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acaulay’s essay on Bacon (1837) celebrates Bacon as a revolutionary figure who ‘while still at college, planned that great intellectual revolution with which his name is inseparably connected’ (Whyte, p.89). Victorian writers such as Thomas Macaulay, Charles Kingsley, and William Whewell celebrated the scientific and technological Utopia that they thought British scientists had created for the benefit of humanity. In the course of doing so they also explained the importance to them, as they perceived it, of the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) whom Macaulay described as both ‘a great philosopher who had made new discoveries in moral and political science’(Whyte, p. 79) and the ‘great apostle of experimental philosophy’ (p. 87). In examining relation between Victorian idea of inductive science and utopia, I shall address the way in which Victorian scientists, who adopted Baconian inductive scientific methodology, claimed they had triumphed over all previous scientific work and thereby improved the quality of life not only for the British people but also for people on a global scale. Others thought differently.

In describing this Baconian revolution Macaulay emphasises that Bacon’s aimed to produce the ‘fruit’ of scientific activity, which Macaulay elaborates in the Victorian rhetorical ideals of ‘the multiplying of human enjoyments and the mitigating of human sufferings’— in Bacon’s own words, ‘the relief of man's estate’ (Bacon: ‘Advancement of Learning’: V. (11)).

For Macaulay, the key words in Baconian philosophy are utility and progress (Whyte, p. 89). He believed that both could be achieved, not simply, as many Victorians believed, by the movement from feudal to capitalist economies but by abandoning ‘the ancient philosophy’, which had ‘disdained to be useful’, had been ‘content to be stationary’ and had ‘dealt largely in theories of moral perfection, which were so sublime that they never could be more than theories’. Above all, they ‘could not condescend to the humble office of ministering to the comfort of human beings’ (Whyte, p. 89). For both Bacon and Macaulay the Ancients, their ‘votaries,’ and their influence on mediaeval thought had been the real obstacles to progress.

Charles Kingsley shared many assumptions with Macaulay, and this is clear in his Cambridge lecture of 1869 on the anatomist, Vesalius (1514-1564), in which he deals with the absurd treatment of the heir to Philip II of Spain, Don Carlos, after he had fallen downstairs, become seriously ill, and developed ‘raging delirium’ and ‘stupefaction’. To adopt Macaulay’s phrase, the Spanish physicians were unable to ‘minister to’ Don Carlos’ ‘comfort’, but Kingsley claims that a ‘modern surgeon’ would have had ‘little difficulty in removing the evil, if it had not gone too far’. The reason he offers is one familiar from Bacon and, after him, Macaulay — something that became almost a standard Victorian tenet. According to Kingsley, medical science was in its infancy because physicians did not have factual information necessary to their scientific practice: ‘men….had been for centuries feeding their minds with anything rather than facts’ (p. 63). Not only this, but for an anatomist, practising his skills was highly problematical. Dissection was forbidden, and, here, Kingsley is very fair-minded in his approach. It is not simply mediaeval Christianity which blocked progress. So did Islam: ‘the great Arabic physicians could do no more than comment on Galen. The same prejudice extended through the Middle Age. Medical men were all clerks, clerici, and as such forbidden to shed blood’ (p. 68).

Vesalius’ problem was that he ‘found that his thirst for facts could not be slaked by the theories of the Middle Age’ and, like a Baconian Merchant of Light, he went on a fact-finding mission to Montpellier and then to Paris. Kingsley celebrates the Vesalius who developed: ‘upright, proud, almost defiant, as one who knows himself safe in the impregnable citadel of fact ; and in his hand the little blade of steel, destined — because wielded in obedience to the laws of nature, which are the laws of God – to work more benefit for the human race than all the swords which were drawn in those days’ (p. 70). Perhaps Kingsley’s highest praise for Vesalius appears in his lecture on Paracelsus when he includes him in ‘the men who three hundred years ago were founding the physical science of the present day, by patient investigation of the facts’. Yet again, the emphasis is on the imperative need for truth to be grounded in facts. He draws a strict line between such pioneers whom he obviously deeply admires and the charlatans who were seeking for ‘royal roads to knowledge’, and the ‘fame and wealth which might be got out of knowledge’ and ‘meddled with vain dreams about the occult sciences, alchemy, astrology, magic, the cabala, and so forth’ (p. 77).

