Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Non-Political Past in Bacon's Theory of History

  • Arthur B. Ferguson (a1)


Surveying the state of historical knowledge in his day, Francis Bacon noted with concern that, in contrast to ecclesiastical history and political history, both of which were already “extant,” the history of learning and the arts was “wanting.” Without it, he said, the history of the world is like the statue of Polyphemus without the eye: “that feature being left out which most marks the spirit and life of the person.” Whereupon he proceeded to give the history of learning and the arts a place of its own in the scheme of historical knowledge, and for the first time in English writing. All of which is surely well known; but its significance in relation both to the historical thought of the later Renaissance and to that of Bacon himself has not received quite the attention it deserves. This is not, of course, surprising. Serious as he believed the lack of such a history to be, Bacon himself continued to follow the common Renaissance prejudice in favor of political history — his “Civil History, properly so-called, whereof the dignity and authority are preeminent among human writings.” And in his own relatively brief forays into the formal writing of history he reverted to a more or less sophisticated brand of “politic” history. What has tended to be overlooked is the close relationship his theory of a history of learning and the arts bears to his entire project for the reorientation of learning and, in particular, to the historical critique he in fact made of traditional scholarship. His theoretical category remained, it is true, just a bit too narrow to accommodate the breadth of his own historical reflection. History, to him, still meant a formal literary genre. Taken together, however, his theory and practice should reveal something of importance about his historical perspective, to say nothing of that of his age.



Hide All

1. De Augmentis Scientiarum, The Works of Francis Bacon, eds., Spedding, James, Ellis, R. L., and Heath, D. D., 14 vols. (London, 18571874), VIII, 418. All references will be from this edition of Bacon's works unless otherwise indicated.

2. Ibid., p. 421.

3. This version is SirElyot's, Thomas: The Boke named the Gouernour, ed. Croft, H. H. S. (2 vols., London, 1880), I, 82.

4. For a brief survey of the literature from this particular point of view, see Ferguson, A. B., “Circumstances and the Sense of History in Tudor England: the Coming of the Historical Revolution”, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, III, ed. Headley, J. M. (Chapel Hill, 1968), pp. 170205. More intensive studies bearing on the subject may be found in Levy, F. J., Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, 1967), Pocock, J. G. A., The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge, 1957), Kendrick, T. D., British Antiquity (London, 1950), Jones, R. F., The Triumph of the English Language (Stanford, 1953), Ferguson, , The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Durham, N. C., 1965).

5. Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster, (1570), English Works, ed. Wright, W. A. (Cambridge, 1904), especially pp. 286300; A Report and Discourse … of the affaires and state of Germany … (1570), English Works, especially pp. 126 ff.

6. Thomas Blundeville, The true order and Methode of uryting and reading Hystories (1574), ed. Dick, H. G., Huntington Library Quarterly, III, (January, 1940), 149–70, an adaptation of two treatises by Patrizzi and Acontius. On the political preoccupation of Italian historians, see Gilbert, Felix, Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-century Florence (Princeton, 1965).

7. It may be, as F. S. Fussner suggests, that Bacon did not think of History as a discipline at all, but as part of a broader scheme for the reorientation of learning. The Historical Revolution: English Historical Writing and Thought, 1580-1640 (New York, 1962); see ch. X for a discussion of Bacon's philosophy of history.

8. Bacon, , De Augmentis, VIII, 407; cf. The Advancement of Learning, VI, 182.

9. Bacon, , De Augmentis, VIII, 407408.

10. Cf. Sidney's somewhat parallel argument in The Defence of Poesie.

11. Bacon, Francis, The History of the Reign of King Henry VII (1622), ed. Levy, F. J. (New York, 1972).

12. See below pp 13 ff.

13. De Augmentis, VIII, 453–54. On the psychological aspect of Bacon's work, see Nadel, G. H., “History as Psychology in Francis Bacon's Theory of History”, History and Theory, V No. 3 (1966), 275–78.

14. Bacon, De Augmentis, VIII, 409.

15. Bacon, Advancement, VI, 183.

16. Bacon, De Augmentis, VIII, 418–19.

17. Ibid., VIII, 413-15; Parasceve, VIII, 363-64. For the place of music and the representative arts in Bacon's scheme for a natural history, see Parasceve, VIII, 378.

