Francis Bacon had many accomplishments. He was a scientist, a philosopher, and a politician, and he was adept, too, at taking bribes; for this he had been imprisoned. It is, however, as a literary man that he is perhaps best remembered, a writer so competent with the pen that for decades there have been some persons willing to argue that Bacon wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.
The essay form is rare in the modern age, although there are some faint signs of its revival. As Bacon used it, the essay is a carefully fashioned statement, both informative and expressive, by which a person comments on life and manners, on nature and its puzzles. The essay is not designed to win people to a particular cause or to communicate factual matter better put in scientific treatises. Perhaps that is one reason why it is not so popular in an age in which the truth of claims and their practical importance are always questioned.
The Essays first appeared, ten in number, in 1597. They were immediately popular because they were brief, lively, humane, and well-written. Perhaps they were effective in contrast to the rambling, florid prose written by most writers of the time. A considerable part of their charm lay in their civilized tone. In these essays, Bacon reveals himself as an inquisitive but also an appreciative man with wit enough to interest others. The first edition contained the following essays: “Of Studies,” “Of Discourse,” “Of Ceremonies and Respects,” “Of Followers and Friends,” “Of Suitors,” “Of Expense,” “Of Regiment of Health,” “Of Honour and Reputation,” “Of Faction,” and “Of Negociating.”
By 1612, the number of essays had been increased to thirty-eight, the earlier ones having been revised or rewritten. By the last edition, in 1625, the number was fifty-eight. Comparison of the earlier essays with those written later shows not only a critical mind at work but also a man made sadder and wiser, or at least different, by changes in fortune.
The essays concern themselves with such universal concepts as truth, death, love, goodness, friendship, fortune, and praise. They cover such controversial matters as religion, atheism, “the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” custom and education, and usury, and they consider such intriguing matters as envy, cunning, innovations, suspicion, ambition, praise, vainglory, and the vicissitudes of things.
The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, as they are called in the heading of the first essay, begins with an essay on truth entitled “Of Truth.” The title formula is always the same, simply a naming of the matter to be discussed, as, for example, “Of Death,” “Of Unity in Religion,” “Of Adversity,” “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.” One expects a sermon, and one is pleasantly surprised. Bacon uses his theme as a point of departure for a discussion of the charms of lying, trying to fathom the love of lying for its own sake. “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure,” he writes. This pleasure is ill-founded, however; it rests on error resulting from depraved judgment. Bacon reverses himself grandly: “ . . . truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.”
When it comes to death, Bacon begins by admitting that tales of death increase humanity’s natural fear of it, but he reminds the reader that death is not always painful. By references to Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, Vespasian, and others, Bacon shows that, even...
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While Renaissance men were rapidly expanding all the frontiers of knowledge—in geography, philosophy, medicine and astronomy—Sir Francis Bacon was devising a deductive system for empirical research which has earned him the title "the Father of Modern Science."
Sir Francis Bacon
Most scientists today still owe him a debt of gratitude. They repay this debt by giving his capsule biography in almost every text for high-school or college-level courses in most branches of science. But they carefully avoid mentioning that he was gay.
Bacon did not marry until the late age of forty-eight, and contemporary figures relate that he was by preference homosexual. John Aubrey in his Brief Lives says quite bluntly that Bacon "was a pederast" and had "ganimeds and favourites" ("pederast" in Renaissance diction meant generally "homosexual" rather than specifically a lover of minors; "ganimed" of course derives from the mythical prince abducted by Zeus to be his cup-bearer and bed-warmer.) The Puritan moralist Sir Simonds D'Ewes (Bacon's fellow Member of Parliament) in his Autobiography and Correspondence discusses Bacon's love for his Welsh serving-men, in particular a "very effeminate-faced youth" whom he calls "his catamite and bed-fellow" ("catamite" is a corruption of "Ganymede"). The diary entry for 3 May 1621—the date of Bacon's censure by Parliament—reveals the full extent of Bacon's homosexuality, and is worth quoting extensively if only because it has been suppressed in the only printed edition of the D'Ewes's autobiography (not published until 1845), and has been studiously ignored by most of Bacon's modern biographers:
Sir Francis Bacon's relationships—like those of his King—closely followed the pattern of patron/favourite. More specifically, he had a preference for young Welsh serving-men. The roll of attendants for Bacon's household in 1618 lists a total of 75 attendants, of whom some 25 were gentlemen waiters. There was Francis Edney, who, upon Bacon's death in 1626, received "£200 and my rich gown"; young Thomas Meautys, who was to become Bacon's secretary-in-chief; a Mr Bushell, "gent. usher," who came to the household in 1608 as a lad of fifteen, and who remained until Bacon's death; Edward Sherburn, groom of the chamber; and, above all, young Tobie Matthew, who was left only a ring to the value of £30, but who had become Sir Tobie through Bacon's efforts, and who was well able to care for himself.
