NEXT to Shakespeare, the greatest name of the Elizabethan age is that of Bacon. His life has been written by his chaplain, Dr. Rawley, by Basil Montagu, by Lord Campbell, and by Macaulay; yet neither of these biographies reconciles the external facts of the man’s life with the internal facts of the man’s nature.
Macaulay’s vivid sketch of Bacon’s career is the most acute, the most merciless, and for popular effect the most efficient, of all; but it deals simply with external events, evinces in their interpretation no deep and detecting glance into character, and urges the evidence for the baseness of Bacon with the acrimonious zeal of a prosecuting attorney, eager for a verdict, rather than weighs it with the candor of a judge deciding on the nature of a great benefactor of the race, who in his will had solemnly left his memory to “ men’s charitable speeches.” When he comes to treat of Bacon as a philosopher, he passes to the opposite extreme of panegyric. The impression left by the whole representation is not the impression of a man, but of a monstrous huddling together of two men, —one infamous, the other glorious, — which he calls by the name of Bacon.
The question therefore arises, Is it possible to harmonize, in one individuality, Bacon the courtier, Bacon the lawyer, Bacon the statesman, Bacon the judge, with Bacon the thinker, philosopher, and philanthropist ? The antithesis commonly instituted between them is rather a play of epigram than an exercise of characterization. The “meanest of mankind ” could not have written The Advancement of Learning; yet everybody feels that some connection there must be between the meditative life which produced The Advancement of Learning and the practical life devoted to the advancement of Bacon. Who, then, was the man who is so execrated for selling justice, and so exalted for writing the Novum Organum ?
This question can never be intelligently answered, unless we establish some points of connection between the spirit which animates his works and the external events which constitute what is called his life. As a general principle, it is well for us to obtain some conception of a great man from his writings, before we give much heed to the recorded incidents of his career; for these incidents, as historically narrated, are likely to be false, are sure to be one-sided, and almost always need to be interpreted in order to convey real knowledge to the mind. It is ever for the interest or the malice of some contemporary, that every famous politician, who by necessity passes into history, should pass into it stained in character; and it is fortunate that, in the case of Bacon, we are not confined to the outside records of his career, but possess means of information which conduct us into the heart of his nature. Indeed, Bacon the man is most clearly seen and intimately known in Bacon the thinker. Bacon thinking, Bacon observing, Bacon inventing, — these were as much acts of Bacon as Bacon intriguing for power and place. “ I account,” he has said, “ my ordinary course of study and meditation more painful than most parts of action are.” But his works do not merely contain his thoughts and observations ; they are all informed with the inmost life of his mind and the real quality of his nature ; and, if he was base, servile, treacherous, and venal, it will not require any great expenditure of sagacity to detect the taint of servility, baseness, treachery, and venality in his writings. For what was Bacon’s intellect but Bacon’s nature in its intellectual expression ? Everybody remembers the noble commencement of the Novum Organum, “Francis of Verulam thought thus.” Ay! it is not merely the understanding of Francis of Verulam, but Francis himself that thinks ; and we may be sure that the thought will give us the spirit and average moral quality of the man ; for it is not faculties, but persons using faculties, persons behind faculties and within faculties, that invent, combine, discover, create ; and in the whole history of the human intellect, in the department of literature, there has been no exercise of live creative faculty without an escape of character. The new thoughts, the novel combinations, the fresh images, are all enveloped in an atmosphere, or borne on a stream, which conveys into the recipient mind the fine essence of individual life and individual disposition. It is more difficult to detect this in comprehensive individualities like Bacon and Shakespeare, than in narrow individualities like Ben Jonson and Marlowe ; but still, if we sharply scrutinize the impression which Bacon and Shakespeare have left on our minds, we shall find that they have not merely enlarged our reason with new truth, and charmed our imagination with new beauty, but that they have stamped on our consciousness the image of their natures, and touched the finest sensibilities of our souls with the subtile but potent influence of their characters.
