Nonfiction > Harvard Classics > Francis Bacon > Essays, Civil and Moral
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Francis Bacon. (1561–1626).  Essays, Civil and Moral.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
Introductory Note
 
 
FRANCIS BACON, son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal to Queen Elizabeth, was born in London on January 22, 1561. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of twelve, and in 1576 he interrupted the law studies he had begun in that year, to go to France in the train of the English Ambassador, Sir Amyas Paulet. He was called home in 1579 by the death of his father; and, having been left with but a small income, he resumed the study of law, and became a barrister in 1582. Two years later he entered the House of Commons, and began to take an active part in politics.  1
  From an early age Bacon had been interested in science, and it was in the pursuit of scientific truth that his heart lay. He conceived, however, that for the achievement of the great results at which he aimed, money and prestige were necessary; and he worked hard for both. He was a candidate for several offices of state during Elizabeth’s reign, but gained no substantial promotion, and was often in hard straits for money. He received aid from influential patrons, notably the Earl of Essex; and his desertion of this nobleman, with the part he took in his prosecution for treason, is regarded as one of the chief blots on his personal record.  2
  Shortly after the accession of James I, Bacon was knighted; in 1606 he married the daughter of an alderman; and in the following year he received the appointment of Solicitor-General, the first important step in the career which culminated in the Lord Chancellorship in 1618. In the latter year he was raised to the peerage as Baron Verulam, and in 1621 he became Viscount St. Albans. He was now at the summit of his public career; but within four months the crash came, and he was convicted of bribery, and sentenced by the House of Lords to the loss of all his offices, to imprisonment, and to the payment of a large fine. He died in retirement on April 9, 1626, leaving no children.  3
  Bacon’s most important writings in science and philosophy are parts of a vast work which he left unfinished, his “Magna Instauratio.” The first part of this, the “De Augmentis,” is an enlargement in Latin of his book on “The Advancement of Learning,” in which he takes account of the progress in human knowledge to his own day. The second part is the famous “Novum Organum,” or “New Instrument”; a description of the method of induction based on observation and experiment, by which he believed future progress was to be made. The later parts consist chiefly of fragmentary collections of natural phenomena, and tentative suggestions of the philosophy which was to result from the application of his method to the facts of the physical world.  4
  Bacon’s own experiments are of slight scientific value, nor was he very familiar with some of the most important discoveries of his own day; but the fundamental principles laid down by him form the foundation of modern scientific method.  5
  Bacon’s writings are by no means confined to the field of natural philosophy. He wrote a notable “History of Henry VII”; many pamphlets on current political topics; “The New Atlantis,” an unfinished account of an ideal state; “The Wisdom of the Ancients,” a series of interpretations of classical myths in an allegorical sense; legal “Maxims”; and much else.  6
  But by far his most popular work is his “Essays,” published in three editions in his lifetime, the first containing ten essays, in 1597; the second, with thirty-eight, in 1612; and the third, as here printed, in 1625. These richly condensed utterances on men and affairs show in the field of conduct something of the same stress on the useful and the expedient as appears in his scientific work. But it is unjust to regard the “Essays” as representing Bacon’s ideal of conduct. They are rather a collection of shrewd observations as to how, in fact, men do get on in life; human nature, not as it ought to be, but as it is. Sometimes, but by no means always, they consider certain kinds of behavior from a moral standpoint; oftener they are frankly pieces of worldly wisdom; again, they show Bacon’s ideas of state policy; still again, as in the essay “Of Gardens,” they show us his private enthusiasms. They cover an immense variety of topics; they are written in a clear, concise, at times almost epigrammatic, style; they are packed with matter; and now, as when he wrote them, they, to use his own words of them, “come home to men’s business and bosoms.”  7
 

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