Introduction to Western Humanities:  Baroque & Enlightenment

Voltaire's essay on Francis Bacon

When Voltaire was sent into exile in 1727, he exploited his enforced absence from France as an opportunity to visit England.  During his stay, he studied the language, read widely, sought out the personal acquaintance of a host of English luminaries in letters and the sciences, and studied English institutions as a sympathetic outsider.  He then published a series of short essays, first in English, under the title Letters concerning the English Nation (1733), and then in French under the title Lettres philosophiques [or Philosophical Letters] (in 1734).  The reaction in France was highly mixed.  In fact, the work was both wildly hailed and formally banned.

Many French political conservatives and devout Catholics were scandalized at his admiration for things English that Voltaire had pointedly characterized as different from the way things were done in France.  There was lots to seize upon.  Voltaire had gone out of his way to praise the English system of government (constitutional government in which Parliament held the upper hand), the English stress on free trade ( its general policy of laissez faire) and the thriving commerce that seemed to be its result (as distinct from the determinedly mercantilist policy of France, inherited from the reign of Louis XIV), the general practice of religious toleration (he offered essays on the Church of England, on Presbyterians, on Quakers), and the willingness of the English upper classes to experiment with new ways when empirical evidence suggested that departure from immemorial tradition might be beneficial (this in an essay on the willingness of the English educated classes to have themselves and their children vaccinated against smallpox, in accordance with the discoveries of William Jenner).  The negative reaction, in other words, was based not merely on national chauvinism ("patriotism") but on an accurate inference that Voltaire was suggesting, subversively, that France was too politically and culturally repressive, and that this was not just different but foolish, and contrary to the prosperity of the nation. 

As part of this collection, Voltaire also provided sketches of the achievements of great Englishmen of the recent past:  modern masters.  Prominent among these were Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton.  These essays are worth a look for the light they throw on Voltaire's enthusiasm for the possibilities opened up by bold breaks with Tradition in the name of Natural Reason.  Voltaire's choice of heroes is characteristic of the Enlightenment in general.  The same features of the Philosophical Letters that made the work anathema to the politically and religiously conservative made it a cause of celebration among hundreds of French readers, who eagerly acquired copies on the black market.

In reading Voltaire's essay on Bacon, be alert for what, precisely, Voltaire admires in the author of the Novum Organum.  How does this connect with the presuppositions behind the conclusion of Candide, where we are urged to "tend our own garden"?

Chancellor Bacon

It is not long since the ridiculous and threadbare question was agitated in a celebrated assembly; who was the greatest man, Caesar or Alexander, Tamerlane or Cromwell?  Somebody said that it must undoubtedly be Sir Isaac Newton.  This man was certainly in the right; for if true greatness consists in having received from heaven the advantage of a superior genius, with the talent of applying it for the interest of the possessor and of mankind, a man like Newton - and such a one is hardly to be met with in ten centuries - is surely by much the greatest; and those statesmen and conquerors which no age has ever been without, are commonly but so many illustrious villains.  It is the man who sways our minds by the prevalence of reason and the native force of truth, not they who reduce mankind to a state of slavery by brutish force and downright violence; the man who by the vigor of his mind, is able to penetrate into the hidden secrets of nature, and whose capacious soul can contain the vast frame of the universe, not those who lay nature waste, and desolate the face of the earth, that claims our reverence and admiration.

Therefore, as you are desirous to be informed of the great men that England has produced, I shall begin with the Bacons, the Lockes, and the Newtons.  The generals and ministers will come after them in their turn.

I must begin with the celebrated baron Verulam, known to the rest of Europe by the name of Bacon, who was the son of a certain keeper of the seals, and was for a considerable time chancellor under James I.  Notwithstanding the intrigues and bustle of a court, and the occupations incident to his office, which would have required his whole attention, he found means to become a great philosopher, a good historian, and an elegant writer; and what is yet more wonderful is that he lived in an age where the art of writing was totally unknown, and where sound philosophy was still less so.  This personage, as is the way among mankind, was more valued after his death than while he lived.  His enemies were courtiers residing at London, while his admirers consisted wholly of foreigners.  When Marquis d'Effiat brought Princess Mary, daughter of Henry the Great, over to be married to King Charles, this minister paid Bacon a visit, who being then confined to a sick bed, received him with close curtains.  "You are like the angels," said d'Effiat to him; "we hear much talk of them, and while everybody thinks them superior to men, we are never favored with a sight of them."

