The Inspiration Behind Oceana 4: Francis Bacon

Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes may be the two thinkers whose influence on James Harrington's thought has been explored in greatest detail, but they are by no means the only ones who left their mark on Oceana. On the very first page of Harrington's 'Introduction' he cites the name of another influential figure, Francis Bacon. Just as Harrington refers to Hobbes as 'Leviathan', so he assigns a pseudonym to Bacon, calling him 'Verulamius'. This was not, of course, a reference to Bacon's work, but to his title 'Baron Verulam of Verulam' which was derived from the Roman name for St Albans, where he lived. The title would have been readily associated with Bacon, since he referred to himself as Lord Verulam rather than Lord Bacon (Markku Peltonen, 'Bacon, Francis, Viscount St Alban (1561-1626)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). He also named the house that he built in the grounds of his family home at Gorhambury, Verulam House. The house no longer exists, but John Aubrey included a watercolour image of it in his account of Bacon in Brief Lives

Photograph of old Gorhambury House near St Albans, Hertfordshire. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Photograph of old Gorhambury House near St Albans, Hertfordshire. Image by Rachel Hammersley

This first reference to Bacon in Oceana concerns a quotation that Harrington took from Bacon's essay 'Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates' in which Bacon warns of the dangers for the state if the nobility and gentry are allowed to multiply too quickly. Bacon contrasts the development in England where the process was slow and gradual, with the quicker development in France. He praises Henry VII for enacting a system in which small plots of land could be worked by the owner and would provide for basic subsistence. This meant that, rather than having an economy based on peasants, England became a nation of small-property owners. Bacon perhaps, therefore, inspired Harrington's distinctive theory regarding the relationship between the distribution of land and the wielding of political power. Yet Harrington notes that Bacon, like Machiavelli before him, failed fully to appreciate the significance of the balance of property, harping 'much upon a string which he hath not perfectly tuned' (James Harrington, Oceana, London, 1656, 'Introduction').

'Verulamius' is referred to at several other points in Oceana most often to refer to the dangers of poor counsel and the importance of having wise men in positions of power. In addition to these direct references there are several notable parallels between Bacon's ideas and those of Harrington.

The porch of old Gorhambury House. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The porch of old Gorhambury House. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Harrington's inductive method, discussed in last month's blogpost, owed something to Bacon. Like Harrington, Bacon explicitly rejected the mathematical approach to natural philosophy. He insisted that mathematics was not a good tool for understanding the world. As evidence of this he referred to the fact that heavenly bodies do not move in perfect circles (Stephen Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy, Cambridge, 2001, p. 26). Bacon also challenged the claim that deductive reasoning can yield informative truths. Instead he developed his own distinctive process of eliminative induction (Gaukroger, Francis Bacon, p. 158). This prefigured Harrington's methodology in moving inferentially from experience to first principles, though Bacon also insisted that in the field of natural philosophy it was necessary to then test those principles via fresh experiments (Gaukroger, Francis Bacon, p. 142).

Francis Bacon by John Vanderbank after an unknown artist, 1731? based on a work of c.1618. National Portrait Gallery NPG 520. Reproduced under a creative commons license. According to the English Heritage information board at old Gorhambury, the original image now hangs in the dining room at new Gorhambury.

Francis Bacon by John Vanderbank after an unknown artist, 1731? based on a work of c.1618. National Portrait Gallery NPG 520. Reproduced under a creative commons license. According to the English Heritage information board at old Gorhambury, the original image now hangs in the dining room at new Gorhambury.

There is also an interesting parallel between Bacon's attitude towards natural philosophers and Harrington's approach to politicians. Bacon did not believe that natural philosophers could simply be left to pursue their discipline as they saw fit, rather he developed a theory about how they should be governed so that, contrary to their natural inclinations, they would manifest good sense and behaviour in their observations and experiments (Gaukroger, Francis Bacon, pp. 12, 131). This is very similar to Harrington's belief that those in positions of power could not be expected to act virtuously or to put the public good before their own private interests. The trick, he insisted, was to rely on 'good laws' rather than 'good men', and to organise the political system so as to constrain and encourage rulers and ruled alike to behave appropriately.

One reason why the similarities between Bacon and Harrington have not been widely acknowledged is because Harrington, long  labelled as a 'classical republican', has tended to be seen as reviving ancient thought, whereas Bacon is commonly presented as the progenitor of modern ways of thinking. Yet both were in fact intent on charting a course between the two tendencies. Bacon explicitly spoke of finding a middle way between 'extreme admirations for antiquity' and 'extreme love and appetite for novelty' and Harrington referred to his intention to 'go mine own way, and yet follow the Ancients' (Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, I, lvi: Works i. 170/iii. 59-60; Harrington, Oceana, p. 3).

Central to the forward-looking aspect of both men's thinking was an idea that has particular resonance today: the notion that knowledge should be useful. Bacon believed philosophy should be valued solely for its contribution to general welfare and insisted that the philosopher should be a public figure acting in the service of the common good. While Harrington was less explicit than Bacon about the need for knowledge to be useful, his own exploration of history and politics was emphatically aimed at exercising a positive impact on the contemporary world and solving some of the key issues of his day. 

The statue of Sir Francis Bacon in St Michael’s Church, St Albans. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The statue of Sir Francis Bacon in St Michael’s Church, St Albans. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Yet while Bacon and Harrington were both interested in the utility of knowledge, neither would have endorsed the crude version of this idea that dominates current political and intellectual agendas. This approach tends to see knowledge as a submissive servant to political and economic ends. Bacon was clear that in order for knowledge to be useful it had to be pursued in a comprehensive and unhindered fashion. In his essay 'The Praise of Knowledge' he pointed out that great discoveries - such as printing, artillery and the needle - were not the outcome of deliberate targeted investigations, but rather were 'stumbled upon and lighted upon by chance' (Francis Bacon, 'The Praise of Knowledge'). The idea was that the pursuit of knowledge by appropriate and methodical means would bring improvements to human life, not simply that political agendas should dictate what should be studied, let alone what the outcome of those studies should be.