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Bacon, Francis (1561–1626) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

bacon’s sir lord science

Born in 1561, Francis Bacon was the youngest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the lord keeper of the seal under Queen Elizabeth* from 1559 until his death in 1579, and Lady Ann Bacon,* one of the famously learned daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age—then unremarkable—of thirteen and left in 1576 without taking a degree. Later that year he traveled to France in the ambassadorial retinue of Sir Amias Paulet, a trip that was to give Bacon an education in foreign courts and culture and thus prepare him for a career, like his father’s, in Elizabeth’s government. Sir Nicholas’ death in 1579 brought Bacon back to England, where he took up residence at Gray’s Inn and studied law. Helped along the way by his uncle Sir William Cecil (who had married Lady Bacon’s sister, Mildred), he was admitted to the bar in 1582.

Though Bacon won several parliamentary seats from 1584 to 1593, his political career under Elizabeth was otherwise unprecocious. Despite strong lobbying on his behalf by his friend Essex, Bacon was passed over for the job of queen’s attorney when it fell vacant in 1593, probably because he had spoken against one of Elizabeth’s tax proposals. The job went instead to Sir Edward Coke,* who would be Bacon’s bitter rival for the next three decades. With the accession of James I* Bacon’s political fortunes changed dramatically: knighted in 1603, he went on to hold posts as solicitor-general (1607), attorney general (1613), lord keeper of the great seal (1617), and lord chancellor (1618). But in the same year that he was made Viscount St. Albans (1621) he was imprisoned for bribery. Released three days later, he was fined some £40,000 and forbidden to hold public office. He died on 9 April 1626.


Bacon’s iconoclastic desire to restore an immediacy to man’s perception of nature made it possible for Shelley to quote him admiringly in his “A Defence of Poetry,” but the majority of Bacon’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers associated him unreservedly with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Their estimation of the man has often reflected little more than their estimation of those developments. For every William Blake, who subtitled his copy of Bacon’s Essays with the phrase “Good advice from Satan’s kingdom,” there was a Lord Macaulay, who celebrated with equal enthusiasm the superiority of British industry and the prodigious talents of Lord Bacon, the man he thought most responsible for it.

Though that dichotomy has often been replicated among twentieth-century readers, on a variety of fronts Bacon’s connection to modern science and technology has been made less obvious than it once seemed. Karl Popper, for example, has suggested that Baconian induction has, to its discredit, little or nothing to do with the way science, in fact, proceeds, while other critics, such as John Dewey and Hans Blumenberg, have de-emphasized Bacon’s methodological program and pointed instead to his revolutionary promotion of a pragmatic science that eschewed, in their view, metaphysical foundationalism.

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