But why should we have recourse to any other evidence, when the proceeding
against Lord Bacon is itself the best evidence on the subject? When Mr. Montagu
tells us that we ought not to transfer the opinions of our age to Bacon's age,
he appears altogether to forget that it was by men of Bacon's own age, that
Bacon was prosecuted, tried, convicted, and sentenced. Did not they know what
their own opinions were? Did not they know whether they thought the taking of
gifts by a judge a crime or not? Mr. Montagu complains bitterly that Bacon was
induced to abstain from making a defense. But, if Bacon's defense resembled that
which is made for him in the volume before us, it would have been unnecessary to
trouble the Houses with it. The Lords and Commons did not want Bacon to tell
them the thoughts of their own hearts, to inform them that they did not consider
such practices as those in which they had detected him as at all culpable. Mr.
Montagu's proposition may indeed be fairly stated thus:--It was very hard that
Bacon's contemporaries should think it wrong in him to do what they did not
think it wrong in him to do. Hard indeed; and withal somewhat improbable. Will
any person say that the Commons who impeached Bacon for taking presents, and the
Lords who sentenced him to fine, imprisonment, and degradation for taking
presents, did not know that the taking of presents was a crime? Or, will any
person say that Bacon did not know what the whole House of Commons and the whole
House of Lords knew? Nobody who is not prepared to maintain one of these absurd
propositions can deny that Bacon committed what he knew to be a crime.
It cannot be pretended that the Houses were seeking occasion to ruin Bacon, and
that they therefore brought him to punishment on charges which they themselves
knew to be frivolous. In no quarter was there the faintest indication of a
disposition to treat him harshly. Through the whole proceeding there was no
symptom of personal animosity or of factious violence in either House. Indeed,
we will venture to say that no State-Trial in our History is more creditable to
all who took part in it, either as prosecutors or judges. The decency, the
gravity, the public spirit, the justice moderated but not unnerved by
compassion, which appeared in every part of the transaction, would do honor to
the most respectable public men of our own times. The accusers, while they
discharged their duty to their constituents by bringing the misdeeds of the
Chancellor to light, spoke with admiration of his many eminent qualities. The
Lords, while condemning him, complimented him on the ingenuousness of his
confession, and spared him the humiliation of a public appearance at their bar.
So strong was the contagion of good feeling that even Sir Edward Coke, for the
first time in his life, behaved like a gentleman. No criminal ever had more
temperate prosecutors than Bacon. No criminal ever had more favorable judges. If
he was convicted, it was because it was impossible to acquit him without
offering the grossest outrage to justice and common sense.
Mr. Montagu's other argument, namely, that Bacon, though he took gifts, did not
take bribes, seems to us as futile as that which we have considered. Indeed, we
might be content to leave it to be answered by the plainest man among our
readers. Demosthenes noticed it with contempt more than two thousand years ago.
Latimer, we have seen, treated this sophistry with similar disdain. "Leave
coloring," said he, "and call these things by their Christian name, bribes." Mr.
Montagu attempts, somewhat unfairly, we must say, to represent the presents
which Bacon received as similar to the perquisites which suitors paid to the
members of the Parliaments of France. The French magistrate had a legal right to
his fee; and the amount of the fee was regulated by law. Whether this be a good
mode of remunerating judges is not the question. But what analogy is there
between payments of this sort, and the presents which Bacon received, presents
which were not sanctioned by the law, which were not made under the public eye,
and of which the amount was regulated only by private bargain between the
magistrate and the suitor?
Again, it is mere trifling to say that Bacon could not have meant to act
corruptly, because he employed the agency of men of rank, of bishops, privy
councilors, and members of Parliament; as if the whole history of that
generation was not full of the low actions of high people; as if it was not
notorious that men, as exalted in rank as any of the decoys that Bacon employed,
had pimped for Somerset, and poisoned Overbury.
