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Letters On England - LETTER XII - ON THE LORD BACON Post by :jetson77 Category :Nonfictions Author :Voltaire Date :January 2011 Read :929

Click below to download : Letters On England - LETTER XII - ON THE LORD BACON (Format : PDF)


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 revere his memory to
such a degree, that they will scarce allow him to have been guilty.
In case you should ask what are my thoughts on this head, I shall
answer you in the words which I heard the Lord Bolingbroke use on
another occasion. Several gentlemen were speaking, in his company,
of the avarice with which the late Duke of Marlborough had been
charged, some examples whereof being given, the Lord Bolingbroke was
appealed to (who, having been in the opposite party, might perhaps,
without the imputation of indecency, have been allowed to clear up
that matter): "He was so great a man," replied his lordship, "that
I have forgot his vices."

I shall therefore confine myself to those things which so justly
gained Lord Bacon the esteem of all Europe.

The most singular and the best of all his pieces is that which, at
this time, is the most useless and the least read, I mean his Novum
Scientiarum Organum. This is the scaffold with which the new
philosophy was raised; and when the edifice was built, part of it at
least, the scaffold was no longer of service.

The Lord Bacon was not yet acquainted with Nature, but then he knew,
and pointed out, the several paths that lead to it. He had despised
in his younger years the thing called philosophy in the
Universities, and did all that lay in his power to prevent those
societies of men instituted to improve human reason from depraving
it by their quiddities, their horrors of the vacuum, their
substantial forms, and all those impertinent terms which not only
ignorance had rendered venerable, but which had been made sacred by
their being ridiculously blended with religion.

He is the father of experimental philosophy. It must, indeed, be
confessed that very surprising secrets had been found out before his
time--the sea-compass, printing, engraving on copper plates, oil-
painting, looking-glasses; the art of restoring, in some measure,
old men to their sight by spectacles; gunpowder, &c., had been
discovered. A new world had been fought for, found, and conquered.
Would not one suppose that these sublime discoveries had been made
by the greatest philosophers, and in ages much more enlightened than
the present? But it was far otherwise; all these great changes
happened in the most stupid and barbarous times. Chance only gave
birth to most of those inventions; and it is very probable that what
is called chance contributed very much to the discovery of America;
at least, it has been always thought that Christopher Columbus
undertook his voyage merely on the relation of a captain of a ship
which a storm had driven as far westward as the Caribbean Islands.
Be this as it will, men had sailed round the world, and could
destroy cities by an artificial thunder more dreadful than the real
one; but, then, they were not acquainted with the circulation of the
blood, the weight of the air, the laws of motion, light, the number
of our planets, &c. And a man who maintained a thesis on
Aristotle's "Categories," on the universals a parte rei, or such-
like nonsense, was looked upon as a prodigy.

The most astonishing, the most useful inventions, are not those
which reflect the greatest honour on the human mind. It is to a
mechanical instinct, which is found in many men, and not to true
philosophy, that most arts owe their origin.

The discovery of fire, the art of making bread, of melting and
preparing metals, of building houses, and the invention of the
shuttle, are infinitely more beneficial to mankind than printing or
the sea-compass: and yet these arts were invented by uncultivated,
savage men.

What a prodigious use the Greeks and Romans made afterwards of
mechanics! Nevertheless, they believed that there were crystal
heavens, that the stars were small lamps which sometimes fell into
the sea, and one of their greatest philosophers, after long
researches, found that the stars were so many flints which had been
detached from the earth.

In a word, no one before the Lord Bacon was acquainted with
experimental philosophy, nor with the several physical experiments
which have been made since his time. Scarce one of them but is
hinted at in his work, and he himself had made several. He made a
kind of pneumatic engine, by which he guessed the elasticity of the
air. He approached, on all sides as it were, to the discovery of
its weight, and had very near attained it, but some time after
Torricelli seized upon this truth. In a little time experimental
philosophy began to be cultivated on a sudden in most parts of
Europe. It was a hidden treasure which the Lord Bacon had some
notion of, and which all the philosophers, encouraged by his
promises, endeavoured to dig up.

But that which surprised me most was to read in his work, in express
terms, the new attraction, the invention of which is ascribed to Sir
Isaac Newton.

We must search, says Lord Bacon, whether there may not be a kind of
magnetic power which operates between the earth and heavy bodies,
between the moon and the ocean, between the planets, &c. In another
place he says either heavy bodies must be carried towards the centre
of the earth, or must be reciprocally attracted by it; and in the
latter case it is evident that the nearer bodies, in their falling,
draw towards the earth, the stronger they will attract one another.
We must, says he, make an experiment to see whether the same clock
will go faster on the top of a mountain or at the bottom of a mine;
whether the strength of the weights decreases on the mountain and
increases in the mine. It is probable that the earth has a true
attractive power.

This forerunner in philosophy was also an elegant writer, an
historian, and a wit.

His moral essays are greatly esteemed, but they were drawn up in the
view of instructing rather than of pleasing; and, as they are not a
satire upon mankind, like Rochefoucauld's "Maxims," nor written upon
a sceptical plan, like Montaigne's "Essays," they are not so much
read as those two ingenious authors.

His History of Henry VII. was looked upon as a masterpiece, but how
is it possible that some persons can presume to compare so little a
work with the history of our illustrious Thuanus?

Speaking about the famous impostor Perkin, son to a converted Jew,
who assumed boldly the name and title of Richard IV., King of
England, at the instigation of the Duchess of Burgundy, and who
disputed the crown with Henry VII., the Lord Bacon writes as

"At this time the King began again to be haunted with sprites, by
the magic and curious arts of the Lady Margaret, who raised up the
ghost of Richard, Duke of York, second son to King Edward IV., to
walk and vex the King.

"After such time as she (Margaret of Burgundy) thought he (Perkin
Warbeck) was perfect in his lesson, she began to cast with herself
from what coast this blazing star should first appear, and at what
time it must be upon the horizon of Ireland; for there had the like
meteor strong influence before."

Methinks our sagacious Thuanus does not give in to such fustian,
which formerly was looked upon as sublime, but in this age is justly
called nonsense.

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Letters On England - LETTER XIII - ON MR. LOCKE Letters On England - LETTER XIII - ON MR. LOCKE

Letters On England - LETTER XIII - ON MR. LOCKE
Perhaps no man ever had a more judicious or more methodical genius,or was a more acute logician than Mr. Locke, and yet he was notdeeply skilled in the mathematics. This great man could neversubject himself to the tedious fatigue of calculations, nor to thedry pursuit of mathematical truths, which do not at first presentany sensible objects to the mind; and no one has given better proofsthan he, that it is possible for a man to have a geometrical headwithout the assistance of geometry. Before his time, several greatphilosophers had declared, in the most positive terms, what the soulof man


It is inadvertently affirmed in the Christian countries of Europethat the English are fools and madmen. Fools, because they givetheir children the small-pox to prevent their catching it; andmadmen, because they wantonly communicate a certain and dreadfuldistemper to their children, merely to prevent an uncertain evil.The English, on the other side, call the rest of the Europeanscowardly and unnatural. Cowardly, because they are afraid ofputting their children to a little pain; unnatural, because theyexpose them to die one time or other of the small-pox. But that thereader may be able to judge whether the English or those who