53

 

 

EVOLUTION AND THE STRUGGLE FOR HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS

 

III

Intelligence at Work

by Keith Francis

 

 (i)

 

Introduction

 

At our last session I spoke of the Arabian philosophers of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries and the difficulties that beset them in trying to cope with the concepts of human individuality and immortality. This arose from an earlier discussion of the descent of the divine intelligence as Rudolf Steiner described it in the 1923 cycle, The Driving Force of Spiritual Powers in World History, and led to a brief explanation of the efforts of St. Thomas Aquinas to bring earthly philosophy and divine revelation into a grand synthesis. Today I’d like to approach the same point in history, the thirteenth century, from a slightly different angle.

Rudolf Steiner spoke about the descent of the cosmic intelligence in several different contexts. The Driving Force begins with a consideration of the relationship of the human being to the three closest ranks of the hierarchies, Angels, Archangels and Archai, and tells of the decision of the Exusiai, the Spirits of Form, to allow the rulership of the divine intelligence to pass to the Archai, while retaining stewardship of the whole world of sense impressions. In so doing, the cycle provides a spiritual background for the efflorescence of Greek thought in the sixth century BC, for which there is no satisfactory exoteric explanation. In describing the activities of the Exusiai and Archai and their divided vision of the future of humanity, it gives essential guidance in understanding the spread of metamorphosed Greek philosophy through the Arabian world into Europe. One striking and puzzling feature of this cycle is that although it was given at a time when Steiner was giving the anthroposophical community an awe-inspiring picture of the mission of the Archangel Michael[1], it contains no mention of that great being who has, as Steiner says, been involved for aeons in the evolution of human thinking.

There are several things to bear in mind in this connection. One is that a lecture cycle does not set out to give a whole history of the world or even a full account of a particular era. Another is that in speaking of the interweavings of the members of the hierarchies, Steiner had to put things in terms of pictures and relationships that we could visualize, and that we therefore have a tendency to reduce the deeds of these celestial beings to our own human scale. A third is that Steiner’s final illness and death took place at a time when he was in the full flight of his spiritual powers and we can be sure that his visions of the past, present and future would have been filled out with many further insights if he had lived his full span. So the precise nature of Michael’s relationship to the Exusiai and Archai to whom he referred in The Driving Force remains deeply mysterious. Steiner did tell us, however, that there are seven Archangels who guide and direct the fundamental tendencies of successive ages in relation to man and that each one occupies the leading position for a period of between three and four hundred years. Michael was involved in the evolution of human intelligence from the very beginning and at the crucial time when the earliest stirrings of Greek philosophy took place he became the leading Archangel. His reign began in the presocratic period, lasted through the age of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great and ended soon after the death of Alexander. His influence did not end at that point, but his relationship to the administration of the cosmic intelligence changed, and this, Steiner says, was connected with the incarnation of Christ on Earth. In Karmic Relationships we learn how this change appeared from above:

“Michael and his hosts witnessed not only the descent of Christ to the earth, but above all they saw how Michael himself was gradually losing his dominion over the Cosmic Intelligence. Quite distinctly they saw that revelations would no longer come to men from the spiritual world with the content of Intelligence. They saw that the time must come when man himself must reach his own intelligence on the earth. It was a significant and incisive event to see the Intelligence pouring down, as it were, to the earth. Soon the Intelligence was no longer to be found in the heavens; it was let down to earth.

“This was fulfilled especially in the first Christian centuries. In the earliest Christian centuries we still see those human beings who were capable of it, having at least a few glimpses of what was flowing to them with the content of Intelligence as revelations from beyond the earth. This went on even into the 8th or 9th century A.D. The great moment of decision came in such a way that Michael and those who belonged to him had to say: ‘Men upon earth are beginning to become intelligent themselves — beginning to bring forth their own power of understanding from within. The Cosmic Intelligence can no longer be administered by Michael.’ Michael felt that the dominion over the Cosmic Intelligence was passing from him while down below, this new age of Intelligence was beginning. People were beginning to form their own thoughts for themselves.”

