Francis Bacon: Philosopher or Ideologue?

Francis Bacon: Philosopher or Ideologue?


Francis Bacon: Philosopher or Ideologue? By: Studer, Heidi D., Review of Politics, 00346705, Fall97, Vol. 59, Issue 4

In recent years, Francis Bacon has been receiving long overdue attention. As we directly confront the problems of modernity, scholars have begun to reexamine the thoughts of the man held by so many philosophers to be the very founder of modernity itself. Some find reasons to blame Bacon for current messes; some search for solutions that he might have suggested. That Bacon's life's work is largely responsible for our present situation is recognized by virtually all modern commentators. Jerry Weinberger, in his introduction to The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh, points out that "there is no disagreement at all" about the fact that "whatever it is that makes our world modern, the History has much to teach about it and in fact did much to bring it into being" (p. 16). And not just Bacon's History, but his theoretical works, the Essays, even his legal writings, are now acknowledged to have shaped a new political and social order (pp. 3-5). Nieves Mathews cites dozens of famous philosophers, poets, and statesmen who attest to Bacon's profound influence in Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination. Robert K. Faulkner's Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress, an impressive analysis of Bacon's moral and political thought as a whole, is launched with these words: "Sometimes the importance of a topic is obvious" (p. 3). He also affirms that "it is not difficult to show that our familiar notions of progress are inherited from a more comprehensive plan, such as Bacon's" (p. 5). Understanding modernity may well require paying close attention to Francis Bacon.

Weinberger classifies interpretations of the History into three main categories: the first type seems to conclude that Bacon was interesting but a flawed thinker compared to "me"; the second category generally maintains "what counts is not what Bacon thought of his own work, but how later writers were influenced by the thought paradigms...which [his work] transmitted quite unseen by Bacon himself" (p. 13); and the third, the "intentionalist" type, begin with the salutary interpretive premise that Bacon might have been self conscious about what he is doing (p. 14). Though Weinberger does not say so, these categories may be applicable to scholarship on Bacon generally, and seem to correspond in reverse order to the three types of brains mentioned by both Machiavelli and Aristotle (Prince, chap. 22; Nicomachean Ethics 1095b), borrowed from Hesiod: "That man is all-best who himself works out every problem and solves it, seeing what will be best late and in the end. That man, too, is admirable who follows one who speaks well. He who cannot see the truth for himself, nor, hearing it from others, store it away in his mind, that man is utterly useless" (Works and Days, 292-97; Lattimore translation).

Unfortunately, many treatments of Bacon seem to correspond to the useless type, based as they are on the historicist presumption of our superiority. So we need not bother to try to learn from Bacon--only pay attention long enough to flatter ourselves, like the dwarf climbing upon the giant's back. Happily, none of these three books slide into that category. Indeed, all three authors are acutely aware of the problems of such interpretive prejudices about history and philosophy. Faulkner, for example, disparages "an all-too -common historicism." Bacon may well be more self conscious than a careless reader can perceive. Faulkner acknowledges that the times forced Bacon to disguise his criticism of Christianity by means of literary art, and, citing Lisa Jardine's Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), Faulkner lists some techniques Bacon employed for concealment: "he twists authorities, plays on familiar-sounding notions, quotes misleadingly, makes 'opportunistic' use of myths to 'communicate precepts in persuasive form,' and takes care to manipulate the ear's proclivities for pleasant sounds. But beneath it all is arrangement and calculation, 'every move' in a discourse, according to Jardine, being 'planned so as to insinuate the desired conclusion into the mind of the audience'"(p. 31).

There are two quite simple reasons for the poor treatment Bacon has received. The first reason (which is addressed later) is that Bacon deliberately made his books difficult to understand by his acroamatic writing: Bacon, like all true political philosophers, wrote esoterically and this immediately poses a problem for interpretation. The second is based on the dominant opinions about Bacon the man: someone viewed as corrupt, obsequious, and sleazy is not readily approached as though he might be able to teach us what we desperately need to know. Instead, it is typically more gratifying to feel superior to famous people of dubious morality and intellect. Psychologically, this issue must be dealt with first. Mathews mounts an attack on this common perception with her scrutiny of the evidence surrounding the charges repeatedly leveled against Bacon; her examination concludes that the ignominy slapped upon Bacon constitutes an unjust character assassination.

