The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon's Thought

The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon's Thought Source: The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon's Thought. By: Ruse, Michael, Church History, 00096407, Jun2007, Vol. 76, Issue 2
Section: BOOK REVIEWS AND NOTES The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon's Thought.
By Stephen A. McKnight. Eric Voegelin Institute Series
in Political Philosophy: Studies in Religion and Politics.
Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 2006.
xvi + 195 pp. $37.50 cloth.

Stephen A. McKnight begins his book on Francis Bacon with a nice phrase (openly borrowed from another scholar). Too often, he tells us, Bacon is read in the "future indicative." By this, he means that we read Bacon from the present rather than in the context of his own time. Historians of science would tell us that our problem is "Whiggish" history, namely seeing Bacon as a step--a major step--on the progressive way to the present (where all is truth and light) rather than as a man of the early seventeenth century (where all was certainly not truth and light). McKnight reverses things in spades, as one might say, as he interprets the philosopher as a man obsessed with biblical ideas--ideas that seem truly to have come from that wildly popular bestseller, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1995), by prophecy scholar Dr. Tim LaHaye and his co-author Jerry B. Jenkins.

In all, McKnight--whose refreshing perspective reflects the fact that he is a cultural historian rather than a philosopher of science--sees four major, biblical motives underlying and informing Bacon's thought. First is the notion of "instauration," a concept with strong apocalyptic vibes, meaning the restoration of humankind to its prelapsarian (before the Fall) state of being. Second, is the idea of providential intervention--God can move right in and do things when He deems necessary. Third, there is what McKnight calls "vocation," this being Bacon's belief that he himself had been called upon by God to inform humankind of the state of play, tools needed for improvement, and the future, namely one of great harmony and wisdom compared to what had been before. Fourth and finally, there is the need of Christian charity to eliminate want and poverty and materialism.

To make his case, McKnight takes us on a close reading through the major works of Bacon, both those published in his lifetime and those unpublished (although sometimes widely circulated and, with reason, often considered preliminary versions of later, published works). McKnight's aim throughout is to draw attention to Bacon's commitment to a literalist reading of Genesis-particularly of Eden and the Fall--to apocalyptic and soteriological (salvation) themes in the New Testament, and to that hodgepodge of ideas then popular, focusing on magic, alchemy, Hermeticism, neo-Platonism, Jewish mysticism, and so forth (the sort of stuff of which the unreferenced, late Frances Yates made so much in her studies of the period).

We start with the New Atlantis (published in 1626). The theme is very much one of a perfect state that has been lost. The hodgepodge of ideas is collectively known as the prisca theologia and refers to the belief that the Hebrew Prophets were holders of ancient wisdom. Supposedly, this wisdom was then transferred to the great Greek philosophers, and hence it furnishes appropriate tools and information towards the understanding of the story of salvation in the New Testament. For Bacon, what we have are the Wisdom of Solomon and the state beneath him, the references to a lost Atlantis in the Greek philosophers, and the possibility of renewal and rebuilding in the near future. The underlying belief is in some esoteric wisdom that will command nature to obey and return us all to a state of being that existed before the Fall.

Next we move on to the Great Instauration, a work (eventually appearing in a much shorter form than first envisioned) that focuses on the theory of knowledge (epistemology) and methodology. McKnight sees this as part of Bacon's program to tear down the misleading methods we have today and to prepare the way for a better, more esoteric form of understanding. After this comes treatment of the New Organon (like the Great Instauration, published in 1620). Here we have continued emphasis on epistemological and methodological issues, but again argues McKnight, truly it too should be seen as part of Bacon's program for preparing the way for a new existence---a new existence as promised in the revelatory passages of the New Testament. In other words, the apocalyptic motives must be made the first source of understanding of what is written and proposed.

Concluding the discussion, McKnight then turns to some of Bacon's earlier works, published between 1603 and 1609. These include the Advancement of Learning, the Wisdom of the Ancients, and others. Here McKnight finds nothing very much that he has not already uncovered but feels that often these writings say more clearly or sharply ideas that in the later works are presented in more veiled or subtle fashions. Since these works appeared shortly after the crowning of James I as King of England, expectedly we find references to the way in which James is like Solomon and how Bacon's epistemological reforms are going to prepare the way for the New Jerusalem. The predictions of the Apocalypse will come to be.

This is all fascinating reading and will surely have to be considered in any future study not only of Bacon himself but of the ways of the scientific revolution. I suppose my question--as a historian and philosopher of science---is how did things happen in the future? If Bacon was such a man of his time, then how did the present come to be? Was there nevertheless that in what Bacon wrote that--almost despite himself--the modern way of thinking triumphed? In other words, what I am really suggesting is that McKnight has given us only half of the picture. (He might agree but insist that his half must be told.) Now that we have Bacon as a man of his time, what is needed is a full picture of how Bacon is also a man of our time. We still need to speak to that "future indicative"!


By Michael Ruse, Florida State University

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