Francis Bacon was the son of Nicolas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Seal of Elisabeth I. He entered Trinity College Cambridge at age 12. Bacon later described his tutors as “Men of sharp wits, shut up in their cells of a few authors, chiefly Aristotle, their Dictator.” This is likely the beginning of Bacon’s rejection of Aristotelianism and Scholasticism and the new Renaissance Humanism.
His father died when he was 18, and being the youngest son left him virtually penniless. He turned to the law and at 23 he was already in the House of Commons. His rich relatives did little to advance his career and Elisabeth apparently distrusted him. It was not until James I became King that Bacon’s career advanced. He rose to become Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, and Lord Chancellor of England. His fall came about in the course of a struggle between King and Parliament. He was accused of having taken a bribe while a judge, tried and found guilty. He thus lost his personal honor, his fortune, and his place at court.
Loren Eiseley in his beautifully written book about Bacon The Man Who Saw Through Time remarks that Bacon: “…more fully than any man of his time, entertained the idea of the universe as a problem to be solved, examined, meditated upon, rather than as an eternally fixed stage, upon which man walked.”
This is the title page from Bacon’s Instauratio Magna which contains his Novum Organum which is a new method to replace that of Aristotle. The image is of a ship passing through the pillars of Hercules, which symbolized for the ancients the limits of man’s possible explorations. The image represents the analogy between the great voyages of discovery and the explorations leading to the advancement of learning.
In The Advancement of Learning Bacon makes this analogy explicit. Speaking to James I, to whom the book is dedicated, he writes: “For why should a few received authors stand up like Hercules columns, beyond which there should be no sailing or discovering since we have so bright and benign a star as your Majesty to conduct and prosper us.” The image also forcefully suggests that using Bacon’s new method, the boundaries of ancient learning will be passed. The Latin phrase at the bottom from the Book of Daniel means: “Many will pass through and knowledge will be increased.”
Bacon saw himself as the inventor of a method which would kindle a light in nature – “a light that would eventually disclose and bring into sight all that is most hidden and secret in the universe.” This method involved the collection of data, their judicious interpretation, the carrying out of experiments, thus learning the secrets of nature by organized observation of its regularities. Bacon’s proposals had a powerful influence on the development of science in seventeenth-century Europe. Thomas Hobbes served as Bacon’s last amanuensis or secretary. Many members of the British Royal Society saw Bacon as advocating the kind of enquiry conducted by that society.
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