Francis Bacon – An Introduction

Spinoza wrote that what he meant by God was “the fixed and unchangeable order of nature or the chain of natural events.” God was a unity. Nature was a unity. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the so-called father of empiricism and of precise observation of nature, in contrast with Spinoza’s emphasis on abstract critical reasoning and Nature with a capital “N,” divided knowledge into three realms associated with three different faculties:

Philosophy   reason

Poetry          imagination

History        memory.

For Spinoza, there was only one route to knowledge – reason – and only one body of knowledge – Nature or God. However, nature created men of different kinds. But these differences were external and not substantive, a product of varied circumstances versus constant laws. Bacon argued that different fields of study required different methods and different disciplinary practices. For Spinoza, one could only get to fixed laws through the use of reason.

However, Spinoza wrote that the mind is a complex of mental (both cognitive and affective) states. The essence of the bodily aspect of Nature is appetite. Will applies to reason alone. Appetite applies to both mind and body. One consequence: we do not desire the good but dub the good what we desire, a principle almost identical to one Bacon put forth. Whatever we desire we brand good. But Bacon offered different grounds for this principle.

His originality is his defence of the classification rather than the classification itself. Classification allows organization and hence accessibility and, thereby the democratic spread of knowledge. Bacon becomes a contemporary precisely because of his concern, not with the purpose of knowledge, its end, not the why of knowing, but the how. Information, for Bacon, is processed through three routes, reason, the imagination and though narrative or historically. Spinoza also depicted the imagination, but not as a vehicle to knowledge, but a passive response to pleasure and/or pain as part of the common order of nature. Love is pleasure resulting from an external cause. Hate is its parallel – pain resulting from an external cause. Therefore, love can be a product of either fleeting or long-term gratification. Imagination encompasses the wide range of passive responses to these affects.

Whatever their philosophical differences, both were prodigies. Like most of the other precocious personalities discussed thus far from the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, Bacon was a brilliant student. Even taking into consideration the much younger age when young men attended college, Bacon went up to Cambridge when he was only 12 years old. Though he made his intellectual name as a philosopher of science in his volume Novum Organum, he made his public name earlier as a diplomat and was a student of law, statecraft and languages. Thomas Jefferson regarded Bacon as one of his heroes alongside John Locke and Isaac Newton, with Bacon having the added advantage of founding colonies in Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as Newfoundland.

Bacon was very ambitious, determined to both uncover the truth while serving his country, all along remaining faithful to the church. Unlike Spinoza, Bacon was no iconoclast. He became a politician sympathetic to Puritanism and a promoter of the union of England and Scotland. He supported the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. It was he who explicitly identified England with Athens and Spain with authoritarian and militaristic Sparta. On the other hand, he actually opposed Queen Elizabeth I for being so punitive towards Catholics, but nevertheless was named by the Queen to be her legal counsel. He tempered the hard-nosed proponents of Realpolitik with compassion, but nevertheless became an ardent supporter of King James I. Some would call him an opportunist, others a proto-pragmatist.

When the House of Commons was at odds with James I over his extravagant lifestyle, Bacon tried to mediate between the King and the Commons. One could argue that he had become an apologist. But much worse. When he was named Attorney General in 1613, he used torture to help convict Edmund Peacham of treason and get him hung. Three years later, in 1616, he initiated the impeachment of Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. He became Regent for a short period and them Lord Chancellor at the age of 45 when he married Alice Barnham, a 14-year-old daughter of an ambitious alderman. She later went on to have an affair with Sir John Underhill, possibly because Bacon was gay and preferred a Welsh servant. Bacon disowned her.

His worst period came in 1621 when he was charged with corruption – he had accepted legal fees while holding high office. He made a plea bargain. His fine and confinement to the Tower of London were both pardoned by the king, but he never could hold a political office again, a great benefit to the future because he then devoted himself to study and writing.

Our interest, however, is on the interaction of his religious beliefs with his political and scientific ones. He was an Anglican with a sympathy for Puritanism, but never a dogmatist in religious terms. In Fama Fraternitatis he wrote, “after a time there will now be a general reformation, both of divine and humane things, according to our desire, and the expectation of others: for it’s fitting, that before the rising of the Sun, there should appear and break forth Aurora, or some clearness, or divine light in the sky.” “According to our desire and the expectation of others.” We act, not for a divine end, but to satisfy desires and others’ expectations.