Now if we discern and feel this image and this life of Bacon, derived from his works, we shall find that his individuality — capacious, flexible, fertile, far-reaching as it was — was still deficient in heat, and that this deficiency was in the very centre of his nature and sources of his moral being. Leaving out of view the lack of stamina in his bodily constitution, and his consequent want of those rude, rough energies and that peculiar Teutonic pluck which seem the birthright of every Englishman of robust health, we find in the works as in the life of the man no evidence of strong appetites or fierce passions or kindling sentiments. Neither in his blood nor in his soul can we discover any of the coarse or any of the fine impulses which impart intensity to character. He is without the vices of passion, — voluptuousness, hatred, envy, malice, revenge ; but he is also without the virtues of passion, — deep love, warm gratitude, capacity of unwithholding self-committal to a great sentiment or a great cause. This defect of intensity is the source of that weakness in the actions of his life which his satirists have stigmatized as baseness ; and, viewing it altogether apart from the vast intellectual nature modifying and modified by it, they have tied the faculties of an angel to the soul of a sneak. While narrating the events of his career, and making epigrams out of his frailties, they have lost all vision of that noble brow, on which it might be said, " shame is ashamed to sit.” Shame may be there, but it is shame shamefaced, — aghast at its position, not glorying in it!
With this view of the intellectual character of Bacon, let us pass to the events of his life. He was born in London on the 22d of January, 1561, and was the youngest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Keeper of the Great Seal. His mother, sister to the wife of Lord Treasurer Burleigh, possessed uncommon accomplishments even in that age of learned women. “ Such being his parents,” quaintly says Dr. Rawley, “you may easily imagine what the issue was likely to be ; having had whatsoever nature or breeding could put into him.” Sir Nicholas was a capable, sagacious, long-headed, cold-blooded, and not especially scrupulous man of the world, who, like all the eminent statesmen of Elizabeth’s reign, acted for the public interest without prejudicing his own. Lady Bacon had, among other works, translated from the Italian some sermons on Predestination and Election, written by Ochinus, a divine of that Socinian sect which Othodox religionists, who hated each other, could still unite in stigmatizing as pre-eminently wicked; and, if we may judge from this circumstance, she must have had a daring and discursive as well as learned spirit. The mind of the son, if it derived its weight, moderation, and strong practical bent from the father, derived no less its intellectual self-reliance and audacity from the mother ; and as Francis was the favorite child, we may presume that the parents saw in him their different qualities exquisitely combined. As a boy, he was weak in health, indifferent to the sports of youth, of great quickness, curiosity, and flexibility of intellect, and with a sweet sobriety in his deportment which made the Queen call him “the young Lord Keeper.” He was a courtier, too, at an age when most boys care as little for queens as they do for nurserymaids. Being asked by Elizabeth how old he was, he replied that he “was two years younger than her Majesty’s happy reign,” with which answer, says the honest chronicler, “the Queen was much taken.” Receiving his early education under his mother’s eye, and freely mixing with the wise and great people who visited his father’s house, he was uncommonly mature in mind when, at the age of thirteen, he was sent to the University of Cambridge. With his swiftness, and depth of apprehension, it was but natural that he should easily master his studies ; but he did more, he subjected them to his own tests of value and utility, and despised them. Before he had been two years at college, this smooth, decorous stripling, who bowed so low to Dr. Whitgift, and was so outwardly respectful to the solemn trumpery about him, was still inwardly unawed by the authority of traditions and accredited forms, and coolly removed the mask from the body of learning, to find, as he thought, nothing but ignorance and emptiness within. The intellectual dictator of forty generations, Aristotle himself, was called up before the judgment-seat of this young brain, the pretensions of his philosophy silently sifted, and then dismissed and disowned, — not, he condescended to say, “for the worthlessness of the author, to whom he would ever ascribe all high attributes,” but for the barrenness of the method, “ the unfruitfulness of the way.” By profound and self-reliant meditation, he had already caught bright glances of a new path for the human intellect to pursue, leading to a more fertile and fruitful domain, — its process experience, not dogmatism ; its results discoveries, not disputations ; its object “ the glory of God and the relief of man’s estate.” This aspiring idea was the constant companion of his mind through all the vicissitudes of his career, — never forgotten in poverty, in business, in glory, in humiliation, — the last word on his lips, and in the last beat of his heart; and it is this which lends to his large reason and rich imagination that sweet and pervasive beneficence, which is felt to be the culminating charm of his matchless compositions, and which refuses to allow his character to be deprived of benignity, even after its pliancy to circumstances may have deprived it of respect.
