricate problems that confront us, we display boundless enthusiasm, aspiration, and self-confidence. The defects in human character, the fast-rooted evils in society, that have baffled the efforts of saints and sages from the beginning of history, we hope to dispel by the sheer energy of emotional fervor. We are too impatient to ascertain the exact facts that are to be dealt with, we heartily dislike those facts which disturb our preconceived notions; in plain words, we do not love truth and we distrust the intellect. To Bacon, the intellect was the indispensable aid to moral progress, whether of the individual or of society. He does not dry up enthusiasm, but he teaches us to make it effective by directing it into rational channels. In his day he helped to rescue science from superstition, and in our own he may save morality from sentimentalism.
Note 1. Harvard Classics, iii, 143ff. [back]
Note 2. H. C., xxxix, 116ff., 143ff. [back]
Note 3. H. C., iii, 7ff. [back]
Note 4. H. C., iii, 21, 26. [back]


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