For over a century, Bacon's position in the history of modernity has been controversial. This is partly due to the specialization endemic to academia which makes it virtually impossible for someone academically trained to be educated enough to appreciate the full range of Bacon's thought and work. As Mathews so rightly points out, even many who admire parts of Bacon's philosophy have trouble integrating the whole range of his genius, and thus either are peripherally troubled by the controversies surrounding his life or ignore them. "The few people actively engaged in Baconian scholarship, as one of them put it informally, know perfectly well that nearly all the charges brought against the man and his work 'are misconceived, wrong or plain loopy.' Yet many of these specialists tend to shrug their shoulders. Bacon the man is irrelevant to the particular aspect of Bacon the thinker they are concerned with" (p. 431). Faced with Mathews's big (600-page) book, I too wondered if I wanted to read that much about a man whose life I had been inclined to ignore in the interests of examining his ideas, because "he probably was not a very likable guy." Well, Nieves Mathews has pierced my easy complacency; I must recant every slur on his character that I foolishly repeated over the years--lucky for me and other readers, none of mine are in print.

Mathews's book is painstakingly researched, with over 100 pages of citations (2,072 notes), many compiled of multiple sources. In the course of thirty-four chapters, she details the evidence for and against Bacon, and is apparently conversant with every biography of him. But hers is no mere citation index of biographies, no mere democratic count of the number of times Bacon is praised versus the number of times he is criticized. Mathews recognizes the essential scholarly duty of judgment and evaluation that should be involved in assessing sources before writing a work for unsuspecting readers (who may yet become scholars): "Readers may be forgiven for succumbing to the deceptions practiced upon them by the trained minds who have placed their scholarship at the service of a preconceived image. The best historians have been taken in by the scholarly apparatus with which Abbott and his followers support the deft manipulations whereby Bacon is made to advocate what he deplored and Spedding to express mistrust where he was affirming his belief in Bacon's truthfulness. These unscholarly scholars cite but fail to evaluate the reliability of their sources" (p. 434).

Mathews vindicates Bacon against the charges of treachery to Essex, of fraud and corruption in office, and of being a cold, ambitious, selfish schemer. With regard to Essex, Mathews presents scads of evidence indicating Essex had for years engaged in suspicious if not outright treasonous behavior, and she cites some of Bacon's actual correspondence with Essex, demonstrating that he had cautioned Essex all along. Mathews's most powerful evidence is brought forth in the twelve chapters she devotes to the charges that Bacon was a corrupt chancellor (pp. 89-225). My initial thoughts were, "What can she hope to achieve by way of defense? Didn't Bacon confess?" Well, this is where the story gets exciting.

Among the many parts of the episode Mathews dissects are the irregularities in the trial in the House of Lords; the very irregularity of the "trial" being in the House of Lords; Bacon's apparent "confession" actually being an itemized answer to charges; the inclusion of gifts Bacon never accepted; Coke's flip-flop on some issues; witnesses who were few and guilty; the fact that more than one of the cases had actually been decided against the party who nevertheless gave the customary tip; the fact none of Bacon's decisions were ever overturned, even though the fame of the "trial" encouraged appeals, and several cases were appealed, repeatedly; and the fact that only eight of the charges might even have qualified as instances of accepting gratuities from someone who had a case before the courts. There is much in these twelve chapters worth knowing about the workings of politics.

A reader of Mathews cannot help becoming involved in the twists and turns of the evidence, in the amazing slanders, and in how easy it is to maintain a libelous legend. About a third of the way through, we begin rooting for Bacon, and cheering him on as the evidence against his detractors mounts; we become frustrated by the slander and libel that seem to have a creeping life of their own. Then, about two-thirds of the way through the book, one sits back, recognizing that Mathews must be right: a frightful fraud has been perpetrated in the guise of scholarship, and something is seriously wrong with academia as well as with "historians" such as Macauley, Abbott et. al. if such scholarship continues to be rewarded.

With regard to Bacon's personal dealings, Mathews cites hundreds of sources which contradict the absurd and shameless errors of biographers who repeat the charges as though they were justified. Bacon was not as obsequious as most, and at times he was quite blunt in his criticisms of those in positions of power over him, rebuking Essex, admonishing Buckingham, and exhorting King James, even to the point of telling him to bridle his tongue (pp. 266-80).

Mathews declares that it would take someone with the abilities of Bacon to write the biography of Bacon. Referring to biographer Iris Origo, Mathews describes the duty of the historian: "He must, at least for a time, give up self, and cast his own opinions aside. This is not easy. But if a few trustworthy historians have succeeded so far in giving us a glimpse of the rich reality that Bacon was, it is because, as [Origo] enjoins, they did not drown his voice in their own. ... May Bacon meet with the biographer he deserves" (p. 444). Something similar may be said of Bacon's interpreters.

