ON LORD BACON
It is not long since the ridiculous and threadbare question was
discussed in a celebrated assembly; who was the greatest man, Cæsar or
Alexander, Tamerlane or Cromwell?
Somebody said that it must undoubtedly be Sir Isaac Newton. This man was
right; for if true greatness consists in having received from heaven a powerful
genius, and in using it to enlighten one's self and others, a man like Newton
— and such a one is hardly to be met with in ten centuries — is
surely the greatest man; and those statesmen and conquerors which no age has
ever been without, are commonly but so many illustrious villains. It is the man
who sways our minds by the prevalence of reason and the native force of truth,
not they who make slaves through violence; the man who knows the universe, not
those who disfigure it, that claims our respect.
Therefore, as you desire to be informed of the great men that England
has produced, I shall begin with the Bacons, the Lockes, and the Newtons. The
generals and ministers will come after them in their turn.
I must begin with the celebrated baron Verulam, known to the rest of
Europe by the name of Bacon, which was his family name. He was the son of a
keeper of the seals, and was for a considerable time chancellor under James I.
Notwithstanding the intrigues of court and the occupations of his office, which
would have required his whole attention, he found the time to be a great
philosopher, a good historian, and an elegant writer; and what is yet more
wonderful is that he lived in an age where the art of writing well was hardly
known, and where sound philosophy was still less so. As is the way among
mankind, he was more valued after his death than while he lived. His enemies
were at the court of London; his admirers were in all of Europe.
When Marquis d'Effiat brought Princess Mary, daughter of Henry the
Great, over to be married to King Charles, this minister paid Bacon a visit,
who being then ill in bed, received him with close curtains. "You are like the
angels," said d'Effiat to him; "we hear much talk of them, and while everybody
thinks them quite superior to men, we are never favored with a sight of
You have been told in what manner Bacon was accused of a crime which is
very far from being the sin of a philosopher; of being corrupted by money; and
how he was sentenced by the house of peers to pay a fine of about four hundred
thousand livres of our money, besides losing his office of chancellor and the
rank of a peer.
At present the English revere his memory to such a degree that they will
not admit that he was guilty. Should you ask me what I think of it, I will make
use of a saying I heard from Lord Bolingbroke. They happened to be talking of
the avarice of which the duke of Marlborough had been accused, and cited
several instances of it, for the truth of which they appealed to Lord
Bolingbroke, who being his sworn enemy, might, perhaps, quite properly say what
he thought. "He was," said he, "so great a man that I have forgotten his
I shall, therefore, limit myself to those qualities which have acquired
for Chancellor Bacon the esteem of all Europe.
The most singular, as well as the best of all his works, is that which
is now the least read, and the most useless: I mean his Novum Scientiarum
Organum. This is the scaffold by means of which the edifice of the new
philosophy was built; and when the building was at least partially completed,
the scaffold was no longer of any use.
Chancellor Bacon was unacquainted with nature, but he knew and pointed
out all the paths which lead to her. He had very early despised what the
Universities call philosophy; and he did everything in his power that those
bodies, instituted for the perfection of human reason, might cease to mar it,
by their "quiddities," their "honor of a vacuum," their
"substantial forms," with the rest of that jargon which ignorance and a
ridiculous combination of religion had consecrated.
He is the father of experimental philosophy. It is true that wonderful
discoveries had been made before his time: the mariner's compass, the art of
printing, that of engraving, the art of painting in oil, that of making glass,
the art of restoring in some measure sight to old men, by means of spectacles,
the secret of making gunpowder, etc. They had gone in search of, discovered,
and conquered a new world. Who would not have thought that these sublime
discoveries had been made by the greatest philosophers, and in times much more
enlightened than ours? By no means; for these great changes took place in the
age of the most stupid barbarity. Chance alone brought forth almost all these
inventions, and it is even possible that chance had a great share in the
discovery of America; it least, it has been believed that Christopher Columbus
undertook this voyage on the faith of a captain of a ship who had been cast by
a storm on one of the Caribbean islands.
Be this as it may, men had learned to go from one end of the world to
the other; they learned how to destroy cities with an artificial thunder much
more terrible than the real; but they were still ignorant of the circulation of
the blood, the weight of the air, the laws of motion, light, the number of our
planets, etc. And a man capable enough to maintain a thesis on the "Categories
of Aristotle," the universale a parte rei, or some other foolishness,
was considered as a prodigy.
The most wonderful and useful inventions are by no means those which do
most honor to the human mind.
It is to a mechanical instinct which exists in most men that we owe the
arts, and in no way whatever to sound philosophy.
The discovery of fire, the arts of making bread, of melting and working
metals, of building houses, the invention of the shuttle, are infinitely more
useful than printing and the compass; yet these arts were invented by men who
were still savages.
What astonishing things have the Greeks and Romans since done in
mechanics? Yet men believed, in their time, that the heavens were of crystal,
and the stars were little lamps that sometimes fell into the sea; and one of
their greatest philosophers, after much research, had at length discovered that
the stars were pebbles that had become detached from the earth.
In a word, there was not a man who had any idea of experimental
philosophy before Chancellor Bacon; and of all the physical experiments which
have been made since his time, there is hardly a single one which has not been
pointed out in his book. He had even made a good number of them himself. He
constructed several sort of pneumatic machines, by which he discovered the
elasticity of the air; he had long attempted the discovery of its weight, and
was even at times very near to it, when it was laid hold of by Torricelli. A
short time after, experimental physics began to be cultivated in almost all
parts of Europe. This was a hidden treasure, which Bacon had suspected, and
which all the philosophers, encouraged by his promises tried to unearth.
But what surprises me most is to see in his book a discussion, in
specific terms, of that new attraction of which Newton passes for the
"We must inquire," said Bacon, "whether there be not a certain magnetic
force, which operates reciprocally between the earth and other heavy bodies,
between the moon and the ocean, between the planets, etc."
In another place he says: "Either heavy bodies are impelled toward the
centre of the earth, or they are mutually attracted by it, and in this latter
case it is evident that the nearer falling bodies approach the earth, the more
forcibly are they attracted by it. We must try to see," he continues, "if the
same pendulum clock goes faster on the top of a mountain, or at the bottom of a
mine. If the force of the weight diminishes on the mountain, and increases in
the mine, it is probable the earth has a real attracting quality."
This precursor in philosophy was also an elegant writer, a historian,
and a wit.
His moral essays are in high regard; but they are made rather to
instruct than to please; and as they are neither a satire on human nature, like
the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, nor a school of skepticism, like Montaigne;
they are less read than these two ingenious books.
His History of Henry VII passed for a masterpiece; but I am much
mistaken if it can be compared with the history of our illustrious M. de
In speaking of that famous impostor Perkin, a Jew by birth, who assumed
so boldly the name of Richard IV, king of England, encouraged by the duchess of
Burgundy, and who disputed the crown with Henry VII, the Chancellor Bacon
expresses himself in these terms: "About this time King Henry was beset with
evil spirits, by the magic of the duchess of Burgundy, who conjured up from
hell the ghost of Edward IV, in order to torment King Henry. When the duchess
of Burgundy had instructed Perkin, she began to consider in what region of
Heaven she should make this comet appear, and resolved immediately that it
should burst forth on the horizon of Ireland."
I think our sage de Thou seldom gives in to this hocus-pocus, which used
formerly to pass for the sublime, but which at present is properly called