An Introduction to the Work of Francis Bacon

 Francis Bacon, The Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans famously declared the question of the best “state or mould of a commonwealth” the most precious thing in the world.  But to progress and penetrate that dark inquiry the minds of men must be turned around, so that they subdue and conquer nature and get her to divulge her secrets. By these means, one might procure the most perfect commonwealth possible, a project and goal, Bacon outlined with sufficient clarity in his New Atlantis.

While Bacon never tired of excoriating the search for the “final cause” – the end for which things exist – that so bewitched theoretical men since Aristotle, which Bacon claimed had corrupted natural philosophy, he grants that the search for final causes maybe appropriate in inquiries concerning “human things.”  For in proceeding thus to ask after “human things” one comes to see that “with respect to final causes” man is that “in which the world centers.”  But to limit the comprehension of final causes to the human things, which is to say, the man-made things, is to severely and radically transform the concept of final causes.  For now the final cause, that for which all things exist, is simply the things man makes, and the best thing that man can make, the most resplendent is the greatest commomwealth, the very commonwealth Bacon outlines in his New Atlantis: the land of all earthly things worthy of knowledge.  But this greatest thing does not yet exist, but as an idea in Bacon’s mind, and with his writing, he calls upon mankind to build it, and bring it into existence.


Bacon’s revaluation of art and nature, whereby the highest things are the conscious objects of human artifice, elevates the artificial, the technological over the natural, or merely given.  Bacon was a materialist, boldly claiming to follow Democritus, and yet a peculiar materialist: since unlike his atheistic and materialistic predecessors, Bacon sought a highest human end; his was a materialism with a purpose, and a utopian one at that.

Bacon had an illustrious predecessor that opened the way.  Bacon appears to accept Machiavelli’s clarion call in The Prince, chapter 15, to look to, and follow what men do and not what they say they ought to.  Bacon agreed with Machiavelli, that one ought to take one’s bearings by the extreme situation: nature was at its truest when “vexed” and “tortured” by experiments.

Man is a bundle of desires, and those desires issues in states and commonwealths; man has mind, and with it, he might subdue nature, but only if he first submits to it, and to submit to it, is to know it, to be able to comprehend it at its most irregular or marvelous, what many deem miraculous.  Such a submission to nature will enable men to conquer her.  And mankind has no natural given end, so that he must expand without limit, never ending in repose, or peaceful contemplation, satisfaction, or happiness, because the cosmos is fundamentally alien and not fully comprehensible.  Our only star and compass is our appetites; Bacon following Machiavelli was a hedonist, and like him, but unlike the ancients, a hedonist with political ambitions.  His great political works, The Wisdom of the Ancients and The New Atlantis, analyze and refute ancient myths, as they make the case that the highest passion and the greatest good is found in the fame of the wise, who achieve genuine knowledge of the best commonwealth and on the basis of that knowledge help secure it through their science.  For the greatest fame comes from recognition of the greatest benefactions; and what men regard as the greatest benefactions are those things which have “relieved man’s estate”, the various inventions.


One practical goal of Bacon’s teaching is the promotion of inventions.  Bacon would replace the classical and biblical suspicion of technological progress with a new faith in technological progress; and that very faith in technological progress would itself fuel the inventiveness and artfulness of man.  But the new faith requires a new method.   Accordingly, Bacon set out that new method in his Novum Organum, in principle the method of modern natural science.  Bacon’s new creed, the faith in technological progress, also called for a new following, a sect of the faithful, wholeheartedly committed to inventions, and the political benefits of the results of science.  And yet, Bacon made it clear that there was no essential need for his sect, the new scientific caste, to understand the grounds and foundations of his teaching; perhaps some would, others would not.  But either way, the classical distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers would give way to that between philosophers, like Bacon himself, various experts, scientists and engineers, and finally the public.  Bacon’s teaching called for a host of experts and technicians devoted to making mankind’s lot more secure and easier.  But the technique required for such amelioration does not require the technicians and experts and scientists devoted to it to know about the truths of cosmology or the man’s true situation.  Moreover, the very followers of Bacon’s political philosophy, could be totally ignorant of it, as long as they possessed mastery of the methods and techniques that issued in useful inventions.  They would simply have to be subordinate to those who would ensure their inventions were used constructively and not destructively.  The inventors need simply be men skilled in scientific method.  And since such methods can be applied to all human knowledge according to the Novum Organum, he fully expected inventions to aid politics and statesmanship.

Since Bacon understood the success of his political teaching to issue in inventions meant that it required a large following, which in turn meant vast public approval.  In order to protect the success of his venture, Bacon had to proceed cautiously and hesitantly.  And so he refused to simply spell out the full implications of his project.  While some things he no doubt regarded as settled, for example, the rightness of his method, still other things could not be known until the nature of the inventions was clear, after they were invented and actually managed to relieve man’s estate.  The most famous example is that of medicine.  Bacon had great hopes for medicine, for health and longevity.  The very possibility of freeing mankind from the fear of natural death, which he often hinted at, would have profound and unforeseeable implications, and yet raise many questions about the Bacon’s final political teaching.

