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Character of Lord Bacon's Works—compared as to style with Sir Thomas
Brown and Jeremy Taylor.
Lord Bacon has been called (and justly) one of the wisest of mankind. The word wisdom characterizes him more than any other. It was not that he did so much himself to advance the knowledge of man or nature, as that he saw what others had done to advance it, and what was still wanting to its full accomplishment. He stood upon the high 'vantage ground of genius and learning; and traced, “ as in a map the voyager his course,” the long devious march of human intellect, its elevations and depressions, its windings and its errors. He had a “large discourse of reason, looking before and after.” He had made an exact and extensive survey of human acquirements: he took the gauge and metre, the depths and soundings of human capacity. He was master of the comparative anatomy of the mind of man, of the balance of power among the different faculties. He had thoroughly investigated and carefully registered the steps and processes of his own thoughts, with their irregularities and fail. ures, their liabilities to wrong conclusions, either from the diffi. culties of the subject, or from moral causes, from prejudice, indolence, vanity, from conscious strength or weakness; and he applied this self-knowledge on a mighty scale to the general advances or retrograde movements of the aggregate intellect of the world. He knew well what the goal and crown of moral and intellectual power was, how far men had fallen short of it, and how they came to miss it. He had an instantaneous percep. tion of the quantity of truth or good in any given system ; and of the analogy of any given result or principle to others of the same kind scattered through nature or history. His observations take in a larger range, have more profundity from the finenes
of his tact, and more comprehension from the extent of his knowledge, along the line of which his imagination ran with equal celerity and certainty, than any other person's whose writings I know. He however seized upon these results, rather by intuition than by inference: he knew them in their mixed modes and combined effects, rather than by abstraction or ana. lysis, as he explains them to others, not by resolving them into their component parts and elementary principles, so much as by illustrations drawn from other things operating in like manner, and producing similar results; or, as he himself has finely expressed it, " by the same footsteps of nature treading or printing upon several subjects or matters.” He had great sagacity of observation, solidity of judgment and scope of fancy; in this resembling Plato and Burke, that he was a popular philosopher and philosophical declaimer. His writings have the gravity of prose with the fervour and vividness of poetry. His sayings have the effect of axioms, and are at once striking and self-evi. dent. He views objects from the greatest height, and his reflections acquire a sublimity in proportion to their profundity, as in deep wells of water we see the sparkling of the highest fixed stars. The chain of thought reaches to the centre, and ascends the brightest heaven of invention. Reason in him works like an instinct ; and his slightest suggestions carry the force of conviction. His opinions are judicial. His induction of particulars is alike wonderful for learning and vivacity, for curiosity and dignity, and an all-prevading intellect binds the whole together in a graceful and pleasing form. His style is equally sharp and sweet, flowing and pithy, condensed and expansive, expressing volumes in a sentence, or amplifying a single thought into pages
of rich, glowing, and delightful eloquence. He had great liberality from seeing the various aspects of things (there was nothing bigotted, or intolerant, or exclusive about him), and yet he had firmness and decision from feeling their weight and consequences. His character was then an amazing insight into the limits of human knowledge and acquaintance with the landmarks of human in. tellect, so as to trace its past history or point out the path to future inquirers, but when he quits the ground of contemplation of what others have done or left undone to project himself into future
discoveries, he becomes quaint and fantastic, instead of original. His strength was in reflection, not in production; he was the surveyor, not the builder of the fabric of science. He had not strictly the constructive faculty. He was the principal pioneer in the march of modern philosophy, and has completed the education and discipline of the mind for the acquisition of truth, by explaining all the impediments or furtherances that can be applied to it or cleared out of its way. In a word, he was one of the greatest men this country has to boast, and his name deserves to stand, where it is generally placed, by the side of those of our greatest writers, whether we consider the variety, the strength, or the splendour of his faculties, for ornament or use.
His Advancement of Learning' is 'his greatest work; and next to that I like the · Essays;' for the · Novum Organum' is more laboured and less effectual than it might be. I shall give a few instances from the first of these chiefly, to explain the scope of the above remarks.
