Francis Bacon, On the Dignity and Advancement of Learning



Francis Bacon was born in 1564, three years after Christopher Marlowe. This makes them contemporaries of a sort, though Marlowe was long dead by the time Bacon began to publish his most important work. Yet it can be said that they grew up in the same world, and indeed, both were educated at Cambridge. Bacon entered Trinity College at Cambridge at the age of twelve, served the English Ambassador to France when he was sixteen, took a degree in law, and was elected to Parliament in 1584, at the age of 23. He was knighted by King James I in 1603, the year in which James ascended to the throne, and served his king well and faithfully as Solicitor General, Attorney General, and Lord Chancellor, before resigning because of a scandal over bribes. The Advancement of Learning was first published in 1605.

The Advancement of Learning, Book One.

The students have been asked to again keep in mind the three questions presented during Doctor Faustus: What is knowledge? Where does it come from? What are its uses?

Just as Doctor Faustus is a play that is full of both dramatic tradition and innovation, the argument set forth by Francis Bacon is an odd blend of old and new with the former tending to strike the student as strange while the latter seem familiar. Thus on the one hand, Bacon subscribes to the Platonic notion of knowledge as "remembrance" and relies upon scripture for certain "facts," and on the other criticizes the use of deductive reasoning in the sciences, favoring inductive reasoning instead:

Another error is, an impatience of doubting and a blind hurry of asserting without mature suspension of judgement... . So in contemplation, if we begin with certainties we shall end in doubts; but if we begin with doubts, and are patient with them, we shall end in certainties.

Students are first asked to investigate the nature of Bacon's defense of learning and scholarship, and to comment upon the issues raised on both sides. They are asked to identify the attackers. Are their arguments at all familiar today, if perhaps in different forms? Do they seem to have a relation to Doctor Faustus?

They are asked to think about the fact that Bacon directly addresses King James in this first book of The Advancement of Learning and flatters him shamelessly. What are his aims in this? What does he hope to gain? What do they know about the ways and means of scientific research in this period, and how does that compare to our own time?

Finally they are asked to answer the three questions posited about knowledge from Bacon's perspective.