18. Bacon, De Augmentis, VIII, 435–37. See also Ferguson, A. B., “The Historical Perspective of Richard Hooker: A Renaissance Paradox”, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, III, (Spring, 1973), 1750.

19. Bacon, De Augmentis, VIII, 423.

20. For the Society of Antiquaries and scholarship thereon, see Levy, Tudor Historical Thought, ch. IV.

21. Bacon, De Augmentis, VIII, 423–25.

22. Bacon, Advancement, VI, 183; cf. De Augmentis, VIII, 418.

23. Bacon, De Augmentis, VIII, 419–20; cf. Advancement, VI, 183.84.

24. Cf. ibid., VI, 332.

25. Ibid., VI, 119-20.

26. Bacon, De Augmentis, VIII, 420.

27. Francis Bacon, The Refutation of Philosophies (Redargutio Philosophiarum, 1608), ed. Farrington, Benjamin, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (Liverpool, 1964), p. 110. See also Farrington's comment, p. 26.

28. See especially his earlier writings: The Masculine Birth of Time (Temporis Partus Masculus, 1603); Thoughts and Conclusions (Cogitata et Visa, 1607), pp. 76-88 especially, Refutation, pp. 109-17. All the above were translated and edited by Farrington. See also Rossi, Paoli, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science tr. Rabinovitch, S. (Chicago, 1968), pp. 44 ff.

29. Bacon, De Augmentis, VIII, 420.

30. Farrington, , Philosophy, p. 35.

31. Rossi, , Bacon, p. 46.

32. Bacon, Advancement, VI, 145 ff.

33. Bacon, Refutation, p. 109. The doctrine of signs, first stated in this early work, was developed later in Novum Organum, VIII, 101 ff.

34. Bacon, De Augmentis, IX, 97.

35. Those tendencies were nevertheless capable of being conditioned by the processes of time: the “Idols of the Market-Place” have “crept into the understanding through the alliance of words and names.” Novum Organum, VIII, 86.

36. Farrington, , Philosophy, p. 40.

37. Bacon, Refutation, p. 109; cf. Novum Organum, VIII, 101ff.

38. Bacon, Refutation, p. 109.

39. Ibid., p. 112.

40. Ibid., pp. 122 ff.

41. Bacon, Novum Organum, VIII, 110–12.

42. Bacon, Advancement, VI, 146 ff, 391–92; De Augmentis, VIII, 103-05, 109-11, 127–28. See also Rabb, T. K., “Francis Bacon and the Reform of Society”, Action and Conviction in Early Modern Europe, ed. Rabb, T. K. and Seigel, J. E. (Princeton, 1969), pp. 169–94.

43. Bacon, De Augmentis, VIII, 266.

44. Bacon, De Sapientia Veterum (1609). On the importance of this work, see Anderson, F. H., Francis Bacon, His Career and Thought (Los Angeles, 1962), p. 57; Rossi, Bacon, ch. iii; Farrington, , Philosophy, pp. 4850. Cf. Lemmi , C. W., The Classical Dieties in Bacon (Baltimore, 1933).

45. Bacon, De Augmentis, IX, 6061; cf. Nadel, , “History as Psychology”, History and Theory, V, No. 3.

46. Bacon, De Augmentis, IX, 216–20.

47. Ibid., 220-21.

48. One need only cite the examples of Spencer and Sidney. See Caspari, Fritz, Humanism and the Social Order in Tudor England (Chicago, 1954).

49. See Levy, Tudor Historical Thought, ch. iii, and Ferguson, , “Richard Hooker”, Journal of Medieral and Renaissance Studies, III, 1750.

50. On Hooker, see Ferguson, “Richard Hooker” ibid. On Raleigh, see Works, ed. W. Oldys and T. Birch, 7 vols. (London, 1829), Pref., I, i, 11-15, II, xix, 6.

51. Masculine Birth of Time, p. 59; cf. Farrington, p. 18.

52. See Jones, Triumph of English.

53. See Ferguson, A. B., “The Historical Thought of Samuel Daniel: A Study in Renaissance Ambivalence”, Journal of the History of Ideas, XXXII, (April-June, 1971), 185202.

The Non-Political Past in Bacon's Theory of History

  • Arthur B. Ferguson (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed