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Francis Bacon was born into a prominent wealthy family in London, England, on January 2, 1561. He was the family’s youngest son. Bacon’s father was Sir Nicholas Bacon, who held the powerful government position of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. His mother was Anne Cooke, a scholar, translator, and holder of strong Puritan beliefs. She tried hard to ensure that her children were as well-educated and as puritanical as she was. Anne Cooke’s father had been tutor to King Henry the Eighth’s son, who became King Edward the Sixth of England.
Other notable people who lived in the same era as Bacon include Galileo Galilei and William Shakespeare, both born in 1564, and Johannes Kepler, born in 1571. Bacon’s education reflected his upper-class background. He was tutored at home until, aged 12, he entered the University of Cambridge, where he was again tutored privately. His lessons were conducted entirely in Latin, focusing on arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, grammar, music theory, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were considered the most important subjects. Bacon earned a reputation as a serious boy who worked hard.
At Cambridge and other European universities the sciences, then known as natural philosophy, were dominated by the ancient works of Aristotle. Bacon began to think that, although Aristotle’s intellect might have been formidable, his ideas and methods led nowhere. The unquestioning way scholars treated Aristotle’s work had elevated him into the role of a dictator in all but name; a dictator who was now blocking the development of science. Bacon produced a large body of scientific work. His science produced no world-changing results, but his guidelines for how science should be carried out did. It was obvious to Bacon that Europe in the early 1600s enjoyed significantly better technology than the classical world had. For example, the printing press had democratized knowledge; gunpowder had made armies much more powerful; and the magnetic compass had facilitated better navigation and the discovery of the Americas. He found it monumentally frustrating that people’s intellectual understanding of the world had not progressed beyond that of the Ancient Greeks’.
Bacon appears as an unusually original thinker for several reasons. In the first place he was writing, in the early 17th century, in something of a philosophical vacuum so far as England was concerned. The last great English philosopher, William of Ockham, had died in 1347, two and a half centuries before the Advancement of Learning; the last really important philosopher, John Wycliffe, had died not much later, in 1384.The 15th century had been intellectually cautious and torpid, leavened only by the first small importations of Italian humanism by such cultivated dilettantes as Humphrey Plantagenet, duke of Gloucester, and John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester. The Christian Platonism of the Renaissance became more established at the start of the 16th century in the circle of Erasmus’ English friends: the so-called Oxford Reformers—John Colet, William Grocyn, and Thomas More. But that initiative succumbed to the ecclesiastical frenzies of the age. Philosophy did not revive until Richard Hooker in the 1590s put forward his moderate Anglican version of Thomist rationalism in the form of a theory of the Elizabethan church settlement. This happened a few years before Bacon began to write. In England three systems of thought prevailed in the late 16th century: Aristotelian Scholasticism, scholarly and aesthetic humanism, and occultism.
Aristotelian orthodoxy had been reanimated in Roman Catholic Europe after the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation had lent authority to the massive output of the 16th-century Spanish theologian and philosopher Francisco Suárez. In England learning remained in general formally Aristotelian, even though some criticism of Aristotle’s logic had reached Cambridge at the time Bacon was a student there in the mid-1570s. But such criticism sought simplicity for the sake of rhetorical effectiveness and not, as Bacon’s critique was to do, in the interests of substantial, practically useful knowledge of nature. The third important current of thought in the world into which Bacon was born was that of occultism, or esotericism, that is, the pursuit of mystical analogies between man and the cosmos, or the search for magical powers over natural processes, as in alchemy and the concoction of elixirs and panaceas. Although its most famous exponent, Paracelsus, was German, occultism was well rooted in England, appealing as it did to the individualistic style of English credulity.
Robert Fludd, the leading English occultist, was an approximate contemporary of Bacon. Bacon himself has often been held to have been some kind of occultist, and, even more questionably, to have been a member of the Rosicrucian order, but the sort of “natural magic” he espoused and advertised was altogether different from that of the esoteric philosophers. There was a fourth mode of Renaissance thought outside England to which Bacon’s thinking bore some affinity. Like that of the humanists it was inspired by Plato, at least to some extent, but by another part of his thought, namely its cosmology. This was the boldly systematic nature-philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa and of a number of Italians, in particular Bernardino Telesio, Francesco Patrizi, Tommaso Campanella, and Giordano Bruno. Nicholas of Cusa and Bruno were highly speculative, but Telesio and, up to a point, Campanella affirmed the primacy of sense perception. In a way that Bacon was later to elaborate formally and systematically, they held knowledge of nature to be a matter of extrapolating from the findings of the senses. There is no allusion to these thinkers in Bacon’s writings. But although he was less metaphysically adventurous than they were, he shared with them the conviction that the human mind is fitted for knowledge of nature and must derive it from observation, not from abstract reasoning.
Bacon’s personality has usually been regarded as unattractive: he was cold-hearted, cringed to the powerful, and took bribes, and then had the impudence to say he had not been influenced by them. There is no reason to question this assessment in its fundamentals. It was a hard world for someone in his situation to cut a good figure in, and he did not try to do so. The grimly practical style of his personality is reflected in the particular service he was able to provide of showing a purely secular mind of the highest intellectual power at work. No one who wrote so well could have been insensitive to art. But no one before him had ever quite so uncompromisingly excluded art from the cognitive domain. Bacon championed the inductive method in science. This means you move from specific facts to a general rule. You do not start with a hypothesis or theory. It has been suggested that Bacon’s thought received proper recognition only with 19th-century biology, which, unlike mathematical physics, really is Baconian in procedure. Darwin undoubtedly thought so. Bacon’s belief that a new science could contribute to the relief of man’s estate also had to await its time. In the 17th century the chief inventions that flowed from science were of instruments that enabled science to progress further. Today Bacon is best known among philosophers as the symbol of the idea, widely held to be mistaken, that science is inductive. Although there is more to his thought than that, it is, indeed, central; but even if it is wrong, it is as well to have it so boldly and magnificently presented.
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