 

In the Letters to Members, Steiner describes the situation from the earthly viewpoint and speaks about the awakening in human souls of the light of personal, individual intelligence, the feeling, “I construct my thoughts”. Hitherto people had experienced their thoughts as belonging to supersensible spirit-beings. “To that power, from whom proceed the Thoughts of things, they gave the name of Michael… Michael was the regent of the cosmic intelligence. From the time of the ninth century on, people ceased to have the impression that their thoughts were inspired by Michael. Thoughts had fallen from Michael’s dominion, and sunk from the spiritual world into the individual souls of men.” “Since this transference, man feels a freer association with the world of thoughts. This also gives the illusion that man himself produces his own thoughts.”

This period, from the ninth century on, in which the great Arabian philosophers flourished, led in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to the emergence of Scholasticism and, in the following century, to its leading light, St. Thomas Aquinas. My intention is to outline certain aspects of the exoteric history of this period insofar as they relate to the descent of the divine intelligence and show how the eventual decline of the Scholastic movement led to the philosophy of Francis Bacon, whom Steiner identifies as the key figure in the descent into modern technological materialism. In the following lecture I’ll go further into the inner nature of Bacon’s philosophy and come back to the grand esoteric picture that Steiner gives of the work of Michael and the great individualities who labored to keep open the paths to the spirit.

 

Scholasticism; Realists and Nominalists

 

The history of scholasticism is so messy that one authority[2] was moved to declare that “strictly speaking, there is no such thing as scholasticism”, by which he meant to assert that, contrary to the usual explanations, no clearly identifiable philosophy was taught in the universities of Europe in the late Middle Ages. One of the most helpful insights that we have from Rudolf Steiner is that scholasticism was not so much a system of philosophy as a response to a situation explainable only in terms of the evolution of consciousness that has been the theme of these lectures. The object of true scholasticism, as Steiner says, was to develop the art of thinking so that it would provide a foundation for the comprehension of reality.[3] This is not to say that such an attempt had never been made before – the effort had been going on, more or less consciously, for the better part of two millennia – but that in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance human beings were trying to establish a stable relationship to their newly emancipated thought processes. At this time the descent of the cosmic intelligence was nearing completion and men and women were equipped with a new set of capacities, the complexities of which we are still trying to unravel.

The particular issue most associated with scholasticism is one that had already exercised the minds of the Arabian philosophers – how to use the powers of reason to deepen the understanding of what is believed through faith, without annoying the orthodox theologians too much. Perhaps the most striking symptom of humanity’s loss of communion with the spiritual world was the need to provide proofs of the existence of God. In the eleventh century, St. Anselm, one of the forerunners of Scholasticism, based his proof on the human idea of a perfect being from whom nothing is lacking. Half a century later, Peter Abelard, who is unfortunately known mainly for his disastrous love affair with Héloïse, applied Aristotelian logic to questions of faith, and anticipated Aquinas in his discussions of universals. Before getting into our own discussion of this mediaeval hot topic, it’s worth mentioning that, like their Arabian predecessors and contemporaries, Anselm and Abelard were in continual trouble with both church and political authorities. This is particularly remarkable in Anselm’s case since he became a church authority himself – no less than Archbishop of Canterbury – but we must remember that issues that seem remote, abstract or irrelevant to us in the 21st century were matters of great moment during the period when the transitional state of consciousness made it extraordinarily important to establish an orthodoxy and keep the mass of untutored believers safe from philosophical subtleties. Present-day controversies about evolution and intelligent design are pale descendants of the bitter religious antagonisms that sent heretics to the stake only a few centuries ago.

The question of universals caused just as much trouble as the problems of the individuality and immortality that we discussed last time and as soon as we try to explain what a universal is we find that the word meant and still means different things to different people. It is probably easiest to approach the topic by way of the opposing views of realism and nominalism.

The customary explanation of the realist position in mediaeval philosophy is that the universal, or general concept of a class of objects, such as oak trees, lions or triangles, was believed to exist independently both of our thought processes and of the objects. The universal is, in other words, a real, actual entity outside our minds. There were, however, various stages in the perception of universals. At the realist end of the spectrum there was Plato’s theory, in which the universal is an archetype or idea existing in a spiritual dimension and functioning to generate individual manifestations on earth. At the nominalist end there is the view that universals have no existence outside the mind and that only individual objects have actual existence. Faced with a multitude of miscellaneous objects we find that some resemble one another sufficiently to be placed in a separate bundle. Carnivores with golden manes and tufted tails can be placed in the category of lions. If we are nominalists we believe that this category is something that we have invented and named, and that it has no existence outside the mind. If we are Platonic realists we believe that these creatures resemble one another because they are all generated from a universal archetype or form in the spiritual world, sometimes referred to as a Platonic Idea. The design, form, idea, thought or whatever we like to call it exists objectively in the spiritual world and is projected into the earthly object.

