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Francis Bacon was born in York House, London, on January 22, 1561. Of this building only the ancient water-gate, fronting the Thames, survives the waste of time. His father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, was for twenty years Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Elizabeth--a famous statesman, orator, and wit. His mother, Lady Ann Bacon, was the second daughter of the celebrated Sir Anthony Cooke, formerly tutor of King Edward VI., Henry VIII.'s short-lived son. She was a woman of great learning and many accomplishments, and of a strong, earnest, passionate, affectionate, and religious nature.
Francis was the youngest of eight children, six of whom were by the first wife of Sir Nicholas. He belonged to the aristocracy of England, but not to that ancient, warlike race of battle-crowned warriors, whose pedigree dated back beyond the Crusades. His father was a lawyer. Both his father's family and his mother's seem to have risen from the ranks on the great wave of the Reformation; they belonged to the intellectual new age, then dawning; rather than to the rude, fighting age which was about to pass away. Francis was no accident. We can see in him the two natures of his father and his mother--the commingling of the powerful, practical, sagacious politician and man of affairs, with the studious, contemplative, imaginative, affectionate, religious enthusiast.
His birthplace was a palace; the country seat of Gorhamsbury, near Saint Albans' village, is in the midst of the most charming rural scenery in England, or in the world. There a great part of his youth and early manhood was passed.
He came into this breathing world when the human race were upon the threshold of the tremendous development which now surrounds us. He was born sixty-nine years after Columbus had re-opened the long-closed pathway from the eastern to the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean; twenty-seven years after the French took possession of Canada; twelve years after the Portuguese settled in Brazil; and forty-six years before the first English colonists landed at Jamestown, Va. The degree of advancement of the mind of the age will be understood when it is remembered that it was only one hundred and twenty-five years, at the date of Bacon's birth, since Guttenberg had invented movable types, in Germany; and but eighty-seven years since Caxton set up his printing press at Westminster. No man has ever lived who did more than Bacon to change the opinions and condition of those who came after him.
It was a "day of little things." England contained less than five million inhabitants, and of these probably not one-tenth spoke a language which could be understood to-day by the English-using people of the world. The mass of the populace were steeped to the lips in brutality and ignorance. The houses of the peasants were built of "sticks and dirt;" many of them "without chimneys or glazed windows;" the habits of the people were "inconceivably filthy;" "scurvy and leprosy were endemic;" the schools did not, as a rule, teach English; the amusements of the populace were bear-baitings and dancing naked in barns; the people of one county could not understand the speech of the inhabitants of the next county; "the disputes about tithes and boundaries were usually settled by bands of armed men, and the records of the Star-Chamber swarm with such cases." Education was at a low ebb. "In one year, 1570 (Bacon was then nine years of age), the scholars of Trinity College, Cambridge, consumed 2,250 barrels of beer." Many of the graduates became beggars; and so extensive was this evil that Parliament, by an act of 14th Elizabeth, declared that "all scholars of the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge that go about begging, not being authorized under the seal of the said universities," are declared "vagabonds" and punished as such. But even this was an improvement on Henry VIII.'s time when three hundred men were hanged in London for soliciting alms.
The only illuminated spot in all this darkness was the Court in London. Here they talked something which we would to-day call English; here they caught, through France and Italy, a reflected light from the dying glories of the ancient Roman civilization; here the travelled wealthy, "the picked men of countries," brought home some of the culture of more refined races. Bacon says:
"Courts are but only superficial schools
To dandle fools;
The rural parts are turned into a den
Of savage men;
And where's the city, from foul vice so free,
But may be termed the worst of all the three?"
In this curious, primitive, rude, ensmalled age, grew up the great man who was to do so much to change it all.
From his early years he manifested that vastly active intellect "which knew no rest save in motion." He studied, as a child, the nature of echoes in a tunnel. At fifteen years of age (so his chaplain Rawley and his biographer Spedding assure us), he had realized the shallowness of the Aristotelian philosophy and had thought out those principles which have since revolutionized human society. There are reasons to believe that he was the child of fifteen, referred to by the Rosicrucians, who planned the foundation of their society, and, at that early age, wrote the "Chymical Marriage of Christian Rosencreutz," first published in 1616.
At about twelve years of age he went to Cambridge--to Trinity College--rooming with his brother Anthony, who was two years his senior. In June, 1576, he left the university and became an ancient of the Gray's Inn law-society. On September 25, 1576, he accompanied Sir Amias Paulet, the English ambassador, to France. Here he witnessed the sixth civil war of the French people. He followed the court through several of the French provinces; he resided for three months at Poitiers. About February 17, 1579, he dreamed that his father's house in the country was all covered over with black mortar. At the same time his father was taken sick and died in three days thereafter. He returned home on March 20, 1579, to find himself poor. As he said, he could not "live to study," but had "to study to live." He became a practising lawyer, but he did not like the profession. He feared "the bar would be his bier;" it absorbed time which he thought should be dedicated to better ends. We think we find the expression of his heart in the lines of the so-called Shakespeare Sonnet:
"O, for my sake, do thou with fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide,
Than public means, which public manners breeds."
His pecuniary embarrassments were numerous, and continuous. Falstaff doubtless expresses a thought which often recurred to him: "I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse; borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable." More than once he was thrown into a "sponging-house" for debt. His brother Anthony loaned him money repeatedly. In 1592 a "hard Jew or Lombard" put him in confinement for a debt on a bond. Anthony mortgaged his property to pay his debts. In 1594 Malone believes the play of "The Merchant of Venice" was in existence, in which Bassanio, being in debt to a hard Jew, his friend, Antonius, mortgages his own flesh to help him out of his troubles; and the Jew money-lender is sent down through all the ages the terrible type and exemplar of the merciless usurer. Bacon continues a "briefless barrister," with much time at his disposal. He helps in the composition of the play called "The Misfortunes of Arthur." He writes a Sonnet to the Queen. About this time, 1592, the Shakespeare plays begin to appear. Bacon assists in the preparation of several "masks" and "revels," gotten up by Gray's Inn. "The Comedy of Errors" first appears in the hall of that society, which still stands in London. The "Venus and Adonis" and "Lucrece" appear, dedicated to Bacon's intimate friend, Lord Southampton; and that nobleman in 1594 contributes a large sum to the construction of the Globe play-house, Bacon having observed that the stage is a powerful instrumentality to "play on the minds" of the people; and on this stage a series of historical plays are put forth, everyone of which represents kings as monsters or imbeciles.
The Shakespeare plays continue to be poured forth, and Bacon suffers from a siege of "Jews and duns." He describes himself "as poor and sick, working for bread." "I am purposed," he says, "not to follow the practice of the law." "It is easier," says Mr. Spedding, Bacon's biographer, "to understand why Bacon was resolved not to devote his life to the ordinary practice of a lawyer, than what plan he had to clear himself of the difficulties which were now accumulating upon him, and to obtain the means of living and working. What course he betook himself to at the crisis at which we have now arrived, I cannot possibly say." We have here the time, the opportunity, the incentive, and the necessity for the composition of the Shakespeare plays; part of the fruits of the representation of which made Shakespeare very wealthy.
In January, 1597, the first acknowledged work of Bacon--his "Essays"--was published. They were ten in number. Bacon said of them he hoped they would be "like the late new half-pence, which, though the pieces are small, the silver is good."
Until he was forty-four years of age, Bacon was kept poor and out of office by his uncle Burleigh, and his cousin Cecil; during the life-time of Queen Elizabeth he was steadily passed over and suppressed; and even during the first years of the reign of King James I., the influence of Cecil, then the Earl of Salisbury, was sufficient to keep him out of office. In 1605, Bacon published his first great philosophical work, "The Advancement of Learning;" in 1607, he became Solicitor-General; and in 1612, Attorney-General, and member of the Privy Council. He was then fifty-one years of age, and Shakespeare forty-eight. After the appointment of Bacon as Attorney-General, no more of the Shakespeare plays appeared; the "Tempest," which is evidently the last of the series, for in it Prospero declares--
"I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I'll drown my book;"
is set down by the commentators, as written between 1609 and 1611. At that time Shakespeare was forty-five or forty-seven years of age, and lived for five or seven years thereafter in utter intellectual idleness, in Stratford.
In 1609 Bacon published "The Wisdom of the Ancients," a prose work of great poetical beauty. His professional practice was large and his income princely. In 1617 he succeeded Ellesmere, the Lord Chancellor, with the title of lord-keeper. In January, 1618, he was created lord high chancellor, and the same year was raised to the peerage as Baron of Verulam; and in 1621 he was made Viscount St. Albans. The "Novum Organum," his great life-work, was printed in October, 1620. His extraordinary industry is revealed in the fact that it had been copied and revised twelve times before it took its present shape. The new philosophy meant the study of nature and the acquisition of the knowledge of things. In this search the "most common," "base, illiberal and filthy matters," are not to be overlooked. We find in the plays the same novel philosophy:
"Some kinds of baseness
Are nobly undergone; and most poor matters
Point to rich ends." (Tempest, iii. 1.)
"Bacon's leading thought was the good of humanity. He held that study, instead of employing itself in wearisome and sterile speculations, should be engaged in mastering the secrets of nature and life, and in applying them to human use. His method, in the attainment of this end, was rigid and pure observation, aided by experiment and fructified by induction.... He clearly invented a thermometer; he instituted ingenious experiments on the compressibility of bodies, and on the density and weight of air; he suggested chemical processes; he suggested the law of universal gravitation, afterward demonstrated by Newton; he foresaw the true explication of the tides, and the cause of colors." ["American Cyclopedia." Vol. II., p. 204.]
