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John Gascoigne


The object of this essay will be to explore the character o f Bacons religious
views within the larger context of his thought as a whole. By doing so it will
examine some of the arguments put forward about the extent to which Bacons
fundamental positions on the significance of science and the role that it could
play in The relief of mans estate can be said to have been coloured by religious
presuppositions whether Protestant (and, in particular, Calvinist) or Christian
more generally. The essay will further consider Bacons views on the proper
relationship between science and religion and, in particular, the relative impor
tance of Scripture and natural law in the study o f Gods Creation,

Ours is an age when there are increasingly shrill voices urging that
modernity means secularism. The recent work done by intellectual his
torians such as Brooke (1991) to demonstrate that the path of the early
scientific movement intersected significantly with the religious currents
of the time has not penetrated far beyond the world of specialists. In the
larger world the black and white certainties of nineteenth-century works
like John Drapers History o f the Conflict between Science and Religion
(1874) and Andrew Whites The Warfare between Science and Theology
in Christendom (1896) continue to hold ample sway.
In the secularist map of the past it follows that if modernity is about
shaking off the shackles of religion than one should be able to find at
least intimations of such a move to a religionless Weltanschauung among
the key figures of the Scientific Revolution. This would apply particu
larly to the far-sighted Francis Bacon who in the early seventeenth
century had the remarkable percipience to outline the possibilities of
scientific progress for, as he put it, The relief of mans estate. Surely the
cool-headed Lord Chancellor, politically adept and almost literally a
Renaissance man (since he had imbibed much of the humanist culture
of the Renaissance), did not swallow fully the religious concerns that so
preoccupied his contemporaries.
Such a view of Bacon has, too, historical precedent. When the French
Encyclopedists came to present their view of the classification of human
knowledge - which was largely based on a marginalisation of theology

and hence a more general secularisation - they did so by invoking the

authority of Francis Bacon. As DA lembert wrote of The immortal
Chancellor of England in the Preliminary Discourse (1751) to the
Encyclopedia: O ne would be tempted to regard him as the greatest, the
most universal, and the most eloquent of philosophers and, as he can
didly acknowledged, we owe principally to Chancellor Bacon the ency
clopaedic tree (Schwab 1963, 74, 76) - the classification of knowledge
with its subversive implications for the existing religious and intellectual
order. So pervasive was Bacons influence that the Encyclopedists Jesuit
adversaries accused DA lembert of plagiarising his work (White 1963,
1849-69). The image of Bacon as at heart a secularist which the
Encyclopedists had promoted took root: when De Maistre attacked the
Enlightenment he also attacked Francis Bacon as one of the sources of
its infidelity and when, in 1856, the German Kantian, Kuno Fischer,
wrote an influential study of Bacon he characterised his religious views
as nearer To infidelity than to superstition, and equally removed from
both genuine piety and hypocrisy (1857, 323).
In its search for the origins of modernity, however, history has become
less teleological and, like those restoring works of arts, historians increas
ingly see their task as peeling away the accretions of later ages to expose
the work of the founders of the scientific movement in their original
colours. The object of this work is to undertake a similar task in relation
to Francis Bacons religious beliefs drawing on both his own works and
a number of recent studies which underline the extent to which the
attempt to pluck Bacon out of his religious setting is rather like Shylocks
vain task of cutting out the flesh without spilling any blood.
One must begin with biography. Bacon was educated as a scion of a
family which had benefited substantially from the Elizabethan Settlement
and the definitive English break with Rome after earlier uncertainties.
His mother, particularly, was committed to the Protestant order and
being, like her queen, a highly educated woman, in 1564 translated from
Latin into English the classic defence of the Elizabethan Protestant
order, Bishop John Jewels Apologie o f the Church o f England. She strongly
urged the need for further right reformation and attempted, with very
little success, to enlist the support of her powerful brother-in-law, Lord
Burghley, in this cause (Anderson 1962, 25). Nevertheless, Bacons
Cambridge education was entrusted to John Whitgift, master of Trinity
College, 1567-77, who combined a strong adherence to orthodox
Calvinism with an insistence on compliance with the Queens will - so
much so that he became the chief royal enforcer in checking the