The origin of this philosophical schism goes back to something that we discussed in the first lecture of this series. When the Exousiai gave up their rulership of the cosmic intelligence to the Archai, one step closer to the human being, they maintained their stewardship of the whole world of sense impressions – colors, forms and sounds. Hitherto people had experienced the thoughts and the actions of the hierarchies as part of their perception of the world around them. Now thinking would come to be an inner experience, while sense perceptions would still be felt as something external. How do we understand the objects of perception, now that the thoughts that were once as intimately wedded to them as their colors and shapes seem to have passed into a philosophical limbo? In Steiner’s words:

            “This uncertainty runs through the teachings of the Scholastics… The Realists, with Thomas Aquinas and his circle at their head, still felt the old connection between Thought and Thing… they looked on Thoughts as actual realities, existing in the Things. The Thoughts of a man they viewed as something real, flowing from the Things into his soul. The Nominalists felt strongly that the soul makes her own thoughts… [that] thoughts were only the names men made for things….

“Even though thoughts had fallen from his domain and into that of men, [the Realists] yet wanted as thinkers to go on serving Michael as Prince of Intelligence in the cosmos. The Nominalists, in the unconscious parts of their souls, completed the falling away from Michael. They regarded not Michael, but man as the owner of the thoughts.”[4]

The problem of realism and nominalism is not merely an abstract question of the status of universals, but a vital issue of the reality and validity of thinking in relation to sense perception, faith and revelation. If we ask which of the scholastics believed in Platonic archetypes the answer is almost certainly none of them. Probably the closest is the view of St. Anselm, who regarded the purpose of any created being as whatever God made it for. Before the creation, the idea or form of the being existed as a universal in the mind of God, giving creatures the obligation to praise God by fulfilling His purpose as well as they possibly can. But between the lifetimes of Anselm and Aquinas a new wave of Aristotelian philosophy arrived in Western Europe. Aristotle did not speak of archetypes but still experienced the spiritual, formative thought as having its own independent existence in physical objects, so that what we think draws something real from the perceived world. For St. Thomas, Aristotle’s method, with this modified realism, gives us all that we can grasp of the human world, and sets the limit to which the soul life can advance through its own power. Beyond this limit is the knowledge that comes through the Bible and religious revelation, but the boundary is not absolute. Since both faith and reason come from God it is not possible that they should in any way contradict each other. It is therefore legitimate to use the methods of philosophy in the development of a theological system, as Aquinas did in producing the Summa Theologica, his powerful and influential synthesis of Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy. Theology depends on divine revelation for much of its substance, but the existence of God can be proved through natural reason. St. Thomas deploys the living power of human thought to penetrate the realities of nature and God. Although the thoughts have descended from the realm of Michael into the human soul and thence to brain and nervous system, their origin is heavenly and they still trail clouds of glory. Our thinking is individual but we owe it to God: it is what makes us human and links us with both God and nature. This is why we call ourselves homo sapiens or, in earlier times, animal rationalis – an animal with a rational soul. Followers of St. Thomas believe that thinking is where the divine spark enters us and that denial of the validity of thinking is incompatible with Christianity. I don’t suppose many people read G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown Stories these days, but there is one particular story that illustrates this point admirably. Father Brown is a Roman Catholic priest who spends more time solving murders and other crimes than he does writing sermons, and his great enemy is the master-criminal Flambeau. Flambeau is an expert at disguise and at one point he disguises himself so successfully as a Roman priest that Father Brown doesn’t recognize him, even though the two of them get into a long theological conversation on a train. Eventually, after the criminal is unmasked, someone asks Father Brown what made him realize that the fellow on the train was not a genuine priest, and the reply is, “Well, you know, in the course of our conversation he cast doubt on the validity of thinking. No priest could possibly do that.”