But, says Mr. Montagu, these presents "were made openly and with the greatest
publicity." This would indeed be a strong argument in favor of Bacon. But we
deny the fact. In one, and one only, of the cases in which Bacon was accused of
corruptly receiving gifts, does he appear to have received a gift publicly. This
was in a matter depending between the Company of Apothecaries and the Company of
Grocers. Bacon, in his Confession, insisted strongly on the circumstance that he
had on this occasion taken a present publicly, as a proof that he had not taken
it corruptly. Is it not clear that, if he had taken the presents mentioned in
the other charges in the same public manner, he would have dwelt on this point
in his answer to those charges? The fact that he insists so strongly on the
publicity of one particular present is of itself sufficient to prove that the
other presents were not publicly taken. Why he took this present publicly and
the rest secretly, is evident. He on that occasion acted openly, because he was
acting honestly. He was not on that occasion sitting judicially. He was called
in to effect an amicable arrangement between two parties. Both were satisfied
with his decision. Both joined in making him a present in return for his
trouble. Whether it was quite delicate in a man of his rank to accept a present
under such circumstances, may be questioned. But there is no ground in this case
for accusing him of corruption.
Unhappily, the very circumstances which prove him to have been innocent in this
case prove him to have been guilty on the other charges. Once, and once only, he
alleges that he received a present publicly. The natural inference is that in
all the other cases mentioned in the articles against him he received presents
secretly. When we examine the single case in which he alleges that he received a
present publicly, we find that it is also the single case in which there was no
gross impropriety in his receiving a present. Is it then possible to doubt that
his reason for not receiving other presents in as public a manner was that he
knew that it was wrong to receive them?
One argument still remains, plausible in appearance, but admitting of easy and
complete refutation. The two chief complainants, Aubrey and Egerton, had both
made presents to the Chancellor. But he had decided against them both.
Therefore, he had not received those presents as bribes. "The complaints of his
accusers were," says Mr. Montagu, "not that the gratuities had, but that they
had not influenced Bacon's judgment, as he had decided against them."
The truth is, that it is precisely in this way that an extensive system of
corruption is generally detected. A person who, by a bribe, has procured a
decree in his favor, is by no means likely to come forward of his own accord as
an accuser. He is content. He has his quid pro quo. He is not impelled either by
interested or by vindictive motives to bring the transaction before the public.
On the contrary, he has almost as strong motives for holding his tongue as the
judge himself can have. But when a judge practices corruption, as we fear that
Bacon practiced it, on a large scale, and has many agents looking out in
different quarters for prey, it will sometimes happen that he will be bribed on
both sides. It will sometimes happen that he will receive money from suitors who
are so obviously in the wrong that he cannot with decency do anything to serve
them. Thus he will now and then be forced to pronounce against a person from
whom he has received a present; and he makes that person a deadly enemy. The
hundreds who have got what they paid for remain quiet. It is the two or three
who have paid, and have nothing to show for their money, who are noisy.
The memorable case of the Goezmans is an example of this. Beaumarchais had an
important suit depending before the Parliament of Paris. M. Goezman was the
judge on whom chiefly the decision depended. It was hinted to Beaumarchais that
Madame Goezman might be propitiated by a present. He accordingly offered a purse
of gold to the lady, who received it graciously. There can be no doubt that, if
the decision of the court had been favorable to him, these things would never
have been known to the world. But he lost his cause. Almost the whole sum which
he had expended in bribery was immediately refunded; and those who had
disappointed him probably thought that he would not, for the mere gratification
of his malevolence, make public a transaction which was discreditable to himself
as well as to them. They knew little of him. He soon taught them to curse the
day in which they had dared to trifle with a man of so revengeful and turbulent
a spirit, of such dauntless effrontery, and of such eminent talents for
controversy and satire. He compelled the Parliament to put a degrading stigma on
M. Goezman. He drove Madame Goezman to a convent. Till it was too late to pause,
his excited passions did not suffer him to remember that he could effect their
ruin only by disclosures ruinous to himself. We could give other instances. But
it is needless. No person well acquainted with human nature can fail to perceive
that, if the doctrine for which Mr. Montagu contends were admitted, society
would be deprived of almost the only chance which it has of detecting the
corrupt practices of judges.
We return to our narrative. The sentence of Bacon had scarcely been pronounced
when it was mitigated. He was indeed sent to the Tower. But this was merely a
form. In two days he was set at liberty, and soon after he retired to
Gorhambury. His fine was speedily released by the Crown.