Faulkner and Weinberger provide an antidote to the other cause of inadequate treatments of Bacon: they acknowledge he was a profound thinker. Bacon, like all politically aware people, knew that we must not speak exactly the same way to everyone--and not only to save our own skins, although that is often justified. But esoteric writing presents what seems at first glance (but only at first glance) an insurmountable problem with interpretation: When have you gone deep enough, and what, if anything, can be taken at face value? The answer, though this is not the place to expound upon it, is that the interpretation must conform to the full requirements of rational coherence. When an author deliberately writes esoterically, he will anticipate that not all readers will understand his deepest teaching. Some will see apparent contradictions and therefore believe themselves superior to the author. Hence the increasing number of shallow debunkers of great philosophers--multiple dwarfs on the giants' backs.

Faulkner's Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress is a wide-ranging book presenting the fruit of his long study of Bacon and modernity. He provides an incisive diagnosis of the critical elements of modernity, and reveals the shallowness of some postmodern and so-called critical-theorist analyses. His is a much more profound understanding. This book elaborates the complex architecture of the interconnected elements of modernity, from the modern state, the reliance on technology, a new psychology with a new view of the human self, a new focus on economics, the administrative state, the management of hopes, the emphasis on security, etc., all essential elements of our modern world. Faulkner analyzes each and unearths their roots (indeed, not only the roots, but various trunks, stems, and even some of the flowers) in Bacon's writings. Therein too, however, lie buried the roots of the angst and nihilism of the modern world.

"Remove the old veils and the tacit but imported premises, and one can discern the gray shades of contemporary nihilism. Does a pursuit of power without limit deconstruct what delimits human being and therefore what defines a life worth living?" (pp. 276-77). Faulkner points to a major problem of modernity. The use of power without a corresponding inquiry into rationally knowable standards to guide change or determine its proper use leads to tyrannical destruction or nihilism. Faulkner finds that Bacon's critique of ancient philosophy, particularly his critique of teleology and of the contemplative life, leads him to this point. Bacon, of course, often defends teleology and contemplation too. His enigmatic style of writing has left many commentators bemused, for it is hard to pin him down. Faulkner argues that whatever seems a defense of antiquity in Bacon's writing is put there by Bacon in order that the "odor" or "scent" of antiquity will appeal to learned lovers of antiquity, who will not find Bacon a harsh antagonist. According to Faulkner, Bacon can thus insinuate his modern teachings under the old veils.

If Bacon disowned everything Aristotelian, as Faulkner argues, then the modern project would have undercut itself; but Faulkner adds, "what seems in contemporary philosophy a crisis of nihilism has its origin in the foundation of modern philosophy. It is then a limited crisis. There remain now as ever paths to serious lives" (p. 277). If Bacon fully believed in the truth of the modernity he launched, then Faulkner sees Bacon involved in two profound contradictions characteristic of that modernity. First, Bacon's argument that observations should be prior to theories seems itself, in key instances, to be based upon theory, not observations: "a theory of nature controls Bacon's decisive observations; it controls what it was supposed to control." His account depends on something that his theory would exclude (p. 274). And second, Faulkner finds Bacon to be involved in a contradiction whenever he ranks human lives, which Bacon does repeatedly: "the gravest difficulty is a reliance on notions of human quality that Bacon's critical epistemology would exclude" (p. 275). "In short, Bacon had to borrow from precritical and prescientific human awareness, moral and intellectual, in order to destroy the authority of morality and ordinary knowing. Intellect, soul, justice, the noble, beauty, friendship, and even life, become but reconstituted shadows, artificial and calculated representations and powers of the self. But the new constructions cannot be extricated from the new criticism. The things that Bacon's theory alleged to be real, such as 'bodies in motion,' 'power,' and the self itself, are in his formulation reducible to but artificial and invented abstractions. The conquest of nature may afflict man's environment, but the most serious effects are on man. However fruitful of human power and the security of human bodies, the projects of progress leads toward an emptiness for human being" (p. 277).

In addition to his penetrating critique of modernity, in his second chapter, "The Art of Enlightenment," Faulkner tantalizingly provides us with the conclusions of his years of studying Bacon's Essays: there is an order to the Essays beneath their apparent disorder, an order that complies with Bacon's great project of progress. This chapter almost irresistibly invites the reader to devote the next few months to Bacon's Essays to see if the threads of the arguments really bear out his interpretation. Faulkner's book may help to promote the activity of philosophy itself, by inciting the reader to return to Bacon and to rethink the issues posed by the Essays. Bacon would not expect more from an interpreter.