attempts by those who came to be known as Puritans to push the English

church further down the path of reform. Such behaviour led Bacons
mother to describe him as the destruction of our church (Spedding
et al. 1857-74, VIII, 112). Overall, in religious matters Bacon appears to
have been less the offspring o f his mother than of his father, the judi
cious and politically adept Sir Nicholas Bacon, one of the architects of
the Elizabethan religious via m edia (Collinson 1980, 255-73).
Bacons stay at Cambridge was brief - from April 1573 (when he matric
ulated at the age of twelve years and three months) to March 1575 - but he
was there exposed to the traditional Aristotelian-based scholastic curric
ulum laying the foundation for his lifetime aversion to the verbal philoso
phy of the scholastics. Along with the study of Aristotle, Whitgifts tutorials
account for Bacon and his brother, Anthony, taking up a considerable
study of the Roman and Greek classics - in keeping with the belated
spread of Renaissance humanism to England in the sixteenth century -
and, inevitably, the Bible (Gaskell 1979, 284-93). The accounts do not
contain the names of any theologians though one contemporary did
report that Whitgift prescribed Calvins Institutes to us students at
Cambridge University (Tyacke 1987, 207). Even without such direct tui
tion by Whitgift in Calvinist orthodoxy or the earlier religious instruction
at his mothers knee, Bacon would have imbibed the chief tenets of
Calvinism which formed part of the intellectual oxygen of the Elizabethan
and Jacobean world - or, as Patrick Collinson writes of the Jacobean
church, its theological cement (1982, 82)3
One issue in any study of Bacon, then, is the extent to which his largely
Calvinist upbringing left a lasting mark on his thought. It is a question
which is given greater force by the way in which Bacons influence has
been linked to the English Civil War and its revolutionary Puritan ideol
ogy which was deeply coloured by Calvinism. For Christopher Hill,
Bacon formed part of the intellectual ancestry of those who overthrew
the constituted order in church and state, and his Calvinist background
provided much of the intellectual energy to make that possible. In his
view, too, Calvinism lies at the heart of Bacons demarcation of the role
of science and religion: Bacon inherited from his pious parents, wrote
Hill, in his Intellectual Origins o f the English Revolution, and imbibed1

1 On the strength of Calvinist influences in the early work of Bacon, see Whitaker
1972, 45-46 and Milner 1997,
212 JO H N G A SC O IG N E

from the world around him, Calvinist assumptions about the priority of
faith over reason (Hill 1972, 91).2
The importance of Bacons work in providing the intellectual foun
dation for the English Revolution was subsequently underlined at much
greater length in Charles Websters The Great Instauration (the very title
of which derives from Bacon). This work also draws on the Merton the
sis that Protestants were disproportionately represented in the early sci
entific movement - with Merton giving particular emphasis to the role
of the Puritans, The hotter sort of Protestants For Webster, Bacons
philosophical system evolved in the context of the Calvinist code of eth
ics Bacons philosophy, he writes in his conclusion, seemed to be prov
identially designed for the needs of the Puritan Revolution. Indeed, this
suitability was not accidental, considering that the philosopher had an
intellectual ancestry largely in common with the English Puritans
(Webster 1975, 25, 514).
Though there is little doubt that Bacons intellectual formation in a
largely Calvinist environment was bound to influence his work funda
mentally there is little to suggest that he remained orthodoxly Calvinist
and, still less, that he was Puritan inclined. His Confession of Faith
(written at the turn of the century), for example, does not follow Calvin
and his followers by restricting the merits gained by Christs death to the
elect Calvinists but regards them as sufficient to do way with the sins of
the whole world - though he promptly qualifies this by adding that the
merits of Christs death are only effectual to those that are regenerate by
the Holy Ghost (Spedding et al. 1857-74, VII, 224). If Bacons choice of
friends is any indication, in later life Bacon was possibly sympathetic to
the Arminian emphasis on good works and its reaction against the
orthodox Calvinist emphasis on predestination. Bacon eagerly sought
the views of Lancelot Andrewes on many of his works describing this
major figure in the early Arminian movement as his inquisitor-general.
It was to Andrewes that Bacon dedicated his Advertisement Touch
ing an Holy War (1622) in respect of our ancient and private acquaint
ance; and because amongst the men of our time I hold you in special
reverence (Spedding et al. 1857-74, VII, 15). Another of his close

2 Hilts view that there was a dose connection between Bacon and the Puritan revo
lutionaries has been criticised on the grounds that Bacon was strongly committed to
royal government and even the royal prerogative (Rahb 1969, ISO). I am indebted to
Prof. Rabb of Princeton University for fostering my interest in Bacon while a graduate
student there.