In Kingsley’s view, European intellectual life underwent a revolution in the sixteenth century: ‘the minds of men were suddenly and strangely turned to examine the wonders of nature with an earnestness, with a reverence, and therefore with an accuracy with which they had never been investigated before’ (p. 56). In this he is repeating a view already proposed by Macaulay: ‘But it is chiefly to the great reformation of religion that we owe the great reformation of philosophy’. Macaulay has previously pushed his claim further: ‘At this time Bacon appeared’ (Whyte, p.99). However, he carefully refutes any idea that Bacon was the first to rebel against the Aristotelians since, before Bacon, Aristotle’s authority had already been overthrown. What follows is reminiscent of Mill’s comments on the accession of Napoleon III as Macaulay draws a parallel between Bacon and the First Emperor Napoleon

For the part which Bacon played in this great change was the part, not of Robespierre, but of Bonaparte. The ancient order of things had been subverted. Some bigots still cherished with devoted loyalty the remembrance of the fallen monarchy, and exerted themselves to effect a restoration. But the majority had no such feeling. Freed, yet not knowing how to use their freedom, they pursued no determinate course, and had found no leader capable of conducting them (ibid.). Bacon, of course, is the strong leader whom circumstances produce at a most timely moment.

Macaulay argues that what was essentially new about Bacon was that he was proposing a quite different objective for philosophy: ‘the good of mankind, in the sense in which the mass of mankind always have understood and always will understand the word’. Insisting that the Bacon he celebrates was in no way revolutionary, Macaulay rejects the claim that Bacon invented inductive reasoning as a whole new method of discovering truths. On the contrary, ‘the inductive method has been practised ever since the beginning of the world by every human being’ (p. 118). Inductive reasoning is therefore a common property but, in the great hierarchical scheme of things as envisaged by both Bacon and Macaulay, it takes a privileged few to use the method for the right ends and to benefit ‘the mass of mankind’.

Macaulay is clear on the impact which Bacon had on the development of natural science. He was the first to turn ‘the minds of the speculative, long occupied in verbal disputes, to the discovery of new and useful truth’. This emphasis upon useful truth enabled him to elevate inductive science to an ‘importance and dignity’ that it had not hitherto enjoyed. Even though he has referred to the revolution which Bacon planned even before graduating from Cambridge, he continues to insist on Bacon’s role solely as a catalyst. The man did not ‘make the road’ but called people’s attention to the ‘inexhaustible mine of wealth’ to which it could lead so that whereas inductive science had once been the property of ‘peasants and higglers’ (i.e. travelling salesmen), it now belongd to ‘a higher class of travellers’ (p. 124).

Kingsley regards the German physician, Paracelsus (1493-1541) as a key player in this revolution, but his admiration is not unalloyed. He recognises that his subject was motivated by ‘an intense belief that some higher and truer science might be discovered, by which diseases might actually be cured, and health, long life, happiness, all but immortality be conferred on man’. This is a Victorian thinker finding a precursor for Victorian humanitarian ideals but with a severe reservation in which he regrets the fact that, in his view, Paracelsus strayed from the key belief that ‘all pure science’ is ‘a revelation from God’, and is not to be obtained by following the example of the schoolmen and substituting Galen, Hippocrates and Aristotle for the Divine. According to Kingsley it would have been better for Paracelsus if he had gone ‘straight to nature at first’ and listened to what Bacon had called ‘the voice of God revealed in facts’ (p. 77). Once again, a Victorian invokes Francis Bacon, and insists on the necessity for scientific practice to be based on verifiable ‘facts’.