He was next suffered to present himself at Court; and at length, in 1624, the
rest of his punishment was remitted. He was now at liberty to resume his seat in
the House of Lords, and he was actually summoned to the next Parliament. But
age, infirmity, and perhaps shame, prevented him from attending. The Government
allowed him a pension of twelve hundred pounds a year; and his whole annual
income is estimated by Mr. Montagu at two thousand five hundred pounds, a sum
which. was probably above the average income of a nobleman of that generation,
and which was certainly sufficient for comfort and even for splendor. Unhappily,
Bacon was fond of display, and unused to pay minute attention to domestic
affairs. He was not easily persuaded to give up any part of the magnificence to
which he had been accustomed in the time of his power and prosperity. No
pressure of distress could induce him to part with the woods of Gorhambury. "I
will not," he said, "be stripped of my feathers." He traveled with so splendid
an equipage and so large a retinue that Prince Charles, who once fell in with
him on the road, exclaimed with surprise, "Well; do what we can, this man scorns
to go out in snuff." This carelessness and ostentation reduced Bacon to frequent
distress. He was under the necessity of parting with York House, and of taking
up his residence, during his visits to London, at his old chambers in Gray's
Inn. He had other vexations, the exact nature of which is unknown. It is evident
from his will that some part of his wife's conduct had greatly disturbed and
But, whatever might be his pecuniary difficulties or his conjugal discomforts,
the powers of his intellect still remained undiminished. Those noble studies for
which he had found leisure in the midst of professional drudgery and of courtly
intrigues gave to this last sad stage of his life a dignity beyond what power or
titles could bestow. Impeached, convicted, sentenced, driven with ignominy from
the presence of his Sovereign, shut out from the deliberations of his fellow
nobles, loaded with debt, branded with dishonor, sinking under the weight of
years, sorrows, and diseases, Bacon was Bacon still. "My conceit of his person,"
says Ben Jonson very finely, "was never increased towards him by his place or
honors; but I have and do reverence him for the greatness that was only proper
to himself; in that he seemed to me ever, by his work, one of the greatest men
and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages. In his adversity I
ever prayed that God would give him strength; for greatness he could not want."
The services which Bacon rendered to letters during the last five years of his
life, amidst ten thousand distractions and vexations, increase the regret with
which we think on the many years which he had wasted, to use the words of Sir
Thomas Bodley, "on such study as was not worthy of such a student." He commenced
a Digest of the Laws of England, a History of England under the Princes of the
House of Tudor, a body of Natural History, a Philosophical Romance. He made
extensive and valuable additions to his Essays. He published the inestimable
Treatise De Augmentis Scientiarum. The very trifles with which he amused himself
in hours of pain and languor bore the mark of his mind. The best collection of
jests in the world is that which he dictated from memory, without referring to
any book, on a day on which illness had rendered him incapable of serious study.
The great apostle of experimental philosophy was destined to be its martyr. It
had occurred to him that snow might be used with advantage for the purpose of
preventing animal substances from putrefying. On a very cold day, early in the
spring of the year 1626, he alighted from his coach near Highgate, in order to
try the experiment. He went into a cottage, bought a fowl, and with his own
hands stuffed it with snow. While thus engaged he felt a sudden chill, and was
soon so much indisposed that it was impossible for him to return to Gray's Inn.
The Earl of Arundel, with whom he was well acquainted, had a house at Highgate.
To that house Bacon was carried. The Earl was absent; but the servants who were
in charge of the place showed great respect and attention to the illustrious
guest. Here, after an illness of about a week, he expired early on the morning
of Easter-day, 1626. His mind appears to have retained its strength and
liveliness to the end. He did not forget the fowl which had caused his death. In
the last letter that he ever wrote, with fingers which, as he said, could not
steadily hold a pen, he did not omit to mention that the experiment of the snow
had succeeded "excellently well."
Our opinion of the moral character of this great man has already been
sufficiently explained. Had his life been passed in literary retirement, he
would, in all probability, have deserved to be considered, not only as a great
philosopher, but as a worthy and good-natured member of society. But neither his
principles nor his spirit were such as could be trusted, when strong temptations
were to be resisted, and serious dangers to be braved.
In his will he expressed with singular brevity, energy, dignity, and pathos, a
mournful consciousness that his actions had not been such as to entitle him to
the esteem of those under whose observation his life had been passed, and, at
the same time, a proud confidence that his writings had secured for him a high
and permanent place among the benefactors of mankind. So at least we understand
those striking words which have been often quoted, but which we must quote once
more. "For my name and memory, I leave it to men's charitable speeches, and to
foreign nations, and to the next age."