Weinberger's book, a new edition of Bacon's The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh, complete with interpretive essay and many valuable annotations, will be of lasting interest to students of history and historiography as well as to political theorists and Bacon scholars. Weinberger's annotations (on average, four to five per page) range from relatively simple glosses, through changes from the Latin edition and notations on the manu******, to Bacon's departures from history or from other historians' accounts.

Weinberger's introduction discusses how to approach a work like this, in which, admittedly, Bacon invented many speeches and often made up historical details. "Likewise, there is no possible corroboration for Bacon's account of Henry's thoughts, material unique to Bacon" (p. 8). Though the History does not conform to modern academic standards of writing history, it would be a mistake to dismiss Bacon upon finding an historical "error" in his History. Thucydides and others have established the utility of writing this kind of history. But how are we to understand Bacon's purposes in creating a Henry superior to the actual King Henry?

"Bacon shows the way to his teaching with his own observations and conclusions, but they are sufficiently incomplete or contradictory as to leave its truth secret and retired, as is appropriate, so he says, for the science of government" (p. 224). Following his own advice about interpreting Bacon--advice rendered plausible by Bacon's own many discussions about the importance of circumspection in political matters--Weinberger examines Bacon's apparent criticism of Henry's shortsightedness, convincingly reveals the several layers of Bacon's text, and shows us what might be at stake in approaching Henry and the History with historicist dogmatism. As Weinberger's detailed examination of the text reveals, we "have reason to doubt the honesty of Bacon's claim about Henry's lack of foresight" (p. 228). The doubts arise from Bacon's own words, but so that it takes careful reading to notice that his Henry is even wiser than he openly says. By tracing out some of the apparently contradictory assessments Bacon makes about Henry, Weinberger provides in his brief but illuminating interpretation, a clear example of how to read Bacon. For instance, if Bacon says that only two courses are prudent, and then Bacon shows that Henry took a third, and things worked out very well, we are invited to rethink the other two courses, as well as the third, and then synthesize them into a new understanding of political prudence. Although Weinberger's entire, densely argued interpretation cannot be presented here, an example might entice a serious student to reread Bacon's History and read Weinberger's essay. In the context of Henry's dealing with conspiracies--a topic likely to attract spirited youth--Weinberger's interpretation of Bacon reveals that the apparent "troubles" in Henry's regime were anything but proof of his shortsightedness. "Bacon tells us not that the conspiracy caught Henry unaware, but rather that he knew of it all along and chose not to follow the obvious course of declaring the testimony of the still-living assassin. ...Instead of simply debunking the rumors, Henry chose to abet them and to penetrate every recess of the conspiracy" (p. 233). "The extraordinary point is that Henry did not dispel the rumors, because his 'nature and customs' inclined him to a 'fashion rather to create doubts than assurance'" (p. 229). Bacon's Henry knew when to aid and abet conspiracies against himself (p. 237). "Bacon shows careful readers that these 'troubles' [in Henry's reign] were intended" (p. 238). We learn an important lesson about people and princes, a lesson that "Henry-as-Bacon- invents-him" already knows.

In agreement with Faulkner (and to some extent with Matthews) Weinberger interprets the History as being an integral part of Bacon's larger project: to bring about progress in the political and social order. Bacon also is not unwittingly under the sway of some ideology of the time: "There is nothing in the History that could be correctly related to a Machiavellian 'paradigm,' unless one begin with the assumption that Bacon was not able to know his own mind" (p. 241). Weinberger says explicitly: "It is possible that a farsighted Bacon could understand modernity more clearly than we do, since, situated at its dawn, he was not himself in the grip of its long-established certainties and habits as thought" (p. 221). Bacon may have understood only too well that at least two accounts of modernity must be provided, one more palatable and hopeful, the other more realistic. As Weinberger puts it, "Bacon thus presents us with two outwardly different future models: the morally familiar world indicated by Henry's laws and the strictly utilitarian world [actually] produced by Henry's laws and policy. The latter is the aim of Bacon's project, and its essence is unmasked by the grim, lobotomized, technological hedonism of the New Atlantis. Because this world to come is at once Bacon's goal and also so repellent, Bacon doubts that the real world to come will ever dispense with the trappings of the more familiar republicanism suggested by Henry's laws. For Bacon, the truth of the world to come will always be at odds with its moral facade" (p. 244). Faulkner suggests something similar; "the image of beneficence to come requires the concealment of dangers that will also come" (p. 55). Mathews, too, points out, "alone among the forerunners of modern science, Bacon had foreseen the potential dangers of man's domination over nature" (p. 411) It seems quite plausible, therefore, that Bacon self consciously made modernity his goal, while aware of its dangers. It seems, to me, that the obvious next question is: Why did Bacon make this his goal? What was his ultimate purpose, and why did he choose to devote his genius and energy to the founding of modernity? Perhaps the modern project, even with its angst and nihilism, was preferable to something else and was required to sustain Bacon's refounding of philosophy.

