Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)

LORD BACON ON ATHEISM.

The pedants will be down upon us for speaking of Lord Bacon. It is true there never was such a personage. Francis Bacon was Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Alban, and Lord High Chancellor of England. But this is a case in which it is impossible to resist the popular usage. After all, we write to be understood. The pedants, the heralds, and all the rest of the tribe of technical fanatics, rejoice to mouth "Lord Verulam." But the ordinary man of letters, like the common run of readers, will continue to speak of Lord Bacon; for Bacon was his name, and the "Lord" was but a pretty feather in his hat. And when his lordship took that splendid pen of his, to jot down some of his profoundest thoughts for posterity, did he not say in his grand style, "I, Francis Bacon, thought on this wise"? You cannot get the "Bacon" out of it, and as the "Lord" will slip in, we must let it stand as Lord Bacon.

Lord Bacon was was a very great man. Who does not remember Pope's lines?—

If parts allure thee, think how Bacon shined,
The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.

But his hardship was fond of wielding the satiric lash, and that spirit leads to exaggeration. Bacon was not the meanest of mankind, Pope himself did things that Bacon would never have stooped to. Nor was Bacon the wisest and brightest of mankind. A wiser and brighter spirit was contemporary with him in the person of "a poor player." The dullards who fancy that Lord Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare have no discrimination. His lordship's mind might have been cut out of the poet's without leaving an incurable wound. Some will dissent from this, but be it as it may, the styles of the two men are vastly different, like their ways of thinking. Bacon's essay on Love is cynical. The man of the world, the well-bred statesman, looked on Love as "the child of folly," a necessary nuisance, a tragi-comical perturbation. Shakespeare saw in Love the mainspring of life. Love speaks "in a perpetual hyperbole," said Bacon. Shakespeare also said that the lover "sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt," The poet knew all the philosopher knew, and more. What Bacon laughed or sneered at, Shakespeare recognised as the magic of the great enchanter, who touches our imaginations and kindles in us the power of the ideal. Exaggeration there must be in passion and imagination; it is the defect of their quality; but what are we without them? Dead driftwood on the tide; dismantled hulls rotting in harbor; anything that awaits destruction, to give its imprisoned forces a chance of asserting themselves in new forms of being.

Bacon was not a Shakespeare; still, he was a very great man. His writings are a text-book of worldly wisdom. His philosophical force is almost proverbial. Nor was he wanting in a certain "dry" poetry. No philosophical writer, not even Plato, equals him in the command of illuminative metaphors; and the fine dignity of his style is beyond all praise. The words drop from his pen with exquisite ease and felicity. He is never in a hurry, never ruffled. He writes like a Lord Chancellor, though with something in him above the office; and if he is now and then familiar, it is only a slight condescension, like the joke of a judge, which does not bring him down to the level of the litigants.

The opinions of such a man are worth studying; and as Lord Bacon is often quoted in condemnation of Atheism, we propose to see what he actually says about it, what his judgment on this particular theme is really worth, and what allowance, if any, should be made for the conditions in which he expressed himself. This last point, indeed, is one of considerable importance. Lord Bacon lived at a time when downright heresy, such as Raleigh and other great men of that age were accused of, could only be ventilated in private conversation. In writing it could only be hinted or suggested; and, in this respect, a writer's silence is to be taken into account; that is, we must judge by what he does not say, as well as by what he does say.

Some writers, like Letourneau, the French ethnologist, have gone to the length of arguing that Lord Bacon was a Materialist, and that his Theistic utterances were all perfunctory: as it were, the pinch of incense which the philosopher was obliged to burn on the altars of the gods. This much at least is certain—Lord Bacon rarely speaks of religion except as a philosopher or a statesman. He is apt to sneer at the "high speculations" of "theologues." There is no piety, no unction, in his allusions to theology. He looks upon religion as a social bond, an agency of good government. It is impossible to say that he took a Christian view of things when he wrote, "I have often thought upon Death, and I find it the least of all evils"; or when he wrote, "Men fear death as children fear to go into the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other."

Lord Bacon has an essay on Atheism, which is significantly followed by another on Superstition. The latter is seldom referred to by religious apologists, but we shall deal with it first.

"In all superstition," he says, "wise men follow fools." This is a bold, significant utterance. Fools are always in the majority, wise men are few, and they are obliged to bow to the power of the multitude. Kings respect, and priests organise, the popular folly; and the wise men have to sit aloft and nod to each other across the centuries. There is a freemasonry amongst them, and they have their shibboleths and dark sayings, to protect them against priests and mobs.