. . . the favour he had with the beloved Marquis of Buckingham emboldened him, as I learned in discourse from a gentleman of his bedchamber, who told me he was sure his lord should never fall as long as the said Marquis continued in favour. His most abominable and darling sinne I should rather burie in silence, than mencion it, were it not a most admirable instance, how men are enslaved by wickedness, & held captive by the devill. For wheeras presentlie upon his censure at this time his ambition was moderated, his pride humbled, and the meanes of his former injustice and corruption removed; yet would he not relinquish the practice of his most horrible & secret sinne of sodomie, keeping still one Godrick, a verie effeminate faced youth, to bee his catamite and bedfellow, although hee had discharged the most of his other household sevants: which was the moore to bee admired, because men generallie after his fall begann to discourse of that his unnaturall crime, which hee had practiced manie yeares, deserting the bedd of his Ladie, which hee accounted, as the Italians and the Turkes doe, a poore & meane pleasure in respect of the other; & it was thought by some, that hee should have been tried at the barre of justice for it, & have satisfied the law most severe against that horrible villanie with the price of his bloud; which caused some bold and forward man to write these verses following in a whole sheete of paper, & to cast it down in some part of Yorkehouse in the strand, wheere Viscount St. Alban yet lay:
But hee never came to anye publicke triall for this crime; nor did ever, that I could heare, forbeare his old custome of making his servants his bedfellowes, soe to avoid the scandall was raised of him, though hee lived many yeares after his fall in his lodgings in Grayes Inne in Holbourne, in great want & penurie.
- Within this sty a *hogg doth ly,
That must be hang'd for Sodomy.
- (*alluding both to his sirname of Bacon, & to that swinish abominable sinne.)
Tobie, widely acclaimed for his charm and good looks, had appeared in a play at Gray's Inn in 1595, and he quickly became Bacon's most particular friend, intelligencer and confidant. Tobie had previously served as a spy on the Continent, where he had met and been befriended by Buckingham. A contemporary observed that Tobie, while lodging with Bacon at York House, had "grown very gay or rather gaudy in his attire, and noted for certain night walks to the Spanish Ambassador." Tobie was the inspiration for one of Bacon's most famous essays, "Of Friendship."
That Bloody PercyEven Bacon's mother, Lady Ann Bacon, in a letter to her other son Anthony (also gay), complains of "that bloody Percy" whom Francis kept "yea as a coach companion and a bed companion," as well as others including Jones, Markes, Enney "and his Welchmen one after another." Lady Ann's major distress was not that her son was gay, but that it violated decorum for a nobleman to allow a servant to sleep in the master bedroom; she felt that a lower-ranking bedroom would have been more appropriate.
In his will, Bacon bequeathed a legacy of £100 to Henry Percy, as well as a letter to the Secretary of State recommending Percy to his Majesty's service on 26 January 1626, nearly Bacon's last letter. This is probably the same Percy mentioned by Lady Ann and the fair youth seem by D'Ewes. Unfortunately we know nothing else of the Welshman who was the lover of one of the most powerful men in England at that time and one of the greatest minds of all time.
Bacon's biographers often find all this evidence "inconclusive." This is simply because they cannot accept the notion that a person can be brilliant, virtuous, healthy and gay at the same time. Historians regularly hide what they cannot deny, and suppress evidence of the homosexuality of historical figures. Happily Bacon's most recent biographers Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart in Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon (1999) make no attempt to deny the evidence, and even add to it. For example, a published transcript of a sermon preached against Bacon in 1619 complains of the scandal of Bacon's "Latinities", but Jardine and Stewart have gone back to the original document and have discovered that the word was "catamites", not "Latinities". Had the evidence against Bacon been any more conclusive, Bacon would have suffered the fate of his brother-in- law, who shared similar tastes. Mervyn Touchet, second Earl of Castlehaven, and two of his servants were executed for homosexual love on 14 May 1631—the master beheaded on the scaffold and the servants hanged on the gallows. Bacon, happily, followed one of his own principles: "A habit of secrecy is both politic and moral."