It seems hazardous to presume that Bacon himself was caught in the contradiction that Faulkner perceives in modernity. Bacon might have escaped that contradiction despite his apparent attack on the ancients. Perhaps Bacon's understanding of nature and of morality fits into neither the materialists' camp nor into textbook Aristotelianism. It may be too simplistic to conclude that the only important dichotomy in philosophy is that of anticontemplative, antiteleological moderns like Machiavelli versus the procontemplation, proteleology ancients like Aristotle and Plato. Bacon may have discerned a rationally coherent alternative to both, and the full range of reasons for esoteric writing (including philosophic reasons as well as political) might account for why he sounds both modern and ancient. I, for one, am unwilling to conclude at this point that there can be no other choice, or no "middle ground," or no mixing and matching. There is, after all, another interfering player on the scene: Christianity. Perhaps Bacon thought Christianity poses unique and serious dangers to philosophy, partly because of its surface ability to co-opt so much Aristotle and Plato. Not every attack on Christianity, however, can be constructed as an attack on ancient philosophy. Bacon with his acroamatic and inimitable style, may have a new, as yet untried, solution to fundamental questions of philosophy. Weinberger directs future scholarship on Bacon toward a promising possibility. In the final pages of his interpretive essay, in what seems to begin a debate between himself and other "intentionalists" (perhaps including Faulkner), Weinberger suggests, without of course having the space to present the case, that perhaps Bacon was not involved in a fundamental contradiction after all.

As Weinberger says after explaining Bacon's elaborate, infolded, and complex argument that Henry did not lack foresight, "Bacon makes it hard to rest easy with the conclusion that his metaphysical teaching about nature and morality was genuinely dogmatic. When we discover an obvious contradiction, we should be prepared to look for a broader teaching or argument that explains the contradiction and makes it disappear" (p. 252). And as Faulkner points out: "Bacon explicitly recommends forms of enigmatic and unmethodical writing. As particular and compact, such techniques have the power to convey and provoke; as compressed, ambiguous, and scattered, they are politic in disguising a strange whole" (p. 28). Bacon's "strange whole" may hold answers to fundamental philosophic questions, answers that have not yet been articulated by any scholar. I suspect that Faulkner is right that the key to understanding the precise difference between Bacon and the ancients does indeed lie in their understandings of philosophy and the contemplative life. And I suspect the key to that difference is that Bacon thinks Aristotle's three categories of knowledge (theoretical, practical and productive) and the notion of "contemplation for its own sake" may not be humanly sustainable (just as the distinction that replaced Aristotle's--pure vs. applied science--breaks down). Yet Bacon may be correct about this. No one, least of all a philosopher, would deny himself the opportunity to act in light of his understanding of what is true about the world. Second, even Aristotle conceded that some knowledge is too important not to use (e.g., military knowledge). And third, knowledge that is discovered "for its own sake" is nevertheless open to being sold to the highest bidder by anyone who learns it (as our science of genetics has made abundantly clear, this can even apply to knowledge of being). Or maybe Bacon disagreed with something else of Aristotle's. He still might be right. Let us investigate further. However much we may be in doubt about answers to the biggest philosophical questions, we must recognize that the possibility of philosophy requires that we can doubt. Bacon certainly deplored what the "christianization" of Aristotle had done to the possibility of philosophy. But Bacon would not likely have thrown out the plates with the dish-water, though he took pains to rinse the suds of Christian dogmatism from the utensils.

Postmodernists and most other historicists will not like these three books, for all three treat Bacon seriously. They portray interpretations of Bacon that seek to grasp his comprehensive vision of the world, as a preliminary step on the route to the question of whether he could have been right.

Robert K. Faulkner, Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress. (Lanham and London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1993, pp. 308. $12.95.)

Nieves Mathews, Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996, pp. xiii, 592. $50.00.)

Jerry Weinberger, Francis Bacon: The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh, a New Edition with Introduction Annotation, and Interpretive Essay. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996, p. 260. $29.95.)


By Heidi D. Studer

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