The Religious Foundation of Francis Bacon’s Thought. Stephen A. McKnight. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, questions about the relationship between science and politics are perhaps more important than ever. We enjoy unprecedented power over nature. We are confronted with issues such as stem cell research, weaponized science,and climate change–all part of a larger set of questions about the proper role of science within society. Unsurprisingly, there has been a resurgence of scholarship on the prophet of modern science, Francis Bacon. Whether one sees Bacon as “perhaps the greatest philosopher of all time”1 or a mere “demagogue of science,”2 one cannot deny his profound influence on subsequent generations. And the questions his writings address are arguably more important in the 21st century than they were in the 17th century when Bacon was formulating them. While Bacon’s popularity has fluctuated, what has remained relatively constant is the general understanding of him as the secular prophet of the Enlightenment and scientific rationalism.
Some scholars have now begun to question this accepted interpretation and have offered a strikingly different view of Bacon and his overall work. This book by Stephen McKnight stands as the seminal alternative to the traditional interpretations of Bacon. McKnight’s primary contention is that such preeminent Bacon scholars as Howard White and Jerry Weinberger misunderstand Bacon’s “religiousness.” While White and Weinberger suggest that Bacon’s religiosity is primarily a tool to gain favor with the regime and masks his true intentions for the creation of a secular, scientific utopia, McKnight argues that Bacon holds genuine religious beliefs. And moreover, those beliefs serve as the cornerstone to his whole project.
McKnight employs a “close textual analysis” of eight of Bacon’s works to demonstrate “that Bacon’s vision of reform or ‘instauration’ is drawn from the Judeo-Christian scriptures, particularly the Genesis account of the Creation and the fall; from apocalyptic expectation of renewal in the Old Testament; and from soteriological themes of the New Testament.” Moreover, Bacon’s work is also influenced by “themes and imagery found in the prisca theologia, a highly elastic collection of Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, alchemy, magic, and Jewish esoteric traditions.”4
Far from being a rejection of Christianity or religion, McKnight argues that Bacon’s writings aim to uncover a “truer, deeper level understanding of the scriptures and of God’s saving acts in history.”5 This reading clearly stands at odds with traditional interpretations of Bacon that include him with the likes of Machiavelli and Hobbes as the secular, materialistic founders of modernity.6 Let us therefore assess the persuasiveness of McKnight’s interpretation and draw out the potential implications of his argument.
As noted, McKnight’s response to the one-sidedness of past interpretations is to offer a close textual analysis of Bacon’s works in order to establish the pervasiveness of religious imagery and genuine belief. McKnight essentially argues for continuity within Bacon’s works and therefore does not try to single out a particular work as being the representative piece. And his argument requires a thorough demonstration of Bacon’s religiousness: something that cannot easily be established by examining one work.
Yet, the task of covering eight of Bacon’s works within a single tract is daunting. The result is that McKnight cannot spend more than a chapter on one particular work and the reader is sometimes left wondering whether a narrower, more detailed approach would have proved more effective. What cannot be denied however is that McKnight’s interpretation raises a series of critical questions that must be addressed by anyone who wishes to understand Bacon’s work and its relation to contemporary political life. This can best be seen through McKnight’s interpretation of New Atlantis, Bacon’s final, and perhaps most important, work.
Jerry Weinberger argues that New Atlantis represents the final cause, or end, of Bacon’s work and stands as the sixth and final part of “the Great Instauration.” While McKnight does not go quite that far, he agrees that New Atlantis is a crucial part of Bacon’s work and offers a “compact statement of the main themes” of his work.7 McKnight explicitly rejects the idea that Bacon is manipulating religious symbolism in order to “subvert Christian ideas and transform them into a culturally acceptable justification for a preoccupation with luxury and materialism.”8 Instead, the program of reform recommended in New Atlantis is “grounded in genuinely and deeply felt religious convictions.”9 The point of departure then is over Bacon’s true intentions, as both sides readily acknowledge the strong presence of religious symbolism within his work.
McKnight’s interpretation of New Atlantis, and to an extent Bacon’s work as a whole, hinges on the character of Bensalem and its people. Is Christianity necessary to the flourishing of Bensalem? Was Bensalem founded on the principles of charity and piety? Are the inhabitants of Bensalem as friendly as they appear? What are we to make of the laws of secrecy? Who rules the island and on what basis are decisions made to reveal scientific discoveries and inventions to the public? Assuming that Bensalem represents the end of Bacon’s project, the answers to those questions can provide us with insight into Bacon’s true intentions.
McKnight sees Bensalem as being animated by the principles of genuine Christianity and attributes pure intentions to its leaders and inhabitants. While Weinberger questions whether the sailors were forced unto the island (through the advanced science that allows them to control natural divinations), McKnight sees Providence as the cause since the sailors had prayed for relief. The conversion of Bensalem to Christianity is another crucial event that holds implications for Bacon’s work as a whole. McKnight argues that Bensalem’s conversion comes through “direct intervention by God” and therefore, the Christianity found there is “pure and unadulterated by human error and misinterpretation.”10 As further evidence of this claim, the Bensalemites are offered access to sacred texts that are unavailable to their European counterparts.
Weinberger offers a strikingly different account of the conversion experience. He notes that the conversion came as the result of a declaration by a wise man of Solomon’s house, not of a miracle. The wise man “verifies the miracle by certifying rationally that it has no natural or artificial cause,” but Weinberger points out that the miracles of the Bible require no such explanation.11 Furthermore, the history of Bensalem points to the fact that the island was established well before the coming of Christ. And its founder, Solamona, had implemented the aforementioned laws of secrecy because Bensalem could be worsened in “a thousand ways,” but there was “scarce” any way to make it better.