You have been told in what manner Bacon was accused of a crime which is very far from being the sin of a philosopher; of being corrupted by pecuniary gifts; and how he was sentenced by the house of peers to pay a fine of about four hundred thousand livres of our money, besides losing his office of chancellor, and being degraded from the rank and dignity of a peer.  At present the English revere his memory to such a degree that only with great difficulty can one imagine him to have been in the least guilty.  Should you ask me what I think of it, I will make use of a saying I heard from Lord Bolingbroke.  They happened to be talking of the avarice with which the duke of Marlborough had been taxed, and quoted several instances of it, for the truth of which they appealed to Lord Bolingbroke, who, as being of a contrary party, might, perhaps, without any trespass against the laws of decorum, freely say what he thought.  "He was," said he, "so great a man that I do not recollect whether he had any faults or not."  I shall, therefore, confine myself to those qualities which have acquired Chancellor Bacon the esteem of all Europe.

The most singular, as well as the most excellent, of all his works, is that which is now the least read, and which is at the same time the most useful; I mean his "Novum Scientiarum Organum."  This is the scaffold by means of which the edifice of the new philosophy has been reared; so that when the building was completed, the scaffold was no longer of any use.  Chancellor Bacon was still unacquainted with nature, but he perfectly knew, and pointed out extraordinarily well, all the paths which lead to her recesses.  He had very early despised what those square-capped fools teach in those dungeons called Colleges, under the name of philosophy, and did everything in his power that those bodies, instituted for the cultivation and perfection of the human understanding, might cease any longer to mar it, by their "quiddities," their "horrors of a vacuum," their "substantial forms," with the rest of that jargon which ignorance and a nonsensical jumble of religion had consecrated.

This great man is the father of experimental philosophy.  It is true, wonderful discoveries had been made even before his time; the mariner's compass, the art of printing, that of engraving, the art of painting in oil, that of making glass, with the remarkably advantageous invention of restoring in some measure sight to the blind; that is, to old men, by means of spectacles; the secret of making gunpowder had, also, been discovered.  They had gone in search of, discovered, and conquered a new world in another hemisphere.  Who would not have thought that these sublime discoveries had been made by the greatest philosophers, and in times much more enlightened than ours?  By no means; for all these astonishing revolutions happened in the ages of scholastic barbarity.  Chance alone has brought forth almost all these inventions; it is even pretended that chance has had a great share in the discovery of America; at least, it has been believed that Christopher Columbus undertook this voyage on the faith of a captain of a ship who had been cast by a storm on one of the Caribbee islands.  Be this as it will, men had learned to penetrate to the utmost limits of the habitable globe, and to destroy the most impregnable cities with an artificial thunder, much more terrible than the real; but they were still ignorant of the circulation of the blood, the weight and pressure of the air, the laws of motion, the doctrine of light and color, the number of the planets in our system, etc.  And a man that was capable to maintain a thesis on the "Categories of Aristotle," the universale a parte rei, such-like nonsense, was considered as a prodigy.

The most wonderful and useful inventions are by no means those which do most honor to the human mind.  And it is to a certain mechanical instinct, which exists in almost every man, that we owe far the greater part of the arts, and in no manner whatever to philosophy.  The discovery of fire, the arts of making bread, of melting and working metals, of building houses, the invention of the shuttle, are infinitely more useful than printing and the compass; notwithstanding, all these were invented by men who were still in a state of barbarity.  What astonishing things have the Greeks and Romans since done in mechanics?  Yet men believed, in their time, that the heavens were of crystal, and the stars were so many small lamps, that sometimes fell into the sea; and one of their greatest philosophers, after many researches, had at length discovered that the stars were so many pebbles, that had flown off like sparks from the earth.

