Francis Bacon, Dude

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Below is the gist of my opening remarks at Disputatio yesterday. I took the affirmative, while the negative was ably maintained by Dr. Jonathan McIntosh. There are a few minor edits here that help take into account some of the give and take of the subsequent debate.

Resolved, Francis Bacon should be treated by us as one the heroes of the Christian intellectual tradition.

The reason we are discussing this at all has to do with the naming of the new science classroom at NSA. Our other classrooms bear the names of stalwarts from church history—Augustine, Calvin, Machen. And so when we carved out space from the library for our new science lab, we were faced with the prospect of naming it. An email went out to the faculty soliciting names, and so I submitted Bacon. This would have been wonderful on numerous levels, but the discussion went in another direction and the classroom was named after a gent called Linnaeus, another worthy. Nothing I say here should be taken as reflecting poorly on that gentleman. He was Swedish, but it would be anachronistic to blame him for the foibles of contemporary socialism.

But the faculty discussion on that naming exercise revealed a difference of opinion about Bacon, and that is the reason we have come here today. I just think that we should name something after Francis Bacon.

Now how did I come to think this way? A few years ago I honestly didn’t know too much about him, except for the general era he lived in, and the fact that he at one time had delivered himself of the opinion that “knowledge is power.” I knew one other thing, and that was that we in the modern era generally take a dim view of Bacon, crediting him with the origin of the notion that the world is our oyster, to do with as we please.

And that’s how it was until a  year or two ago, when somebody said—and I think it was here at Disputatio, but am not sure, that Bacon said that knowledge is power, and that this has led to all kinds of bad juju. And this is the general philosophical rap—because Bacon once said knowledge is power, this is just three steps away from knowledge is rape, and so we can easily see how it is that Francis Bacon is the father of all strip mining. So that’s one thing.

And when I heard that comment (and it may have been only in passing) that the thought occurred to me. Wait a minute. Is that true? Is he the father of this quintessential error, the idea being that if we can do something we should? Or are we the ones sunk in the folly of looking back accusingly at those who enrolled us in the course, in which we are the ones making all the mistakes? And so I resolved to get his works and start reading them. And guess what? Francis Bacon, we hardly knew ye . . .

One other thing. The other negative thing about him is that he was convicted by a court, back in the day (1621), of taking bribes, and that he pled guilty to the charge. Well, that’s bad, right? It depends. As I looked into this aspect of the affair, it became apparent that I would need to say something about it, but I resolved to say no more than a longish paragraph. Bacon’s conviction of bribery was nothing more nor less than a good example of how smashmouth politics are played, both then and now. Bacon’s political rivals wanted to get at the policies of King James and Buckingham, but they were out of range, and so they went after Bacon instead. Part way through the proceedings—an obsolete and arcane process unearthed for the purpose of getting Bacon, and in which he was not informed beforehand what the procedures would be—James and Buckingham abandoned Bacon, throwing him under the 17th century equivalent of that bus we always hear so much about. Bacon had been on the High Court of Chancery, and was one of the best judges England ever had. He had worked enormously hard there, and heard up to 1700 cases a year, clearing out a long-standing backlog. In this legal mosh pit, he was eventually convicted of receiving gifts (two years prior) from two men whose cases were still outstanding, and who Bacon had eventually decided against. Bacon said, “I did not so precisely as perhaps I ought examine whether those that had presented me had causes before me or no.” In short, it was hardball politics simpliciter. Bacon acknowledged his faults in the whole thing, but it would be absolutely in error to accuse Bacon of corruption.

The real issue in all this is the world, science, Scripture, natural law, and so on. I want to argue that we tend to have a negative view of Francis Bacon because it is convenient for us to do so. We want to believe that he was an advocate of knowledge tricked out with a souped-up HEMI, so that we can blame him for a number of the abuses that we are perpetrating, and to which he was adamantly opposed. He was a mature thinker, and we are the immature heirs. We can’t handle the money responsibly, and so we blame our ancestor, who could.

If our great grandfather made his billions by remembering that he was merely a servant of Christ, and that his proverbial saying dollars are good needed always to be held in that context, and we, his wastrel great grandchildren, spend those billions by forgetting what he meant by it, but we repeat that same phrase ad nauseam while buying the denizens of the Prodigal Bar & Grill another round, I think that when we come down to our last two dollars, we ought not to be blaming him.

So let us begin with the fact that Francis Bacon was a devout and sincere Christian man, one who was incapable of going three steps in any area without constantly appealing to the constraints of Scripture. Nothing is plainer than the fact that his commitment to God was not perfunctory (as it was, for example, with Thomas Hobbes).

First, I will begin by noting his remarkable piety by pointing to his personal confession of faith (which was robustly Calvinist), his prayers, and his letters to pious friends.

Second, I will point to how he placed biblical constraints on knowledge.

“If any man shall think by view and inquiry into these sensible and material things to attain that light whereby he may reveal unto himself the nature or will of God, then indeed is he spoiled by vain philosophy: for the contemplation of God’s creatures and works produceth (having regard to the works and creatures themselves) knowledge; but having regard to God, no perfect knowledge, but wonder, which is broken knowledge” (The Major Works, p. 125)

He compares our knowledge to the sun, which lights the earth while obscuring the heavens.

And third, I will point out that he was slandered for having done what we are currently slandered for what we at NSA are trying to do. This is not curious. What is curious is why we should take up the cry against him. In this we play the role of King James and Buckingham—protecting our position instead of protecting the truth, sandbagging our prerogatives instead of standing with our friends.

This does not mean he had no blind spots, or that he did not leave some doors unlocked that should have been securely locked. It is possible to have a teleology that is a true teleology even though it rejects Plato and Aristotle. I believe that corrections need to be made. But we cannot do this unless we are aware of the system of constraint that he was depending on, and which we need to depend on far more than we do—I am referring to the constant authority of Scripture.

When we talk glibly about engaging with culture, or engaging with the world, we have to understand that those who do not want us to do this will have many ways of fighting back. One of those central means is not surprising, given that we are in a battle with the prince of accusations. We should be extremely reluctant to accept such barbs, and unless we are reluctant in this way, we have no right to be surprised when people hear and accept such things concerning us. For we, after all, are attempting something very much like the same thing.

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