friends was the poet, George Herbert, a member of the Little Gidding
community that was termed by the Puritans the Arminian nunnery. It
was to to his very good friend Mr George Herbert that Bacon dedicated
his Translation of Certain Psalms in 1625 (Spedding et al. 1857-74,
VII, 275).
Some of his work does indicate, however, that he was his mothers son
in at least retaining some sympathy for the Puritans or, at least, the belief
that they could be won over by using more conciliatory methods. In the
latter years of Elizabeths reign the young and ambitious Bacon was
concerned enough at the effect of religious discord brought on by the
repression of Puritan zeal to risk the displeasure of the mighty by writing
around 1589 a pamphlet (unpublished until 1640 though it circulated in
manuscript) which, while it was critical of the Puritans, also offered a
critique of the way in which they had been treated. In this An advertise
ment touching the controversies of the Church of England Bacon was a
defender of the episcopal order against Puritan critiques though he
viewed it pragmatically as being sensible and expedient rather than as
being divinely ordained. The main concern, however, of this apprentice
statesman was to restore order and he saw this as being imperilled by the
inflexibility of the hierarchy. Overall, it was his view that we contend
about ceremonies and things indifferent; about the extern [al] policy and
government of the church (Spedding et al. 1857-74, VIII, 75).
Bacon returned to such themes in 1604 immediately after the acces
sion of James I in his Certain Considerations Touching the Better
Pacification and Edification of the Church of England (1603), the chief
aim of which was, again, as its title suggests, to promote the peace of the
realm. He urged the new king to initiate a series of reforms which, he
hoped, would do something to lessen the discontent o f the Puritans.
Predictably, the pamphlet did little to win him friends among the bish
ops and the tract was repressed by the chief episcopal foe of the Puritans,
Richard Bancroft, bishop of London (Schwarz 1973, 47-61; Peltonen
20 0 4).
Nonetheless, Bacons pragmatic views on church government dis
tanced him considerably from the Puritan position (which was largely
inspired by the example of the Genevan Calvinist church order) that the
church should be constituted solely in terms of what was explicitly laid
down in Scripture. Bacons position was much closer to his mothers bete
noir, Archbishop Whitgift, who argued that It is plain that any one cer
tain form or kind of external government perpetually to be observed is
nowhere in the Scripture prescribed by the Church (Cross 1979,65). The

same view was expressed in more ample and general terms in the great
O f the Laws o f Ecclesiastical Polity by Bacons near contemporary Richard
Hooker (c.1554-1600).3 For Hooker argued that, along with Scripture, it
was possible to base religious practice on the Will of God as revealed
through the laws of nature (Almasy 1978,251-70). Doth not the Apostle
[Paul] wrote Hooker, term the law of nature, even as the evangelist doth
the law of Scripture ... Gods own righteous ordinance? The law of nature
then being his law; that must needs be of his which it hath directed men
unto. Such was the underpinning of the po wer of the state which drew its
authority from the law of nature and hence, ultimately, from God since,
as Hooker wrote, Nature therefore is nothing else but Gods instrument
(Hooker 1993, 7.11.10 and 1.3.4; Gascoigne 1997, 27).
Granting such power to the state was a fundamental challenge to the
Puritan position that, in a world given over to sin and the Devil, the only
secure path was to follow the verba ipsissima of Gods revealed will in
Scripture - hence the Puritan determination to strip away from the Church
of England everything (including bishops) which did not have explicit
Scriptural foundation. They remained unconvinced by the arguments of
Hooker or Bacon - and the two men may have influenced each other -
that there was no prescribed Scriptural blueprint for the nature of church
government and that, as a consequence, the state could require religious
observances not specifically commanded in Scripture. Such an assump
tion followed from Hookers view that the state, like the church, derived its
authority from the over-arching law of nature whose seate is the bosome
of God, her voice the harmony of the world (Hooker 1993,1,16.8).
In the political and legal realm Bacon had much in common with
Hookers view of natural law. Underlying the laws of the state, Bacons
overall argument runs, are the laws of nature which in turn reflect Gods
will - the state is therefore divinely ordained as are the social divisions
within it. In his 'The Advancement o f Learning (1605) - the first of his
published works that laid out his vision for a new intellectual order
which would make possible the relief of mans estate - Bacon wrote:
For there are in nature certain foundations of justice, whence all civil
laws are derived as streams (Spedding et al. 1857-74, III, 475). In his
philosophical works, however, the concept of natural law plays a far
more limited role, perhaps because Bacon did not feel the same need

5 Five of the eight books of the Ecclesiastical Polity appeared in Hookers lifetime: 1-4
in 1593 and 5 in 1597 (books 6 and 8 did not appear until 1648 and book 7 was pub
lished in 1662).

to ward off potential social unrest by invoking divine sanctions. For

Bacon qua philosopher natural law is a far less immediate, far more
shadowy guide to the will of God than the drift of his writings on juris
prudence would suggest. Certainly, Bacon argues, God has placed His
imprint on nature but this divine image is so partial and so inadequate
that it alone cannot lead man to a full knowledge of the Deity. The high
est generality of motion or summary law of nature, Bacon writes in his
Valerius Terminus of the Interpretation o f Nature - a manuscript from
1603 which served as an early overview of his philosophical/scientific
ideas - G od ... reserves within his own curtain (Spedding et al. 1857-74,
III, 220). Overall, Bacon takes the view that, since God has revealed
Himself in Scripture, it is there rather than in nature that man should
look if he truly wishes to come to an understanding of Gods will.
Nonetheless, Bacon regards the study of nature as a truly religious
activity, even though in the theological realm it plays a subordinate role
to the study of Scripture. As he wrote in his great Novum Organum (1620)
which brought to maturity the ideas outlined in his Valerius Terminus:

But if the matter be truly considered, natural philosophy is after the word
of God at once the surest medicine against superstition, and the most
approved nourishment for faith, and therefore she is rightly given to reli
gion as her most faithful handmaid, since the one displays the will of God,
the other his power (Spedding et al. 1857-74, IV, 89).