This great work, the "Novum Organum," as often happens, was received by the majority of readers of his time with laughter and ridicule. Coke wrote on the title-page of a presentation copy:
"It deserveth not to be read in schools,
But to be freighted in the ship of fools."
The ill-fortune which had so shrouded Bacon's struggling youth, and which had given way to such a magnificent sun-burst of splendid prosperity, was again massing its clouds and determined to cover his old age with shame, gloom and sorrow. He had been Lord Chancellor but three years, when, on March 15, 1621, a committee of the House of Commons reported two cases of bribery or corruption against him. Twenty-two other cases were also soon after presented. The House of Lords proceeded to investigate these charges, and Bacon defended himself. It was shown that fourteen of the twenty-four cases were presents given long after the suits were terminated; three more were sums of money loaned in the ordinary course of business; another case was an arbitration where compensation was due him; in another case the gift was sent back; another present, a piece of furniture, had never been accepted; another case was a New Year's gift, and in other cases the money was openly paid to the officers of his court. "Thus," says Hepworth Dixon, "after the most rigid scrutiny into his official acts, and into the official acts of his servants, not a single fee or remembrance, traced to the chancellor, can, by any fair construction, be called a bribe. Not one appears to have been given on a promise; not one appears to have been given in secret; not one is alleged to have corrupted justice."
It must be remembered that the salaries of all the high officers of the government were at that time paid in gifts and fees. Thus the king gave the lord chancellor but #81 6s. 8d. a year, while the place was worth #10,000 to #15,000; worth in our money to-day $125,000. "The judges had enough to buy their gloves and robes, not more." The lord chancellor had to maintain a huge retinue: "his court, his household, and his followers, gentlemen of quality, sons of peers and prelates; magistrates, deputy lieutenants of counties, knights of the shire, have all to live on fees and presents." It is still true that in England the law will not help a barrister or a physician to recover a fee; their compensation is, in theory, at least, supposed to be a gratuity for those they serve.
But it may be urged that Bacon plead guilty to corruption and bribery. He did nothing of the kind. He acknowledged that he "partook of the abuses of the times," and that the existing customs should be reformed; but he solemnly declared to Buckingham, May 31, 1621: "I have been a trusty and honest and Christ-loving friend to your lordship and the justest chancellor that hath been in the five charges since my father's time." Again, he said: "I had no bribe or reward in my eye or thought when I pronounced any sentence or order.... I take myself to be as innocent as any babe born on St. Innocent's day in my heart." All attempts to subsequently reverse his decrees failed, although his enemies were in possession of power. But King James urged him to make no defence, "to trust his honor and his safety to the crown.... He pleads guilty to carelessness, not to crime." He desired to live to finish up his philosophical works. To resist the king's wishes was to leave himself at the mercy of his life-long enemy, Coke; he yielded. The king remitted his fine of #40,000 and released him from the Tower. Bacon goes back to his books and writes in cipher: "I was the justest judge that was in England these fifty years; but it was the justest censure that was in Parliament these two hundred years." He meant thereby, that while personally innocent of corruption, the sentence would end gift-giving to judges. His formal confession to Parliament is a justification of every act complained of, for he relieves it, while acknowledging it, of those details which imply bribery.
He devoted the last five years of his life to putting forth the greatest works ever published by man; including the first complete edition of the so-called Shakespeare plays. Fortunate is it for the world that he was driven from the task of settling petty squabbles about the trash of the time, listening to "weary lawyers with endless tongues;" adjudicating questions of pounds, shillings, and pence between litigants whose very names have disappeared; and was shipwrecked by the stress of the great storm that struck him, like Prospero, on an island of solicitude, with books that "he prized above his dukedom," to perform labors in which all mankind will be interested even to the consummation of civilization on earth.
His patience, his gentleness, his forbearance were saint-like; still in his right hand he carried "gentle peace to silence envious tongues." His appearance, we are told, struck all men who beheld him with a great sense of awe. Those who were most closely associated with him loved him most dearly. His purposes were Godlike. They were "the glory of the Creator and the relief of man's estate." Macaulay says of Bacon's experimental philosophy:
"It has lengthened life; it has mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases; it has increased the fertility of the soil; it has given new securities to the mariner; it has furnished new arms to the warrior; it has spanned great rivers and estuaries with bridges of form unknown to our fathers; it has guided the thunderbolt innocuously from heaven to earth; it has lighted up the night with the splendor of the day; it has extended the range of the human vision; it has multiplied the power of human muscle; it has accelerated motion; it has annihilated distance; it has facilitated intercourse, correspondence, all friendly offices, all despatch of business; it has enabled men to descend to the depths of the sea; to soar into the air; to penetrate securely into the noxious recesses of the earth; to traverse the land with cars which whirl along without horses; and the ocean with ships which sail against the wind."
In other words, the brain of this tremendous, this incomprehensible, this complex man, lies at the base of all our literature and of all our modern progress and civilization. The world is hardly big enough for his fame, and the praises of mankind cannot fill the measure of his greatness.