Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

authorship of a composition belonging to his age is in dispute, to remember him and inquire into his claim to it. But that I am apter to assign it to him without just ground, I cannot easily believe. In that, as in other things, the effect of familiarity is to increase, not diminish, the power of perceiving distinctions. Take the more familiar case of handwriting. Everybody has some skill in discriminating hands. There are some hands that he can swear to. He can be certain that this was, and that that was not, written by a particular man. And there is probably nobody who has attained that amount of skill without experiencing an extraordinary improvement in bis powers of perception : things which once he could not see at all, seem now things which nobody can fail to see: hands which at first seemed so like that he could not tell which was which, have become with familiarity so different that he can hardly see any resemblance between them. Now the case of style is strictly analogous to that of handwriting. There was a time when I could not myself have recognized Bacon's distinctive hand in any of the three papers which I have been discussing: now I can read his signature in every sentence. There was a time when I could read

page
after
page

of compositions published under his name, without finding any strangeness in the style, in which I can now hardly read a paragraph without feeling that it could not possibly have come from his pen. Of course I am prepared to be set right in both respects by critics who are passing through the same course of education and are still in the earlier stages. But I hope that the present volume will at any rate prove one thing--that before I assign anything, or allow anything to be assigned, to Bacon, I must see something more in it than a style belonging to the age of Elizabeth or James I. Bacon's style (whatever ordinary people may say) belonged to himself.

[ocr errors]

Whether the general plan upon which this work is constructed be the best for its purpose, is a question which it would be useless to discuss; for even those who are most clearly of opinion that another would have been better will

[blocks in formation]

agree that the best I can do now is to follow this out consistently. But I fear that I have not succeeded in making the purpose itself clearly understood. It seems to be thought by some readers that I have undertaken to show that Bacon never did anything which was not in accordance with the highest moral ideal, and that I am to be understood as applauding every action which I do not expressly condemn. And when I remind them that what I undertook to show was what he thought about things, not that what he thought was always wise and virtuous, I am supposed to renounce the right of discussing the morality or the policy of any business in which he was engaged. When I endeavour to show that an action which is denounced by historians as discreditable has been misreported or misunderstood and is in fact not discreditable, I am said to “falter in my resolution of showing only what Bacon thought about the occasions of his time,” and to be “trying to shew that he was wise and virtuous";—as if an undertaking to show one thing implied a "resolution" to show nothing else ; as if what a man thinks about a thing could be explained without explaining what the thing is; and as if you could explain what a thing is without considering whether it is wicked or innocent. It seems therefore that it will not be superfluous to state once more what it is that I have undertaken and am attempting to do.

Assuming, what I suppose will be generally allowed, that Bacon was a man whose observations and opinions upon the business of his own time are worth knowing, and that his evidence as a historical witness should be valuable if rightly interpreted,-I undertook to collect and bring together his writings of business. Knowing moreover that selections, however fairly made, are always exposed to suspicion of partiality, and that this is especially to be apprehended in cases where the popular prepossession is strong and the grounds of it when examined are weak,-I undertook to make the collection as complete as I could ; that so every reader, having the whole case before him, might make his selections for himself. Lastly, considering that the true import of writings which are truly

writings of business, and presume in the persons addressed a knowledge of the matters to which they relate, cannot be understood without such knowledge,-I undertook to add what information I could give of the circumstances under which they were written. My professed object was to show, not how well and wisely, but how, he thought and acted in the various cases with which he had to deal. The question how well and wisely might come after, but the first question was how. The record of his thoughts and actions was to be found in the letters, papers, and books which he wrote, the documents which he signed, and reports of the words which he uttered. Now to make the collection of these complete, required little more than diligence, accompanied with some critical faculty for distinguishing the authentic from the unauthentic. But to make them intelligible, it was necessary first to understand and then to explain the cases. This was no easy task to accomplish, especially for one who has always had a more than ordinary difficulty in gathering knowledge and a more than ordinary facility in losing it again. But though the accomplishment was difficult, the direction was simple and easy. What I had to do was merely to supply the reader with all the information which I had myself found necessary to a true understanding of these cases.

