Imatges de pÓgina
PDF
EPUB

such a passage as the following, among many others of a similar character. It occurs in a letter to King James written after his fall :

Your Majesty's Star-Chamber, next your court of Parliament, is your highest chair. You never came upon that mount but your garments did shine before you went off.

This was flattery, of course, which Bacon always deliberately used, and even defended, in approaching the Sovereign, but, from a careful study of his works and correspondence, I am convinced that it was also written without any clear consciousness of inappropriateness or absurdity. It is the impressionable artist putting himself in the place of another man and saying what he conceives will be agreeable to his feelings, no doubt for politic ends. Though James was a very unwise and unworthy man in action, intellectually he was by no means a fool, and one wonders what he thought of it. On one occasion he took upon himself, according to Buckingham, to characterise as confused and childish' a letter addressed to him by Bacon on the subject of his conduct to Buckingham in the affair of Coke's daughter which the King had censured. This is only an illustration among thousands scattered throughout Bacon's serious writings of the way in which his mind was captivated by his fancy, and when an image presented itself by way of analogy he was unable to resist it. In short he was before all things a poet. Certainly, apart from the powers of intuition which it displays, there is nothing very profound about his philosophy, and a good deal that is far-fetched and superficial. It is the marvellous eloquence and power of illustration through concrete images, sometimes bringing the conviction of truth by a flash of genius, but sometimes also distracting the mind by glittering and strained analogies, which gives the main interest to his philosophical works. I do not say this so much of the literary works, which are replete with practical truth and wisdom. As to the primitiveness of Bacon's spiritual nature, it is revealed in his whole attitude towards mankind. He was content himself to leave religion to revelation and the scheme of Church worship established by law, and I believe he was genuinely convinced of their validity. It was his object to persuade men to adopt a like disposition, to cease from concerning themselves with questions which they never could settle in this world, and turn their thoughts to material improvement through the study of the processes of nature, and to the means for improving and beautifying social life. 'Da fidei quae fidei sunt,' he was fond of exclaiming, but men are so constituted that they will still wrestle with their fate, and will not accept defeat on terms of a pleasurable existence. Bacon, with a prophetic gaze, foresaw and regretted this, and even foretold the troubles of the future, in which, it may be observed, he was largely instrumental through the doctrines which he encouraged in the Stuart family. In a few years after his death the issues of conviction, freedom and conscience, all of which he wished to put on one side, were to come to the arbitrament of the sword. Is not the attitude of the author of the plays precisely similar, when he is not concerned with complaints about the mutability of things and the extinction placed on all human effort by decay and death ?

For some sixteen centuries the mind of man had been occupied with theological controversies, which had centred mainly on two subjects, the nature of the Godhead, and the nature of the human soul and its relation to Deity. Bacon was the first who made an effort in a popular way to divert men's minds from these subjects to something more within their power. He was protected from persecution by being born in a Protestant country and also by the ingenuity with which he clothed his ideas under an appearance of orthodoxy." His object was to increase the power of man by enlarging the bounds of Knowledge, and he attempted this by pointing the way to the control and adaptation of the forces of nature through scientific inquiry and experiment. Though his philosophy, regarded as a practical method, was a failure, he nevertheless indicated some of the essential means and ends of modern development, and in doing so he overthrew the scholastic method of beginning in philosophy with conceptions

1 In spite of this, Bacon's Advancement of Learning was attacked by some as heretical.

and principles supposed to be given by reason and divine revelation, and with it the barren disputations founded on that method. But he over-estimated the importance of the material elements of civilisation, and under-estimated the moral and spiritual element in human nature. To supply the place of this he advocated an unconditional submission to dogma in religion, to which, in the view of some, he was himself indifferent, but to which I think he clung from a conservative and pious instinct, and as necessary to the scheme of social order, rather than from an active conviction, and a similar submission to autocratic power in the State, which he endeavoured to maintain, with himself as the principal agent, with little regard to the means employed. The weakness of his moral character, amounting at times to degradation, was the index of these tendencies.

