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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 4

Memoir of Bacon

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Memoir of Bacon

This illustrious philosopher was the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, lord-keeper of the great seal, and Anne, daughter of Sir Anthony Cook, tutor to Edward VI., and was born in London, January 22, 1561. The sprightliness of mind which lie displayed in boyhood caused Queen Elizabeth to converse with him frequently, and to style him her young lord-keeper. In 1573, he was entered a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, where the progress of his intellect was so very rapid, that, before completing his sixteenth year, he had satisfied himself of the futility of the Aristotelian mode of reasoning. At this period of his life, ho was placed under the charge of Sir Amias Powlet, the queen's ambassador in France, where he gathered a vast quantity of facts useful to an English statesman, which lie formed, before his nineteenth year, into a Treatise on the State of Europe. The unexpected death of his father having obliged him to choose a profession, he adopted that of the law, and studied it with great assiduity at Gray's Inn, but without neglecting philosophical pursuits. It was here that, at the age of twenty-six, he formed the first sketch of his great work, The Instauration of the Sciences.

His first preferment was to the post of counsel extraordinary to the queen, which brought him rather honour than profit. His contracted circumstances leaving him no other choice than between virtuous poverty and the dependence of a courtier, he was so unfortunate as to choose the latter. Till the accession of King James, he made little advance either in reputation or in fortune. His learning having recommended him to the king, lie was knighted, and appointed king's counsel, with a salary of forty pounds a-year. In consideration of the merit of his work On the Advancement of Learning, published in 1605, he was appointed, two years after, to the post of solicitor-general; and about this time his practice as a lawyer became both extensive and profitable. If Bacon had been content to wait upon fortune, he could have hardly failed, with the first abilities of his time, to reach, without discredit, the highest honours of the state. But the eagerness of his ambition, and the want of manly principle, caused him to seek elevation by means which have stamped his name with infamy. Not only was he content to present an almost impious kind of flattery to his weak sovereign, but he stooped to become the minion of a minion, namely, Villiers Duke of Buckingham, who had been recently raised from obscurity to the highest court honours, merely on account of his possessing a handsome person. By such means, and by writing to the king a letter studiously depreciating all the other great lawyers of his day, he obtained, in March 1617, the appointment of lord-keeper, and, two years after, that of lord chancellor, with the title of Baron Verulam, subsequently exchanged for that of Viscount of St Alban's.

Without apparently gaining much personal esteem, Bacon had at this time obtained the highest reputation as a philosophical writer. To the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, published in 1605, and afterwards republished in an extended form, was added, in 1620, the Novum Organum, which was designed as a second part of his grand work, the Instauration of the Sciences. Another portion, intended to complete the work, was never produced. The objects of the whole work were, to answer the objections made to the progress of knowledge, to classify the branches of knowledge, and to explain a new method of employing the faculties for the increase of knowledge; namely, to ascertain facts in the first place, and then to reason upon them towards conclusions—a mode which may now appear very obvious, and even unavoidable, but which was nevertheless unknown till explained by him. To come to particulars, Bacon tells us,
I.That the ultimate aim of philosophical investigation is to bring the course of events, as much as possible, under our own control, in order that we may turn it to our own advantage.
II.That as each event depends upon a certain combination of circumstances which precede it, and constitute its cause, it is evident we shall be able to command the event, whenever we have it in our power to produce that combination of cirumstances out of the means which nature has placed within our reach.
III.That the means of producing many events which we little dream of, are actually placed within our reach; and that nothing prevents us from using those means, but our inability to select them from the crowd of other circumstances by which they are disguised and surrounded.
IV.That therefore we should endeavour, by diligent observation, to find out what circumstances are essential, and what extraneous, to the production of each event; and its real cause being stripped free from all the perplexing concomitants which occur in nature, we shall perceive at once whether we can command the circumstances that compose it or not. This, in short, is to generalise; and having done so, we shall sometimes discover that objects, which of all others appeared the most useless, remote, and inapplicable to our purpose, possess the very properties we are in search of. Nature stands ready to minister to our designs, if we have only the sagacity to disentangle its operations from one another, to refer each event to its real source, and to trace the powers and qualities of objects into their most abstract form.

In pursuing the dictates of this noble philosophy, man is no longer impotent and ridiculous. He calmly vanquishes the barriers which oppose his wishes—he eludes the causes of pain—he widens the range of enjoyment—and, at the same time, feels the dignity of intellect, which, like a magician's talisman, has made all things bow before his feet.

Lord Bacon's "Essays," now before the reader, are by no means the least part of his philosophy. They are the most popular of his writings, being devoted to subjects and involving thoughts which, as he says of them himself, "come home to men's business and bosoms." They often unite the most profound philosophy with the most fanciful illustration and poetical language, and sometimes display an almost scriptural pathos.

From the glories of the sage, it is our painful duty to revert to the infamy of the courtier. In his capacity of chancellor, Bacon displayed the same servility to the king and Buckingham as before, affixing the great seal to many patents which were intended as instruments of extortion in behalf of the royal favourite. In 1621, these abuses became the subject of investigation by Parliament, when it was discovered that Bacon had also accepted bribes from suitors in the Court of Chancery. A committee of the House of Lords, appointed to inquire into the latter delinquencies, brought no fewer than twenty distinct charges against him, comprising sums which amounted to several thousand pounds; and Bacon, with his natural pusillanimity, could only meet them with an abject confession. He was sentenced to pay a fine of forty thousand pounds, to be imprisoned in the Tower during the king's pleasure, and to be for ever incapable of holding any office or employment, and never again to sit in Parliament, or to come within the verge of court.

Overwhelmed with the infamy of this sentence, he retired to solitude. During the remainder of his life, under the discouragement of public censure, a heavy burden of debt, and the still greater pressure of self-reproach, he yet retained so much vigour of intellect, and warmth of fancy, as to be capable of producing writings of singular merit, in history, morals, and philosophy.

He pursued his studies to the last, in the midst of bodily infirmities brought on by intense study, by multiplicity of business, and, above all, by anguish of mind. In the winter of 1625, he found his health and spirits much impaired. In the spring of the following year, making an excursion into the country to try some experiments upon the preservation of bodies, he is supposed to have been affected by some noxious effluvium, as he was suddenly seized with pains in his head and stomach, which obliged him to stop at the Earl of Arundel's house at Highgate. Here, after a week's illness, he expired on the 9th April 1626, in the sixty-sixth year of his age.?