Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the youngest son of an eminent, Elizabethan, civil servant.
He studied law at Cambridge and Gray's Inn before entering the legal profession under Queen Elizabeth, gaining in reputation and responsibility until he became Lord Chancellor of England under James. He was knighted in 1603 and was bestowed with the titles of Baron Verulam in 1618, and of Viscount St. Alban in 1621.
After only three years of office as Lord Chancellor however, he was accused of corruption, and he even confessed to this, as well as to neglect. His reputation naturally suffered and he fell from power. His retirement lasted only five years.
During his life time he practised as a scientist, philosopher, lawyer, statesman, jurist and author of the 'scientific method'. It has been said that he belonged to 'the rare group of scientists' who fell victim to their own experiments, which in his case was supposed to be from pneumonia. He may have contracted this by exposing himself to very cold conditions whilst studying the effects of freezing regarding the preservation of meat).
Francis Bacon is also considered to be the founder of empiricism.
The Elizabethan period was not only prolific in producing outstanding, if not the greatest English writers of all time in prose and poetry, it also heralded advanced philosophers and thinkers. Bacon was certainly an example of one capable of reasoning well ahead of his time. His essays also seem to support the idea of a greater, intellectual freedom in England, resulting perhaps more from the divorce from what was then a more dogmatic, Papal absolutist system, than from any adoption of Anglicanism. Yet Bacon was no atheist, as his Essays, such as Truth and Of Superstition also seem to convey.
Even as with Utopia of Thomas More, who died almost a century before Bacon, it's interesting to compare such 16th and 17th century reasoning with today's religious extremism. Again it seems to underline an enormous interrogation mark regarding the evolution- or regression- of reason in human nature, due to what appears to be an incoherent reversion to adopt radical and archaic religious values.
Of Superstition (from Essays, 1612 - 1625). By 'supersition' Bacon is referring to irrational religious practices founded on fear or ignorance.
It were better to have no opinion of God at all than such an opinion as is unworthy of him. For the one is unbelief, the other is contumely:° and certainly superstition is the reproach of the diety. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: "Surely" (saith he) "I had rather a great deal men should say there was no such man at all as Plutarch, than that they should say that there was one Plutarch that would eat his children as soon as they were born"- as the poets speak of Saturn.¹ And as the contumely is greater towards God, so the danger is greater towards men. Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation, all of which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not. But superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men. Therefore atheism did never perturb states, for it makes men wary of themselves as looking no further;² and we see the times inclined to atheism (as the time of Augustus Caesar) were civil times. But superstition hath been the confusion of many states, and bringeth in a new primum mobile, that ravisheth all the spheres of government.³ The master of superstition is the people, and in all superstition wise men follow fools, and arguments are fitted to practice in a reversed order. It was gravely said by some of the prelates in the council of Trent, where the doctrine of the schoolmen bare great sway, that the schoolmen were like astronomers, which did feign eccentrics and epicycles and such engines of orbs to save the phenomena, though they knew there were no such things;° and in like manner that the schoolmen had framed a number of subtle and intricate axioms and theorems to save the practice of the church.
The cause of superstition are: pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness;¹ over-great reverence of traditions, which cannot but load the church: the stratagems of prelates for their own ambition and lucre; the favoring too much of good intentions, which openeth the gate to to conceits² and novelties; the taking an aim at divine matters by human, which cannot but breed mixture of imaginations; and lastly barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters. Superstition without a veil is a deformed thing, for as it addeth deformity to an ape to be so like a man, so the similitude of superstition to religion makes it the more deformed. And as wholesome meat corrupteth to little worms, so good forms and orders corrupt into a number of petty observances. There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best if they go furthest from the superstition formerly received; therefore care would be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad, which commonly is done when the people is the reformer.³
¹ Saturn the Roman equivalent of the Greek Chronos who devoured his children, as indeed time does.
² Not seeing further than their own life-span. The first years of the Christian era under Caesar were peaceful and civil, though not necessarily atheist, as Bacon seems to suggest.
³ The prime mover (primum mobile) was presumed to control the celestial spheres, whereas superstition would throw all into confusion.
° 'Saving the phenomena'- Explaining appearances with imagined concepts.
¹The Pharisees followed a strict observance to Mosaic law amongst the Jews during the time of Christ.
³ This sentence refers to the Puritan reformers who dismissed ceremonies, traditions, icons and observations, treating them as 'superstitions'.
Intro text © Mirino. Sources- Wikipedia. Francis Bacon, Norton Anthology English Literature, with grateful thanks. Portrait of Bacon by an unknown artist, National portrait gallery, London (Wikimedia Commons, with many thanks). May, 2011