The Catholic Press – 10 June 1926
It is 300 years since Bacon died in the shadow of disgrace, and we cannot yet agree even as to whether he was the wisest or the meanest of mankind, or whether (as Pope thought) he was both at the same time. Modern critics on the. whole are inclined to think that he has been overcharged with baseness.
He has again and again been portrayed as A monster of treachery, because, owing everything in his career to the protection and friendship of Essex, he became the instrument of Elizabeth in hounding Essex to death as a traitor. If Bacon believed that Essex was a traitor, he obviously had to choose between loyalty to the Queen and loyalty to his former protector. And he can hardly be blamed if he was one of those men who will sacrifice even a friend rather than endanger the State. In the history of politics and religion, men have frequently sacrificed friendship to what they regarded as a higher loyalty. Bacon was neither a turncoat nor a time-server in his attitude to Essex, but an ordinary man of principle in less settled days than ours.
“Not Too Guilty.”
The second great stain on Bacon’s good name is the charge of bribery that brought about his downfall. But even on this point his defenders can without casuistry make out a fairly good case for finding him not too guilty. A verdict of “not too guilty” does not, I suppose, hold in law; but in morals it is often the only possible verdict.
It goes without saying that a Lord Chancellor ought not to take bribes at any time or in any circumstances. But it is equally obvious, I think, that it is not so disgraceful to take bribes at a time when everybody takes bribes as it would be in England to-day, and that the circumstances of Elizabethans were in this respect very different from ours. The bribes taken by Bacon seem to have been something about half-way between real bribes and tips such as we nowadays give to waiters and railway porters.
Not that a man who is dispensing justice can be justly compared to a man who is rendering light services like a waiter or a railway porter. If he accepts a tip to pervert justice, and allows his decisions to be determined entirely by the size of the tip offered by the richer litigant, he is more dangerously corrupt than a thief or a murderer. But there is, we are told, no evidence that Bacon even allowed his judgment to be influenced by a tip. He accented tips like a waiter, and dispensed justice like a judge. What the first of his accusers, Christopher Aubrey, actually charged him with was that he had accepted money from him during a law suit, and that, in spite of this, he had given the award to the other side. If Bacon had been a little more corrupt, Christopher Aubrey would not have had a word to say against him. His real complaint against Bacon was that, though Bacon had been. weak enough to take a present, he had remained strong enough to be incorruptible. Bacon himself declared at the time—and he has never been proved to be a liar—that he had never “had bribe or reward in his eye or thought when he pronounced any sentence or order.”
All this, it seems to me, proves that Bacon was no devil, and it also indisputably proves that he was no saint. He was a worldling taking the accustomed advantages of the world he knew while trying to improve it. His wisdom, as we find it in his writings, is for the most part worldly wisdom. He is probably the wisest man of the world who has even written in English.
None the less, the “Essays” of Bacon remains the immortal book of prose of the 16th century. Bacon himself apologised for giving the world such trifles, “because they will be like the late new halfpence, which, though the silver were good, yet the pieces were small.” Later on, when he had enlarged and added to them, he had another qualm of modesty because they were written in such a barbarous language as English. These modern languages, he declared, would “make bankrupts of our books,” and he translated them into Latin order to give them a chance of immortality.
Certain modern critics have denied that they are true essays, and Bacon himself described them as “councils civil and moral.” They do not give us the map of a whole man as the essays of Montaigne do. They delight us chiefly in their aphorisms and their separate sentences. But how many prose-writers have given us sentences like those that ring in the imagination of one generation after another? “Men fear death as children fear to go into the dark,” “God Almighty first planted a garden, and, indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures.” “A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love”—these rhythms of the great poets. The sentences are commonplaces, but commonplaces new-minted by genius.
Bacon’s writing, indeed, prosaic though it may seem, is instinct with passion. He was a man with a passion for truth, and it was not a mere worldling’s greed of success that made him plan the “Novum Organum” and write “The Advancement of Learning.” “This writing seemeth to me,” he said towards the end of “The Advancement of Learning,” “. . . . not much better than that noise or sound which musicians make while they are tuning up their instruments, which is nothing pleasant to hear, but yet is a cause why the music is sweeter afterwards: so have I been content to tune the instruments of the Muses, that they may play that have better hands.
That, I think, might be taken as the epitaph, at once modest and justly boastful, of one of the pioneers of the age of invention, in which helpless men dream of making themselves masters of the forces of nature.