Kingsley’s has a more nuanced attitude to the Ancients than Macaulay. He argues, for example, that sixteenth-century scholars ‘rediscovered, reconstructed, purified, commented on the texts of ancient authors’, thus rescuing what was valuable in the classical texts. Nonetheless, two matters remained to promote genuine progress in the natural sciences (p. 56). In the first place, further development needed ‘observation, which showed that more was to be seen in one blade of grass than in any page of Pliny’. In the second place, science needed to be liberated from the stifling limits placed on scientific work by the superstitions of religion, by which Kingsley means Roman Catholicism. In his lecture on Rondelet, the Huguenot naturalist, Kingsley tells of how Rondelet and his fellows had been ‘in constant communication with the Protestant savants of Switzerland and Germany among whom the knowledge of nature was progressing as it had never progressed before’. A key fact factor in this which is ‘always to be remembered’, is that ‘it was only in the free air of Protestant countries that the natural sciences could grow and thrive’ (p. 58). To Bacon’s accusation that the schoolmen hindered scientific progress, Kingsley adds the idea that although the ‘restoration of Greek literature in the fifteenth century’ had stimulated the development of the natural sciences in Italy, ‘they withered only too soon under the blighting shade of superstition’.

Macaulay, who takes a more straightforward approach, has unremitting scorn for the Ancients. In his account, they would have no truck with putting a roof over their heads or teaching the uses of metals, and as far as they were concerned, to ‘impute to such (men) any share in the invention or improvement of a plough, a ship, or a mill’ was ‘an insult’. He illustrates their extreme contempt for the Useful from Seneca:

‘In my own time,’ says Seneca, ‘there have been inventions of this sort, transparent windows, tubes for diffusing warmth equally through all parts of a building, shorthand, which has been carried to such a perfection that a writer can keep pace with the most rapid speaker. But the inventing of such things is drudgery for the lowest slaves; philosophy lies deeper. It is not her office to teach men how to use their hands. The object of her lessons is to form the soul’. [Whyte, p. 90]

But, to turn from this ancient ‘rant’ to the lessons to be learned from Bacon is delightful’ (p.91). In a telling little parallel, Macaulay sets the ornamental against the useful and argues that if you judge Platonic thought by its ‘flowers and leaves’, you will think it the ‘noblest of trees’, but if you follow Bacon’s example and judge a tree by its fruits, you will have a less favourable opinion of Plato (p. 92). Macaulay, like the chemist, Faraday, would seem to have made his mind up that the Useful is more valuable than the beautiful. An apple, it would seem, is there to be eaten, not gazed on as a thing of beauty or regarded as a suitable subject for a still life painting. Similarly, according to Macaulay

An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia. The smallest actual good is better than the most magnificent promises of impossibilities. The wise man of the Stoics would, no doubt, be a grander object than a steam-engine. But there are steam-engines. And the wise man of the Stoics is yet to be born. A philosophy which should enable a man to feel perfectly happy while in agonies of pain would be better than a philosophy which assuages pain. But we know that there are remedies which will assuage pain; and we know that the ancient sages liked the toothache just as little as their neighbours. A philosophy which should extinguish cupidity would be better than a philosophy which should devise laws for the security of property. But it is possible to make laws which shall, to a very great extent, secure property. [p. 109]

He concedes that some people may think the object of the Baconian philosophy ‘a low object’, but they cannot deny that, high or low, ‘it has been attained’. They cannot deny that every year makes an addition to what Bacon called ‘fruit’ and that mankind is constantly progressing in the direction indicated by Bacon (p. 110).

To substantiate his argument, Macaulay offers a very impressive catalogue of what contemporary science has achieved:

It has lengthened life; it has mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases; it has increased the fertility of the soil; it has given new securities to the mariner; it has furnished new arms to the warrior; it has spanned great rivers and estuaries with bridges of form unknown to our fathers; it has guided the thunderbolt innocuously from heaven to earth; it has lighted up the night with the splendour of the day; it has extended the range of the human vision; it has multiplied the power of the human muscles; it has accelerated motion; it has annihilated distance; it has facilitated intercourse, correspondence, all friendly offices, all despatch of business; it has enabled man to descend to the depths of the sea, to soar into the air, to penetrate securely into the noxious recesses of the earth, to traverse the land in cars which whirl along without horses, and the ocean in ships which run ten knots an hour against the wind. These are but a part of its fruits, and of its first fruits’. p.111]

Macaulay’s choice of ‘fruits’ is clearly deliberate as he now goes on to praise Baconian science as a philosophy which ‘never rests’, which has never attained, which ‘is never perfect’, whose law is ‘progress...A point which yesterday was invisible is its goal to-day, and will be its starting-post to-morrow’ (p. 112).

