Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of Lord Bacon at Home.

The history of Lord Bacon would be that of the intellectual faculties, and a theme so worthy of the philosophical biographer remains yet to be written. The personal narrative of this master-genius or inventor must for ever be separated from the scala intellectûs he was perpetually ascending: and the domestic history of this creative mind must be consigned to the most humiliating chapter in the volume of human life; a chapter already sufficiently enlarged, and which has irrefutably proved how the greatest minds are not freed from the infirmities of the most vulgar.

The parent of our philosophy is now to be considered in a new light, one which others do not appear to have observed. My researches into contemporary notices of Bacon have often convinced me that his philosophical works, in his own days and among his own countrymen, were not only not comprehended, but often ridiculed, and sometimes reprobated; that they were the occasion of many slights and mortifications which this depreciated man endured; but that from a very early period in his life, to that last record of his feelings which appears in his will, this “servant of posterity,” as he prophetically called himself, sustained his mighty spirit with the confidence of his own posthumous greatness. Bacon cast his views through the maturity of ages, and perhaps amidst the sceptics and the rejectors of his plans, may have felt at times all that idolatry of fame, which has now consecrated his philosophical works.

At college, Bacon discovered how “that scrap of Grecian knowledge, the peripatetic philosophy,” and the scholastic babble, could not serve the ends and purposes of knowledge; that syllogisms were not things, and that a new logic might teach us to invent and judge by induction. He found that theories were to be built upon experiments. When a young man, abroad, he began to make those observations on nature, which afterwards led on to the foundations of the new philosophy. At sixteen, he philosophised; at twenty-six, he had framed his system into some form; and after forty years of continued labours, unfinished to his last hour, he left behind him sufficient to found the great philosophical reformation.

On his entrance into active life, study was not however his prime object. With his fortune to make, his court connexions and his father’s example opened a path for ambition. He chose the practice of common law as his means, while his inclinations were looking upwards to political affairs as his end. A passion for study, however, had strongly marked him; he had read much more than was required in his professional character, and this circumstance excited the mean jealousies of the minister Cecil, and the Attorney-General Coke. Both were mere practical men of business, whose narrow conceptions and whose stubborn habits assume that whenever a man acquires much knowledge foreign to his profession, he will know less of professional knowledge than he ought. These men of strong minds, yet limited capacities, hold in contempt all studies alien to their habits.

Bacon early aspired to the situation of Solicitor-General; the court of Elizabeth was divided into factions; Bacon adopted the interests of the generous Essex, which were inimical to the party of Cecil. The queen, from his boyhood, was delighted by conversing with her “young lord-keeper,” as she early distinguished the precocious gravity and the ingenious turn of mind of the future philosopher. It was unquestionably to attract her favour, that Bacon presented to the queen his “Maxims and Elements of the Common Law,” not published till after his death. Elizabeth suffered her minister to form her opinions on the legal character of Bacon. It was alleged that Bacon was addicted to more general pursuits than law, and the miscellaneous books which he was known to have read confirmed the accusation. This was urged as a reason why the post of Solicitor-General should not be conferred on a man of speculation, more likely to distract than to direct her affairs. Elizabeth, in the height of that political prudence which marked her character, was swayed by the vulgar notion of Cecil, and believed that Bacon, who afterwards filled the situation both of Solicitor-General and Lord Chancellor, was “a man rather of show than of depth.” We have recently been told by a great lawyer that “Bacon was a master.”

On the accession of James the First, when Bacon still found the same party obstructing his political advancement, he appears, in some momentary fit of disgust, to have meditated on a retreat into a foreign country; a circumstance which has happened to several of our men of genius, during a fever of solitary indignation. He was for some time thrown out of the sunshine of life, but he found its shade more fitted for contemplation; and, unquestionably, philosophy was benefited by his solitude at Gray’s Inn. His hand was always on his work, and better thoughts will find an easy entrance into the mind of those who feed on their thoughts, and live amidst their reveries. In a letter on this occasion, he writes, “My ambition now I shall only put upon my pen, whereby I shall be able to maintain memory and merit, of the times succeeding.” And many years after, when he had finally quitted public life, he told the king, “I would live to study, and not study to live: yet I am prepared for date obolum Belisario; and, I that have borne a bag, can bear a wallet.”

Ever were the times succeeding in his mind. In that delightful Latin letter to Father Fulgentio, where, with the simplicity of true grandeur, he takes a view of all his works, and in which he describes himself as “one who served posterity,” in communicating his past and his future designs, he adds that ”they require some ages for the ripening of them.” There, while he despairs of finishing what was intended for the sixth part of his Instauration, how nobly he despairs! “Of the perfecting this I have cast away all hopes; but in future ages, perhaps, the design may bud again.” And he concludes by avowing, that the zeal and constancy of his mind in the great design, after so many years, had never become cold and indifferent. He remembers how, forty years ago, he had composed a juvenile work about those things, which with confidence, but with too pompous a title, he had called Temporis Partus Maximus; the great birth of time! Besides the public dedication of his Novum Organum to James the First, he accompanied it with a private letter. He wishes the king’s favour to the work, which he accounts as much as a hundred years’ time; for he adds, “I am persuaded the work will gain upon men’s minds in ages.”

