An Analysis of Bacon's Rationale for Writing the Advancement of Learning
When one analyzes Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning, he does so by first entering into an era that was primarily dedicated to overthrowing the Learning of the past -- that is to say, it was breaking with the old world and advancing the new. That old world was one of scholasticism, with men like Thomas Aquinas incorporating Aristotelian philosophy into the medieval world and using the pagan to prove the Christian. It was a world where religious truths were accepted on the authority of the Church, and a world where that authority was still in place and still in power. In the 14th century that authority would begin to corrupt (with the papacy's abduction and removal to Avignon) and the natural catastrophe that was the Black Plague. These events (though soon over) left their marks on Europe, spiritually, politically, and economically. The Protestant Reformation broke out not long after (thanks in part to the writings of the English priest Wycliffe and his later revolutionary descendent Jan Hus). They were followed by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox -- and their ideas coupled with wars, an influx of wealth from Renaissance trade, and (among other scientific claims) new models of the universe ala Galileo and Copernicus essentially set the stage for a new philosophy of learning: the old world system was being abandoned all over Christendom -- and men like Francis Bacon wanted to have a say in the new. This paper will examine Francis Bacon's reasoning behind writing The Advancement of Learning and show what he expected to achieve from its message.
An inversion took place at the end of the medieval world and that inversion is best depicted in the heliocentric model of the universe that Galileo's article in the Starry Messenger advocated in 1610. The article promoted the Copernican idea that the planets revolved about the sun (while smaller planets -- moons -- revolved around bigger ones in their heliocentric orbit). Galileo's evidence, moreover, was gathered by a new piece of technology called the telescope, thus ushering in the era of knowledge based on "science" and empiricism rather than on reason and intellect (Platonic). Galileo's message was, of course, immediately suspicious to Churchmen who still possessed a scholastic and medieval mind -- like Robert Bellarmine, who wrote:
But to want to affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens and only revolves around itself (i. e., turns upon its axis ) without traveling from east to west, and that the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves with great speed around the sun, is a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false. ("Robert Bellarmine: Letter on Galileo's Theories, 1615").
But, ultimately, his theory (along with the other events happening all over Europe) helped overthrow the Ptolemaic, geocentric model, in which the universe was hierarchical with Earth and man at the center and God and Heaven above all. The inversion that Galileo introduced was this: it fell God from Heaven, made Heaven seem everywhere and nowhere -- a medium through which Earth itself flew -- and made the sun the new center of the cosmos, destroying the hierarchical structure that had sustained Europe for centuries. Man assumed the throne where God had sat -- and could now begin the discussion on just how useful and necessary that God actually was (a debate that the Enlightenment thinkers quickly got underway). Francis Bacon, in a sense, helped launch this debate with his Advancement of Learning, which is full of such philosophical inversions as would make Hamlet himself cringe: "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties" (Bacon 1.5).
Indeed, it is no surprise to find that Bacon's Advancement is coming from the same time and place that produced Hamlet -- the archetypical modern man. Bacon was advocating this new modern man (despite the fact that Shakespeare considered him to be a tragedy). The modern man (like Hamlet) would be educated by the new Protestant religion (at Wittenberg -- where Hamlet studies -- and where Luther taught). Bacon lauds Luther in The Advancement of Learning: "Martin Luther, conducted no doubt by a higher providence, was enforced to awake antiquity…" (Bacon 1.4). His intellectual loyalty is, therefore, not to the old world, of which Shakespeare ("dying a Papist" -- as it has been said -- and in Protestant England no less) was partial; Bacon was for the new man -- the doubter, the skeptic, the cynic -- the Humean philosopher who would blaze the ways to modern thought in the next century: Bacon's Advancement was his modernist manifesto -- and advancing the new order (the order of the old world inverted, with man in the ascendant and the divinity in the descendant) was his reason for writing it.
Of course, such an argument is based on historical subtlety and nuance -- on hindsight and revelations unfolded through the advancement of years. Nonetheless, one can see that Bacon, in the first book of the Advancement, extols the learning of the ancient -- not for their wisdom precisely (because that would be too explicit and definite -- and the modern world would not have definitions) -- but rather for their displays of learning. Thus Bacon can call upon Christ, Trajan, and Elizabeth all in the same breath as earmarks of learning.
But what is the real essence of this learning? It is not for grammar, logic, and rhetoric -- rooted in Platonic rationalism or in Aristotelian ethics or Augustinian spirituality or in Thomistic thought: it is rooted in the new science, the new man, the new humanism, the new theology. Bacon was, in essence, the polar opposite of Shakespeare: Shakespeare (his contemporary, no less -- and a man whose works some scholars like to imagine Bacon actually penned) saw the horrors of the new world and longed for the old; Bacon saw the "glories" of the new and wished to embrace them. Bacon was an advocate of the new method of science, which would itself be named after him -- the Baconian method, or the scientific method: a method that would rely more upon empiricism than on reason in a direct break with the method of scholarship of the past.
But even more than a new kind of philosophy and a new kind of science, Bacon's Advancement concerned itself with the essence of man: "For Metaphysique, we have assigned unto it the inquiry of formal and final causes; which assignation, as to the former of them, may seem to be nugatory and void; because of the received and inveterate opinion that the inquisition of man is not competent to find out essential Forms or true differences. As for the possibility, they are ill discoverers that think there is no land, when they can see nothing but sea" (Bacon 2.7). If metaphysics was concerned with ultimate ends, then it would follow that the end of man ought to be distinguishable through metaphysics -- but Bacon, laying out the foundation for the modern world, asserts plausible deniability: "man is not competent to find out essential Forms or true differences," even though he must be applauded for looking. Wisdom thus becomes nothing but mere vanity -- a garment for the proud, and Bacon weaves it through an act of sophistry. His treatise for the King of England, therefore, may be considered as nothing more than flattery of his pride and sophistry for a king.
And yet there is still more to Bacon than mere words. As E. Michael Jones tells us, Bacon was the first step in Newtonian physics -- which is a definitive break with medieval scholasticism: "What we see in the Newtonian system is not a return to scholasticism but rather a return to paganism. The Newtonian system gave new life to the English ideology, but the English ideology had always been involved in magic. In fact there is a direct line of intellectual influence connecting Newton to Robert Boyle to Samuel Hartlib to Robert Fludd to Francis Bacon to John Dee which makes the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of St. Matthew's Gospel look vague by comparison" (Jones).
Such a direct line shows the true nature of Bacon's motive: he was not out to advance the old system of learning, but to turn toward a new and ulterior one. Science, for Bacon, was the end-all-be-all; for Aquinas, it was the study of all things in the light of God. As Aquinas says:
Just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God….Individual facts are treated of in sacred doctrine, not because it is concerned with them principally, but they are introduced…