« AnteriorContinuar »
under Doctor Whitgift, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury: and I find he was entered of Trinity College 16th of in his twelfth year. The progress he made was ra- June, 1573, pid and uncommon; for he had run through the whole circle of the liberal arts, as they were then taught, before he was sixteen. But what is far more surprising; he began, even then, to see through the emptiness and futility of the philosophy in vogue: and to conjecture, that useful knowledge must be raised on other foundations, and built up with other materials, than had been employed through a tract of many centuries backward. In this, his own genius, aided by a singular discernment, must have been his only preceptor. In matters of reasoning, the authority of Aristotle was still acknowledged infallible in the schools, as much as that of the pope, in affairs of religion, had lately been acknowledged there and every where else. And our author may be justly styled the first great reformer of philosophy. He had the prepossessions, the voluminous and useless reading, nay he had the vanity of men grown old in contrary opinions, to struggle with: yet he lived to see a considerable revolution on his side. Another age brought over the learned of all nations to his party.
It may be justly wondered at, that the lord keeper, a minister of great observation on men and things, should have sent his son to travel at the age of sixteen, as we find he did: for, by a letter from Sir Amias Powlet, then ambassador in France, it is certain that young Bacon was at Paris, and under his roof, in the year 1577. We need but look around us, to be convinced how little our youth of quality, who visit foreign countries about that age, are wont to profit either in taste, wisdom, or morals. But perhaps he discovered in his son a maturity of discretion and judgment beyond what is common to that early season of life. However that was, the ambassador conceived a very favourable opinion of Bacon; for he sent him over to the queen with a commission that required secrecy and despatch: of
which he acquitted himself with applause, and then returned to finish his travels. The native bent of his mind, strongly turned to reflection and inquiry, suffered him not to stop short at the study of languages, but led him higher, to remark accurately on the customs and manners of those that spoke them; on the characters of their princes, and on the constitution of their several governments. In proof of this, there is still extant among his works, a paper of observations on the general state of Europe, written by him shortly after this time; as I have discovered by a circumstance mentioned in it.*
He was the youngest son, and seems to have been the favourite of his father; who had set apart a considerable sum of money to purchase an estate for him, in his absence. But before that kind intention could take effect, the lord keeper died suddenly, by the following accident. He was under the hands of his barber, and the weather being warmer than usual, had ordered a window before him to be thrown open. As he was become very corpulent, he presently fell asleep in the current of fresh air that was blowing in upon him; and awaked after some time distempered all over. Why, said he to the servant, did you suffer me to sleep thus exposed? The fellow replied, that he durst not presume to disturb him. Then, said the lord keeper, by your civility I lose my life and so removed into his bed-chamber, where he died a few days after. Thus there remained to his youngest son only the small proportion of a sum, which was to be divided among five brothers.
The narrowness of his circumstances obliged him to think of some profession for a subsistence: and he applied himself, more through necessity than choice, to the study of the common law. For that purpose, he placed himself in the society of Gray's Inn, where his superior talents rendered him the or
says that Henry III. of France was then 30 years old: now that king began his reign 1574, at the age of 24 years. So that Bacon was then nineteen.
