Francis Bacon (Baron Verulam, Viscount St Albans) (1561-1626), English philosopher, statesman and essayist, was born at York House in the Strand, London, on the 22nd of January 1560/1. He was the youngest son of Sir Nicholas Bacon (q.v.). His mother, the second wife of Sir Nicholas, was a daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, formerly tutor to Edward VI. She was a woman of considerable culture, well skilled in the classical studies of the period, and a warm adherent of the Reformed or Puritan Church. Very little is known of Bacon's early life and education. His health being then, as always, extremely delicate, he probably received much of his instruction at home. In April 1573 he was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, where for three years he resided with his brother Anthony. At Cambridge he applied himself diligently to the several sciences as then taught, and came to the conclusion that the methods employed and the results attained were alike erroneous. Although he preserved a reverence for Aristotle (of whom, however, he seems to have known but little), he learned to despise the current Aristotelian philosophy. It yielded no fruit, was serviceable only for disputation, and the end it proposed to itself was a mistaken one.
Philosophy must be taught its true purpose, and for this purpose a new method must be devised. With the first germs of this great conception in his mind, Bacon left the university.
On the 27th of June 1576 he and his brother Anthony were entered de societate magistrorum at Gray's Inn, and a few months later he was sent abroad with Sir Amyas Paulet, the English ambassador at Paris. The disturbed state of government and society in France at that time afforded him valuable political instruction. It was formerly supposed that certain Notes on the State of Christendom, usually printed in his works, contain the results of his observations, but Spedding has shown that there is no reason for ascribing these Notes to him, and that they may be attributed with more probability to one of his brother Anthony's correspondents.
The sudden death of his father in February 1578/9 necessitated Bacon's return to England, and exercised a very serious influence on his fortunes. A considerable sum of money had been laid up by Sir Nicholas for the purchase of an estate for his youngest son, the only one otherwise unprovided for. Owing to his sudden death, this intention was not carried out, and a fifth only of the money descended to Francis. This was one of the gravest misfortunes of his life; he started with insufficient means, acquired a habit of borrowing and was never afterwards out of debt. As it had become necessary that he should adopt some profession, he selected that of law, and took up his residence at Gray's Inn in 1579.
In the fragment De Interpretation Naturae Prooemium (written probably about 1603) Bacon analyses his own mental character and lays before us the objects he had in view when he entered on public life. If his opening sentence, "Ego cum me ad utilitates humanas natum existimarem" ("since I thought myself born to be of advantage to mankind"), seems at first sight a little arrogant, it must be remembered that it is the arrogance of Aristotle's μεγαλόψυχος, who thinks himself worthy of great things, and is worthy. The ideal of production of good to the human race through the discovery of truth, was combined in him with the practical desire to be of service to his country. He purposed, therefore, to obtain, if possible, some honourable post in the state which would give him the means of realizing these projects, and would enable him to do somewhat for the church, the third of the objects whose good he had at heart. The constant striving after these three ends is the key to Bacon's life. His qualifications for accomplishing the task were not small. His intellect was far-seeing and acute, quick and yet cautious, meditative, methodical and free from prejudice.
If we add to this account that he seems to have been of an unusually amiable disposition we have a fairly complete picture of his mental character at this critical period of his life.
In 1580 he appears to have taken the first step in his career by applying, through his uncle, Burghley, the lord treasurer, for some post at court. His suit, though well received by the queen, was unsuccessful; the particulars are totally unknown. For two years after this disappointment he worked quietly at Gray's Inn, and in 1582 was admitted an outer barrister. In 1584 he took his seat in parliament for Melcombe in Dorsetshire, but the notes for the session do not disclose what reputation he gained. About the same time he made another application to Burghley, apparently with a view to expediting his progress at the bar. His uncle, who appears to have "taken his zeal for ambition," wrote him a severe letter, taking him to task for arrogance and pride, qualities which Bacon vehemently disclaimed. As his advancement at the bar was unusually rapid, his uncle's influence may have been exerted in his behalf. In 1589 he received the first substantial piece of patronage from his powerful kinsman, the reversion of the clerkship of the Star Chamber. The office was worth about £1600 a year; but it did not become vacant for nearly twenty years. A considerable period of his life thus slipped away, and his affairs had not prospered.
He had written on the condition of parties in the church; he had set down his thoughts on philosophical reform in the lost tract, Temporis Partus Maximus; but he had failed in obtaining the position which he looked upon as an indispensable condition of success. A long and eloquent letter to Burghley throws additional light upon his character, and gives a hint as to the cause of his uncle's slackness in promoting him.
Some time before this, perhaps as early as 1588, Bacon appears to have become acquainted with the earl of Essex, Elizabeth's favourite. At the close of 1591 he was acting as the earl's confidential adviser, and exerted himself, together with his brother Anthony, diligently in the earl's service. In February 1593 parliament was called, and Bacon took his seat for Middlesex. The special occasion for which the House had been summoned was the discovery of one of the numerous popish plots that distracted Elizabeth's reign.