I have for much of my life only vaguely been aware of Francis Bacon. His works gain reference in the movie Amazing Grace when Toby the butler tells his master “I don’t just dust your books…” and there’s an Abba song I heard in a store recently that I insist sounds like they are making some comment on Francis Bacon (my daughter says it’s my ears.)
But common culture has its points, and pricked by my ignorance I picked up an elderly volume of Francis Bacon’s essays and placed it in the bathroom bookbin, where almost anything can obtain at least a cursory perusal. It joined a miscellany of magazines, a 1960’s paperback on Goethe by Ancelet-Hustache, that charming gentle book In the Company of Mushrooms by Elio Schaechter, Fish’s How to Write a Sentence (tedious,) Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (provocative,) Millard’s The River of Doubt (fraught, fascinating,) and The Remedy by Thomas Goetz, a tale of Robert Koch, Conan Doyle and the quest to treat tuberculosis (un-engaging somehow but I shall try again). Usually I have at least one Stephen King in there, but I just checked and there isn’t. I used to have Locke’s Two Treatises on Government but I seem to have moved him somewhere, maybe to the studio. That’s a risk of bathroom books– when you become engaged you take them away with you, and then you can’t find them.
I must digress for a moment, I obtained a neat little copy of The Federalist Papers last year, and for an excellent read in this year of political change I can hardly recommend browsing in it too highly. Readable, entertaining. All these works– Locke, Bacon and the Federalist Papers are as clarifying as those ‘gets the red out’ eye-drops, when you are looking at the nature of governance.
But let’s get back to Francis Bacon, which is where I started. Try this excerpt, and by the way remember as you read it that Bacon was born in 1561 and died in 1626.
“It were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of him. For the one is unbelief, the other is contumely; and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: Surely (saith he) I had rather a great deal men should say there was no such man at all as Plutarch, than that they should say that there was one Plutarch that would eat his children as soon as they were born; as the poets speak of Saturn.”
Further he notes that philosophy, laws, the regard for opinion that can all bring a man to at least an outward moral virtue, can be utterly derailed by superstition–
“…superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men. Therefore atheism did never perturb states; for it makes men wary of themselves, as looking no further: and we see the times inclined to atheism (as the time of Augustus Cæsar) were civil times. But superstition hath been the confusion of many states, and bringeth in a new primum mobile, that ravisheth all the spheres of government. The master of superstition is the people; and in all superstition wise men follow fools; and arguments are fitted to practice, in a reversed order.”
Again, in a slight digression, there has been much discussion of whether Francis Bacon was himself an atheist, or was his argument focused here on an argument that the whims of superstitious thought did not belong in governance or muddying the social contract. You can look this up for yourself, though I believe the answer is clear that he was profoundly religious and therefore anxious about the misuse of religion in public life and governance.
I look at the news, the abounding sound-bites and sensationalist quotations and I cannot help but wonder, how much are we fitted to our times? If we indeed build our understanding and knowledge, upon the shoulders of giants1, as Newton said in his letter of 1676, why do we in every generation persist in hopping down and insisting the view is better from the gutter? We could do worse than to go back to Locke-ing ourselves in the bathroom and chewing over some Bacon.
1.) Standing on the shoulders of giants (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”