In his last will appears his remarkable legacy of fame. “My name and memory I leave to foreign nations, and to mine own countrymen, after some time be past over.” Time seemed always personated in the imagination of our philosopher, and with time he wrestled with a consciousness of triumph.

I shall now bring forward sufficient evidence to prove how little Bacon was understood, and how much he was even despised, in his philosophical character.

In those prescient views by which the genius of Verulam has often anticipated the institutions and the discoveries of succeeding times, there was one important object which even his foresight does not appear to have contemplated. Lord Bacon did not foresee that the English language would one day be capable of embalming all that philosophy can discover, or poetry can invent; that his country would at length possess a national literature of its own, and that it would exult in classical compositions which might be appreciated with the finest models of antiquity. His taste was far unequal to his invention. So little did he esteem the language of his country, that his favourite works are composed in Latin; and he was anxious to have what he had written in English preserved in that “universal language which may last as long as books last.” It would have surprised Bacon to have been told, that the most learned men in Europe have studied English authors to learn to think and to write. Our philosopher was surely somewhat mortified, when in his dedication of the Essays he observed, that “of all my other works my Essays have been most current; for that, as it seems, they come home to men’s business and bosoms.” It is too much to hope to find in a vast and profound inventor a writer also who bestows immortality on his language. The English language is the only object in his great survey of art and of nature, which owes nothing of its excellence to the genius of Bacon.

He had reason indeed to be mortified at the reception of his philosophical works; and Dr. Rawley, even some years after the death of his illustrious master, had occasion to observe, that “His fame is greater and sounds louder in foreign parts abroad than at home in his own nation”; thereby verifying that divine sentence, a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country and in his own house. Even the men of genius, who ought to have comprehended this new source of knowledge thus opened to them, reluctantly entered into it; so repugnant are we suddenly to give up ancient errors which time and habit have made a part of ourselves. Harvey, who himself experienced the sluggish obstinacy of the learned, which repelled a great but a novel discovery, could, however, in his turn deride the amazing novelty of Bacon’s Novum Organum. Harvey said to Aubrey, that “Bacon was no great philosopher; he writes philosophy like a lord chancellor.” It has been suggested to me that Bacon’s philosophical writings have been much overrated. — His experimental philosophy from the era in which they were produced must be necessarily defective: the time he gave to them could only have been had at spare hours; but like the great prophet on the mount, Bacon was doomed to view the land afar, which he himself could never enter.

Bacon found but small encouragement for his new learning among the most eminent scholars, to whom he submitted his early discoveries. A very copious letter by Sir Thomas Bodley on Bacon’s desiring him to return the manuscript of the Cogitata et Visa, some portion of the Novum Organum, has come down to us; it is replete with objections to the new philosophy. “I am one of that crew,” says Sir Thomas, “that say we possess a far greater holdfast of certainty in the sciences than you will seem to acknowledge.” He gives a hint too that Solomon complained “of the infinite making of books in his time;” that all Bacon delivers is only “by averment without other force of argument, to disclaim all our axioms, maxims, &c., left by tradition from our elders unto us, which have passed all probations of the sharpest wits that ever were;” and he concludes that the end of all Bacon’s philosophy, by “a fresh creating new principles of sciences, would be to be dispossessed of the learning we have;” and he fears that it would require as many ages as have marched before us that knowledge should be perfectly achieved. Bodley truly compares himself to “the carrier’s horse which cannot blanch the beaten way in which I was trained.”1

Bacon did not lose heart by the timidity of the “carrier’s horse:” a smart vivacious note in return shows his quick apprehension.

“As I am going to my house in the country, I shall want my papers, which I beg you therefore to return. You are slothful, and you help me nothing, so that I am half in conceit you affect not the argument; for myself I know well you love and affect. I can say no more, but non canimus surdis, respondent omnia sylvæ. If you be not of the lodgings chalked up, whereof I speak in my preface, I am but to pass by your door. But if I had you a fortnight at Gorhambury, I would make you tell another tale; or else I would add a cogitation against libraries, and be revenged on you that way.”

A keen but playful retort of a great author too conscious of his own views to be angry with his critic! The singular phrase of the lodgings chalked up is a sarcasm explained by this passage in “The Advancement of Learning.” “As Alexander Borgia was wont to say of the expedition of the French for Naples, that they came with chalk in their hands to mark up their lodgings, and not with weapons to fight; so I like better that entry of truth that cometh peaceably with chalk to mark up those minds which are capable to lodge and harbour it, than that which cometh with pugnacity and contention.”2 The threatened agitation against libraries must have caused Bodley’s cheek to tingle.

