Letters on England
12. On The Lord Bacon
Not long since the trite and frivolous question following was debated in a very
polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander,
Tamerlane, Cromwell, &c.?
Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman's
assertion was very just; for if true greatness consists in having received from
heaven a mighty genius, and in having employed it to enlighten our own mind
and that of others, a man like Sir Isaac Newton, whose equal is hardly found in a
thousand years, is the truly great man. And those politicians and conquerors (and
all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That
man claims our respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by
the force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is
acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.
Since, therefore, you desire me to give you an account of the famous
personages whom England has given birth to, I shall begin with Lord Bacon, Mr.
Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, &c. Afterwards the warriors and Ministers of State shall
come in their order.
I must begin with the celebrated Viscount Verulam, known in Europe by the
name of Bacon, which was that of his family. His father had been Lord Keeper,
and himself was a great many years Lord Chancellor under King James I.
Nevertheless, amidst the intrigues of a Court, and the affairs of his exalted
employment, which alone were enough to engross his whole time, he yet found
so much leisure for study as to make himself a great philosopher, a good
historian, and an elegant writer; and a still more surprising circumstance is that
he lived in an age in which the art of writing justly and elegantly was little known,
much less true philosophy. Lord Bacon, as is the fate of man, was more
esteemed after his death than in his lifetime. His enemies were in the British
Court, and his admirers were foreigners.
When the Marquis d'Effiat attended in England upon the Princess Henrietta
Maria, daughter to Henry IV., whom King Charles I. had married, that Minister
went and visited the Lord Bacon, who, being at that time sick in his bed, received
him with the curtains shut close. "You resemble the angels," says the Marquis to
him; "we hear those beings spoken of perpetually, and we believe them superior
to men, but are never allowed the consolation to see them."
You know that this great man was accused of a crime very unbecoming a
philosopher: I mean bribery and extortion. You know that he was sentenced by
the House of Lords to pay a fine of about four hundred thousand French livres, to
lose his peerage and his dignity of Chancellor; but in the present age the English