The idea that Baconian science is ‘a low object’ clearly rankles with Macaulay, and in Bacon’s defence he argues that the ideal Baconian world (and this qualifies the importance of Utility) was not, ‘as some people seem to imagine, a world of water-wheels, power-looms, steam-carriages, sensualists, and knaves’. Bacon is all too wise ‘not to know how much our well-being depends on the regulation of our minds’. Certainly, he does appear at time to pay too much attention to the practical arts which improve material well-being, but this is for the simple reason that in times past they had been depreciated by those of ‘a liberal education’.

In dealing with this point Bacon refers to an axiom of Heraclitus: ‘Dry light is the best’. According to Macaulay, by ‘dry light’ Bacon understood ‘the light of the intellect, not obscured by the mists of passion, interest, or prejudice’ (p. 114). Such dispassionate, such disinterested insights are rarely obtained, and Macaulay is no exception as witnessed by what he now argues, claiming that ‘many arts which were of the greatest utility, and which were susceptible of the greatest improvements’ had been ‘neglected by speculators, and abandoned to joiners, masons, smiths, weavers, apothecaries’. As a result it had become necessary to assert ‘the dignity of those arts: ‘they have a most serious effect on human happiness’; ‘are not unworthy of the attention of the highest human intellects’; and yet had been represented as unworthy of the attention of a man of liberal education’ (p. 115). His privileging of the practical skills and therefore their practitioners is not surprising in the context of the early industrial revolution.

Unfortunately, that revolution as it developed neglected a key element in Bacon’s original program – the benefits to human kind which he envisaged as established features of life in his New Atlantis: the production of ‘artificial metals’ which can cure some diseases; the prolongation of the lives of the cave-dwellers; and the ‘Chambers of Health’ which feature body preparations which can restore your skin from arefaction (dryness) and secure the ‘sinewes, vital parts, and the very juice and substance of the body’ (Jones, p. 482). The conditions to which the industrial workforce was subjected by its masters in a hard-hearted exploitative regime and the medical conditions which were a consequence make a mockery of Macaulay’s claims that the Victorian version of the Baconian revolution has ‘lengthened life’; ‘mitigated pain’; and ‘extinguished diseases’. Furthermore, he seems to be unaware of the irony in his argument. He claims as part of Bacon’s achievement that he inspired others to rescue ‘arts which were of the greatest utility’ from the control of the very people (‘joiners, masons, smiths, weavers’) who were being transformed into the labouring classes in a new industrialized work regime which was destroying the cottage and village industries in which they had hitherto worked. Ironically, the ‘world of water-wheels, power-looms, steam-carriages’ which Macaulay has thought travestied Bacon's vision is precisely Macaulay’s own world. These inventions to some extent realised the sci-fi technology of New Atlantis but Macaulay’s prejudices prevented him from seeing that they militated against the Baconian dream of the betterment of mankind through applied science.

Macaulay’s presentation of the modern scientists whom Bacon has inspired is, as in the passage above, excessively triumphalist, and his presentation of the ancient philosophers is truly iconoclastic. Having conceded that their philosophy might ‘sharpen and invigorate’ the minds of their devotees, he then points out that one might say the same about ‘the orthodox Lilliputians and the heretical Blefuscudians about the big ends and the little ends of eggs’. His final comment is quite dismissive and authentically Baconian: ‘such disputes could add nothing to the stock of knowledge….no accumulation of truth, no heritage of truth acquired by the labour of one generation and bequeathed to another, to be again transmitted with large additions to a third’. For all the (metaphorical) ploughing, harrowing, reaping and threshing, at the end of the day the bins contained nothing more than ‘smut and stubble’. It is worth noting that Macaulay’s diction is dominated by the notion of accumulating: ‘stock of knowledge’, ‘accumulation of truth’, and ‘large additions to a third’ (ibid, pp. 93-4).