Before he was sixteen, he left the university without taking a degree ; and his father, who evidently intended him for public life, sent him to France, in the train of the English ambassador, in order that he might learn the arts of state. Here he resided for about two years and a half, enjoying rare opportunities for observing men and affairs, and of mingling in the society of statesmen, philosophers, and men of letters, who were pleased equally by the originality of his mind and the amenity of his manners. He purposed to stay some years abroad, and was studying assiduously at Poitiers, when in February, 1579, an accident occurred which ruined his hopes of an early entrance upon a brilliant career, converted him from a scholar into an adventurer, and, in his own phrase, made it incumbent on him “to think how to live, instead of living only to think.” A barber it was who thus decided the fate of a philosopher. His father, while undergoing the process of shaving, happened to fall asleep ; and so deep was the reverence of the barber for the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, that he did not presume to shake into consciousness so august a personage, but stood gazing at him in wondering admiration. Unfortunately a draft of air from an open window was blowing all the while on “the second prop of the kingdom,” and murdering him by inches. Sir Nicholas awoke shivering; and, on being informed by the barber that respect for his dignity was the cause of his not having been roused, he quietly said, “Your politeness has cost me my life.” In two days after he died. A considerable sum of money, which he had laid by in order to purchase a landed estate for Francis, was left unappropriated to that purpose ; and Francis, on his return from France, found that he had to share with four others the amount which his father had intended for himself alone. Thus left comparatively poor, he solicited his uncle, the Lord Treasurer, for some political office, and, had his abilities been less splendid, he doubtless would have succeeded in his suit ; but Burleigh’s penetrating eye recognized in him talents, in comparison with which the talents of his own favorite son, Robert Cecil, were dwarfed ; and, as his heart was set on Cecil’s succeeding to his own great offices, he is suspected to have systematically sacrificed the nephew in order that the nephew should not have the opportunity of being a powerful rival of the son.
Bacon, therefore, had no other resource but the profession of law; and for six years, between 1580 and 1586, he bent his powerful mind to its study. He then again applied to Burleigh, hoping, through the latter’s influence, to be called within the bar, and to be able at once to practise. He was testily denied. Two years afterwards, however, he was made counsel learned extraordinary to the Oueen. This was an office of honor rather than profit; but, as it gave him access to Elizabeth, it might have led to his political advancement, had not his good Cousin Cecil, ever at her ear, represented him as a speculative man, “ indulging in philosophic reveries, and calculated more to perplex than promote public business.” Probably he obtained this idea from a letter written by Bacon to Burleigh, in 1591, in which — wearied with waiting on fortune, troubled with poverty, and haunted by the rebuking vision of his grand philosophical scheme—he solicits for some employment adequate for his support, and which will, at the same time, leave him leisure to become a “pioneer in the deep mines of truth.” “Not being born,” he says, “under Sol, that loveth honor, nor under Jupiter, that loveth business, but being wholly carried away by the contemplative planet,” he proceeds to follow up this modest disclaimer of the objects which engrossed the Cecils with the proud, the imperial declaration, that he has “vast contemplative ends, though moderate civil ends,” and “ has taken all knowledge for his province.” This appeal had no effect ; and as the reversion he held of the registrarship of the Star Chamber, worth £ 1,600 a year, did not fall in until twenty years afterwards, he was still fretted with poverty, and had to give to law and politics the precious hours on which philosophy asserted but a divided claim.