In a word, there was not a man who had any idea of experimental philosophy before Chancellor Bacon; and of an infinity of experiments which have been made since his time, there is hardly a single one which has not been pointed out in his book.  He had even made a good number of them himself.  He constructed several pneumatic machines, by which he discovered the elasticity of the air; he had long brooded over the discovery of its weight, and was even at times very near to catching it, when it was laid hold of by Torricelli.  A short time after, experimental physics began to be cultivated in almost all parts of Europe.  This was a hidden treasure, of which Bacon had some glimmerings, and which all the philosophers whom his promises had encouraged made their utmost efforts to lay open.  We see in his book mention made in express terms of that new attraction of which Newton passes for the inventor.  "We must inquire," said Bacon, "whether there be not a certain magnetic force, which operates reciprocally between the earth and other heavy bodies, between the moon and the ocean, between the planets, etc."  In another place he says:  "Either heavy bodies are impelled toward the centre of the earth, or they are mutually attracted by it; in this latter case it is evident that the nearer falling bodies approach the earth, the more forcibly are they attracted by it.  We must try," continues he, "whether the same pendulum clock goes faster on the top of a mountain, or at the bottom of a mine.  If the force of the weight diminishes on the mountain, and increases in the mine, it is probably the earth has a real attracting quality."

This precursor in philosophy was also an elegant writer, a historian, and a wit.  His moral essays are in high estimation, though they seem rather calculated to instruct than to please; and as they are neither a satire on human nature, like the maxims of Rochefoucauld, nor a school of skepticism, like Montaigne; they are not so much read as these two ingenious books.  His life of Henry VII. passed for a masterpiece; but how is it possible some people should have been idle enough to compare so small a work with the history of our illustrious M. de Thou?  Speaking of that famous impostor Perkin, son of a Jew convert, who assumed so boldly the name of Richard IV., king of England, being encouraged by the duchess of Burgundy, and who disputed the crown with Henry VII., he expresses himself in these terms:  "About this time King Henry was beset with evil spirits, by the witchcraft of the duchess of Burgundy, who conjured up from hell the ghost of Edward IV., in order to torment King Henry.  When the duchess of Burgundy had instructed Perkin, she began to consider with herself in what region of the heavens she should make this comet shine, and resolved immediately that it should make its appearance in the horizon of Ireland."  I think our sage de Thou seldom gives in to this gallimaufry, which used formerly to pass for the sublime, but which at present is known by its proper title, "bombast."

The text is taken from The Works of Voltaire:  A Contemporary Version (New York:  Dingwall-Rock, Ltd., 1927), Vol. XIX, Part II, pp. 27-33.  [As far as I can tell, the translations are by William F. Fleming, though many are revisions of the translation done in the 18th Century by Tobias Smollett.  The notes, including the introduction, are mine.]


Torricelli:  Evangelista Torricelli (1608-47) served Galileo as his secretary during the last year of Galileo's life.  Like Galileo himself (who had begun his career in medicine), Torricelli was both physician and physicist.  Among his inventions is the barometer, which exploits a column of mercury in a glass tube to measure variations in air pressure due to altitude or changes in weather conditions.  (The barometer in fact was for a long time known as the "Torricelli tube.")    Return.

the history of our illustrious M. de Thou:  Jacques Auguste de Thou (1553-1617) was active in the entourage of Henry IV (1553-1610, the religiously tolerant King of France from 1589 until his assassination by Ravaillac, a Catholic fanatic).  De Thou wrote the voluminous History of His Own Times.  (The book's early volumes appeared in 1604-08, in Latin, and a complete edition appeared in Geneva in 1620 - at about the time Bacon was publishing his Novum Organum.  De Thou's treatment of the religious wars of the 16th Century was highly critical of the Catholic League - a feature that endeared it to Voltaire precisely as it raised hackles in French Catholic circles.    Return.

  Go to the Introduction to Bacon's Novum Organum.

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  This page last updated 15 October 1997.