Rapid Rise—and FallBacon was born into a middle-class family in 1561, became a practising lawyer in 1582, and was appointed Queen Elizabeth's Counsellor in 1591. His responsibilities remained rather meagre for more than twenty years, and Jardine and Stewart suggest this was because of prejudice against him for being homosexual. However, it also seems likely that his advancement was prevented by the personal enmity of his cousin Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley. Bacon rapidly rose to fame under King James I. He was knighted in 1603, made Solicitor General in 1607, and Burghley's death in 1612 probably cleared the way for his steep ascent. Bacon was made Attorney General in 1613, and Lord High Chancellor in 1618. He thus occupied the highest public post next to the throne itself. He received the titles of Baron Verulam in 1618 and Viscount St Albans in 1621. (His home was at Gorhambury, outside St Albans.) Bacon was undoubtedly a man of uncommon abilities. Yet the swiftness of his rise may have been influenced by his personal friendship with James, who shared the same homosexual tastes.
But Bacon fell suddenly in 1621 (the same year that James fell from grace by trying to abolish Parliament), when he was found guilty of having accepted bribes while serving as a judge. Actually it was common practice during this era for all judges to accept gifts from the winning parties. It was really a political, rather than a moral, trial. A strong faction in Parliament disliked Bacon's friendship with James and seized an opportunity to pretend moral oturage. Bacon acknowledged receiving gifts but maintained that this custom never influenced his judgments. This is probably true, for no one ever demanded a retrial of any of the suits in question.
His public career was ruined, and he retired to write and to conduct scientific research. New Atlantis, utopian fiction about the ideal society, had been published in 1617; the Novum Organum, a theory for organizing knowledge, in 1620; The Advancement of Learning, an argument for empirical research and against superstition, in 1623; and an expanded version of the famous Essays in 1625. He also wrote poetry and plays, and there is still controversy that he co-authored many of Shakespeare's plays, including Hamlet.
Always the indefatigable investigator, in 1626 Bacon tested the effect of freezing on the preservation of meat by going out ina blizzard and stuffing a chicken with snow. The chicken was preserved, but Bacon caught pneumonia and died a month later.
Pithy and WittyThe Essays contain Bacon's personal reflections upon men, manners, and morals. Bacon's pithy, witty advice reveals him as one of the finest prose stylists of English literature. Here is a typical example from his first essay, "Of Truth":
What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. . . . Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl that showeth best by day, but it will not rise to the price of a diamond that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.Of particular interst are his essays on marriage, love, friendship and beauty, which are no mere exercises in theory. Bacon's attitude toward marriage is quite negative:
He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men, which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public. ["Of Love and Marriage"] . . . Unmarried men are best friends, best masters, best servants; but not always best subjects, for they are light to run away, and almost all fugitives are of that condition. ["Of Marriage and Single Life"]Like Montaigne (Essays, 2.8), Bacon quotes Thales (Plutarch, Symposiaca, 3.6):
Wives are young men's mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men's nurses, so as a man may have a quarrel to marry when he will; but yet he was reputed one of the wise men that made answer to the question, when a man should marry: "A young man may not yet, an older man not at all."Bacon preferred masculine friendship to heterosexual love, for "although nuptial love maketh mankind, friendly love perfecteth it" ["Of Love"]. His essay on heterosexual love is a critique of the "weak passion," or that which was called "phrensie" by Mantuan: "And therefore it is well said, that it is impossible to love and to be wise" ["Of Love"]. He is speaking of love between men when he says "a crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love," and "If a man have not a friend, he may quit the stage" ["Of Friendship"].
Bacon was one of the first Englishmen to write an essay on the nature of beauty, and his models are not women, but "August Caesar, Titus Vespasianus, Philip Le Bel of France, Edward the Fourth of England, Alcibiades of Athens, [and] Ismael the Sophy of Persia, . . . the most beautiful men of their times" ["Of Beauty"]. He was perhaps the first amateur student of aesthetics to recognize the difference between mere prettiness and true beauty: "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." This concept was to become the central dogma in the aesthetic theories of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.
At a time when moralists described gay love as "unnatural lust," and a variety of other degrading terms, Sir Francis Bacon was the first person in the English language to use the non-stigmatizing phrase "masculine love" (in New Atlantis), although, as required by the expectations of his reading public, he nevertheless excluded it from his utopia. But we can gather from most of his writings, and his life, that morality for him was a matter of personal integrity, not a matter of following socially approved conventions: "Reading good books of morality is a little flat and dead."
The important thing is to "be so true to thyself as thou be not false to others" ["Of Wisdom for a Man's Self"], a line which Shakespeare (or Bacon himself?) modified in Hamlet to read "To thine own self be true: thou canst not then be false to any man."
Rictor Norton, "Sir Francis Bacon", The Great Queens of History, updated 8 Jan. 2000 <http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/baconfra.htm>.