Let us now turn from the scholastic to the men of the world, and we shall see what sort of notion these critics entertained of the philosophy of Bacon. Chamberlain writes, “This week the lord chancellor hath set forth his new work, called Instauratio Magna, or a kind of Novum Organum of all philosophy. In sending it to the king, he wrote that he wished his majesty might be so long in reading it as he hath been in composing and polishing it, which is well near thirty years. I have read no more than the bare title, and am not greatly encouraged by Mr. Cuffe’s judgment,3 who having long since perused it, gave this censure, that a fool could not have written such a work, and a wise man would not.” A month or two afterwards we find that “the king cannot forbear sometimes in reading the lord chancellor’s last book to say, that it is like the peace of God, that surpasseth all understanding.

Two years afterwards the same letter-writer proceeds with another literary paragraph about Bacon. “This lord busies himself altogether about books, and hath set out two lately, Historia Ventorum and De Vitâ et Morte, with promise of more. I have yet seen neither of them, because I have not leisure; but if the Life of Henry the Eighth (the Seventh), which they say he is about, might come out after his own manner (meaning his Moral Essays), I should find time and means enough to read it.” When this history made its appearance, the same writer observes, “My Lord Verulam’s history of Henry the Seventh is come forth; I have not read much of it, but they say it is a very pretty book.”4

Bacon, in his vast survey of human knowledge, included even its humbler provinces, and condescended to form a collection of apophthegms: his lordship regretted the loss of a collection made by Julius Cæsar, while Plutarch indiscriminately drew much of the dregs. The wits, who could not always comprehend his plans, ridiculed the sage. I shall now quote a contemporary poet, whose works, for by their size they may assume that distinction, were never published. A Dr. Andrews wasted a sportive pen on fugitive events; but though not always deficient in humour and wit, such is the freedom of his writings, that they will not often admit of quotation. The following is indeed but a strange pun on Bacon’s title, derived from the town of St. Albans and his collection of apophthegms:—

On Lord Bacon publishing apophthegms

When learned Bacon wrote Essays,

He did deserve and hath the praise;

But now he writes his Apophthegms,

Surely he dozes or he dreams;

One said, St. Albans now is grown unable,

And is in the high-road way — to Dunstable [i. e., Dunce-table.]

To the close of his days were Lord Bacon’s philosophical pursuits still disregarded and depreciated by ignorance and envy, in the forms of friendship or rivality. I shall now give a remarkable example. Sir Edward Coke was a mere great lawyer, and, like all such, had a mind so walled in by law-knowledge, that in its bounded views it shut out the horizon of the intellectual faculties, and the whole of his philosophy lay in the statutes. In the library at Holkham there will be found a presentation copy of Lord Bacon’s Novum Organum, the Instauratio Magna, 1620. It was given to Coke, for it bears the following note on the title-page, in the writing of Coke:—

Edw. Coke, Ex dono authoris,

Auctori consilium

Instaurare paras veterum documenta sophorum

Instaura leges, justitiamque prius.

The verses not only reprove Bacon for going out of his profession, but must have alluded to his character as a prerogative lawyer, and his corrupt administration of the chancery. The book was published in October, 1620, a few months before his impeachment. And so far one may easily excuse the causticity of Coke; but how he really valued the philosophy of Bacon appears by this: in this first edition there is a device of a ship passing between Hercules’s pillars; the plus ultra, the proud exultation of our philosopher. Over this device Coke has written a miserable distich in English, which marks his utter contempt of the philosophical pursuits of his illustrious rival. This ship passing beyond the columns of Hercules he sarcastically conceits as “The Ship of Fools,” the famous satire of the German Sebastian Brandt, translated by Alexander Barclay.

It deserveth not to be read in schools,

But to be freighted in the Ship of Fools.

Such then was the fate of Lord Bacon; a history not written by his biographers, but which may serve as a comment on that obscure passage dropped from the pen of his chaplain, and already quoted, that he was more valued abroad than at home.

1 This letter may be found in Reliquiæ Bodleianæ, p. 369.

2 I have been favoured with this apt illustration by an anonymous communicator, who dates from the “London University.” I request him to accept my grateful acknowledgments.

3 Henry Cuffe, secretary to Robert, Earl of Essex, and executed, being concerned in his treason. A man noted for his classical acquirements and his genius, who perished early in life.

4 Chamberlain adds the price of this moderate-sized folio, which was six shillings. It would be worth the while of some literary student to note the prices of our earlier books, which are often found written upon them by their original possessor. A rare tract first purchased for twopence has often realized four guineas or more in modern days.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53