An Appreciation of Francis Bacon

By Portmann, John | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

An Appreciation of Francis Bacon

Portmann, John, The Virginia Quarterly Review



Francis Bacon. By Perez Zagorin. Princeton. $29.95

In the sumptuously appointed Master's Lodge of Trinity College, Cambridge University hang adjacent to one another portraits of Francis Bacon and Elizabeth I. This proximity would have caused some pain to Bacon, one of Trinity's most illustrious graduates. For it was the fabled British monarch Elizabeth who in large part caused Bacon the series of deep disappointments around which his life took shape. It was also she who unknowingly caused him to plumb the darker side of the human condition and advance learning so decisively as to justify yet another critical study of Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

Who was Francis Bacon? And do we need bother asking in order to accept or simply appreciate his works? Many have stepped up to the bat to answer these questions. In a masterfully concise 24 pages, Perez Zagorin handles both questions in his introduction to an exhaustively researched and impressively accessible new study. The early death of Bacon's father, coupled with the absence of a significant inheritance for his widow and two children, left the plainly brilliant young Francis in the predicament of having to work for a living. Like his father, Francis chose to earn his living as a courtier in royal service, one dependent upon the good will of the queen. Law was Francis's chosen profession, philosophy and science his passion.

Bacon continues to help us with his astute advice on how to compete for social advantage, power, and the gifts of fortune. Conception of this advice seemed to come easier than its execution, however, for Bacon's unfortunate schemes for self-advancement in the crown's service (aggrandizing himself through craft, flattery, and displaying himself in the best possible light) rarely worked. Alas, those whom Bacon sought to flatter and manipulate (including the queen herself) sometimes saw through his artifice and punished him for it. Similarities of Machiavelli's biography spring to mind while reading through this introduction. Zagorin shows us that despite Bacon's rejection of Machiavelli's famously immoral standpoint, the Englishman's thought reflects the influence of the Italian. Bacon shared the Florentine theorist's instrumental approach to human affairs and his calculated appraisal of means. No less than the latter did he insist on accommodation to times and circumstances as the pathway to success. In the advice Bacon gave to those who aspired to rise socially, he recommended masking and role-playing, the manipulation of others, and a dissimulation that could easily become outright dishonesty. It is gospel Machiavelli.

As he matured, Bacon came to understand the anguished cry of Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII: "Wretched is the man who hangs upon a prince for favors!" Zagorin concludes that the tragedy of Bacon's life in politics was that he was compelled to humble himself repeatedly to intellectually inferior men in order to survive in the royal court. Zagorin's point in combining biography with critical exegesis is well taken. "Bacon was never a detached philosopher contemplating the human or natural world from a haven of serene seclusion. His political career, with its many frustrations, disappointments, and constant dependency on more powerful men, left deep traces on his personality. It also had a significant effect in shaping his outlook on man and society, giving to his thought in this domain its extreme worldliness, its markedly prudential character, and its preoccupation with success and the creation of one's own fortune." These frustrations hold a gossipy appeal that Zagorin negotiates tactfully. Bacon's coldly judgmental mother, whose Puritan zeal he did not share, suspected both of her sons of harboring desires to know the bodies of other men, apparently with good reason. Where other biographers have focused on this aspect of Bacon's personality, Zagorin judiciously allows the question only in order to ponder what effect homosexual activity and its necessary denial might have had on Bacon's advice to us for effective self-promotion. …

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