Although the contemplation of Gods creation may not lead to positive

knowledge of the divine in the manner of biblical theology, it can serve
at least to convince human beings that a Deity exists. Natural philoso
phy may not be able to lead us to the divine presence but, as he argued
in his The Advancement o f Learning, it can at least point us in the right
direction: For as all works do show forth the power and skill of the
workman, and not his image; so it is of the works of God; which do show
the omnipotence and wisdom of the maker, but not his image (Spedding
et al. 1857-74, III, 350-51).
Bacon compares the study of Scripture with the study of the book of
Gods Creation - an image which Robert Boyle developed and made
into a cliche among the next generation of scientists (Westfall 1958,43).
Since these two books were both ordained of God it therefore followed
there could be no fundamental inconsistency between them, underlin
ing Bacons more general view that faith and philosophy when rightly
understood were in fundamental accord (Kelly 1965, 273). Thereby
Bacon emphasises the dignity of the task of the philosopher (in our
terms, the scientist) - no longer is nature, and the study thereof, given
216 JO H N G A SC O IG N E

over to the kingdom of Satan; rather it is a means of directing human

beings mind to God. When, in his Preparative towards a Natural and
Experimental History (1620), Bacon laid out the programme for col
lecting the basic empirical information on which scientific advance
would be based he affirmed that:
I want this primary [natural] history to be compiled with a most religious
care, as if every particular were stated upon oath; seeing that it is the book
of Gods works, and (so far as the majesty o f heavenly may be compared
with tire humbleness of earthly things) a kind of second Scripture
(Spedding et a l 1857-74, IV, 261).

Nevertheless, Bacon remains quite definite that there is in no sense a

parity between the book of Gods revelation and the book of Creation.
The gap between God and the human and the natural realm is so vast
that only Gods self-revelation - Scripture - can give us a positive knowl
edge of God: For if any man, writes Bacon in his Valerius Terminus,
shall think by view and inquiry into these sensible and material things,
to attain to any light for the revealing of the nature or will of God, he
shall dangerously abuse himself (Spedding et al. 1857-74, III, 218). It
was a stance that underlay that radical division between philosophy and
theology which lay at the heart o f Bacons oeuvre (Gaukroger 2001,
94-95; Horton 1982, 493).
In thus stressing the radical cleavage between human beings and God
and therefore the disparity between the knowledge of nature and knowl
edge of the Divine, Bacon has more in common with the theology of
Calvin than with Hooker, the architect of the Anglican via media.
Through a study of Gods law in nature, Hooker argues, even a pagan
can come to some knowledge of God:

And therefore the laws which the very heathens did gather to direct their
actions by, so far forth as they proceeded from the light of nature, God
him self doth acknowledge to have proceeded even from himself, and
that he was the writer of them in the tables of their hearts (Coolidge
1970, 13).

By contrast Calvin is rather less obliging to those ignorant of Revelation

and writes in his Institutes o f the Christian Religion:

For since the human mind is unable, through its imbecility, to attain any
knowledge of God without the assistance of his sacred word, all mankind,
except the Jews, as they sought God without the word, must necessarily
have been wondering in vanity and error (Calvin 1 9 3 6 ,1, 84).

This may then be an important instance of the imprint of Bacons

upbringing in a largely Calvinist environment. At the same time, how
ever, there are important differences between Bacon and Calvin even in
matters directly pertaining to theology. Both view Scripture as the fo n s
et origo of all positive knowledge of God but Bacon also places emphasis
on the role of the church in interpreting the Word. In his utopian New
Atlantis (1626), published a year after his death, Bacon depicts the
devout inhabitants of that island as having been converted not only by
the arrival of the Scriptures but also by church tradition in the shape of
a letter from Saint Bartholomew (Spedding et ah 1857-74, III, 138). The
authority of interpreting Scripture, Bacon saw as being based on the
consent of the church. By contrast, Calvin regarded such a position as
resting The eternal and inviolable truth of God ...o n the arbitrary will
of men (Calvin 1 936,1, 86). The clash between these two views of reli
gious authority is reflected in Bacons censure of the Puritanically
inclined critics of the English Church in his An Advertisement Touching
the Controversies of the Church of England. In their attempt to express
Scripture for everything he saw them as having deprived themselves
and the church of a special help and support by embasing the authority
of the fathers (Spedding et al. 1857-74, VIII, 93).
While the Puritans and Bacon might have disagreed on the role of
church tradition in the interpretation of Scripture they did share the
view that Scripture, however interpreted, was the only sure path whereby
human beings could come to a positive knowledge of God. Since Gods
self-revelation in Scripture transcends human reason Bacon argued that
philosophy should not be mixed with the study of divinity. In his
expanded Latin translation of The Advancem ent o f Learning, De Dignitate
et Augmentis Scientiarum (1623), Bacon therefore resisted the impulse
to extend his reform of philosophy to divinity since by doing so,

I shall step out of the bark of human reason, and enter into the ship of
the church; which is only able by the Divine compass to rightly direct its
course. Neither will the stars o f philosophy, which have hitherto so nobly
shone upon us, any longer supply their light (Spedding et al. 1857-74,
V, 111).

