BACON, Francis

BACON, Francis
Francis Bacon was a lawyer, man of letters, and philosopher in the Elizabe­than and Jacobean eras. Although he eventually became lord chancellor of En­gland, he is best known for his Essays and writings concerning the "new philosophy," or modern science.
Born in London, Bacon was the younger son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, lord keeper, and Anne Cook Bacon.* In 1573 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and completed his education at Gray's Inn, from which he was admitted barrister in 1582. Bacon began a parliamentary career in 1584 after his uncle, Elizabeth's lord treasurer Sir William Cecil, failed to help him enter royal service. In 1593 he damaged his prospects by opposing a war subsidy, and despite the sponsor­ship of the earl of Essex, whose service he had entered in 1591, Bacon was passed over for attorney general in 1594 and for solicitor general the next year. He was, however, made one of the queen's learned counsel, and following Es­sex's disastrous rebellion in 1601, he helped to secure his former patron's con­viction for treason. This prompted such public ill will that Bacon was obliged to publish an Apology for his efforts in 1604.
Following James I's* accession in 1603, Bacon was knighted; he also served on a commission to discuss union with Scotland and dedicated his Advancement of Learning to the king in 1605. Preferment finally came with the post of so­licitor general in 1607 and of attorney general in 1613. Bacon was then named lord keeper in 1617; sponsored by George Villiers, later duke of Buckingham, he became lord chancellor and Baron Verulam in 1618. As chancellor he pros­ecuted Sir Walter Raleigh* in 1618 and the earl of Suffolk in 1619. In 1620 he published his most famous work, Novum organum, and in 1621 he was created Viscount St. Albans. Shortly after this last promotion Bacon confessed to charges of bribery and corruption and was fined, imprisoned, and forbidden any state office. Although the king remitted the fine and a general pardon was even­tually published, Bacon's career as a public servant was over. In 1626, after an experiment to see if snow would stop a fowl from decaying, Bacon caught a chill and died.
Much of Bacon's philosophical writing works to widen the breach between medieval Scholasticism, with its emphasis on abstract concepts and application of Aristotelian formulas, and the emerging "new philosophy," which concen­trated on inductive reasoning through experimentation with physical phenomena. To Bacon, the goal of philosophy was to develop practical knowledge, which would then extend the limits of humanity's power in nature and lead to the development of new arts and sciences. While he did not exclude the importance of metaphysics, he felt that the way to truth began with observing nature directly.
In Novum organum Bacon provides his most important contribution to modern scientific thought by examining a set of "idols," or false notions that possess the mind. The greatest obstacle Bacon identifies is the medieval conviction that truth could be discerned by applying logical reasoning to a small number of observations. Bacon insists that the natural philosopher accumulate as many examples as possible, eliminate all inessential factors, and draw conclusions from whatever conditions remain. While his method fails to allow for the con­cept of the controlling hypothesis or the impossibility of exhausting all poten­tialities, its insistence on examining a wide range of situations makes it a cornerstone of modern scientific thought.
Bacon's most important literary works are the Essays (1597), The History of the Reign of King Henry VII (1622), and The New Atlantis (1627). The Essays, the first exercise in this genre in English, speak to many aspects of human life, including politics, marriage, education, and travel, and are more concerned with examining questions about their subjects than in producing conclusions about them. The History of the Reign of King Henry VII glorifies Henry as a wise, cautious Solomon who brought England peace and unity out of civil war and presents him as the type of king James should strive to become. The New At­lantis is a futuristic utopia where work is conducted by a scientific society and provides a model for what would become the Royal Society.
While Bacon achieved high office under James I and participated as a lawyer in some of his time's most influential trials, his most important contributions came in the realm of natural philosophy. The empirical method he advocated had much to do with the development of modern science in the seventeenth century, and his approach to weighing and examining evidence can be seen in his political and literary works as well as his scientific ones. His intellectual concepts show him to be in advance of most thinkers of his time.
F. Anderson, Francis Bacon: His Career and His Thought, 1962.
J. Epstein, Francis Bacon: A Political Biography, 1977.
P. Zagorin, Francis Bacon, 1998.
Kevin Lindberg

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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