 

(iii)

 

Thomism in Decline

 

I mentioned that one of the foundations of Aquinas’s synthesis is the principle that although philosophy falls short of the highest regions of faith and revelation, natural reason can still be applied to theological matters, and this is one point at which the earliest attacks on his system began. The Scottish philosopher John Duns Scotus, also known as the “Subtle Doctor”, who lived from 1266 until 1308, emphasized the gap between theology and philosophy, placing more emphasis on faith and will and less on reason. He was, however, a realist in the same sense as Aquinas and relied extensively on Aristotle. His name, Duns, was transformed into the word “Dunce”, originally meaning “a maker of excessively subtle distinctions.” A much greater challenge to Thomist philosophy and theology took place in the early fourteenth century with an increasing tendency for philosophy to become analytical rather than synthetic – in other words to take apart rather than to build up – and to work against the realism of Aquinas. The key figure here is William of Ockham (1285-1347), known as “the more than subtle Doctor.” Ockham is most famous for his “razor”, which he used not to trim beards but to excise unnecessary concepts. As far as we are concerned, the most important victim of this process was the realist concept of the Universal as something outside the human mind or, at least, inherent in the objects of nature. Like many philosophers before him, Ockham considered himself the true interpreter of Aristotle. He accepted Aristotle’s theory of form, but he thought that it had been misused or misrepresented by some of his fellow scholastics, including Aquinas. He maintained that we can extract all the juice we need from our sense impressions by using our powers of observation and organization and that in supposing the independent existence of Universals we are needlessly multiplying entities, a practice already frowned upon by Aristotle. This is a reasonable position to take if it seems to us that people arrive at the Universals inductively and then take the extra step of supposing that they exist independently. It is a very different matter if we can perceive the formative thoughts directly or, at least, are convinced that we know someone who can. Just for a moment we can go forward five hundred years and see that this was what Goethe achieved with his meditative approach to nature, which enabled him to perceive the archetypal plant. Ockham left open the question of whether our purely mental universals actually correspond to anything in nature, but the reality of the fourteenth century was that philosophers no longer pursued the idea of locating thought or spirit in natural being. People regarded this essentially nominalistic view as the “new philosophy”, in contrast to the old realist philosophy of the thirteenth century, which included the work of both Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Aquinas was a respected figure but he was not given the prominence accorded to him in modern times by the Roman church, which, in the person of Pope Leo XIII, gave Thomism the status of official philosophy in the very same year as the beginning of Michael’s current stint as ruling Archangel.

            We can see that these developments placed human beings in a very vulnerable position. As long as we experienced the link between the good spiritual powers of the universe and what was going on in our minds, we had some protection. Plenty of bad things happened but God or some beneficent divine being was still present in our thoughts, not as an object of our thinking but as an essential part of thinking. But as soon as we felt that we were the people in charge, the situation was different. We can imagine Ahriman, the spirit of materialism, rubbing his hands together and saying, “Aha, this is our great opportunity. God and the angels have left them to their own devices, so now we can get our hands on their nasty little thought processes and use them to our own advantage.” In next month’s lecture we shall see that, under the aegis of Michael, great events have taken place in the spiritual world and we have not been left to fight Ahriman and his cohorts all by ourselves; but for now we’ll pursue Scholasticism to its bitter end and see how Francis Bacon responded to what it left in its wake.

            By the late fifteenth century the Scholastics’ efforts to bring Aristotle and Christianity, faith and reason, into a single, consistent world experience had fallen into decadence and gradually petered out. To put it rather crudely, the lapse into nominalism had deprived their thinking of substance and, with nothing real to think about, their thought processes turned in upon themselves and produced the “cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit”[5] that Bacon complained about at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Bacon lived from 1561 until 1626 and although the surge towards independence, individuality and originality that typifies the Renaissance was well under way, the mediaeval dependence on authority was still very much in evidence – too much so for Bacon’s liking. Rudolf Steiner’s perceptions of Bacon’s karma and scientific proposals make him a pivotal figure in this story and I shall spend some time introducing him to you this evening so that we’ll be ready next time for a discussion of his work, its relation to the problems of realism and nominalism, and its subsequent influence in Western society.

 

(iv)

 

Francis Bacon – The Historical context

 

            I mentioned earlier that Rudolf Steiner identified Francis Bacon as the reincarnation of the individuality who had previously appeared on earth as Harun al Rashid. As such he became the conduit through which unhealthy tendencies from Arabian thinking entered Western civilization, the arch-exponent of nominalism, and the progenitor of modern technological materialism. Steiner speaks only of Bacon’s scientific philosophy and doesn’t mention another side of the Lord Chancellor’s life that was equally important to him, namely his religious aspirations. For that reason and also because most people know nothing about Bacon, except for one catch phrase that he didn’t actually say, I’ll do my best in a very short time to give a more rounded picture of the man, starting  with a brief sketch of the society into which he was born.