In his allegorical interpretations of ancient classical myths in his De

Sapientia Veterum (1609) Bacon interprets Prometheuss last crime, the
attempt upon the chastity of Minerva, as the ancients metaphorical
way of expressing the folly of trying to bring the divine wisdom itself
under the dominion of sense and reason: from which inevitably follows
218 JO H N G A SC O IG N E

laceration of the mind and vexation without end or rest1. Not following
such a precept could lead to a heretical religion and a fabulous philoso
phy (Spedding et al. 1857-74, VI, 753). His particular target here was
probably those, like the Paracelsians, who attempted to read off the
word of Scripture a fully developed system of natural philosophy
(Manzo 1999, 125). Bacons conception of faith follows from this with
its emphasis on the gulf between the human mind and that of God: we
ought not to attempt to draw down or submit the mysteries of God to
our reason;, he wrote in his The Advancement o f Learning, but contra
riwise to raise and advance our reason to the divine truth (Spedding
et al. 1857-74, III, 350).
Such an accord between reason and divine truth might not, however,
always be readily apparent and there is an element of fideism in Bacon
that was quite in tune with his contemporaries. In his Religio Medici
(1643) Thomas Browne rejoiced in the gulf between belief and reason:
T can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with
that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, credum est, qua im possible
esf. Bacons friend, Bishop Andrewes, was also emphatic that God is
above all reason of man. And therefore we cannot come to God by
reason (More and Crosse 1935, 217, 215).
The separation of science and religion is a theme that echoes through
out all Bacons work. Bacon was concerned at the harm done to science
by its being involved in the controversies of religion, and, without a
doubt, that was one of the reasons why he was keen to insulate science
from religion. At times, as in his manuscript, Thoughts and Conclusions
on The Interpretation of Nature or a Science Productive of Works
(1607), there is a note of real anger at the way in which In Superstition
and in blind immoderate religious zeal Natural Philosophy has found a
troublesome and intractable enemy (Farrington 1966, 77). But there is
no sign that this was a mask for some deeper religious scepticism. He
was not afraid to submit this work to Bishop Andrewes and both this
text and letters expressing a similar opinion gained the approval of
Bacons closest friend, Tobie Matthew, interestingly a Catholic convert
who was ordained a priest.
Nor was Bacon solely concerned with the ill effects of religion on nat
ural philosophy; he does show some pre-occupation with the harm
wrought by the opposite process. In all his writings one of Bacons objec
tives is to still the religious controversies which he believed were both
discrediting religion and damaging society. By blending divinity and
philosophy - particularly the contentious philosophy of Aristotle - the

number of theological controversies was increased. Therefore, argued

Bacon, the separation served the interests of religion since the fury of
controversies, wherewith the church laboured! would be reduced.
Bacon also took the view that using religion as an agent in gaining
mastery over nature demeans its dignity - instead of being an end in
itself, religion becomes a means to an end. His prime target here is the
hermetic philosophy of the Paracelsan school - not only do they
produce poor science but, as he wrote in the The Advancement o f
Learning, they also much imbase them [the Scriptures]. For to seek
heaven and earth in the Word of God ... is to seek temporary things
amongst eternal (Spedding et al. 1857-74, III, 481, 486).
The chief offenders Bacon has in mind when he criticises those who
mix philosophy and theology are the scholastics. By identifying
Christianity so closely with a particular brand of philosophy, Bacon
argues, scholasticism led to a critique of Aristotelian physics being inter
preted as an attack on Christianity. Moreover, scholasticism led men
away from the Scriptures: The more you recede from the Scriptures, by
inferences and consequences, the more weak and dilute are your posi
tions (Spedding et al. 1857-74, III, 484). Calvin, too, was critical of
scholasticism. The sophistry and jargon of the schools concerning
repentance he wrote, is very remote from the purity of the gospel
(Calvin 1936, III, Ch iv). This may, then, be another instance of the con
tinuing influence of the Calvinist milieu in which he grew up. The
Catholic Descartes, however, was equally impatient with scholasticism.
Moreover, Protestantism soon after the reformation began to develop a
scholasticism of its own, both in response to the need for systematising
its own theology, and as a weapon in anti-Catholic controversy
(Dillenberger 1960, 50 if).
It was this Protestant scholasticism to which Bacon was exposed at
Cambridge, and it is from his student days there that his anti-scholasti
cism dates. The chief religious opponents of Aristotle were the more
enthusiastic of the Puritans whom Bacon censured for their contempt
of learning as but carnal and savouring of mans brain (Spedding et al.
1857-74, VIII, 91), and whose objections to human wisdom were one of
his targets in his The Advancement o f Learning. One therefore cannot
draw too direct a correlation between Bacons religious background and
his anti-scholasticism.
Where the Calvinist imprint on Bacon is perhaps clearer is the extent
to which Bacon, like Calvin, emphasises the transcendent character of
God. Bacons objection to the idea that human beings could come to a
220 JO H N G A SC O IG N E

