On May 31st, 1621, Sir Francis Bacon was imprisoned in the Tower of London, some say for one night, some for a few. His enemy, Sir Edward Coke, had instigated proceedings for taking bribes. It was common practice in those days, and was not regarded as corrupt if it didn’t influence judgement. Sir Francis had even given verdicts against some who paid him, but Sir Edward was determined to punish one of King James’ favourites. His fine was £40,000, which was remitted by the king, and he was released.
None of this has diminished his reputation as a strikingly original thinker. He was a philosopher and statesman, who managed to combine his scholarly publications with a political career that included his becoming the first Queen's Counsel designate when Queen Elizabeth appointed him her legal counsel. He went on to become Solicitor General, Attorney General, and Lord Chancellor of England. He was elevated to the peerage as Viscount St Alban.
The skeptical methodology developed through his writings makes Bacon “the father of the scientific method,” and his works remained influential through the ongoing scientific revolution. His book, Novum Organum, set out the basis of scientific method as a process of observation and induction. Long after his death in 1626, Bacon was commonly invoked during the Restoration as a guiding spirit of the Royal Society, founded under Charles II in 1660.
Bacon pioneered the Renaissance trend of turning away from the reasoning of the Scholastics and the writings of Aristotle, and into open-minded observation, and speculation based upon it, about the nature of the universe and observed reality. He said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
Many of his other sayings still remain pertinent. He recognized the power of questioning, saying that “A prudent question is one half of wisdom.” More famously, he remarked that “Knowledge is power.”
His enquiring mind proved to be his undoing, for while investigating if snow could keep a chicken fresh by freezing it, he contracted pneumonia, and died of it a few days later at the age of 65. Amongst innumerable other honours, he was featured on a 1910 Newfoundland postage stamp in recognition of the major role he played in the establishment of the first colony there.
It is important to remember Bacon when people come forward with glib theories about how society should be organized and how people should live. His skeptical approach and insistence on actual observation could have saved the world from many follies had people heeded it, and could save us from many more in future.