But politics, and law as connected with politics, were, in Bacon’s time, occupations by which Bacon could succeed only at the expense of discrediting himself with posterity. Whatever may have been his motives for desiring power,—and they were doubtless neither wholly selfish nor wholly noble, —power could be obtained only by submitting to the conditions by which power was then acquired. In submitting to these conditions, Bacon the politician may be said to have agreed with Bacon the philosopher, as the same objectivity of mind which, as a philosopher, led him to seek the law of phenomena in nature, and not in the intelligence, led him as a politician to seek the law of political action in circumstances, and not in conscience. “ Nature is commanded by obeying her,” is his great philosophical maxim. Events are commanded by obeying them, was probably his guiding maxim of civil prudence. In each case the principle was derived from without, and not from within ; and he doubtless thought that, as one led to power over nature, so the other would lead to power over states. As his political life must be considered an immense mistake ; as the result of his theory in civil affairs was to make him the servant, and not the master, of his intended instruments; as he was constantly inferior in power to persons inferior to him in mind; as he had to do the bidding of masters who would not profit by his advice ; and as his wisdom was no match, in the real tug of affairs, for men who acted either from good or from bad impulses and instincts, — it is well to trace his failure to its source. The fault was partly in Bacon, partly in his times, and partly inherent in politics. He thought he possessed the genius of action, because, in addition to his universality of mind and universality of acquirement, he was the deepest observer of men, had the broadest comprehension of affairs, and could give the wisest counsel, of any statesman of his time. He was practically sagacious beyond even the Cecils; for if they could, better than he, see an inch before the nose, he could see the continuation of that inch along a line of a thousand miles. Still his was not specially the genius of action, but the genius which tells how wisely to act. In the genius of action, the mind is passionately concentrated in the will; in the genius which tells how to wisely act, the force of the will is somewhat expended in enlarging the area over which the mind sends its glance. In the genius of action, there is commonly more or less effrontery, wilfulness, cunning, narrowing of the mind to the mere business of the moment, with little foresight of consequences ; in the genius which tells how to wisely act there is true, practical wisdom. Unhappily, principles are, in politics, so complicated with passions, and power is so often the prize of insolent demerit, that the two have rarely been combined in one statesman ; and history exhibits scores of sterile and stunted intellects, pushed by rough force into ruling positions, for one instance of comprehensive intelligence impelled by audacious will.
As a politician, Bacon had to play a difficult game. Entering the House of Commons in 1593, he at once showed himself the ablest speaker and debater of his time. It is said that Lord Eldon, the stanchest of Tories, declared in his old age, that, if he could recommence his political career, he would begin “in the sedition line ” ; and Bacon at first tried the expedient of attacking a government measure, in order to force his abilities on the notice of Burleigh, and perhaps obtain by fear what he could not obtain by favor. But the reign of the haughty and almost absolute Elizabeth was not the period for such tactics, and he narrowly escaped arrest and punishment. He then recurred to a design, formed three years before, of opposing the Lord Treasurer by means of a rival; for at the Court and in the councils of the Queen there were two factions, — one devoted to Burleigh, the counsellor of Elizabeth ; the other to the Earl of Essex, her lover. These factions were divided by no principle ; the question was not, how should the government be carried on, but by whom should the government be carried on ; and the object of each was to engross the favor of Elizabeth, in order to engross the power and patronage of office. Bacon judging that Essex, who held the Queen’s affections, would be successful over Burleigh, who only held her judgment, had already attached himself to the fortunes of Essex. It may be added that, as his grand philosophical scheme for the interpretation of nature depended on the patronage of government for its complete success, he saw that, if Essex triumphed, he might be able to gratify his philosophic as well as political ambition ; for the Earl, with every fault that can coexist with valor, generosity, and frankness, — fierce, proud, wilful, licentious, and headstrong, — had still a soul sensitive to literary as to military glory ; while Burleigh was indifferent to both. It may be doubted if Bacon was capable of intense allsacrificing friendship for anybody, especially for a man like Essex. It is probable that what his sagacity detected as the rule which governed the political friendships of Cæsar may to some extent apply to his own. "Cæsar,” he says, “ made choice of such friends as a man might easily see that he chose them rather to be instruments to his ends than for any good-will to them.” But it is still certain that for ten years he was the wisest counsellor of Essex, by his admirable management kept the Earl’s haughty and headlong spirit under some control of wisdom, and never allowed him to take a false step without honestly pointing out its folly.