Let me offer a contemporary application of the guiding principle of historical knowledge that the politics of the present, the divisiveness of politics in America, is affected by competing accounts of the past. The Confederate flag that Governor Nikki Haley took down from the South Carolina State House following the murder of nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is a case in point. Her action was invaluable. However, her rationale was dead wrong. The flag was not hijacked by white supremacists; it has always been the symbol of white supremacism both for the secessionists in the nineteenth century and for the Dixiecrats in the forties and fifties of the twentieth century. To read the flag simply as a symbol of sacrifice is to hide its heritage in deep racism and to cover up that for which there had been so much sacrifice, so much Jim Crow, so much murder and mayhem, so much abuse of the rights of others. Under the Confederate flag, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops killed unarmed black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

For Spinoza, competing accounts of the past were just different efforts to create an imaginative world, a construct as it were, that reinforced one’s desires and appetites. Thus, there was no truth value in such imaginative efforts, just personal satisfaction. The only hidden meanings worth unpacking were those in Nature uncovered by reason. Bacon, however, found hidden meanings in myths and fables as well as historical narratives. All hidden meanings in whatever realm are regarded by establishments as not only hidden but forbidden knowledge.

Both Spinoza and Bacon opposed the realm of superstition and promoted its replacement by what could be called substition, that is unpacking the hidden truth beneath the surface. However, religious belief for both were matters of faith, not knowledge. It was a realm in which to escape and provide relief from the pains of this world and find pleasure in another. That perhaps explains why Bacon is probably most famous for his depictions of the idols of the mind.

There are four such idols:

                                        Idols of the Theatre


Idols of the Cave          ————!————         Idols of the Market


                                        Idols of the Tribe

An idol is an image fixed by the imagination in the mind which is venerated but has no substance. That is, it lacks any truth value. An idol is an idée fixe that cannot be dislodged by counterfactual evidence. We begin at the base – Idols of the Tribe inherent in all humans. They are human propensities to distort, exaggerate and inflate and disregard what is directly apparent to one’s senses. At one extreme, the idols create utopian fantasies which gain dignity over time, especially when constructed of an admixture of facts. At the other extreme, they are pure fabrications used to denounce and destroy others and advance one’s own interests and appetites.

If Idols of the Tribe belong to the public realm, Idols of the Cave are inner creations of the imagination roaming about in the cavern of one’s mind. Given our education and preoccupations, these idols are used to interpret and distort what appears to our senses as these are filtered through forms and categories to which we have given a preferential status. A military historian will give a preference for viewing the past through military categories while an economic historian gives preference to economic matters and a physiologist may give a strong preference to explaining phenomena in terms of the functioning of the body. Truth entails dislodging these Idols of the Tribe and Idols of the Cave from their fixidity. These fixations are often viewed by Bacon as feminine qualities. In Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626), in a frontispiece, a winged figure, Father Time, retrieves a female figure from the dark cave of the mind and brings her into the light.

Idols of the Market are not what one may assume in today’s consumer culture as those bitten by an advertising bug so that one becomes intent on purchasing something which may, in the end, be of little use. Rather, Idols are of the Mind and not the material realm, and an Idol of the Market is more akin to what George Orwell tried to expose in his dystopian novel, 1984.  If we use words to give them a false significance, even an inverted significance, we engage in Idols of the Marketplace such as when we call the vicious autocrat, Stalin, Uncle Joe, or call the rulers in a dictatorship, Big Brother, or another person whom you are trained that you cannot trust, comrade. When words become substitutes for thinking, in fact, often prevent thinking, when words are used to overwhelm the other with the Big Lie, with repeated claims that are unsupported by any evidence – such as the Ukraine rather than Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 American election, then you are dancing with an Idol of the Marketplace.

Idols of the Theatre occupy the top tier because these are idols that frame our thoughts rather than simply being fake news. The view that the sun revolves around the earth and that the earth is the centre of the cosmos is an Idol of the Theatre, in this case, the drama of the cosmos. Similarly, the Aristotelian emphasis on final causes, on telos, is an Idol of the Theatre because it is a mental worldview presented to the masses not to enable them to think but so they will not think. Here we enter the arena in which philosophy or theology has become a servant to power and the establishment. When we have erected a false mental superstructure in the mind that cannot itself be subjected to analysis and criticism, then we have enslaved our faculties to the Idols of the Theatre.

The antidote to these idols – pay attention in detail to causes in nature, not, like Spinoza, to nature on a grand scale, but to nature in all its varied details. And keep in mind utility. Knowledge is important for the use that we can make of it. Bacon was a proto-pragmatist. The value of certain spheres of knowledge depended on their degree of contribution to the well-being of humanity. Further, that knowledge had to be subject to tests of falsification. This was the essence of the scientific method.  Knowledge may be inherited but its truth value can only be assessed through observation and established by experimentation and testing.

With the help of Alex Zisman


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s