Perhaps the story of Balaam is a subtle anticipation of Lord Bacon's dictum. It was the ass that first saw the angel. Baalam only saw it afterwards, when his wits were disordered by the wonder of a talking donkey. Thus the prophet followed the ass, as wise men follow fools.

Superstition is worse than Atheism, in Lord Bacon's judgment; the one is unbelief, he says, but the other is contumely; and "it were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of him." He approves the saying of Plutarch, that he "had rather a great deal men should say there was no such man as Plutarch, than that they should say there was one Plutarch that would eat his children as soon as they were born"—which, on the part of Lord Bacon, looks like a thrust at the doctrine of original sin and infant damnation.

With his keen eye for "the good of man's estate," Lord Bacon remarks of superstition, that "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 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 farther, 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."

By "civil times" Lord Bacon means settled, quiet, orderly, progressive times—times of civilisation. And it is rather singular that he should pick out the age immediately preceding the advent of Christianity. Whatever fault is in Atheism, it is no danger to human society. This is Lord Bacon's judgment, and we commend it to the attention of the fanatics of faith, who point to Atheism as a horrid monster, fraught with cruelty, bloodshed, and social disruption.

Coming now to Lord Bacon's essay on Atheism itself, we find him opening it with a very pointed utterance of Theism. "I had rather," he says, "believe all the fables in the legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind." The expression is admirable, but the philosophy is doubtful. When a man says he would rather believe one thing than another, he is merely exhibiting a personal preference. Real belief is not a matter of taste; it is determined by evidence—if not absolutely, at least as far as our power of judgment carries us.

"A little philosophy," his lordship says, "inclineth man's mind to Atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." The reason he assigns is, that when we no longer rest in second causes, but behold "the chain of them confederate, and linked together," we must needs "fly to providence and Deity." The necessity, however, is far from obvious. All the laws, as we call them, of all the sciences together, do not contain any new principle in their addition. Universal order is as consistent with Materialism as with Theism. It is easy to say that "God never wrought miracles to convince Atheism, because his ordinary works convince it"; but, as a matter of fact, it is the God of Miracles in whom the multitude have always believed. A special providence, rather than a study of the universe, has been the secret of their devotion to "the unseen."

Lord Bacon drops below the proper level of his genius in affirming that "none deny there is a God, but those for whom it maketh that there were no God." This is but a milder expression of the incivility of the Psalmist. It is finely rebuked by the atheist Monk in the play of "Sir William Crichton," the work of a man of great though little recognised genius—William Smith.

For ye who deem that one who lacks of faith Is therefore conscience-free, ye little know How doubt and sad denial may enthral him To the most timid sanctity of life.

Lord Bacon, indeed, rather doubts the existence of the positive Atheist.

"It appeareth in nothing more, that Atheism is rather in the lip than in the heart of man, than by this, that Atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened by the opinion of others: nay more, you shall have Atheists strive to get disciples, as it fareth with other sects; and, which is most of all, you shall have of them that will suffer for Atheism, and not recant; whereas, if they truly think that there is no such thing as God, Why should they trouble themselves?"

Although Lord Bacon was not the "meanest of mankind," there was certainly a lack of the heroic in his disposition; and this passage emanated from the most prosaic part of his mind and character. "Great thoughts," said Vauvenargues, "spring from the heart." Now the heart of Lord Bacon was not as high as his intellect; no one could for a moment imagine his facing martyrdom. He had none of the splendid audacity, the undaunted courage, the unshakable fortitude, of his loftier contemporary, Giordano Bruno. So much truth is there in Pope's epigram, that his lordship was capable at times of grovelling; witness his fulsome, though magnificent, dedication of the Advancement of Learning to King James—the British Solomon, as his flatterers called him, to the amusement of the great Henry of France, who sneered, "Yes, Solomon the son of David," in allusion to his mother's familiarity with David Rizzio. And in this very passage of the essay on Atheism we also see the grovelling side of Lord Bacon, with a corresponding perversion of intelligence. Being incapable of understanding martyrdom, except under the expectation of a reward in heaven, his lordship cannot appreciate the act of an Atheist in suffering for his convictions. His concluding words are positively mean. Surely the Atheist might trouble himself about truth, justice, and dignity; all of which are involved in the maintenance and propagation of his principles. But, if the closing observation is mean, the opening observation is fatuous. This is a strong word to use of any sentence of Lord Bacon's, but in this instance it is justifiable. If an Atheist mistrusts his own opinion, because he talks about it, what is to be said of the Christians, who pay thousands of ministers to talk about their opinions, and even subscribe for Missionary Societies to talk about them to the "heathen"? Are we to conclude that an Atheist's talking shows mistrust, and a Christian's talking shows confidence? What real weakness is there in the Atheist's seeking for sympathy and concurrence? It is hard for any man to stand alone; certainly it was not in Lord Bacon's line to do so; and why should not the Atheist be "glad to be strengthened by the opinion of others"! Novalis said that his opinion gained infinitely when it was shared by another. The participation does not prove the truth of the opinion, but redeems it from the suspicion of being a mere maggot of an individual brain.