How can one imagine the best political commonwealth before great progress had been made in conquering nature.  With that knowledge, man would know what they might wish for.  The success of mankind’s inventions would reveal to them just how far they could go in envisioning the human good.  And since Bacon stood simply at the beginning of what would become the “scientific revolution”, he could not possibly know, was compelled to profess ignorance, of the final good for man.  He did however claim to know on the basis of the alien character of the cosmos and on our artfulness when wedding to modern scientific method, the possibility of conquering nature, that from the progress on this trajectory men would learn what to wish for, and that the trajectory was good and genuinely progressive.  Accordingly, in addition to his vision of utopia, he had to have a vision of how to get there, or the state of commonwealth most conducive to his best commonwealth.  Fully alive to the threats to scientific endeavor posed by religious and civil conflict, Bacon sought to join freedom with tradition by allying it with the Crown, the Church and the Empire.


While Bacon’s monarchism and Anglicanism, were cautious, and born more of convenience and the opportunities they afforded his study and scientific project undisturbed or censored, his imperialism was of another order, bold indeed.  Bacon was convinced political philosophy hitherto had been insufficiently committed to empire; empire, in fact, was a duty, and that because the best societies are empires, “greatness” in size and power must be a conscious object of policy.  But Bacon’s imperialists would be a new breed: students of his advice in the Advancement of Learning, they would know how to get along in the world, learned in the arts of rhetoric, business management and the ways of the courtier.  Tasked with bringing the delights and luxuries of the world to the shops of London, they would be unashamed of usury.  In other words, Bacon’s imperialism is conceived economically more than despotically, and his imperialists the true agents, or spirits of capitalism.

Thus, Bacon’s imperialism, aimed as it was more at merchants, than kings, lords and clerics was to be the provisional commonwealth en route to his final teaching, both using and peopled by his “new man, guided by his own architecture of fortune, and tips on how to get along in the world, a study he felt neglected by political philosophy hitherto.  In this way, the “new man” would people the ships of Bacon’s naval commercial imperialism, and beginning from the British ship, set sail and eventually take the world and the rest of mankind with it, to his utopia.  But lest we thing Bacon’s naval imperialism limited to British greatness, we must see how the British fleet with its “new men” is but the launching pad for the rule of mankind over nature.

But the character of life on the other shores, so to speak, comes into sharpest relief in Bacon’s take on the myth from Plato’s Critias in his New Atlantis.  The work describes an island utopia somewhere in the Pacific, which ends rather abruptly with the account of an institution known as Solomon’s House, a scientific society which is the most important and powerful institution in the land.  Bacon’s New Atlantis is a new “Promised land”, called “Bensalem”, or “the perfect son” by the natives,  once found, easy of access.  By means of the story of triumph over sea and weather, Bacon underlines the power and uses of seafaring and navigation, in other words, the benefits of science for getting to utopia.  Bacon’s New Atlantis is a technological paradise.  The New Atlantis is meant to replace the Old Atlantis, that of Platonic myth.  In Plato’s account, the luxurious Atlantians waged war against the Athenians, and were defeated.  The island later punished by Zeus with extermination.  All that remained was a rocky shoal that obstructed circumnavigation.  Meanwhile Athens eventually would succomb to a flood.  Bacon turns Plato’s myth upside down: yes, old Atlantis had been destroyed, but its survivors went on to found the Inca and Aztec civilizations; the New Atlantis defeated an Atlantic army, and by means of a sophisticated Baconian science survived a flood.  By means of Baconian science the New Atlantis was enabled to transcend the vicissitudes of time brought by political decay or natural disaster.  Bacon’s New Atlantis is meant to be trans-historical: beyond the reach of time and the cycle of regimes.

V. Legacy

Like Leonardo and Goethe, Bacon was a truly “univeral” or “renaissance man”,  producing important work in the arts, sciences as well as statesmanship. Like Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, he combined a profound polymathy with a substantial political career. Like his near contemporary Machiavelli, he excelled in a variety of literary genre; and like the great Florentine writer, he was both apolitical statesman and political philosopher: a man whose primary goal was less to obtain literary laurels for himself than to mold the future of humanity.

His own chaplain and first biographer William Rawley declared him “the glory of his age and nation” and portrayed him as an angel of enlightenment and social vision. His admirers in the Royal Society (an organization that traced its own inspiration and lineage back to Bacon) saw in him nothing less than the audacious originator of a new intellectual era. The poet Abraham Cowley called him a “Moses” and portrayed him as an exalted leader who virtually all by himself had set learning on a bold, firm, and entirely new path.

Similarly adulatory if more prosaic assessments were offered by learned near contemporaries from Descartes and Gassendi to Hooke and Boyle. Leibniz was particularly generous and observed that, compared to Bacon’s philosophical range and lofty vision, even a great genius like Descartes “creeps on the ground.”

The response of the later Enlightenment was divided, with a majority of thinkers lavishly praising Bacon while a dissenting minority castigated or even ridiculed him. The French encyclopedists Jean d’Alembert and Denis Diderot sounded the keynote of this 18th-century re-assessment, essentially hailing Bacon as a founding father of the modern era and emblazoning his name on the front page of the Encyclopedia. In a similar gesture, Kant dedicated his Critique of Pure Reason to Bacon and likewise saluted him as an early architect of modernity. Hegel, on the other hand, took a dimmer view.  In his view, the Lord Chancellor was a decidedly low-minded (read typically English and utilitarian) philosopher whose instruction was fit mainly for “civil servants and shopkeepers.”

For further introductory reading, see:

Svetozar Minkov, Francis Bacon’s Inquiry Touching Human Nature: Virtue, Philosophy and the Relief of Man’s Estate (Lexington Books, 2010).

Robert Faulkner, Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress (Rowan and Littlefield, 1993).