In much of Europe the sixteenth century was a period of religious and political turmoil, and nowhere was the situation more chaotic than in England. Henry VIII (1492-1553), his desperate desire to provide a male heir, his divorce, his six wives, “Bloody” Mary, “Good Queen Bess”, “Merrie England”, and the image of Anne Boleyn haunting the Bloody Tower became part of English folklore, but the frightful tale of religious intolerance, political intrigue, plots, rebellions and executions is largely unknown.

In 1509, when Henry took the throne, the Roman Catholic Church in England, besides being spiritually decadent, was exceedingly wealthy and powerful and was responsible for a large annual contribution to the Church in Rome. As a young man Henry was a devout Catholic and wrote a Defence of the Seven Sacraments in opposition to Martin Luther’s refusal to acknowledge any sacraments other than baptism and the Eucharist. Luther’s ideas had, however, gained a foothold in England and became part of the mixture of impulses that led Henry to strong-arm the Church of England into existence. These included the desire to reduce the power of the church and acquire some of its wealth, but probably the main impetus came from the king’s wish for a male heir, something that his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to provide. In the mid-1520’s this unfulfilled desire, coupled with the attractions of Anne Boleyn, led to his unsuccessful application to Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his first marriage. Having thus been thwarted, Henry summoned Parliament in 1529 to deal with the matter, only to find himself thwarted again when the English church authorities concluded that Parliament could not empower their archbishop to defy the Pope.

            By 1534 Henry had bullied Parliament and the clergy into submission. The Act of Supremacy proclaimed that Henry was the “Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England” and the Treasons Act made denial of the Royal Supremacy an offence punishable by death.

            Having secured the cooperation of Thomas Cranmer, his new Archbishop, Henry married Anne in Westminster Abbey (after a honeymoon in France) and Anne produced the future Queen Elizabeth I three months after the wedding. The Pope’s response was to excommunicate the King and the Archbishop.

            If all of these goings-on seem to be of a sordidly worldly nature we must not forget that there were also currents of deeply religious feeling that affected the course of events, even in the heart of Henry himself. His religious impulses, however, were always at the mercy of political expediency. In the 1530’s he seemed to lean towards Lutheran ideas, but English village life was strongly coupled to the church calendar and its seasons and festivals, so that when Henry’s reforms reached the stage of abolishing Feast Days and discouraging pilgrimages there was tremendous resentment. Efforts to consolidate England’s independence from Rome, increase the King’s wealth and further break the power of the church included the dissolution of the monasteries, abbeys and priories. These actions, often accompanied by senseless iconoclasm and wanton destruction, led to uprisings in many parts of the country, fueled both by strong religious feeling on the part of many Roman Catholics and by economic hardships among those who depended on these institutions for their livelihood. When Henry saw what was going on he issued a proclamation forbidding free discussion of religious matters and reaffirming many Roman Catholic beliefs and practices, including the Transubstantiation and priestly celibacy, and restricting the reading of the Bible to men and women of noble birth. “The Word of God” Henry remarked, “is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same.”

            Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, provided the long desired male heir, who was to become King Edward VI in 1547 at the age of nine, but political and religious intrigue ensured that the attack on so-called “popish” practices would become much more virulent; all images, stained glass windows, shrines, roods, vestments, bells and plate were to be destroyed or sold. Priestly celibacy was no longer required, chantries were abolished and masses for the dead were prohibited. By 1550 Cranmer had produced the English Book of Common Prayer and wooden tables had replaced the customary stone altars. The idea that a priest is someone divinely ordained to speak to God on behalf of the congregation received a further blow in the shape of an ordinal providing for Protestant pastors. There was tumultuous opposition to these changes and when the fifteen-year-old King Edward died in 1553 the unpopularity of the protestant movement enabled Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor, to take the throne and the Catholics celebrated by bringing out their concealed plate, images and vestments and digging up their stone altars.

