Bacon [some remarks on The Advancement of Learning, Book One]
Having finished the first book of Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, I feel pleasantly surprised at how modern it is in places, though much of it, unsurprisingly, is entangled in religion, the religion that was tearing Britain and Europe apart and that would continue to do so throughout the seventeenth century, with the civil war in England and the Thirty Years war on the continent. Yet in spite of all the persecution and intolerance other forces were on the move, forces that would most certainly have gained Bacon’s support, forces indeed that he helped to shape and strengthen – the forces of the British enlightenment, when, as Ian McEwen wrote in his novel Saturday, a few clever, curious men held in their minds nearly all the world’s science.
Book One, published in 1605, is a paean to the joy and benefits of learning. It can still inspire today, though it also expends much effort in cautioning us against the fruitlessness of certain sorts of speculation. It’s a first groping towards an adequate scientific methodology. Bacon naturally acts as a bridge between classical thought and modern science; his accounts of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar are more in the style of Plutarch than of Bacon’s contemporaries, and they’re the most engrossing sections of the text, having all the timelessness of good gossip. The non-narrative parts of the text employ difficult and now out-dated language [alongside strikingly modern passages], and are clogged with untranslated Latin quotations from the likes of Virgil, Lucretius, Seneca and Livy – testament to Bacon’s erudition if nothing else. The overly fulsome praise of James I and even of his predecessor Elizabeth reads uncomfortably to a modern, even considering
I note that Bacon actually wrote an essay on atheism, which I’ll report on soon. It may well have been this essay that first popularized the term in the modern sense.