This raises a serious question as to the importance of Christianity to Bensalem. Could its inclusion merely reflect Bacon’s desire to persuade his primarily Christian audience that his work was friendly to those beliefs? McKnight dismisses such a charge by pointing out Bensalem was chosen because of its virtue: “God selects Bensalem because it is capable of receiving and perpetuating a pure form of gospel Christianity.”12 Perhaps the most important point of departure between McKnight’s interpretation and the more traditional interpretations is the characterization of Solomon’s House.
McKnight argues that Solomon’s House serves not as a “displacement of Solomon’s Temple, but as its complement.”13 Bacon does not “dismiss or displace the idea of spiritual renewal,” but emphasizes an “equally important” task: rebuilding natural philosophy so humans can “recover the benefits God instilled in the Creation.”14 Furthermore, McKnight takes a benevolent view of the censorship that occurs within Solomon’s House. We are told that the end of Solomon’s House is “the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”15 However, as the Father of Solomon’s House tells us, not everything that is discovered is disclosed to the citizenry or the government.
McKnight argues against the traditional interpretations that suggest “totalitarian state control” or the “creation of scientists as the new political intellectual elites.”16 He suggests that “such interpretations fail to take into account Bacon’s concept of human nature,” one rooted in the concept of Original Sin. According to McKnight, “only the members of Solomon’s House have attained the level of spiritual discipline to overcome this materialistic preoccupation and use the rich benefits to be derived from God’s Creation for charitable purposes.”17 So instead of representing a materialistic, scientific elite, the members of Solomon’s House are acting under the guidance of Providence. Yet, we must wonder how the members of Solomon’s House decide what inventions to disclose or to conceal? Where do they derive the wisdom to make such decisions? For McKnight, the implication seems to be through spiritual training, but we are not told that such training takes place within the New Atlantis.
Weinberger notes Bacon’s lack of guidance on the issue as well; pointing out that politics is not even included as one of the subjects studied within Solomon’s House. But the decision to disclose or conceal scientific discoveries clearly falls in the realm of politics. Bacon’s suggests that “right reason” and “sound religion” will be sufficient to ensure that the proper decisions are made, but that hardly provides us a concrete model of education. While we do not find such a model within New Atlantis, Bacon does provide us with extensive thoughts on education in The Advancement of Learning and Novum Organum; both of which are included among the eight works in McKnight’s assessment. McKnight’s focus, however, is not on the explication of Bacon’s new method, but on the motivation behind it. McKnight stresses that Bacon views himself as a mere “guide to point out the road; an office of small authority, and depending upon a kind of luck than upon any ability or excellency.”18 He argues that Bacon minimizes his own role in order to “emphasize the operation of Providence.”19
While it is undoubtedly true that Bacon offers such humble statements, McKnight seems to overlook some of Bacon’s bolder claims. For instance, in Novum Organum, Bacon notes: “if someone of mature age, with faculties unimpaired and mind cleansed of prejudice, applies himself afresh to particulars and experience, better is to be hoped of him. And it is in this task that we promise ourselves the fortune of Alexander the Great.”20 Bacon also suggests that it would only take a few years to discover all causes and all sciences if only his method were followed.21 As to the Advancement of Learning, McKnight points out that the full title of the text, The Two Books of Francis Bacon of the Proficiencie and Advancement of Learning Divine and Human, points to Bacon’s emphasis on the spiritual and shows that he is not simply focusing on utilitarian knowledge that can be used to conquer nature. Furthermore, he points to Bacon’s emphasis on charity “as the corrective to pride” and to his likening of James’ rule to Solomon’s as further proof of the centrality of religious belief to Bacon’s work.
Given the comprehensive nature of McKnight’s argument, there is one glaring omission: Bacon’s Essays. Bacon addresses a range of topics and some could be especially instructive in determining the importance of his religious beliefs to his work: most notably those on atheism, truth, superstition, and unity in religions. Still, McKnight does an admirable job of delving into the works of Bacon and provides us with an interesting alternative to the traditional view of Bacon as a secular, materialistic prophet of science. The case for the importance of religious symbolism within Bacon’s work is a strong one, but it is less clear that the whole project rests on a religious foundation.
McKnight is right to develop an argument that seriously considers Bacon’s religiosity; his study inevitably points us to such recurring questions as:
“Can modern science and religion peacefully co-exist or is there an inherent tension that forces us to choose one or the other? Is the conquering of nature through science a prideful act of hubris or the fulfillment of Divine will? What role, if any, should scientists play in formulating public policy? Can science adequately address questions of the human good?”
These are questions Bacon raised well before science transformed society and in light of the ascent of science and technology, the answers are of utmost importance.
1. Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Discourses and Other EarlyPolitical Writings. Ed. Victor Gourevitch. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) p.332.
2. F.A. Hayek. The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason. 2nd edition. (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979) p.21.
3. Stephen McKnight. The ReligiousFoundations of Francis Bacon’s Thought. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006) p.3.
4. Ibid p.3.
5. Ibid p.3.
6. For example. See Jerry Weinberger’s introduction in New Atlantis and The Great Instauration. (Illinois: HarlanDavidson, 1989) p.vii.
7. McKnight p.11.
8. Ibid p.10.
9. Ibid p.10.
10. Ibid p.15.
11. Weinberger p.xvii.
12. McKnight p.17.
13. Ibid p.30.
14. Ibid p.30.
15. Ibid p.25.
16. Ibid p.26.
17. Ibid p.26.
18. Ibid p.74.
19. Ibid p.74
20. Francis Bacon. The New Organon. Ed. Jardine and Silverthorne. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.78.
21. Ibid p.88.