            Mary did her best to repair the schism with Rome but this took a long time as the Pope insisted on settling property disputes first. Cranmer was dismissed as Archbishop of Canterbury and although there were efforts at reconciliation, the bipartisan impulse with which the new regime had begun was replaced by a harsh insistence on conformity. Mediaeval heresy laws were used in the persecution of Protestants, 283 of whom were burnt at the stake. This number included Thomas Cranmer, who, after recanting his protestant beliefs, changed his mind at the end and thrust his right hand, with which he had signed the recantation, first into the fire. When we remember “Bloody” Mary and the 283 protestant martyrs we are apt to forget that the casualties of her father’s reign far exceeded that number, and that under her successor, “Good Queen Bess”, “Merrie England” was still the scene of religious chaos and persecution.

            Anxious to provide an heir, Mary married Phillip II of Spain but the only offspring of this union was a great deal of trouble for Mary’s successor, in the shape of the Spanish Armada. Mary’s apparent pregnancy turned out to be the onset of stomach cancer, of which she died in 1558.

            The reign of the protestant Elizabeth I, like that of her half-sister Mary, began in a somewhat relaxed mood but, with the beginning of the Puritan movement, it soon hardened into the pursuit of strict conformity. Destruction of everything deemed “idolatrous” proceeded again at full speed and in 1559 Parliament made Elizabeth “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. In the same year the Act of Uniformity made Sunday attendance at an Anglican church compulsory. The Puritans were unsuccessful in their desire to abolish the Prayer Book and change the way in which the church was governed but they did not altogether lose their influence and emerged with greater virulence in the following century. Meanwhile many Roman Catholics went underground again, taking their vestments and precious objects of veneration with them, secretly celebrating the Mass and hoping for the wind of change to blow again. It was into this atmosphere of spiritual turmoil that Francis Bacon was born in 1561.

Rudolf Steiner remarked that in Bacon there was a process of the “morbid elimination of old spirituality.” It seems clear that this morbid elimination was taking place throughout England in the sixteenth century, and had already shown itself in Europe as a whole in the tangled relationships of church and state. The evolutionary processes through which people were losing perception of the spirit in nature were accompanied by a changing relationship to organized worship. Whatever remained of ancient wisdom in the practices of the church was being dissipated from within by negligent, self-serving clergy and attacked from without by those who no longer perceived the function of art and ritual in connecting priest and congregation with the divine world. People who still found strength and solace in the old forms of worship and those who were attracted to the newer anti-Catholic practices were forced equally into Elizabeth’s rigid system. Bacon, growing up close to the Queen’s court and in the Queen’s favor, had no option about toeing the line and helping her with his legal expertise to make sure that no one crossed it; but, being a person of independent mind, he not only published his own views on the nature of Christianity and the responsibilities of the Christian but also took the risk of counseling a greater degree of moderation than Her Majesty favored.

 

(v)

 

Francis Bacon – Life

 

Bacon’s parents were wealthy, well educated and well-connected. His mother’s puritan leanings and the emphasis on work, public service and political and religious life that Bacon experienced in his home must have had a great deal to do with his later development.

In 1573, when the twelve-year-old Francis entered Trinity College, Cambridge, the complete extant works of Plato had been translated for the first time and Aristotle was available in fuller, more accurate form. Like many of his contemporaries, Bacon did not accept the ancients uncritically, and according to Bacon’s secretary and first biographer, Dr. William Rawley, “he fell into the dislike of the philosophy of Aristotle; not for the worthlessness of the author, to whom he would ever ascribe all high attributes, but for the unfruitfulness of the way.”

Bacon was sent to Paris as an assistant to the ambassador to France and he was still there in 1579 when his father died. As the second son of a second marriage he was left with practically no resources, so he returned to England and took his law degree in 1582. Twenty years old and enjoying the Queen’s favor, he was already a Member of Parliament and he remained so for thirty-six years. His legal career flourished and he seemed to be heading for high office, but in 1593 his outspoken opposition to a new tax levy landed him in Queen Elizabeth’s doghouse. By 1596 she had relented sufficiently to make him her Extraordinary Counsel and in this capacity he had to play a major part in the prosecution of the Earl of Essex, whose long-drawn-out fall from grace ended in execution after a botched coup attempt.

