FRANCIS BACON: The Political Career of Francis Bacon

Reference: The Story of Philosophy 

This paper presents Chapter III, Section 2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


II. The Political Career of Francis Bacon

Bacon was born on January 22, 1561, at York House, London, the residence of his father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, who for the first twenty years of Elizabeth’s reign had been Keeper of the Great Seal. “The fame of the father,” says Macaulay, ”has been thrown into the shade by that of the son. But Sir Nicholas was no ordinary man.” It is as one might have suspected; for genius is an apex, to which a family builds itself through talent, and through talent in the genius’s offspring subsides again towards the mediocrity of man. Bacon’s mother was Lady Anne Cooke, sister-in-law of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer, and one of the most powerful men in England. Her father had been chief tutor of King Edward VI; she herself was a linguist and a theologian, and thought nothing of corresponding in Greek with bishops. She made herself instructress of her son, and spared no pains in his education. 

But the real nurse of Bacon’s greatness was Elizabethan England, the greatest age of the most powerful of modern nations. The discovery of America had diverted trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, had raised the Atlantic nations—Spain and France and Holland and England—to that commercial and financial supremacy which had been Italy’s when half of Europe had made her its port of entry and exit in the Eastern trade; and with this change the Renaissance had passed from Florence and Rome and Milan and Venice to Madrid and Paris and Amsterdam and London. After the destruction of the Spanish naval power in 1588, the commerce of England spread over every sea, her towns throve with domestic industry, her sailors circumnavigated the globe and her captains won America. Her literature blossomed into Spenser’s poetry and Sidney’s prose; her stage throbbed with the dramas of Shakespeare and Marlowe and Ben Jonson and a hundred vigorous pens. No man could fail to flourish in such a time and country, if there was seed in him at all.

Bacon was born in a powerful and cultured family of Elizabethan England, the greatest age of the most powerful of modern nations.

At the age of twelve Bacon was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge. He stayed there three years, and left it with a strong dislike of its texts and methods, a confirmed hostility to the cult of Aristotle, and a resolve to set philosophy into a more fertile path, to turn it from scholastic disputation to the illumination and increase of human good. Though still a lad of sixteen, he was offered an appointment to the staff of the English ambassador in France; and after careful casting up of pros and cons, he accepted. In the Proem to The Interpretation of Nature, he discusses this fateful decision that turned him from philosophy to politics. It is an indispensable passage: 

Whereas, I believed myself born for the service of mankind, and reckoned the care of the common weal to be among those duties that are of public right, open to all alike, even as the waters and the air, I therefore asked myself what could most advantage mankind, and for the performance of what tasks I seemed to be shaped by nature. But when I searched, I found no work so meritorious as the discovery and development of the arts and inventions that tend to civilize the life of man. … Above all, if any man could succeed—not merely in bringing to light some one particular invention, however useful—but in kindling in nature a luminary which would, at its first rising, shed some light on the present limits and borders of human discoveries, and which afterwards, as it rose still higher, would reveal and bring into clear view every nook and cranny of darkness, it seemed to me that such a discoverer would deserve to be called the true Extender of the Kingdom of Man over the universe, the Champion of human liberty, and the Exterminator of the necessities that now keep men in bondage. Moreover, I found in my own nature a special adaptation for the contemplation of truth. For I had a mind at once versatile enough for that most important object—I mean the recognition of similitudes—and at the same time sufficiently steady and concentrated for the observation of subtle shades of difference. I possessed a passion for research, a power of suspending judgment with patience, of meditating with pleasure, of assenting with caution, of correcting false impressions with readiness, and of arranging my thoughts with scrupulous pains. I had no hankering after novelty, no blind admiration for antiquity. Imposture in every shape I utterly detested. For all these reasons I considered that my nature and disposition had, as it were, a kind of kinship and connection with truth. 

But my birth, my rearing and education, had all pointed, not toward philosophy, but towards politics: I had been, as it were, imbued in politics from childhood. And as is not unfrequently the case with young men, I was sometimes shaken in my mind by opinions. I also thought that my duty towards my country had special claims upon me, such as could not be urged by other duties of life. Lastly, I conceived the hope that, if I held some honorable office in the state, I might have secure helps and supports to aid my labors, with a view to the accomplishment of my destined task. With these motives I applied myself to politics.

Bacon’s disposition was kind of kinship and connection with truth. He decided to apply himself to politics.

