Durant 1926: Epilogue (Francis Bacon)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter III, Section 6 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.

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VI. Epilogue  

“Men in great place are thrice servants; servants to the sovereign or state, servants of fame, and servants of business, so as they have no freedom, neither in their persons nor in their action, nor in their time. … The rising unto place is laborious, and by pains men come to greater pains; and it is sometimes base, and by indignities men come to dignities. The standing is slippery, and the regress is either a downfall or at least an eclipse.” What a wistful summary of Bacon’s epilogue! 

Francis Bacon was a man of his time.

“A man’s shortcomings,” said Goethe, “are taken from his epoch; his virtues and greatness belong to himself.” This seems a little unfair to the Zeitgeist, but it is exceptionally just in the case of Bacon. Abbott, after a painstaking study of the morals prevalent at Elizabeth’s court, concludes that all the leading figures, male and female, were disciples of Machiavelli. Roger Ascham described in doggerel the four cardinal virtues in demand at the court of the Queen: 

Cog, lie, flatter and face,
Four ways in Court to win men grace. 
If thou be thrall to none of these, 
Away, good Piers! Home, John Cheese!

In those times, man were beholden to their status.

It was one of the customs of those lively days for judges to take “presents” from persons trying cases in their courts. Bacon was not above the age in this matter; and his tendency to keep his expenditure several years in advance of his income forbade him the luxury of scruples. It might have passed unnoticed, except that he had made enemies in Essex’ case, and by his readiness to sabre foes with his speech. A friend had warned him that “it is too common in every man’s mouth in Court that … as your tongue hath been a razor to some, so shall theirs be to you.” But he left the warnings unnoticed. He seemed to be in good favor with the King; he had been made Baron Verulam of Verulam in 1618, and Viscount St. Albans in 1621; and for three years he had been Chancellor.

Bacon was extravagant and accepted bribes to support his lifestyle. He was caustic and had made enemies.

Then suddenly the blow came. In 1621 a disappointed suitor charged him with taking money for the despatch of a suit; it was no unusual matter, but Bacon knew at once that if his enemies wished to press it they could force his fall. He retired to his home, and waited developments. When he learned that all his foes were clamoring for his dismissal, he sent in his “confession and humble submission” to the King. James, yielding to pressure from the now victorious Parliament against which Bacon had too persistently defended him, sent him to the Tower. But Bacon was released after two. days; and the heavy fine which had been laid upon him was remitted by the King. His pride was not quite broken. “I was the justest judge that was in England these fifty years,” he said; “but it was the justest judgment that was in Parliament these two hundred years.”

Bacon was finally dismissed under the pressure of his enemies for something not so unusual.

He spent the five years that remained to him in the obscurity and peace of his home, harassed by an unwonted poverty, but solaced by the active pursuit of philosophy. In these five years he wrote his greatest Latin work, De Augmentis Scientiarum, published an enlarged edition of the Essays, a fragment called Sylva Sylvarum, and a History of Henry VII. He mourned that he had not sooner abandoned politics and given all his time to literature and science. To the very last moment he was occupied with work, and died, so to speak, on the field of battle. In his essay “Of Death” he had voiced a wish to die ”in an earnest pursuit, which is like one wounded in hot blood, who for the time scarce feels the hurt.” Like Caesar, he was granted his choice. 

Bacon lived the last five years of his life in poverty but happy in the pursuit of philosophy till his last breath.

In March, 1626, while riding from London to Highgate, and turn.ing over in his mind the question how far flesh might be preserved from putrefaction by being covered with snow, he resolved to put the matter to a test at once. Stopping off at a cottage, he bought a fowl, killed it, and stuffed it with snow. While he was doing this he was seized with chills and weakness; and finding himself too ill to ride back to town, he gave directions that he should be taken to the nearby home of Lord Arundel, where he took to bed. He did not yet resign life; he wrote cheerfully that “the experiment … succeeded excellently well.” But it was his last. The fitful fever of his varied life had quite consumed him; he was all burnt out now, too weak to fight the disease that crept up slowly to his heart. He died on the ninth of April, 1626, at the age of sixty-five. 

He had written in his will these proud and characteristic words: “1 bequeath my soul to God. … My body to be buried obscurely. My name to the next ages and to foreign nations.” The ages and the nations have accepted him. 

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