Lord Bacon then turns to the barbaric races, who worship particular gods, though they have not the general name; a fact which he did not understand. More than two hundred years later it was explained by David Hume. It is simply a proof that monotheism grows out of polytheism; or, if you like, that Theism is a development of Idolatry. This is a truth that takes all the sting out of Lord Bacon's observation that "against Atheists the very savages take part with the very subtilest philosophers." We may just remark that the philosophers must be very hard pressed when they call up their savage allies.

Contemplative Atheists are rare, says Lord Bacon—"a Diagoras, a Bion, a Lucian perhaps, and some others." They seem more than they are, for all sorts of heretics are branded as Atheists; which leads his lordship to the declaration that "the great Atheists indeed are hypocrites, which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterised in the end." This is a pungent observation, and it springs from the better side of his lordship's nature. We also have no respect for hypocrites, and for that very reason we object to them as a present to Atheism. Religion must consume in its own smoke, and dispose of its own refuse.

The causes of Atheism next occupy Lord Bacon's attention. He finds they are four; divisions in religion, the scandal of priests, profane scoffing in holy matters, and "learned times, especially with peace and prosperity." "Troubles and adversities," his lordship says, "do more bow men's minds to religion." Which is true enough, though it only illustrates the line of the Roman poet that religion always has its root in fear.

It will be observed that, up to the present, Lord Bacon has not considered one of the reasons for Atheism. What he calls "causes" are only occasions. He does not discuss, or even refer to, the objections to Theism that are derived from the tentative operations of nature, so different from what might be expected from a settled plan; from ugly, venomous and monstrous things; from the great imperfection of nature's very highest productions; from the ignorance, misery, and degradation of such a vast part of mankind; from the utter absence of anything like a moral government of the universe. Only towards the end of his essay does Lord Bacon begin business with the Atheists. "They that deny a God," he says, "destroy a man's nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature." This is pointed and vigorous, but after all it is a matter of sentiment. Some prefer the fallen angel, others the risen ape.

Lord Bacon, like Earl Beaconsfield, is on the side of the angels. We are on the other side. A being who has done something, and will do more, however humble his origin, is preferable to one who can only boast of his fine descent.

Finally, his lordship takes the illustration of the dog, to whom man is "instead of a God." What generosity and courage he will put on, in the "confidence of a better nature than his own." So man gathereth force and faith from divine protection and favor. Atheism therefore "depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty." But this is to forget that there may be more than one means to the same end. Human nature may be exalted above its frailty without becoming the dog of a superior intelligence. Science, self-examination, culture, public opinion, and the growth of humanity, are more than substitutes for devotion to a deity. They are capable of exalting man continuously and indefinitely. They do not appeal to the spaniel element in his nature; they make him free, erect, noble, and self-dependent.

On the whole we are bound to say that Lord Bacon's essay on Atheism is unworthy of his genius. If it were the only piece of his writing extant, we should say it was the work of one who had great powers of expression but no remarkable powers of thought. He writes very finely as a strong advocate, putting a case in a way that commands attention, and perhaps admiration for its force and skill. But something more than this is to be expected when a really great man addresses himself to a question of such depth and importance. What then are we to conclude? Why this, that Lord Bacon dared not give the rein to his mind in an essay on Atheism. He was bound to be circumspect in a composition level to the intelligence of every educated reader. We prefer to take him where he enjoys greater freedom. Under the veil of a story, for instance, he aims a dart at the superstition of a special providence, which is an ineradicable part of the Christian faith.

Bion, the Atheist, being shown the votive tablets in the temple of Neptune, presented by those who prayed to the god in a storm and were saved, asked where were the tablets of those who were drowned. Bacon tells the story with evident gusto, and it is in such things that we seem to get at his real thoughts. In a set essay on Atheism, a man of his worldly wisdom, and un-heroic temper, was sure to kneel at the regular altars. The single query "Why should they trouble themselves?" explains it all.


Previous Chapter | Home | Contents | Next Chapter

HTML © 2002 - 2017