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Life and works of Francis Bacon

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Francis BaconFrancis Bacon (1561-1626), son of the keeper of the Great Seal, Nicolas Bacon, was destined by his father for the service of the State; elected to the House of Commons in 1584, appointed by Elizabeth as extraordinary advisor to the Crown, he reached the highest judicial offices during the reign of James I. Bacon therefore had the training of a jurist: received a lawyer in 1582, he taught at the London law school from 1589; in 1599, he wrote the Maxims of the Law which was intended to prepare a codification of English laws. Ambitious, intriguing, ready for any useful about-face, flattering the absolutist aims of James I, he rose little by little, becoming solicitor general in 1607, attorney general in 1613, Keeper of the Seals in 1617, grand chancellor in 1618; he was created baron of Verulam in 1618 and viscount of Saint-Albans in 1621. He was always defender of the royal prerogative; he convicted Talbot, a member of the Irish Parliament, who had approved Suarez’s ideas on the legitimacy of tyrannicide; in a matter of ecclesiastical order, he made triumphant this principle that the judges must suspend their judgment and come and confer with the king, each time the king considers his power involved in a pending case. It was the meeting of Parliament in 1621 which put an end to his fortune: accused of conspiracy by the House of Commons, he admitted that he had in fact received presents from litigants before justice had been rendered; the House of Lords sentenced him to a fine of 40,000 pounds, with prohibition from holding any public office, from sitting in Parliament and from staying near the Court. Bacon, aged, sick and ruined, tried in vain to be rehabilitated; he died five years later.

In the midst of such a turbulent life, Bacon never stopped thinking about the reform of science. Bacon’s work, taken as a whole, presents a singular aspect: he conceived, undoubtedly very early, the overall work, which he later called the Instauratio magna, and including the preface to the Novum organum (1620) gives the plan; because, in a letter of 1625, he postponed forty years the writing of a pamphlet entitled Temporis partus maximus (The greatest birth of Time), which dealt with this subject; this pamphlet is perhaps identical to the Temporis partus masculus sive de interpretatione naturae, a small posthumous treatise where we find a plan almost identical to that of the preface to the Novum organum. In any case, this last plan contains six divisions: 1) Partitiones scientiarum (Classification of sciences); 2) Novum organum sive indicia de interpretatione naturae; 3) Phaenomena universal Historia naturalis et experimentalis ad condendam philosophiam; 4) Scala intellectus sive filum labyrinthi; 5) Prodromi sive anticipationes philosophiae secundae; 6) Philosophia secunda sive scientia activa. The realization of this plan included a series of treatises which, starting from the current state of science, with all its shortcomings (I), first studied the new organon to replace that of Aristotle (II), described then the investigation of facts (III), moved on to the search for laws (IV), to come down to the actions that this knowledge allowed us to exercise on nature (V and VI). Of this overall work which Bacon was quick to consider impossible for a single man to carry out, the treatises which we possess are like the disjecta membra: we cite the greatest number of them, classifying them according to the plan of the Instauratio ( but they were not written in that order). Only the first part, by his own admission, is completed: it is De dignitate et augmentis scientiarum libri IX, published in 1623; this writing was the development and Latin translation of a treatise in English published in 1605, Of Proficiency and Advancement of leaming; his papers also contained several drafts on the same subject, the Valerius Terminus, written around 1603 and published in 1736, the Descriptio globi intellectualis, written around 1612 and published in 1653. The second part corresponds to the Novum organum sive indicia vexa de interpretàtione naturae, published in 1620. The third part, the aim of which is indicated in a pamphlet published following the Novum organum, the Parasceve ad historiam naturalem et experimentalem, is treated in the Historia naturalis et experimentalis ad condendam philosophiam sive Phaenomena universi, published in 1622; this work announced a certain number of monographs, some of which were written or sketched after the fall of the chancellor: Historia vitae et mortis, published in 1623; Historia densi et rari, in 1658; Historia ventorum, in 1622j and the collection of materials, Sylva sylvarum, published in 1627. The fourth part relates to the Filum labyrinthi sive inquisitio legitima de motu, composed in 1608, and published in 1653; Topica inquisitionis de luce et illumine, in 1653; Inquisitio de magnete, in 1658. The fifth part (Prodromi sive anticipationes philosophiae uccina, published in 1653) is linked to the Defluxu et uccin maris, composed in 1616; Thema coeli, composed in 1612; Cogitationes de uccin rerum, written from 1600 to 1604, all published in 1653. Finally, the second philosophy is the subject of the Cogitata et. visa de uccinateuron naturae sive de scientia uccinate and the third book of Temporis partus uccinate, published in 1653.

It is always to the great work that even the treatises which are not part of it relate, the Redargutio philosophiarum, published in 1736, and especially New Atlantis, project for an organization of scientific research, published in 1627. It would be necessary to add literary works, the Essays (1597), of which each new edition (1612 and 1625) adds to the previous one, and a large number of historical and legal works.

It is the literary activity of a herald of the new spirit, of a succinator who aims to awaken minds and to be the initiator of a movement which must transform human life, by ensuring mastery of man on nature: of an initiator he has the passion, the strong imagination which engraves the precepts in unforgettable strokes; but also of a lawyer and an administrator he has the spirit of organization, the almost finicky prudence, the desire, in the secular work that he is beginning, to distribute to everyone (observer, experimenter, inventor of laws) a limited and precise task.

Source: Émile Bréhier(1951). Histoire de la philosophie, Presses Universitaires de France. Translation and adaptation by © 2024 Nicolae Sfetcu

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