Francis Bacon

One of my favourite essayists is Francis Bacon (1561–1626), & it irritates me to no end that people think I’m referring to the weird modern artist (1909–1992) when I’m talking about him. The artist is now, and I think lamentably, more popular than the first famous Francis Bacon; and so my aim with this article is to make you think of this Francis Bacon first, and the other Francis Bacon second.

Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban by Nicholas Hilliard, 1578. © The National Portrait Gallery, London

Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban
by Nicholas Hilliard, 1578. © The National Portrait Gallery, London

In a Google search of “Francis Bacon” the latter comes first, and in conversation, most people assume I’m talking about the artist. To an Early Modernist such as myself, I find this truly vexing.  I refuse to link to the “artist’s” work because I really can’t stand most modern art, so if you want to see that stuff, feel free to search for it yourself.

Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban. by Simon de Passe line engraving, published 1638. © The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban. by Simon de Passe
line engraving, published 1638. © The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Francis Bacon was born on the 22 January 1561 in London. He studied at Cambridge University, and eventually went on to become a leading figure of empiricism, helping to lay the foundation for the scientific revolution to come (and, indeed, even the Enlightenment). Next to de la Rochefoucauld, Bacon is one of my favourite 17th-century philosophers.

A principal fruit of friendship is the ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.

I particularly enjoy his Essays, which are very much of his time, though there are still timeless truths to be learned from them.

Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral of Francis Bacon

Ambition is like choler, which is an humour that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped. But if it be stopped, and cannot have its way, it becometh adust, and therby malign and venomous.

Bacon certainly seems to have had his share of ambition, and it wasn’t impeded, so he became successively more powerful. He entered Parliament in 1584, and later during James I’s reign, he became Attorney-General, followed by Lord Keeper, and then Lord Chancellor in 1618.

But things weren’t all sweetness and light, for he was charged with bribery and thrown into the Tower of London. Oops.

Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban by Unknown artist oil on canvas, after 1731 (circa 1618). © The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban
by Unknown artist
oil on canvas, after 1731 (circa 1618). © The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Bacon was an extremely erudite individual and I have looked up to him all of my life. I want to be even half as knowledgeable as he was. That being said, I don’t agree with everything he wrote (naturally) but I admire the way in which he wrote it.

From his essay ‘On Death’:

Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.

he goes on to write:

Certainly the contemplation of death as the wages of sin and passage to another world is holy and religious, but the fear of it, as a tribute due unto nature, is weak. Yet in religious meditations there is sometimes mixture of vanity and of superstition.

We all have to negotiate in life, and I enjoyed his essay ‘Of Negotiating’

It is generally better to deal by speech than by letter, and by the mediation of a third than by a man’s self.

Anger is an emotion I try to avoid as much as possible, because I’ve often found it to be a negative emotion. Let’s see what Bacon thinks of it in his essay, ‘Of Anger’:

To seek to extinguish anger utterly is but a bravery of the Stoics…Anger must be limited and confined, both in race and in time…Anger is a certain kind of baseness; as it appears well in the weakness of those subject in whom it reigns: children, women, old folks, sick folks.

I’m sure John Evelyn would agree with Bacon on his views about the good that comes from gardening:

And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of a man, without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks: and a man shall ever see that when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were the greater perfection.

Francis Bacon died in 1626, after he conducted an experiment outside which involved stuffing snow into a chicken corpse in order to see how well it preserved. He caught a chill, which seems to have developed into pneumonia, and that is how he met his end. All for science!

His second wife, Alice Barnham, whom Bacon had previously discovered had been cheating on him with a chap named Underhill, re-married said Underhill a mere TWO WEEKS after Bacon’s death.

Crikey.

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Hear ye! 7 thoughts — so far — on “Francis Bacon”:

  1. Julie McNeill

    Thank you for the introduction. I had heard of him and got mixed up about the other fellow. Are they related? Looking forward to learning more. My husband is a gardener and science media vulture, but still can be superstitious and fearing death. I think he will be interested if I bring home this Bacon.

    Reply
  2. Bill Schneider

    Andrea, I would have to disagree with your second sentence. I would rather not think of the other Francis Bacon at all.

    Reply
  3. Nancy Ewart

    The original Francis Bacon was a man of erudition, ambition, ruthless cunning and probably not a very good husband. Apparently he preferred his bed fellows to his wives.

    But oh well. You can’t have everything.

    Lovely essay and nice introduction to one of the most fascinating men of the 17th century.

    Reply
  4. Natasha Hadleigh

    Hello Andrea. I always think of this Francis Bacon first and the other one only if I really have to. I read him when I’m feeling scholarly and he makes me feel even more so. Sadly it rarely lasts.
    Very nice introduction to a most interesting man.

    Reply

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