positive knowledge of God through a study of nature is based on his

opposition to the suggestion that God can be identified with Creation.
From this follows, too, his lack of sympathy with the view that natural
law is in some sense Gods revelation immanent in nature. The natural
order, in Bacons outlook, is not permeated by the mind of God, or any
other intelligence, it is inanimate and has no intrinsic purpose or
direction. In such a universe attempts to explain nature as permeated by
a tendency to realize forms not yet existing - i.e. final causes - appear
absurd (Collingwood 1945, 3-9). As he made plain in his Novum
Organum, Bacon regarded the search for final causes, a cornerstone of
Aristotelian natural philosophy, as not merely a waste of time but a posi
tive hindrance to the march of science:

although the most general principles in nature ought to be held merely

positive, as they are discovered, and cannot with truth be referred to a
cause; nevertheless the human understanding being unable to rest still
seeks something prior in the order of nature ... namely, on final causes:
which have relation clearly to the nature of man rather than to the nature
of the universe; and from this source have strangely defiled philosophy
(Speddlng et al. 1857-74, IV, 57).

Basic to Bacons position was the view that nature is amenable to rational
investigation since it is not arbitrary and anarchic. Nonetheless, for him,
the order in nature does not follow from some immanent principle such
as the Aristotelian idea of nature being shaped by intelligent causes;
true to the voluntarist tradition (which was strong in Calvinism) the
laws of nature are seen by Bacon as having been imposed by the will of
the Creator on the Creation. Natural objects form some sort of pattern
not because there is an organic bond between them but rather because
they are regimented into formation by an outside force (Whitehead
1948, 1 6 6 -6 8 ).
Scholastic natural philosophy was based on a belief in immanent nat
ural law and took as its premise the assumption that all phenomena
could be explained by a process of deduction from these basic laws.
Bacon, however, held another view: objects have no inherent connec
tions with each other and their interactions with each other cannot be
predicted by metaphysically-based over-arching laws of being. Scientific
investigation, he argues, must begin at the bottom floor rather than at
the top and seek to establish laws of natural behaviour through a process
of induction based on a patient study of as wide a range of discrete
objects and natural phenomena as possible. Nature, then, is inherently
anarchic, its rationality derives not from itself but from God who

imposes on it laws which give it the regularity that makes scientific

investigation possible. For Bacon order is a tribute to the majesty and
power of God and a proof of his existence: had rather believe all the
fables in Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, Bacon writes in his
essay O f Atheism, than that this universal frame is without a mind
(Spedding et al. 1857-74, VI, 413).
So striking a manifestation of Divine power is the fact of natures
regularity that Bacon is rather uncomfortable about miracles which
contravene that order (Pons 1985, 308). God, he emphasises in his
Confession of Faith) works primarily through the preservation of order
rather than through miracles:

That notwithstanding God hath rested and ceased from creating since the
first Sabbath, yet nevertheless he doth accomplish and fulfil his divine will
in all things great and small, singular and general, as fully and exactly by
providence, as he could by miracle and new creation, though his working
be not immediate and direct, by compass; not violating Nature, which is
his own law upon the creature (Spedding et al. 1857-74, VII, 221).

In the Novum Organum he goes so far as to suggest that miracles should

be investigated to see if they conform to any common pattern, which, by
reducing miracles to a predictable order, comes close to explaining them
away (Spedding et al. 1857-74, IV, 168). This is not to say that Bacon
wishes to demythologise Christianity The Biblical miracles, he con
tends, gain in stature by being distinguished from false prodigies. Many
Protestant theologians argued along similar lines in rejecting the post-
Apostolic miracles of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, there are in
Bacon the seeds of conflict between a belief in a God who actively inter
venes in the workings of the universe, and a God who stands aside after
having created a cosmos which works by laws as regular as clockwork.
This tension was to become quite explicit in the Deist controversies of
the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
In charting the route to the understanding of nature Bacon empha
sises the fallibility of the human mind since it is so far removed from the
counsels of the Almighty - as a consequence it is naturally prone to error
and distortion. Human beings can only come to a knowledge o f the
Deity, and hence absolute truth, through Gods free self-revelation which
takes place primarily in Scripture but also (even in a far more limited
way) through Creation. Nature may not be imbued with the divine intel
ligence but it at least has the mark of its Creators signature. Bacon argues
that natural philosophy has gone astray by relying primarily on human
reason rather than on a detailed investigation of Gods creation which,
222 JO H N G A SC O IG N E

however inadequately, bears the mark of its Creators hand. The result is
that philosophers have projected on to nature the idols, or basic falla
cies, of the human mind: Be it known then, he wrote in his Novum

how vast a difference there is ... between the Idols o f the human mind and
the Ideas of the divine. The former are nothing more than arbitrary
abstractions; the latter are the Creators own stamp upon creation,
impressed and defined in matter by true and exquisite lines (Spedding et
al. 1857-74, IV, 110).