Sir Nicholas Bacon died suddenly in 1579. He had intended to provide Francis with an estate; but death over-reached his plans, and the young diplomat, called hurriedly to London, saw himself, at the age of eighteen, fatherless and penniless. He had become accustomed to most of the luxuries of the age, and he found it hard to reconcile himself now to a forced simplicity of life. He took up the practice of law, while he importuned his influential relatives to advance him to some political office which would liberate him from economic worry. His almost begging letters had small result, considering the grace and vigor of their style, and the proved ability of their author. Perhaps it was because Bacon did not underrate this ability, and looked upon position as his due, that Burghley failed to make the desired response; and perhaps, also, these letters protested too much the past, present and future loyalty of the writer to the honorable Lord: in politics, as in love, it does not do to give one’s self wholly; one should at all times give, but at no time all. Gratitude is nourished with expectation.

When he was eighteen, his father died suddenly and Bacon found himself fatherless and penniless.

Eventually, Bacon climbed without being lifted from above; but every step cost him many years. In 1583 he was elected to Parliament for Taunton; and his constituents liked him so well that they returned hlm to his seat in election after election. He had a terse and vivid eloquence in debate, and was an orator without oratory. “No man,” said Ben Jonson, “ever spoke more neatly, more (com)pressedly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of its own graces. His hearers could not cough or look aside from him without loss. He commanded where he spoke. … No man had their affections more in his power. The fear of every man that heard him was lest that he should make an end.” Enviable orator! 

Bacon climbed through his own efforts, and 4 years later he was elected to a local parliament. He was an enviable orator and his constituents loved him.

One powerful friend was generous to him—that handsome Earl of Essex whom Elizabeth loved unsuccessfully, and so learned to hate. In 1595 Essex, to atone for his failure in securing a political post for Bacon, presented him with a pretty estate at Twickenham. It was a magnificent gift, which one might presume would bind Bacon to Essex for life; but it did not. A few years later Essex organized a conspiracy to imprison Elizabeth and select her successor to the throne. Bacon wrote letter after letter to his benefactor, protesting against this treason; and when Essex persisted, Bacon warned him that he would put loyalty to his Queen above even gratitude to his friend. Essex made his effort, failed, and was arrested. Bacon pled with the Queen in his behalf so incessantly that at last she bade him “speak of any other subject.” When Essex, temporarily freed, gathered armed forces about him, marched into London, and tried to rouse its populace to revolution, Bacon turned against him angrily. Meanwhile he had been given a place in the prosecuting office of the realm; and when Essex, again arrested, was tried for treason, Bacon took active part in the prosecution of the man who had been his unstinting friend.*

*Hundreds of volumes have been written on this aspect of Bacon’s career. The case against Bacon, as “the wisest and meanest of mankind” (so Pope called him), will be found in Macaulay’s essay, and more circumstantially in Abbott’s Francis Bacon; these would apply to him his own words: “Wisdom for a man’s self is the wisdom of rats, that will be sure to leave a house somewhat before it falls” (Essay “Of Wisdom for a Man’s Self”). The case for Bacon is given in Spedding’s Life and Times of Francis Bacon, and in his Evenings with a Reviewer (a detailed reply to Macaulay). In medio veritas.

Bacon cared for the larger good. He put loyalty to his Queen above even gratitude to his friend.

Essex was found guilty, and was put to death. Bacon’s part in the trial made him for a while unpopular; and from this time on he lived in the midst of enemies watching for a chance to destroy him. His insatiable ambition left him no rest; he was ever discontent, and always a year or so ahead of his income. He was lavish in his expenditures; display was to him a part of policy.. When, at the age of forty-five, he married, the pompous and costly ceremony made a great gap in the dowry which had constituted one of the lady’s attractions. In 1598 he was arrested for debt. Nevertheless, he continued to advance. His varied ability and almost endless knowledge made him a valuable member of every important committee; gradually higher offices were opened to him: in 1606 he was made Solicitor-General; in 1613 he became Attorney-General; in 1618, at the age of fifty-seven, he was at last Lord Chancellor. 

Bacon advanced in his carrier based purely on his varied ability and almost endless knowledge.


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  • Chris Thompson  On August 11, 2021 at 9:14 AM

    Without doing my own research, but reading only from the words quoted, I find Bacon’s ambition and eerily similar to leading politicians today, minus the polish.

    The quote of Bacon, “Wisdom for a man’s self is the wisdom of rats, that will be sure to leave a house somewhat before it falls” (Essay “Of Wisdom for a Man’s Self”), paired against his lifestyle seems hypocritical. However, I do not judge a man but only the character as described above.

    16th Century England had not yet reached its peak of world power and was still working out what is a civilization. The things that we think of today as “human fairness” would have been laughable to the ruling class of that time as it seems to becoming today as well. These social and political tides flow and ebb. Again today we see oppressive government on the rise with the slogan FOR YOUR OWN GOOD emblazoned on every oppressive act. The Bacon character as described above I think would approve.


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