It would be unfair, however, to regard the motives underlying the political tendencies of Bacon as purely self-regarding; they were certainly prompted to some extent by a desire to secure efficiency and in the interests of the humbler classes, who, according to his ideas, stood to gain more from a benevolent despotism than from constitutionalism. In this he has had

many successors, but the English people have always had the political instinct to see that, even if you desired such a thing, you cannot make sure of getting, or at any rate of keeping, a wise despot, and have therefore insisted on hedging the sovereign power about with constitutional checks. The disgust which, even in those days, an average Englishman, with strong conservative leanings, felt for such ideas is shown in the remarks of Francis Osborne about a Declaration, which

according to the mode of weak and ill-consulted Princes' King James' set forth in print’in explanation of the execution of Ralegh, a declaration, Osborne says, ' which according to the ordinary success of apologies rendered the condition of that proceeding worse in the world's opinion.' He goes on : 'It begins thus, " Though I take my selfe bound to give no

* Compare the remarks in Ueberweg's History of Philosophy (edit. Smith and Schaff), II., 34, which I have to some extent adopted as they express my view of Bacon's attitude and character.

.1

[ocr errors]

other account of my actions but to God; yet," etc. This document will be found in Spedding, and there can be no doubt that it was drafted by Bacon. Indeed he alludes to it in a letter to Buckingham. It can also be asserted with confidence that the sentence quoted by Osborne with which the Declaration opens was Bacon's work, as it had already appeared in almost identical form in Bacon's Report of the proceedings at the first trial of the Earl of Essex, and is repeated in a letter to King James advising on the form of procedure in the case of Ralegh. Such ideas may do well elsewhere, but they have never found favour in this country, and no arguments derived from the alleged benefits which they might be expected to confer on the poor have ever made them acceptable. The native ideal is rather that embodied in the famous lines of Goldsmith, whose Irish genius has perhaps mingled a little flattery with the admiration-lines which Boswell says Johnson, while he was helping him on with his great-coat, repeated with such energy that tears started to his eyes :

Stern o'er each bosom reason holds her state,
With daring aims irregularly great ;
Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by ;
Intent on high designs, a thoughtful band,
By forms unfashion'd, fresh from Nature's hand,
Fierce in their native hardiness of soul,
True to imagin'd right, above control,
While even the peasant boasts these rights to scan,
And learns to venerate himself as man.

It was this spirit which Bacon could not, or did not, understand, and which brought him, and after him the Stuart dynasty, to the ground.

But in saying this I must not omit to remind the reader how very conflicting the contemporary estimates of Bacon's character are. The fact is he was a many-sided man and his

1 Memories on the Reign of King James. · Letters and Life, vi., 384. Ibid. p. 378. Ibid, p. 361.

character presents very difficult problems. One thing is certain : that though he provoked a great deal of hostile criticism, he also evoked much unqualified admiration. He seems to have been at his best among his inferiors, who surrendered themselves to the charm of his personality and conversation. With them he adopted the attitude of a benevolent and tolerant instructor, whereas, among his superiors in rank, especially where they were his superiors in power, he compromised his own dignity and sometimes, it is to be feared, his honour by an undue anxiety to please. One of the most remarkable testimonies, on the favourable side, will be found in the closing paragraphs of this article.

I have been led into a digression. To return to our inquiry about the writer in Ben Jonson's note, prodigious speed in composition was certainly one of the powers of Bacon, as I have endeavoured to show in my book, and in this Jonson's description satisfies the identity. The subtlety' of the writer is also alluded to in the note. Extreme cunning was alleged against Bacon by contemporaries, and it was this quality, aided by the power of his position and connexions, which would enable him to conceal his tracks as an author in the way in which I believe he did.

We may find in Shakespeare an analogy for the desire attributed to the writer in Jonson's note to eschew subtlety and fanciful terms. In Love's Labour's Lost Biron is represented as having been captivated in early youth by the euphuistic fashion of the day—of which, in my belief, the author himself was the inventor or, rather, the introducer into England from foreign sources—and renouncing it in favour of his native homeliness of speech :

Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,

Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical; these summer-flies

Have blown me full of maggot ostentation :
I do forswear them : and I here protest,

By this white glove-how white the hand, God knows !-
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be expressid

In russet yeas and honest kersey noes.

And similarly of his wit :

« AnteriorContinua »