His confidence was just. From the day of his death his fame has been constantly
and steadily progressive; and we have no doubt that his name will be named with
reverence to the latest ages, and to the remotest ends of the civilized world.
The chief peculiarity of Bacon's philosophy seems to us to have been this, that
it aimed at things altogether different from those which his predecessors had
proposed to themselves. This was his own opinion. " Finis scientiarum," says he,
"a nemine adhuc bene positus est."1 And again,
"Omnium gravissimus error in deviatione ab ultimo doctrinarum fine consistit."2 " Nec ipsa meta," says he elsewhere, "adhuc ulli, quod
sciam, mortalium posita est et defixa."3 The more carefully
his works are examined, the more clearly, we think, it will appear that this is
the real clue to his whole system, and that he used means different from those
used by other philosophers, because he wished to arrive at an end altogether
different from theirs.
What then was the end which Bacon proposed to himself? It was, to use his own
emphatic expression, "fruit." It was the multiplying of human enjoyments and the
mitigating of human sufferings. It was "the relief of man's estate."4 It was "commodis humanis inservire."5 It was "efficaciter operari ad sublevanda vitae
humanae incommoda."6 It was "dotare vitam humanam novis
inventis et copiis."7 It was "genus humanum
novis operibus et potestatibus continuo dotare."8 This was
the object of all his speculations in every department of science, in natural
philosophy, in legislation, in politics, in morals.
Two words form the key of the Baconian doctrine, Utility and Progress. The
ancient philosophy disdained to be useful, and was content to be stationary. It
dealt largely in theories of moral perfection, which were so sublime that they
never could be more than theories; in attempts to solve insoluble enigmas; in
exhortations to the attainment of unattainable frames of mind. It could not
condescend to the humble office of ministering to the comfort of human beings.
All the schools contemned that office as degrading; some censured it as immoral.
Once indeed Posidonius, a distinguished writer of the age of Cicero and Caesar,
so far forgot himself as to enumerate, among the humbler blessings which mankind
owed to philosophy, the discovery of the principle of the arch, and the
introduction of the use of metals. This eulogy was considered as an affront, and
was taken up with proper spirit. Seneca vehemently disclaims these insulting
compliments.9 Philosophy, according to him, has nothing to
do with teaching men to rear arched roofs over their heads. The true philosopher
does not care whether he has an arched roof or any roof, Philosophy has nothing
to do with teaching men the uses of metals. She teaches us to be independent of
all material substances, of all mechanical contrivances. The wise man lives
according to nature. Instead of attempting to add to the physical comforts of
his species, he regrets that his lot was not cast in that golden age when the
human race had no protection against the cold but the skins of wild beasts, no
screen from the sun but a cavern. To impute to such a man any share in the
invention or improvement of a plough, a ship, or a mill is an insult. "In my own
time," says Seneca, "there have been inventions of this sort, transparent
windows, tubes for diffusing warmth equally through all parts of a building,
shorthand, which has been carried to such a perfection that a writer can keep
pace with the most rapid speaker. But the inventing of such things is drudgery
for the lowest slaves; philosophy lies deeper. It is not her office to teach men
how to use their hands. The object of her lessons is to form the soul. Non est,
inquam, instrumentorum ad usus necessarios opifex." If the non were left out,
this last sentence would be no bad description of the Baconian philosophy, and
would, indeed, very much resemble several expressions in the Novum Organum. "We
shall next be told," exclaims Seneca, "that the first shoemaker was a
philosopher." For our own part, if we are forced to make our choice between the
first shoemaker and the author of the three books "On Anger," we pronounce for
the shoemaker. It may be worse to be angry than to be wet. But shoes have kept
millions from being wet; and we doubt whether Seneca ever kept anybody from
It is very reluctantly that Seneca can be brought to confess that any
philosopher had ever paid the smallest attention to anything that could possibly
promote what vulgar people would consider as the well-being of mankind. He
labors to clear Democritus from the disgraceful imputation of having made the
first arch, and Anacharsis from the charge of having contrived the potter's
wheel. He is forced to own that such a thing might happen; and it may also
happen, he tells us, that a philosopher may be swift of foot. But it is not in
his character of philosopher that he either wins a race or invents a machine.
