Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 76.djvu/499

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495
FRANCIS BACON (1560-1910)

THE PROPHECY OF FRANCIS BACON (1560-1910)
By Professor RALPH BARTON PERRY

HARVARD UNIVERSITY

I. Bacon and the Spirit of Discovery.—There are several ways in which the importance of a philosopher may be estimated. He may be regarded as an exponent of his times; that is, as a representation in which the manifold tendencies of an age are focalized and idealized. Or he may be regarded as the author of a panorama of existence, of a world-view or system, which, while it may be superseded, will always retain enough of logical and imaginative coherence to make it typical and classic. Or the philosopher, like other servants of mankind, may be judged according to the degree in which he has been confirmed by posterity. Judged by this last standard, the great philosopher will be the philosopher who, while he may, like Bacon, have been born three hundred and fifty years ago, is nevertheless modern, in the sense that he is identified with important ideas which are now generally held to be true. This brief summary aims to present the Bacon that is living to-day in our common opinion, in our expert knowledge, and in our dominant ideals.

Any one who considers Bacon in relation to European civilization of the modern period must be impressed with the degree to which he represents its progressive ideas. Those characteristics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which are most marked in Bacon are the characteristics in which they anticipate later centuries. It is possible for our immediate purposes to reduce these characteristics to one: the disposition, namely, to look for a betterment of human life from the advancement of knowledge. "Advancement of knowledge" does not here mean the education of the individual, but the winning of new truths by the race and for the good of the race. We may call this the spirit of discovery, where "discovery" is used both in the theoretical and in the practical sense. Bacon himself was not a discoverer of new scientific truths, but the discoverer of the art of discovery. As he expressed it, he "rang the bell that called the other wits together." "While it is doubtless inaccurate to attribute so general an idea to any individual authorship, Bacon was its greatest prophet. His brilliant literary gifts, his imagination, his sanguine temperament, his breadth of view and his native regard for utility, the very qualities that helped to unfit him for exact research, made him the most important medium through which the idea of discovery, or of intellectual conquest, has gradually become the hope of mankind.