Friday, May 04, 2007

Bacon [some remarks on The Advancement of Learning, Book One]

a real hero

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 Elizabeth’s deserved reputation, yet it’s clear that Bacon is far more than a fawning courtier. Though his criticisms are broad, they’re often incisive, and he doesn’t spare the clergy, especially those who prefer a particular soi-disant sacred text to ‘the book of nature’ which he describes, no doubt sincerely, as God’s book. It’s a criticism that can be fairly leveled at many a Southern Baptist today. At the beginning of Book One he quotes some notoriously ant-intellectual Bible passages, Ecclesiastes 12:12 – of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh, Ecclesiastes 1:18 – For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow, and also the remark of Paul in Corinthians 8:1 – knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth [as if it was a case of either/or]. These passages, he points out, as well as the claim that the yearning for knowledge produced the fall and was in a sense the original sin, have encouraged clerics to reduce the importance of knowledge and to associate it with heresy and even atheism [crime of all crimes]. Bacon’s response is complex and perhaps a little anxious. Naturally he makes his own selection and interpretation of scripture to back his case, in time-honoured fashion.

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.



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