No, to be sure. The business of a philosopher was to declaim in praise of
poverty with two millions sterling out at usury, to meditate epigrammatic
conceits about the evils of luxury, in gardens which moved the envy of
sovereigns, to rant about liberty, while fawning on the insolent and pampered
freedmen of a tyrant, to celebrate the divine beauty of virtue with the same pen
which had just before written a defense of the murder of a mother by a son.
From the cant of this philosophy, a philosophy meanly proud of its own
unprofitableness, it is delightful to turn to the lessons of the great English
teacher. We can almost forgive all the faults of Bacon's life when we read that
singularly graceful and dignified passage: "Ego certe, ut de me ipso, quod res
est, loquar, et in iis quae nunc edo, et in iis quae in posterum meditor,
dignitatem ingenii et nominis mei, si qua sit, saepius sciens et volens
projicio, dum commodis humanis inserviam; quique architectus fortasse in
philosophia et scientiis esse debeam, etiam operarius, et bajulus, et quidvis
demum fio, cum haud pauca quae omnino fieri necesse sit, alii autem ob innatum
superbiam subterfugiant, ipsi sustineam et exsequar."10 This philanthropia, which, as he said in one of the most remarkable of
his early letters, "was so fixed in his mind, as it could not be removed," this
majestic humility, this persuasion that nothing can be too insignificant for the
attention of the wisest, which is not too insignificant to give pleasure or pain
to the meanest, is the great characteristic distinction, the essential spirit of
the Baconian philosophy. We trace it in all that Bacon has written on Physics,
on Laws, on Morals. And we conceive that from this peculiarity all the other
peculiarities of his system directly and almost necessarily sprang.
The spirit which appears in the passage of Seneca to which we have referred
tainted the whole body of the ancient philosophy from the time of Socrates
downwards, and took possession of intellects with which that of Seneca cannot
for a moment be compared. It pervades the dialogues of Plato. It may be
distinctly traced in many parts of the works of Aristotle. Bacon has dropped
hints from which it may be inferred that, in his opinion, the prevalence of this
feeling was in a great measure to be attributed to the influence of Socrates.
Our great countryman evidently did not consider the revolution which Socrates
effected in philosophy as a happy event, and constantly maintained that the
earlier Greek speculators, Democritus in particular, were, on the whole,
superior to their more celebrated successors.11
Assuredly if the tree which Socrates planted and Plato watered is to be judged
of by its flowers and leaves, it is the noblest of trees. But if we take the
homely test of Bacon, if we judge of the tree by its fruits, our opinion of it
may perhaps be less favorable. When we sum up all the useful truths which we owe
to that philosophy, to what do they amount? We find, indeed, abundant proofs
that some of those who cultivated it were men of the first order of intellect.
We find among their writings incomparable specimens both of dialectical and
rhetorical art. We have no doubt that the ancient controversies were of use, in
so far as they served to exercise the faculties of the disputants; for there is
no controversy so idle that it may not be of use in this way. But, when we look
for something more, for something which adds to the comforts or alleviates the
calamities of the human race, we are forced to own ourselves disappointed. We
are forced to say with Bacon that this celebrated philosophy ended in nothing
but disputation, that it was neither a vineyard nor an olive-ground, but an
intricate wood of briars and thistles, from which those who lost themselves in
it brought back many scratches and no food.12
We readily acknowledge that some of the teachers of this unfruitful wisdom were
among the greatest men that the world has ever seen. If we admit the justice of
Bacon's censure, we admit it with regret, similar to that which Dante felt when
he learned the fate of those illustrious heathens who were doomed to the first
circle of Hell:
"Gran duol mi prese al cuor quando lo 'ntesi, Perocche gente di molto valore
Conobbi che 'n quel limbo eran sospesi."
But in truth the very admiration which we feel for the eminent philosophers of
antiquity forces us to adopt the opinion that their powers were systematically
misdirected. For how else could it be that such powers should effect so little
for mankind? A pedestrian may show as much muscular vigor on a treadmill as on
the highway road. But on the road his vigor will assuredly carry him forward;
and on the treadmill he will not advance an inch. The ancient philosophy was a
treadmill, not a path. It was made up of revolving questions, of controversies
which were always beginning again. It was a contrivance for having much exertion
and no progress. We must acknowledge that more than once, while contemplating
the doctrines of the Academy and the Portico, even as they appear in the
transparent splendor of Cicero's incomparable diction, we have been tempted to
mutter with the surly centurion in Persius, "Cur quis non prandeat hoc est?"
