Essays, Civil and Moral & The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon
After all that Stoic reserve in Volume 2, it's almost refreshing
to see Francis Bacon dedicate his collected essays to the Duke of
Buckingham. Even better to find him insisting that these essays
may last as long as books last.
Socrates died an enemy of the state; Epictetus lived as a slave; even
Marcus Aurelius, as Roman Emperor, attempted to stand apart from
temporal matters; but Bacon is unmistakably a government functionary,
and the obligations of this role are never far off in his essays. He
reads like a kind of English Machiavelli. (I think. Not that I've read the Prince, which is all the way off in Volume 36; ask me about it in September...)
Of course, Bacon is best known as the father of the modern scientific method. It may be that the real difference between his essays and, say, Plato's dialogues lies here: the Greek metaphysicians operate in an abstract field of thought, while empiricists like Bacon limit themselves to practical, testable assertions. There's no question which method works better in the natural sciences, but in the field of ethics, Bacon's results are decidedly mixed. Empiricists are experts in how things are, but can sometimes fall short in the matter of how things ought to be.
The stage is more beholding to love, than the life of man. For as to the stage, love is ever a matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies; but in life it doth much mischief ... You may observe that amongst all the great and worthy persons (whereof the memory remaineth, either ancient of recent) there is not one that hath been transported to the mad degree of love: which shows that great spirits and great business do keep out this weak passion.
If a man would cross a business that he doubts some other would handsomely and effectually move, let him pretend to wish it well, and move it himself in such sort as may foil it.
I don't know that some hip-hop star hasn't yet picked up Bacon, as others have Machiavelli and Sun-Tzu, but I highly recommend him. Here he is on keeping an entourage:
Costly followers are not to be liked; lest while a man maketh his train longer, he make his wings shorter.
On Great Place:
The rising unto place is laborious; and by pains men come to greater pains ... The standing is slippery, and the regress is either a downfall, or at least an eclipse, which is a melancholy thing.
Not as pithy, perhaps, as
Mo Money, Mo Problems. But you get the idea.
As for the New Atlantis, Bacon's unfinished vision of an ideal
future state, it is easily the strangest thing I have read in the
Classics so far. Given Bacon's legacy, the editors choose to emphasize
the second half of the text, in which, in Eliot's words,
we have Bacon the scientist indulging without restriction his prophetic vision of the future of human knowledge.
But I was far more interested by the first half, which tells of Bacon's
arrival at the unknown island of Bensalem and of the island's history,
including its witness of a fiery cross in the sky within a generation
of Jesus' death and the elaborate means by which the island has kept
itself secret. For purposes of political science, this speculative
narrative is completely gratuitous. I couldn't help thinking that
Bacon, more than a century before Poe or Wells, had proven himself also
the father of modern science fictions.
Areopagitica & Tractate on Education by John Milton
I expect to spend the next few days gorging myself on Milton (Volume
Four: the Complete Poems in English), so I won't say much about him
here. I read his Tractate on Education with great interest, hoping it
might help illuminate Charles Eliot's own ideas on the topic, and with
them his method in compiling the Classics. And I think they might have.
Specifically, I suspect that the Classics' early emphasis on ethics,
both practical and abstract, conforms to Milton's belief that
The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright.
On these questions, there will be much empirical evidence in the months
to come, so I'll hold off on further speculation for now.
Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne
17th Century England -- the England of Bacon and Milton -- produced
far more than its share of history's great prose writers in any
language. Even in this company, Thomas Browne stands apart. Religio
Medici, which outlines Browne's religious beliefs and the path by which
he came to them, provided me the most sheerly delightful reading
experience of the past few weeks.
In my solitary and retired imagination, he writes,
I remember I am not alone.
And this is very much how I myself felt while reading him. Every time I
began to think that his elaborate biblical cosmologies had little to
tell me, a crystal of prose broke through. At the end of a long
discourse on angels, bordering at times on the absurd, Browne
in brief, conceive light invisible, and that is Spirit.
Browne was a medical doctor who combined Bacon's attention to the physical world with Milton's spiritual sense, and he believed this double vision was man's great gift:
Thus is man that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live, not onely like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds: for though there be but one sense, there are two to reason, the one visible and the other invisible.
I hesitate to admit this, but then I read these words, I felt like the page in front of me gave off an invisible light. Without reference to any religious doctrine, I can say that writers like Browne make sensible to me the invisible world. Though I may not occupy that world much of the time, at least I can sometimes be reminded that I am not alone.
--CRB, January 22, 2007