Francis Bacon (1561-1626), scientist, lawyer, and statesman, occupies a unique position in English letters. His most widely read work, the Essays, still ranks high among the masterpieces produced during one of the greatest periods of English prose. These richly condensed utterances on human life show, in the matter of conduct, something of the same stress on the pragmatic that Bacon brought to his scientific writing. Together, these great essays are a rich collection of shrewd observations about human passions and pursuits, old age, religion, death, friendship, and even the proper ordering of buildings and gardens.
About the Author
FRANCIS BACON was born in London on January 22, 1561, the youngest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal to Queen Elizabeth I. Being of a delicate constitution, young Francis received his primary education at home. In 1573, at the age of twelve, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, with his brother Anthony to study law; three year later, Francis interrupted his studies to travel to France with Sir Amias Paulett, English ambassador at Paris. Following the sudden death of his father in 1579, Bacon returned to England. Since he had been left but a small inheritance, he tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain a position at court. Thereupon he resumed his legal studies and began practice as a barrister in 1582. Due probably to the influence of his uncle William Cecil, Baron Burghley and Lord High Treasurer, Bacon advanced rapidly at the bar; in 1584, he entered the House of Commons.
By 1591 Bacon was acting as an influential adviser to Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, the queen's favorite who had led a successful campaign against the Spanish at Cadiz. Although Bacon was gaining fame as the author of the Essays (the first edition of which appeared in 1597) and the Colours of Good and Evil, he could not increase his fortune. He lost his bid for the office of attorney general, and in 1598 was arrested for debt. To help compensate him, Essex offered Bacon an estate in Twickenham. Essex had fallen out of favor with Elizabeth over events in Ireland during his tenure as governor general; in secret correspondence with James I of Scotland , he accused the queen's chief counselors of being in league against him and tried to raise a popular rebellion, whereupon he was arrested for treason. After the earl's execution in 1601, the ill feeling against Bacon, who had taken part in the prosecution, prompted him to write a formal Apology for his action in the case.
Under Elizabeth, Bacon held no official court post. His fortunes rose under James I: in 1613 he became attorney general; in 1616 he was made a privy councillor and, one year later, keeper of the Great Seal. In 1618 Bacon became Lord Chancellor, and in 1621 he was raised to the peerage, becoming Viscount St. Albans. The crash came, however, when Bacon was accused of accepting bribes while serving in the court of chancery. While the resulting penalties of imprisonment and a large fine were rescinded by the king, Bacon was barred from holding further office.
Bacon spent his last productive years writing, among other works, A History of Henry VII (1622) and a third, enlarged edition of the Essays (1625), the edition printed in this volume. Francis Bacon died in London on April 9, 1626. Truly a Renaissance man, Bacon the statesman also wrote voluminously on a variety of subjects. His most important works in science and philosophy comprise parts of a vast work he left unfinished, the Magna lnstauratio (Great lnstauration): the two major parts of this are the De augmentis scientiarum (1623), an augmented Latin translation of his earlier Advancement of Learning, in which Bacon takes account of the progress in human science to his day, and the Novum Organum (New Instrument) (1620). In this latter work Bacon lays out his method of induction based on observation and experiment. The principles laid down by Bacon form the basis of the modem scientific method.
Bacon wrote many pamphlets on current political topics; The New Atlantis (1627) on the ideal state; Historia ventorum (A History of the Winds) (1622); Apophthegms (1624), a collection of anecdotes and witticisms; De sapientia veterum (On the Wisdom of the Ancients) (1609); and several other works. But his most popular and enduring book was the Essays, shrewd observations on life and human affairs written in a crisp, elegant, epigrammatic style.