What is the highest good, whether pain be an evil, whether all things be fated,
whether we can be certain of anything, whether we can be certain that we are
certain of nothing, whether a wise man can be unhappy, whether all departures
from right be equally reprehensible; these, and other questions of the same
sort, occupied the brains, the tongues, and the pens of the ablest men in the
civilized world during several centuries. This sort of philosophy, it is
evident, could not be progressive. It might indeed sharpen and invigorate the
minds of those who devoted themselves to it; and so might the disputes of the
orthodox Lilliputians and the heretical Blefuscudians about the big ends and the
little ends of eggs. But such disputes could add nothing to the stock of
knowledge. The human mind accordingly, instead of marching, merely marked time.
It took as much trouble as would have sufficed to carry it forward; and yet
remained on the same spot. There was no accumulation of truth, no heritage of
truth acquired by the labor of one generation and bequeathed to another, to be
again transmitted with large additions to a third. Where this philosophy was in
the time of Cicero, there it continued to be in the time of Seneca, and there it
continued to be in the time of Favorinus. The same sects were still battling
with the same unsatisfactory arguments, about the same interminable questions.
There had been no want of ingenuity, of zeal, of industry. Every trace of
intellectual cultivation was there, except a harvest. There had been plenty of
ploughing, harrowing, reaping, threshing. But the garners contained only smut
The ancient philosophers did not neglect natural science but they did not
cultivate it for the purpose of increasing the power and ameliorating the
condition of man. The taint of barrenness had spread from ethical to physical
speculations. Seneca wrote largely on natural philosophy, and magnified the
importance of that study. But why? Not because it tended to assuage suffering,
to multiply the conveniences of life, to extend the empire of man over the
material world; but solely because it tended to raise the mind above low cares,
to separate it from the body, to exercise its subtlety in the solution of very
obscure questions.13 Thus natural
philosophy was considered in the light merely of a mental exercise. It was made
subsidiary to the art of disputation; and it consequently proved altogether
barren of useful discoveries.
There was one sect which, however absurd and pernicious some of its doctrines
may have been, ought, it should seem, to have merited an exception from the
general censure which Bacon has pronounced on the ancient schools of wisdom. The
Epicurean, who referred all happiness to bodily pleasure, and all evil to bodily
pain, might have been expected to exert himself for the purpose of bettering his
own physical condition and that of his neighbors. But the thought seems never to
have occurred to any member of that school. Indeed their notion, as reported by
their great poet, was, that no more improvements were to be expected in the arts
which conduce to the comfort of life.
"Ad victum quae flagitat usus Omnia jam ferme mortalibus esse parata."
This contented despondency, this disposition to admire what has been done, and
to expect that nothing more will be done, is strongly characteristic of all the
schools which preceded the school of Fruit and Progress. Widely as the Epicurean
and the Stoic differed on most points, they seem to have quite agreed in their
contempt for pursuits so vulgar as to be useful. The philosophy of both was a
garrulous, declaiming, canting, wrangling philosophy. Century after century they
continued to repeat their hostile war-cries, Virtue and Pleasure; and in the end
it appeared that the Epicurean had added as little to the quantity of pleasure
as the Stoic to the quantity of virtue.
1 Novum Organum, Lib. i. Aph. 81.
2 De Augmentis, Lib. i.
3 Cogitata et visa.
4 Advancement of Learning, Book i.
5 De Augmentis, Lib. vii. Cap. i.
6 Ib., Lib. ii. Cap. ii.
7 Novum Organum, Lib. i., Aph. 81.
8 Cogitata et visa.
9 Seneca, Epist. 90.
10 De Augmentis, Lib. vii.
11 Novum Organum, Lib. i. Aph. 71,
79. De Augmentis, Lib. iii. Cap. iv. De principiis, atque originibus. Cogitata
et visa. Redargutio philosophiarum.
12 Novum Organum, Lib. i. Aph. 73.
13 Seneca, Nat. Quaest. praef. Lib. iii.
Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II
Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II, Thomas Babbington Macaulay,