            After James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, a knighthood and a sequence of increasingly important political appointments led, in 1618, to Bacon’s being made Lord Chancellor. In 1621, at the time of his greatest success and influence, he was arrested and charged with bribery. After pleading guilty he was fined heavily and sent to prison in the Tower of London. The fine was later waived and he spent only four days in the Tower, but he was never again allowed to hold any political office. In mitigation it must be said that in accepting gifts from two petitioners Bacon was merely following the common practice of the day and that, in any case, he had found against the two suppliants. Yet he accepted the blame and disgrace without making any excuse and admitted that he ought to have known and done better.

            Bacon had always been a prolific writer on matters of state, law, history, religion, philosophy, science and the general conduct of life. In a well-known letter of 1592 he expressed his wish to reform the current state of learning, purging it of “frivolous disputations… blind experiments and [oral] traditions”, and “bringing in industrious observations, grounded conclusions and profitable inventions and discoveries…”

            These remarks foreshadow Bacon’s long struggle to rescue philosophy and science[6] from the decadence into which they had fallen since the heyday of the scholastics. One of the fruits of his labors in this direction was The Advancement of Learning, published 1605, in which he powerfully defended the importance of learning in all aspects of life, pointing out deficiencies in the current state of knowledge and making suggestions for its improvement. From 1621 onwards his enforced retirement meant that he was able to devote all his time to working on the project that had occupied him for many years – the renewal of learning and the design of a community whose object would be the discovery and use of scientific knowledge to improve the human condition.

Bacon’s scientific curiosity led to his death in 1626. Being interested in the preservative properties of ice he stopped his carriage on a snowy day in order to buy a chicken from an old woman, thereby catching a cold from which pneumonia developed. 

In spite of his immense struggles and his great capacity for hard work, his scientific project remained unfinished. That he regretted having devoted so much time and energy to political and legal causes when he might have been giving himself to contemplation and philosophy is implicit in a prayer that he wrote near the end of his life, not for publication but for his own use.

 

“And now, when I thought most of peace and honour, Thine hand is heavy upon me, and hath humbled me according to Thy former loving kindness; keeping me still in Thy school, not as an alien, but as a child. Just are Thy judgments upon me for my sins, which are more in number than the sands of the sea, but have no proportion to Thy mercies; or what are the sands of the sea? Earth, heavens, and all these, are nothing to Thy mercies! I confess before Thee, that I am debtor to Thee, for the precious talent of Thy gifts and graces, which I have neither put into a napkin, not put out as I ought, to exchangers, where it might have made best profit; but misspent it in things for which I was least fit; so I may truly say, my soul hath been a stranger in the house of her pilgrimage. Be merciful unto me, O Lord, for my Saviour's sake; and receive me into Thy bosom, or guide me in Thy way.”

 

Some people have made the facile and very convenient assumption that Bacon’s Christianity was bogus. This is something that unprejudiced observation will not allow us to do. His scientific work, too, was sincerely meant for the good of humanity but, as we shall see next time, it was misguided, ineffective and served only to provide an opening for the daemonic powers of materialism. Here is his view of what he was trying to achieve:

“Lastly, I would like to address one general admonition to all – that they reflect on the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it neither for intellectual satisfaction, nor for contention, nor for superiority to others, nor for profit, fame or power, or any of these baser things; but that they direct and bring it to perfection in charity, for the benefit and use of life. For the angels fell through desire for power; men through desire for knowledge. But of love and charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever run into danger thereby.”

It is a matter for wonder that someone who could pray to the Almighty as Bacon did and entertain such high ideals for the betterment of humanity should unconsciously play the part of facilitator in the growth of our atheist, materialist, technological society. Next time we’ll try to understand how this happened.

 



[1]The Archangel Michael, a marvelous collection of Steiner’s writings and lectures selected and edited by Christopher Bamford (Anthroposophic Press, 1994), includes the cycle The Mission of the Archangel Michael (Dornach, 1919) and several talks and letters given in his final years. Karmic Relationships and Letters to Members (The Michael Letters) give Steiner’s most mature insights.

[2] Calvin G. Normore, in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.

[3]Steiner: Philosophy and Anthroposophy, Mercury Press, Spring Valley, NY, 1988.

[4]Steiner: Letters to Members

[5] The Advancement of Learning, Oxford Authors, O. U. P., 1996, p.140.

[6] I am using these words in their modern senses. The use of the word “philosophy” to include what we now think of as science died out very gradually and was still occasionally to be encountered in the mid-twentieth century.

Continued in the next issue of SCR.


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