Essex, on his part, urged the claims of Bacon with the same impetuosity with which he threw himself into everything he undertook. But he constantly failed. In 1594 he tried to get Bacon appointed Attorney-General, and he failed. He then tried to get Bacon appointed Solicitor-General, and failed, — failed not because the Queen was hostile to Bacon, but because she desired to show that she was not enslaved by Essex. He then urged Bacon’s suit to Lady Hatton, whom Bacon desired to marry, not for her temper, which was that of an eccentric termagant, but for her fortune; and here, fortunately for Bacon, he again failed. He then gave Bacon a landed estate, which Bacon sold for £ 1,800 ; and soon afterwards Bacon was in such pecuniary distress as to be arrested and sent to a sponging-house, for a debt of £ 500. Such were the obligations of Bacon to Essex. What were the obligations of Essex to Bacon? Ten years of faithful service, ten years of the “time and talents ” of the best head for large affairs in Europe. At last the Queen and Essex quarrelled. Bacon, himself serenely superior to passion, but adroit in calming the passions of others, exerted infinite skill and address to reconcile them, but the temper of each was too haughty to yield. The occasion of the final and deadly feud between them looks ludicrous as the culminating event in the life of a hero. Essex held a monopoly of sweet wines ; that is, the Queen had granted to him, for a certain period, the exclusive privilege of plundering all her subjects who drank sweet wines. He asked for a renewal of his patent, and was refused. He then, taking this refusal as a proof that his enemies were triumphant at court, organized a formidable conspiracy against the government, and for a purely personal object, without the pretence of any public aim, attempted to seize the Queen’s person, overturn her government, and convulse the kingdom with civil war. He was arrested, tried, and executed. Bacon, as Queen’s counsel, appeared against him on his trial, and, by the Queen’s command, wrote a narrative of the facts which justified the government in its course. For this most of his biographers represent him as guilty of the foulest treachery, ingratitude, and baseness. Let us see how it probably appeared to Bacon. The association of politicians of which Essex was the head, and to which Bacon belonged, was an association to obtain power and office by legal means ; treason and insurrection were not in the “platform ” ; and the rule of honor which applies to such a body is plain. It is treacherous for any of the followers to betray the leader, but it is also treacherous for the leader to betray any of the followers. Nobody pretends that Bacon betrayed Essex, but it is very evident that Essex betrayed Bacon ; for Bacon, the confidant, as he supposed, of the most secret thoughts and designs of Essex, liable to be compromised by his acts, and already lying under the suspicion and displeasure of Elizabeth on account of his strenuous advocacy of the Earl’s claims to her continued favor, suddenly discovers that Essex has given way to passions as selfish as they were furious ; that he has committed high treason, and recklessly risked the fortunes of his political friends, as well as personal confederates, on the hazard of an enterprise as wicked as it was mad. Henry Wotton, who was private secretary to Essex, but not engaged in the conspiracy, still thought it prudent to escape to the Continent, and not trust to the chances of a trial ; and Bacon was more in the confidence of Essex than Wotton. If Essex had no conscience in extricating himself from his difficulties by treason, why blame Bacon for extricating himself from complicity with Essex by censuring his treason ? To the indignation that Bacon must have felt in finding himself duped and betrayed by the man whose interests he had identified with his own must be added his indignation at the treason itself; for the politician had not so completely absorbed the patriot but that he may have felt genuine horror at the idea of compassing personal ends by civil war. In the case of Essex, the crime was really aggravated by the ingratitude which Bacon’s critics charge on himself. Bacon, it seems, was a mean-spirited wretch, because he did not see the friend, who had given him £ 1,800 in the public enemy. But is it to be supposed that a friend will be more constant than a lover? And Essex, the lover of the Queen, made war upon her, — upon her who, frugal as she was in dispensing honors and money, had lavished both on him. She had given him in all what would now be equivalent to £ 300,000 ; and then, on her refusal to allow him to continue cheating those of her subjects who drank sweet wines, the exasperated hero attempted to overthrow her government. But Essex acted from his passions,—and passions, it seems, atone for more sins than even charity can cover. History itself has here sided against reason ; and Bacon, the intellectual benefactor of the world, will probably, through all time, be sacrificed to this hot-blooded, arrogant, selfwilled, and greedy noble. Intellect is often selfish ; but nothing is more frightfully selfish, after all, than passion.
It would be well if the character of Bacon were justly open to no severer charge than that founded on his connection with Essex. But “worse remains behind.” In 1603 Elizabeth died, and James, King of Scotland, succeeded to the English throne. Bacon at once detected in him the characteristic defect of all the Stuarts. " Methought,” he wrote to a friend, “his Majesty rather asked counsel of the time past than of the time to come.” To James, however, he paid assiduous court, and especially won his favor by advocating in Parliament the union of England and Scotland. By a combination of hard work and soft compliances he gradually obtained the commanding positions, though not the commanding influence, of his political ambition. In 1609 he was made Solicitor-General; in 1613, Attorney-General; in 1616, Privy Councillor ; in 1617, Lord Keeper; in 1618, Lord Chancellor and Baron Verulam; in 1621, Viscount St. Albans. These eighteen years of his life exhibit an almost unparalleled activity and fertility of mind in law, politics, literature, and philosophy; but in the reign of James I. no man could rise to the positions which Bacon reached without compromises with conscience and compromises with intelligence which it is doubtless provoking that Bacon did not scorn. Even if we could pardon these compromises on the principle that events must be obeyed in order to be commanded, it is still plain that his obedience did not lead to real command. He unquestionably expected that his position in the government would enable him to draw the government into his philosophical scheme of conducting a systematic war on Nature, with an army of investigators, to force her to deliver up her secrets ; but the Solomon who was then king of England preferred to spend his money for quite different objects ; and Bacon’s compliances, therefore, led as little to real power over Nature as to real power in the direction of affairs.