• The Advancement of Learning' is dedicated to James I., and he there observes, with a mixture of truth and flattery, which looks very much like a bold irony
" I am well assured that this which I shall say is no amplification at all, but a positive and measured truth : which is, that there hath not been, since Christ's time, any king or temporal monarch which hath been so learned in all literature and erudition, divine and human (as your majesty). For let a man seriously and diligently revolve and peruse the succession of the Emperors of Rome, of which Cæsar the Dictator, who lived some years before Christ, and Marcus Antoninus, were the best-learned; and so descend to the Emperors of Grecia, or of the West, and then to the lines of France, Spain, England, Scotland, and the rest, and he shall find this judgment is truly made. For it seemeth much in a king, if by the compendious extractions of other men's wits and labour, he can take hold of any superficial ornaments and shows of learning, or if he countenance and prefer learning and learned men; but to drink indeed of the true fountain of learning, nay, to have such a fountain of learning in himself, in a king, and in a king born, is almost a miracle."
To any one less wrapped up in self-sufficiency than James, the rule would have been more staggering than the exception could have been gratifying. But Bacon was a sort of prose. laureate to the reigning prince, and his loyalty had never been suspected.
In recommending learned men as fit counsellors in a state, he thus points out the deficiencies of the mere empiric or man of business, in not being provided against uncommon emergencies.
-“ Neither,” he says, “ can the experience of one man's life furnish examples and precedents for the events of another man's life. For, as it happeneth sometimes, that the grand-child, or other descendant, resembleth the ancestor more than the son; so many times occurrences of present times may sort better with ancient examples, than with those of the latter or immediate times; and lastly, the wit of one man can no more countervail learning, than one man's means can hold way with a common purse.”—This is finely put. It might be added, on the other hand, by way of caution, that neither can the wit or opinion of one learned man set itself up, as it sometimes does, in opposition to the common sense or experience of mankind.
When he goes on to vindicate the superiority of the scholar over the mere politician in disinterestedness and inflexibility of principle, by arguing ingeniously enough—“ The corrupter sort of mere politiques, that have not their thoughts established by learning in the love and apprehension of duty, nor never look abroad into universality, do refer all things to themselves and thrust themselves into the centre of the world, as if all times should meet in them and their fortunes, never caring, in all tempests, what becomes of the ship of estates, so they may save themselves in the cock-boat of their own fortune; whereas men that feel the weight of duty, and know the limits of self-love, use to make good their places and duties, though with peril.”—I can only wish that the practice were as constant as the theory is plausible, or that the time gave evidence of as much stability and sincerity of principle in well-educated minds as it does of versatility and gross egotism in self-taught men.
I need not give the instances, " they will receive" (in our author's phrase) an open
allowance:" but I am afraid that neither habits of ab. straction nor the want of them will entirely exempt men from a bias to their own interest ; that it is neither learning nor ignorance that thrusts us into the centre of our own little world, but that it is nature that has put man there!
His character of the school-men is perhaps the finest philoso. phical sketch that was ever drawn. After observing that there are “two marks and badges of suspected and falsified science; the one, the novelty and strangeness of terms, the other the strictness of positions, which of necessity doth induce oppositions, and so questions and altercations”—he proceeds—"Surely like as many substances in nature which are solid, do putrefy and cor. rupt into worms; so it is the property of good and sound know. ledge to putrefy and dissolve into a number of subtle, idle, unwholesome, and (as I may term them) vermiculate questions ; which have, indeed, a kind of quickness and life of spirit, but no soundness of matter or goodness of quality. This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the school-men, who, having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading ; but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter, and infinite agitation of wit, spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit."
And a little further on, he adds—“Notwithstanding, certain it is, that if those school-men, to their great thirst of truth and unwearied travel of wit, had joined variety and universality of reading and contemplation, they had proved excellent lights to the great advancement of all learning and knowledge ; but, as they are, they are great undertakers indeed, and fierce with dark keeping. But, as in the inquiry of the divine truth, their pride inclined to leave the oracle of God's word, and to varnish in the mixture of their own inventions ; so in the inquisition of nature, they ever left the oracle of God's works, and adored the deceiving and deformed images which the unequal mirror of their own minds, or a few received authors or principles did represent unto them.”