However, Macaulay slight distorts Bacon’s attitude to the Ancients. In ‘The Advancement of Learning’ Bacon also quotes from or refers favourably to Archimedes, Cicero, Democritus, Epominandas, Euclid, Hippocrates, Horace, Livy, Philo Judaeus, Plato Pliny, Sallust, Seneca, Tacitus, the cabalistic Hermes Trismegistus, Varro, Virgil and Xenophon. As one might expect from a man of the Renaissance, Bacon has an impressive familiarity with classical texts. But why therefore does Macaulay present such a negative view of what Bacon has to say about the ancients and why does he quote Bacon’s objections so approvingly? In fact, his attitude to Greek and Roman classical authors as expressed in the essay is astonishingly at odds with what we know of Macaulay’s life-long devotion to their work. This, after all, is the writer whose Lays of Ancient Rome (1842; ) and its famous image of Publius Horatius, Spurius Lartius, and Titus Herminus defending the Sublician bridge against the invading Etruscans and sacrificing their own lives to save the Roman Republic was immensely popular with his contemporary audiences.

Perhaps for Macaulay’s Bacon the ancients are the people who have held back human progress, and it suits Macaulay’s purpose to put aside ancient heroes, to concentrate on what incensed Bacon (and himself) — the way in which the ancient philosophers did not so much neglect natural science as fail to cultivate it for bettering the human condition (p.94). That certainly is part of what Bacon agues, but he also attacks the mediaeval schoolmen for reinforcing the barrier to progress and his fierce onslaught is worth quoting at length.


The generalities of the schoolmen are for a while good and proportionable; but then when you descend into their distinctions and decisions, instead of a fruitful womb for the use and benefit of man’s life, they end in monstrous altercations and barking questions. So as it is not possible but this quality of knowledge must fall under popular contempt, the people being apt to contemn truths upon occasion of controversies and altercations, and to think they are all out of their way which never meet; and when they see such digladiation (i.e. using words trivially) about subtleties, and matters of no use or moment, they easily fall upon that judgment of Dionysius of Syracusa, Verba ista sunt senum otiosorum (Those are the words of idle old men). Notwithstanding, certain it is that if those schoolmen to their great thirst of truth and unwearied travail of wit had joined variety and universality of reading and contemplation, they had proved excellent lights, to the great advancement of all learning and knowledge; but as they are, they are great undertakers indeed, and fierce with dark keeping. But as in the inquiry of the divine truth, their pride inclined to leave the oracle of God’s word, and to vanish in the mixture of their own inventions; so in the inquisition of nature, they ever left the oracle of God’s works, and adored the deceiving and deformed images which the unequal mirror of their own minds, or a few received authors or principles, did represent unto them. And thus much for the second disease of learning. (Jones, 205).

The Ancients therefore suffered from a special kind of blindness to real human achievement from which, as Macaulay thinks, modern scientific inquiry is liberating the Moderns. The latter know that gunpowder and printing were invented during the middle Ages, but they do not know who invented them or exactly when. This is of little consequence, because going further than Bacon, Macaulay argues that even though people today know only the approximate date, they can appreciate the importance of the two inventions, and can be confident that the people living at the time would not have appreciated their importance. The reason is quite clear: the Ancients and their ‘enthusiastic votaries’, the mediaeval schoolmen, were blind to the value of the Useful: ‘George of Trebisond and Marsilio Ficino would not easily have been brought to believe that the inventor of the printing-press had done more for mankind than themselves, or than those ancient writers of whom they were the enthusiastic votaries’.

Other parts of “Francis Bacon, Inductive Science, Empire, & the Great Exhibition”


Bacon, Francis: ʻEssays, Advancement of Learning, New Atlantis and Other Piecesʼ: ed. R. F. Jones. New York: Odyssey Press, Inc: 1937.

Bacon, Francis: ‘Distributio Operis’ (1620) in ʻSelections from the Works of Lord Bacon: e. Thomas W. Moffettʼ. Dublin University Press: 1847.

Houghton, Walter E: ʻThe Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870.ʼ New Haven and London: Yale University Press: 1963.

Kingsley, Charles: ʻHistorical Lectures and Essaysʼ. London: MacMillan: 1902.

Macaulay: ‘Sir James Mckintosh’ in ʻCritical and Historical Essays: volume 1’: London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.1907.

Macaulay: ‘Essay on Bacon’ edited by H. Whyte. Clarendon Press: Oxford: 1915.

Richards, Thomas: ʻThe Commodity Culture of Victorian England.ʼ Stanford: Stanford University Press: Verso edition 1991.

Last modified 16 November 2006