As it is not our purpose to excuse, but to explain, Bacon’s conduct, — to identify the Bacon who within this period wrote The Advancement of Learning, The Wisdom of the Ancients, and the Novum Organum, with the Bacon who within the same period was connected with the abuses of James’s administration, — let us survey his character in relation to his times. He lived in an epoch when the elements of the English Constitution were in a state of anarchy. The King was following that executive instinct which brought the head of his son to the block. The House of Commons was following that legislative instinct which eventually gave it the control of the executive administration. James talked, and feebly acted, in the spirit of an absolute monarch ; looked upon the House of Commons as but one mode of getting at the money of his subjects ; and when it occupied itself in presenting grievances, instead of voting subsidies, he either dissolved it in a pet or yielded to it in a fright. Had Bacon’s nature been as intense as it was sagacious, had he been a resolute statesman of the good or bad type, this was the time for him to have anticipated Hampden in the Commons, or Strafford in the Council, and given himself, body and soul, to the cause of freedom or the cause of despotism. He did neither ; and there is nothing in his writings which would lead us to suppose that he would do either. The written advice he gave James and Buckingham on the improvement of the law, on church affairs, and on affairs of state, would, if it had been followed, have saved England from the necessity of the Long Parliament, of Oliver Cromwell, of William of Orange. As it was, he probably prevented more evil than he was made the instrument of committing. But, after counselling wisely, he, like other statesmen of his time, consented to act against his own advice. He lent the aid of his professional skill to the court, rather as a lawyer who obeys a client than as a statesman responsible to his country. And the mischief was, that his mind, like all comprehensive minds, was so fertile in those reasons which convert what is abstractly wrong into what is relatively right, that he could easily find maxims of state to justify the attorney-general in doing what the statesman in the attorney-general condemned, especially as the practice of these maxims enabled the attorneygeneral to keep his office and to hope for a higher. This was largely the custom with all English public men down to the time when “ parliamentary government ” was thoroughly established. Besides, Bacon’s attention was scattered over too many objects to allow of an all-excluding devotion to one. He could not be a Hampden or a Strafford because he was Bacon. Accomplished as a courtier, politician, orator, lawyer, jurist, statesman, man of letters, philosopher, with a wide-wandering mind that swept over the domain of positive knowledge only to turn dissatisfied into those vast and lonely tracts of meditation where future sciences and inventions slept in their undiscovered principles, it was impossible that a man thus hundred-eyed should be singlehanded. He also lacked two elements of strength which in that day lent vigor to action by contracting thought and inflaming passion. He was without political and theological prejudice, and he was without political and theological malignity.
But, it may be asked, if he was too broad for the passion of politics, why did he become a politician at all ? First, because he was an Englishman, the son of the Keeper of the Great Seal, and had breathed an atmosphere of politics — and not of very scrupulous politics— from his cradle : second, because, well as he thought he understood nature, he understood human nature far better, and was tempted into affairs by conscious talent ; and third, because he was poor, dependent, had immense needs, and saw that politics had led his father and uncle to wealth and power. And, coming to the heart of the matter, if it be asked why a mind of such grandeur and comprehensiveness should sacrifice its integrity for such wealth as office could give, and such titles as James could bestow, we can only answer the question intelligently by looking at wealth and titles through Bacon’s eyes. His conscience was weakened by that which gives such splendor and attractiveness to his writings, — his imagination. He was a philosopher, but a philosopher in whose character imagination was co-ordinated with reason. This imagination was not merely a quality of his intellect, but an element of his nature ; and as, through its instinctive workings, he was not content to send out his thoughts stoically bare of adornment, or limping and ragged in cynic squalor, but clothed them in purple and gold, and made them move in majestic cadences, so also, through his imagination, he saw, in external pomp and affluence and high place, something that corresponded to his own inward opulence and autocracy of intellect; recognized in them the superb and fitting adjuncts and symbols of his internal greatness ; and, investing them with a glory not their own, felt that in them the great Bacon was clothed in outward circumstance, that the invisible person was made palpable to the senses, embodied and expressed to all eyes as the man
Lord Chancellor of both their Laws.”
