A cogitative courtier

Francis Bacon
October 9, 1998

In December 1620, the English diplomat Henry Wotton, on a mission to Vienna, wrote to Francis Bacon to acknowledge the safe arrival of three copies of Bacon's Novum Organum (published two months earlier). He is not yet in a position to send his comments, he writes: "Having yet read only the first Book thereof, and a few Aphorismes of the second." For the time being he will content himself with a modest practical contribution to the lord chancellor's scientific project. Wotton had apparently promised Bacon that he would send him reports of interesting scientific matters encountered in the course of his embassy: "I owe your Lordship even by promise (which you are pleased to remember, thereby doubly binding me) some trouble this way: I mean by the commerce of Philosophical experiments, which surely, of all other, is the most ingenious Traffick."

Here is one such piece of philosophical commerce, writes Wotton. He has just visited the famous astronomer Kepler, and there seen a most ingenious invention: "He hath a little black tent, exactly close and dark, save at one hole, about an inch and an half in the Diameter, to which he applies a long perspective-tube, with the convex glasse fitted to the said hole, and the concave taken out at the other end, through which the visible radiations of all the objects without are intromitted falling upon a paper, which is accommodated to receive them. And so he traceth them with his Pen in their natural appearance, turning his little Tent round by degrees till he hath designed the whole aspect of the field." The device could be extremely useful for drawing accurate maps and harbour plans, Wotton adds.

Material like this (which Bacon's 19th-century editor Spedding inexplicably left out of his 12-volume edition) gives us a glimpse of Bacon's actual involvement in the intellectual and technological ferment of emerging 17th-century science. It sits alongside Toby Matthews's letter from Italy, written in 1616 (also omitted by Spedding), reporting to Bacon Galileo's support for Copernican astronomy, and Galileo's respect for Bacon's own work; and the reminiscences of William Harvey (James I's physician, who discovered the circulation of blood) concerning Bacon, his fellow-courtier, and we might guess, conversationalist - who, Harvey claimed, had the cold hazel eyes of the vipers on his dissection table.

Bacon lived two separate but interconnected lives, writes Perez Zagorin as the opening of Francis Bacon: the meditative, reserved life of a philosopher, and the troubled insecure life of a courtier. But there is a third life, of practical and substantial involvement with scientific ideas in all their diversity, that historians of science increasingly recognise as critical to the scientific revolution. This is the bridging agenda, that draws together Bacon's philosophical writings, honed in the context of an active legal and political life (Harvey considered that Bacon wrote philosophy like a lord chancellor), and the wide-ranging natural histories that reveal Bacon's close familiarity with contemporary science and technology.

Zagorin is right in thinking that we need an up-to-date book which takes on the whole sweep of Bacon's interests and commitments. A book able to bring together all we now know about early 17th-century scientific activity with the specific and largely well-documented work of England's lord chancellor, would be timely. We need a book on Bacon that challenges received opinions about his scientific importance the way that Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin's book on the air-pump so memorably did for Boyle - a picture now further clarified by Larry Principe in his brilliant new book on Boyle's alchemy, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest.

In the case of Bacon, unfortunately, his political infamy seems always to draw those who champion his works into elaborate apologetics. (Boyle, by contrast, was such a nice man, his contemporaries all agreed.) Alas, Zagorin is no exception. Old battle lines are drawn up, old anxieties about Bacon's political failures rehearsed. And although Francis Bacon synthesises with skill and considerable elegance the best Bacon studies of 20 years ago (most of which are out of print), its use in the classroom is hampered by its 20-year-old version of science itself, its commitment to the inductive method as the acme of Baconian achievement, and its sidelining of chemistry and biology as not part of the real scientific project.

Zagorin would have us believe that Bacon was an inspired prophet for the 20th century, whose only limitation was his unreasonable optimism: a herald of the future era of modern progress, "he lived too soon to witness the many ironies and paradoxes inherent in the march of progress ... All he could envisage were (its) benefits." With all that historians of science now know, we will need to be persuaded that Bacon framed his grand theory within the context of contemporary scientific practice, in all its vigour and variety, if he is to retain his place - as I believe he should - as one of the founding fathers of modern science.

Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance studies, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

Francis Bacon

Author - Perez Zagorin
ISBN - 0 691 05928 4
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 280

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