One of Bacons primary goals is to promulgate a new method of con

ducting philosophy which will overcome the natural tendency of the
mind to contemplate its own navel instead of the works of God. We
see through a glass darkly, Bacon insists in his The Advancement o f
Learning since the mind does not reflect nature faithfully, nor can it be
regarded as a microcosm of the universe with an intuitive grasp of the
Cosmoss laws;

For the mind o f man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass
wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true inci
dence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and
imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced (Spedding et al. 1857-74, III,

Bacon therefore sets out to make others conscious of the fallacies to

which the human mind is prone by cataloguing its idols. One way of
overcoming these innate biases is to subordinate human beings faulty
intelligence to the discipline of a thorough study of Creation. Bacon
contrasts such a method with that of the scholastics which was espe
cially inclined to error since it emphasised dialectic at the expense of
empirical investigation:
but as in the inquiry of the divine truth, their (the Scholastics] pride
inclined to leave the oracle of Gods word and to vanish in the mixture of
their own inventions, so in the inquisition of nature they ever left the ora
cle of Gods works and adored the deceiving and deformed images which
the unequal mirror of their own minds or a few received authors or prin
ciples did represent unto them (Spedding et al. 1857-74, III, 287).

The character of Bacons attack on the scholastics theology along with

their natural philosophy once again raises the question of the impor
tance of his Calvinist background. Calvin also regarded the human
mind as grievously flawed and naturally prone to turn from the true
God to idols of its own creation:

Every mans understanding is like a labyrinth to him; so that it is not to be

wondered at, that the different nations were drawn aside into various
inventions, and even that almost every individual had his own particular
deity. For, amidst the union of temerity and wantonness with ignorance
and darkness, scarcely a man could be found who did not frame to himself
some Idol of phantom instead of God (Calvin 1936,1, 74).

Bacons choice of the religiously charged word idols1 as his term for
basic fallacies of the human mind further strengthens the parallel with
Calvin. Classical scepticism and the attempts of the moderns, both
Catholic and Protestant, to come to terms with Pyrrhonism appear to
have played an important role in the development of Bacons epistemol
ogy. But he would not have gained from these sources an aversion to
anything in the realm of thought which smacks of idolatry, or the sense
of the alienation of the human mind from the divine intelligence which
he shares with Calvin. Bacon parts company, however, with Calvin in
the conclusion that he draws from this unflattering view of the human
mind. Our present inadequacies, Bacon argues, serve to emphasise the
powers we possessed before the Fall, and our unfortunate lot should not
be so much a cause for gloom about human capabilities but rather
should act as an incentive to win back the powers we have lost. The aim
of his Great Instauration (of which the Novum Organum forms a major
part), he tells us in his Proem, is to ascertain whether that commerce
between the mind of man and the nature of things which is more pre
cious than anything on earth ... might be restored to its perfect and
original condition (Spedding et al. 1857-74, IV, 7).
If human beings will swallow the pride that distracts them from stud
ying Gods creation and impels them instead to create worlds of their
own, then they can set about regaining the mastery over nature which
was originally granted to them by God but which was lost at the Fall:
Only let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to
it by divine bequest, he writes in the Novum Organum, and let power be
given it; the exercise thereof will be governed by sound reason and true
religion (Spedding et al. 1857-74, IV, 115).4 Speculation and hypothe
sis-spinning only lead humans further from the works of God; the con
sequence, as Bacon wrote in the preface to his Natural and Experimental
History, was that bur dominion over creatures is a second time forfeited.
Rather, he continued, human beings should approach with humility

There is a similar motif in his New Atlantis (Preus 1979, 270).


and veneration to unroll the volume of Creation; to linger and meditate

therein, and with minds washed dean from opinions to study it in purity
and integrity (Spedding et al. 1857-74, V, 132). In the Novum Organum
Bacon urged the need for the humility of a little child when entering the
kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than
the entrance into the kingdom of heaven At the beginning of the same
work Bacon describes humanity as the servant and interpreter of Nature
since human dominion over it depends on subjecting his otherwise
erring intellect to the study of the natural order. He later adds, For we
cannot command nature except by obeying her (Spedding et al. 1857-74,
V, 69, 47, 114). Dominion over nature, paradoxically, should be based
on humility in the face of Gods creation.
In coupling humility with natural philosophy Bacon is making an
implicit criticism of many of his fellow natural philosophers. Bacon is
not only censuring the scholastic withdrawal from empirical reality, but
he is also criticising those natural philosophers (like the Paracelsians
and Hermeticists) for whom the goal of science was the wresting from
nature by a group of illuminati occult secrets which would give them
semi-divine powers (Rossi 1968, 27). The Faustian myth, as Christopher
Marlowes play, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus (c. 1592) indicates, was
one that had a good deal of meaning for Bacons contemporaries, and
the association of science with forbidden knowledge was one against
which Bacon had to fight (Willey 1962, 35-43; McKnight 2006, 60).
The aim of science, Bacon insists in his The Advancement o f Learning,
is not the self-deification of human beings but the glory of the Creator
and the relief of mans estate (Spedding et al. 1857-74, III, 294).
Knowledge should not be kept as the esoteric property of a small coterie
but should be used for humankind at large. The end of science is charity,
not power for its own sake, and it is this that clears natural philosophy
from any accusation of hubris or Satanic pride:

In aspiring to the throne of power the angels transgressed and fell, in pre
suming to come within the oracle of knowledge man transgressed and fell;
but in pursuit towards the similitude of Gods goodness of love .,. neither
man or spirit ever hath transgressed, or shall transgress (Spedding et al.
1857-74, III, 217).

If science cannot arrive at a knowledge of God intellectually it neverthe

less leads human beings to God through its ethical dimension (Anderson
1948, 324). While Jesus was on earth His miracles were designed for the
benefit of humankind and Bacon conceives of those actuated by his

principles as having a similar sympathy for the sorrows of their fellows.

The philosopher/scientist in Bacons New Atlantis, for example, has an
aspect as if he pitied men (Spedding et al. 1857-74, III, 154).
Sciences task of relieving mans estate, Bacon argues in his Novum
Organum, is obviously in sympathy with the Divine Will. It has the
character of good so strongly impressed upon it, [that it] appears mani
festly to proceed from God, who is the author of good, and the Father of
Lights (Spedding et al. 1857-74, IV, 91). Bacons confidence in the divine
character of his mission on occasions gives his work an almost
messianic tinge: knowledge in the New Atlantis is described as Tight,
one of the traditional attributes of God, and one group of philosophers
in his Utopia bears the title, Merchants of Light (Spedding et al.
1857-74, III, 164). Bacons choice of title for his great project for redi
recting the path of natural philosophy, the Grand Instauration is also
significant. The word instauration, the Oxford English Dictionary tells
us, means the action of restoring or renewing and its first recorded use
(in 1603) is in Thomas Cartwrights translation of the New Testament
text restitutio rerum omnium (restoration of all things), a phrase preg
nant with chiliastic overtones (Farrington 1973, 146). The term instau
ration also had the sense of re-edification, and for Bacon its connotations
applied both metaphorically to the rebuilding of Solomons Temple and
to the rebuilding of the temple of knowledge which had been shattered
by the Fall (Whitney 1986, 24).
At base, Bacons goal was the restoration of human beings to the bliss
they had once enjoyed in Eden - an aim, mutatis mutandis, that he
shared with every millenarian movement. He also shared with other
such movements the ambition not only of returning humanity to its
prelapsarian condition but also that of instituting the kingdom of God
on earth - a goal in which he saw England as having a particularly
important role to play (McKnight 2006,153). Vainly, he hoped that King
James I would act as a patron of his scheme to usher in a new age char
acterised by the recovery of the knowledge of Gods Creation that had
been lost with the Fall: as he wrote in the dedication of the Great
Instauration surely to the times of the wisest and most learned of kings
belongs of right the regeneration and restoration of the sciences
(Spedding et al. 1857-74, IV, 12). Among its other claims to a leading
role in the new order, England had been active in the accumulation of
knowledge from new lands unbeknown to antiquity, another augury for
Bacon of the coming of the great instauration. Such new sources of
knowledge, along with other advances in the sciences, he described in
226 JO H N G A SC O IG N E

The Advancement o f Learning as being ordained by God to be coeval,

that is, to meet in one age - so much so that it prompted him to cite the
classic chiliastic text from the Book of Daniel (12: 4): Many shall pass to
and fro, and knowledge shall be multiplied5(Spedding etal. 1857-74, IV,
339; Guibbory 1975, 340-41).
Religious motifs play such a large role in Bacons work and are so inti
mately bound up with his thought as a whole that one can draw no clear
line of division between the religious and the secular. Calvinism may
well have coloured something of Bacons view of human beings and the
world, but he had only limited sympathy with the more pronounced
Calvinists who formed the backbone of the Puritan movement. It is diffi
cult to identify Bacon too closely with any particular religious movement
ofhis own time: in religion, as in everything else, he was an original thinker
with a tendency to mould received doctrine into a distinctive pattern of
his own. What is evident is the extent to which religious ideas were a major
part of the matrix out of which was formed Bacons thought and his insist
ence that religion and science could work in amity (Briggs 1996, 174;
Manzo 2006, 247). Given the importance of Bacons influence in shaping
the modern scientific movement, it reminds us yet again that the origins
of modernity cannot be readily equated with the origins of secularism.


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