So strong was this illusion, that, when hurled from power and hunted by creditors, he refused to raise money by cutting down the woods of his estate. “ I will not,” he said, “be stripped of my fine feathers.” He had so completely ensouled the accompaniments and “compliment extern ” of greatness, that he felt, in their deprivation, as if portions of the outgrowth of his being had been rudely lopped.
But a day of reckoning was at hand, which was to dissipate all this visionary splendor, and show the hollowness of all accomplishments when unaccompanied by simple integrity. Bacon had idly drifted with the stream of abuses, until at last he partook of them. It is to his credit, that, in 1621, he strenuously advised the calling of the Parliament by which he was impeached. The representatives of the people met in a furious mood, and exhibited a menacing attitude to the court ; and the King, thoroughly cowed, made haste to give up to their vengeful justice the culprits at whom they aimed. Bacon was impeached for corruption in his high office, and, in indescribable agony and abasement of spirit, was compelled by the King to plead guilty to the charges, of a large portion of which he was certainly innocent. The great Chancellor has ever since been imaged to the honest English imagination as a man with his head away up in the heaven of contemplation, seemingly absorbed in sublime meditations, while his hand is held stealthily out to receive a bribe! Of the degree of his moral guilt it is difficult at this time to decide. The probability seems to be that, in accordance with a general custom, he and his dependants received presents from the suitors in his court. The presents were given to influence his decision of cases. He — at once profuse and poor — took presents from both parties, and then decided according to the law. He was exposed by those who, havinggiven money, were exasperated at receiving “ killing decrees ” in return ; who found that Bacon did not sell injustice, but justice. He was sentenced to pay a fine of £ 40,000 ; to be imprisoned in the Tower during the King’s pleasure ; to be forever incapable of any office, place, or employment in the state or commonwealth ; and forbidden to sit in Parliament or come within the verge of the court. Bacon seems himself to have considered that a notorious abuse, in which other chancellors had participated, was reformed in his punishment. He is reported to have said, afterwards, in conversation, “I was the justest judge that was in England these fifty years ; but it was the justest censure in Parliament that was these two hundred years.” The courts of Russia are now notoriously corrupt; in some future time, when the nation may imperatively demand a reformation of the judicial tribunals, some great Russian, famous as a thinker and man of letters, as well as judge, will, though comparatively innocent, be selected as a victim, and the whole system be rendered infamous in his condemnation.
Bacon lived five years after his disgrace ; and, during these years, though plagued by creditors and vexed by domestic disquiet, he prosecuted his literary and scientific labors with singular vigor and success. In revising old works, in producing new, and in projecting even greater ones than he produced, he displayed an energy and opulence of mind wonderful even in him. He died on the 9th of April, 1626, in consequence of a cold caught in trying an experiment to ascertain if flesh might not be preserved in snow as well as salt; and his consolation in his last hours was, that the “ experiment succeeded excellently well.” There are two testimonials to him, after he was hurled from power and place, which convey a vivid idea of the benignant stateliness of his personal presence,— of the impression he made on those contemporaries who were at once his intimates and subordinates, and who, in the most familiar intercourse, felt and honored the easy dignity with which his greatness was worn. “ My conceit of his person,” says Ben Jonson, “ was never increased towards him by his place or honors ; but I have and do reverence him for the greatness that was only proper to himself; in that he seemed to me ever, by his work, one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages. In his adversity, I ever prayed that God would give him strength ; for greatness he could not want.” And Dr. Rawley, his domestic chaplain, who saw him as he appeared in the most familiar relations of his home, remarks, with quaint veneration, “ I have been induced to think that if there were a beam of knowledge derived from God upon any man in these modern times, it was upon him.”
In our next paper, we propose to consider Bacon’s literary and philosophical works in connection with his personal character.