nament of the house: as the gentleness and affability of his deportment won him the affection of all its members. In his profession, he quickly rose to so much eminence and reputation, that, at the age of twenty-eight years, he was named by Elizabeth her learned counsel extraordinary: a distinction which he needed no assistance from his father's merit with her to deserve. It was however next to impossible that so noble a genius, born to embrace the whole compass of science, should confine its researches within the narrow and perplexed study of precedents and authorities; a study hedged round with brambles and thorns, dark and barbarous in its beginnings, and rendered in its progress still more obscure, by the learned dulness of commentators and compilers: men, for the most part, of indefatigable industry, and of no spirit or discernment. Accordingly we find that in this interval he often gave full scope to his conceptions; surveying the whole state of learning, observing its defects, and imagining the proper methods to supply them. This he first attempted in a treatise which he entitled THE GREATEST BIRTH OF TIME; as appears from a letter, written after his retirement, to father Fulgentio, the Venetian, in which he passes a kind of censure on the pompous and swelling title prefixed to it. Though the piece itself is lost, it appears to have been the first outlines of that amazing design, which he afterwards filled up and finished in his grand Instauration of the sciences. As there is not a more amusing, perhaps a more useful speculation, than that of tracing the history of the human mind, if I may so express myself, in its progression from truth to truth, and from discovery to discovery: the intelligent reader would doubtless have been pleased to see, in the tract I am speaking of, by what steps and gradations a spirit like Bacon's advanced in building up, for more than thirty years together, his new and universal theory. He thought himself born for the use of human kind: and, in the letter above mentioned, styles himself, the servant of posterity.
These few hints for filling up this first part of our author's life, trivial and unsatisfactory as they may appear, I have yet been obliged to glean here and there in the rubbish of several collections, where they lay scattered, without order or connexion. But I shall now no longer regard Bacon as a mere philosopher; as a man of speculation who conversed only with books and his own thoughts in the shade of retirement and leisure. The course of his fortunes produced him on the great theatre of the world, involved him in business, and complicated him with the most considerable persons of the age he lived in. He was honourably employed by one prince, and highly preferred under another. It will be therefore necessary, that this history may have its due extent and usefulness, to exhibit a general prospect of the two reigns in which Bacon flourished and fell, at least in their principal points of view. The characters of those with whom he had any connexion will illustrate his, and shew it in a truer, as well as a fuller light.
I have yet another reason for enlarging this account beyond the ordinary limits. Our author's letters are written, many of them at least, on public occasions, and may be considered as the most authentic vouchers for several remarkable occurrences, in which he himself was an actor, and well ac quainted with the secret motives on which others acted. But as those things are for the most part only hinted at, or no farther opened than to serve the present purpose of his letter; they will require to be developed at some length, and ranged into their proper places.
Elizabeth had a larger share of good sense and sound judgment, than is commonly to be met with among women; accompanied with a greatness of mind and steadiness of purpose that might do honour to the best of men. These her natural endowments received much, though severe, improvement from the dangers she was exposed to in the first part of her life. She grew up in a strict attention over her own actions, even over her looks and
words, from the rigour of her father's temper, and particularly from the jealous cruelty of her sister's administration: a short but memorable period of time, when England beheld, under a female reign, such instances of merciless rage, such scenes of horror, as had of old startled the Roman world, under a Nero and a Domitian. The dreadful genius of that superstition to which she had devoted herself, then exerted its spirit undisguised, in betraying, tormenting, butchering, by the ministry of inhuman priests and inquisitors, whoever would not profess what he could not possibly believe, If we may credit historians, they had even doomed Elizabeth herself to die; and she escaped, miraculously, not by the kindness, but the policy of Philip; himself a tyrant, the coolest and most determined of these latter ages.
At her accession to the throne, she found her revenues anticipated or exhausted; her kingdom, through the sanguinary madness of her predecessor, disjointed and broken of its vigour within; at the same time unsupported by allies and without consideration abroad. Her good sense led her to see, by the errors of her father and her sister, that she could expect to reign with security, only by deserving the confidence and gaining the love of the nation: and that in order thereto, she must propose to herself no other end of ruling but the happiness and honour of all her people. This system of policy, so simple in itself, so glorious in its consequences, and yet by princes so seldom pursued, she adhered to steadily, almost uniformly, through a long and triumphant reign; for this very reason triumphant!
The reformation of religion she attempted and effected, at a season when her power was unconfirmed, and in probable danger from intestine commotions. For revolutions in religion are apt to put the whole constitution of a society into ferment, even more strongly than alterations in government; as every individual is immediately and intimately actuated by what seems to him of highest and most last