And this is what I have tried to do. It is true that in doing this I find myself obliged not unfrequently to discuss the moral bearing of historical transactions, and sometimes to plead for a reconsideration and reversal of the judgment which I find current. How could it be otherwise ? I find Bacon engaged on one side or other of a question disputable in policy or justice : say a question of parliamentary taxation, of government prosecution, or of disputed prerogative. Of what use is it to know which side he took, unless I know what the question was ? And yet when I ask why the government wanted an additional subsidy, and what they meant to do with it; or what the man who was to be prosecuted had done or was supposed to have done, and upon what evidence; or what point of prerogative was called in question, and what the practice had been in that point, I am obliged to seek

a

[blocks in formation]
[ocr errors][ocr errors]

for the inforination where I can find it. Such questions seem to have been thought superfluous. To resist a motion for a a subsidy seems to be set down as an act of patriotism; to support it, as an act of servility, without reference to the occasion. A prosecution by government seems to be assumed as a matter of course to be a persecution of a man certainly innocent and presumably patriotic. Any speech in support of a claim of privilege is treated as of course constitutional; any speech in support of the royal prerogative as of course unconstitutional. At least I find nothing in the judgments pronounced which either suggests the answer to such questions or recognizes their pertinence. Apply the same principle to modern cases of which we know something, and it will be seen at once how idle it is to judge of men's opinions and actions in this way. The leading men of opposite political parties do not in these days receive at each other's hands too much justice. But who ever thinks of charging a political leader with dishonesty merely for acting in accordance with his professed principles ? To assume that Bacon must have been dishonest in defending the prerogative of the Crown is like assuming that Sir Robert Peel must have been dishonest in speaking against the Reform Bill. Both may have been in the wrong. But both thought they were in the right, and both had something to say. The difference is that we still remember so much about the varieties of opinion which were honestly entertained with respect to the Reform Bill, that we do not feel entitled to treat an anti-reformer as ipso facto a dishonest man; whereas we know so little of the varieties of opinion which were honestly entertained in the beginning of the 17th century concerning the extent of the prerogative, that we do feel entitled to regard any man who spoke in favour of it as a servile tool of monarchy. But the pertinency of questions of this kind is so obvious when attention is called to it, that finding them passed over by the best and best informed writers (and by none more than Lord Macaulay) as completely as if they had nothing to do with the case, I have thought it necessary to bring them out as distinctly as I could, and to keep the reader in mind of them by

own.

reiteration. I wish I could think that I had done so oftener than there was need. Other cases of this kind occur in the present volume—the most famous and interesting being that of Sir Walter Ralegh: a case simple enough in itself, but so hidden from the sight of modern readers under a cloud of misrepresentations, misinterpretations, and misjudgments, that I have found a very large amount of commentary in proportion to the text absolutely necessary in order to make it intelligible.

But besides knowing the real nature of the transactions in which Bacon took part, it was necessary also for the right understanding of the case to know what part he took in them : a question which has been very carelessly dealt with; not only the spirit in which he was working, but the very side which he was advocating, having been in some instances mistaken. And here also, in order to explain the facts and remove the error, I have found discussion unavoidable. For I must not forget that in treating of Bacon I am not dealing with a subject of my All the ground has been already explored (or at least reported on as explored) by higher authorities. To settle disputed questions by simple assertion would save much ink and paper, and make the reader's task as well as the writer's much easier; but it is not permitted to me. When I differ from a received author, I may not say (as I might if I wrote in the plural and did not give my name) simply that he is wrong. I must give reasous and references; and if I mean the reader to see the passages referred to as well as to know where he may find them, I must print them in the page before his eyes. All this takes up space. And though the particular wants or wishes of any given reader might no doubt be satisfied at much less cost, I doubt whether it would be possible to supply any one with all he wants and nothing more, and not to disappoint many others, who would have preferred less of that and more of something else. Less of the raw material of biography and more of the manufactured article, is the demand of one. Another finds commentary an inconvenient interruption, and desires "to have only what is Båcon's before him.” A third

« AnteriorContinuar »