Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Week 4. Bacon on the Good and the Culture of the Mind

(This post is by James Lancaster (Warburg Institute). Page numbers refer to a section of The Advancement of Learning in Francis Bacon, The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford, 2002), pp. 245-65.)

The Division of Moral Philosophy [p. 245]
Bacon begins his discussion of moral philosophy in The Advancement of Learning (1605) by dividing it into two parts: the ‘Exemplar’ or ‘Platform of Good’ (which addresses the nature of the good); and the ‘Regiment’ or ‘Culture of the Mind’ (which prescribes rules for how to ‘subdue, apply, and accommodate’ the will of man to the good). The goal of moral philosophy is, accordingly, ‘to instruct and suborn action and the active life’ through a ‘Georgics of the mind, concerning the husbandry and tillage thereof.’ The Georgics is a poem by Virgil, whose title derives from the Greek word ‘to farm’. Bacon’s expression, however, appears to be original to him.

1. The Nature or Platform of the Good [pp. 245-246]
Knowledge concerning the Platform or Nature of the Good is further subdivided into two parts: ‘Simple’, which refers to the kinds of good; and ‘Compared’, which refers to the various degrees of good. Bacon criticizes the ancient philosophers for having been led to ‘infinite disputations’ about the nature of the highest good. It was not until Christianity freed men from the ‘philosopher’s heaven’—a kind of unwarranted belief in the natural capacity of man to achieve happiness—that such ‘heathen divinity’ could be put to an end. Faith teaches us that the highest good consists in hope for ‘the future world’, followed (presumably) by actual beatitude. All the same, had the ancients ‘consulted with nature,’ Bacon believes they would have given ‘a great light to that which followed.’ For, the ‘roots of good and evil, and the strings [i.e., smaller roots] of those roots’ were discoverable even to those who lived before the coming of Christ.

1.1 The Double Nature of the Good [p. 246]
Bacon explains that there ‘is formed in every thing a double nature of good’: first, ‘as every thing is a total or substantive [i.e., possesses an independent existence] in itself’; and second, ‘as it is a part or member of a greater body.’ It is the latter which is the ‘greater and the worthier, because it tendeth to the conservation of a more general form.’ Bacon’s example here is not metaphorical: the affection of iron for the loadstone (particular good) or the world (greater good) is grounded in what he elsewhere calls the ‘summary law of nature’; the appetites (appetitus) impressed upon matter at Creation. The appetite of all natural objects to unite with other natural objects—foremost for the sake of self-preservation, but more crucially for the conservation of the whole—forms the natural foundation of the good. These same appetites for the good are, moreover, even ‘more engraven upon man, if he degenerate not; unto whom the conservation of duty to the public [greater good] ought to be much more precious than the conservation of life and being [self-preservation].’ And, of course, there is nothing which ‘so plainly and highly exalt[s] the good which is communicative, and depress[es] the good which is private and particular, as the Holy Faith.’

1.2 The Contemplative versus the Active [pp. 246-247]
The private, lesser good and the communal, greater good are further distinguished by means of the ancient distinction between the contemplative and the active life. The active life, for Bacon, is clearly superior, as it contributes to the greater good. Defending what quite deceptively appears to be the contemplative lifestyle of monks, he argues that that ‘contemplation which … [is] finished [i.e., self-contained] in itself without casting beams [i.e., communicating with] upon society, assuredly divinity knoweth it not’ (Bacon is likely drawing upon Cicero, De officiis I. xliv, 158 here).

1.3 Censuring the Ancients [pp. 247-248]
Resuming his earlier criticism, Bacon singles-out a number of ancient beliefs about happiness which were wrongly-held on account of the fact that proper cognizance of the communal nature of the highest good, as taught by nature and affirmed in Christian teaching, was not taken. The opinions of the Stoics Zeno and Herillus are briefly discussed. Bacon seems to prefer the belief of Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262), the founder of Stoicism, that the greatest good (happiness) consists in the exercise of virtue in society, over the belief of the Epicureans, that happiness consists in pleasure. Next—and being the place in which Bacon appears to come closest to an outright rejection of ancient Stoicism—he argues against the opinion of Herillus of Chalcedon (c. 3rd century), who ‘placed felicity in [the] extinguishment of the disputes of the mind, making no fixed nature of good and evil, [and] esteeming things according to the clearness of the desires, or the reluctation.’ Interestingly, he views this as the same opinion that led to the heresy of the Anabaptists in sixteenth-century Germany.

1.4 The Active and the Passive, Private Good [pp. 248-250]
In the following section, Bacon discusses the nature of the ‘Private or Particular Good’—that is, the good of self-preservation—by dividing it into two types: the active, private good and the passive, private good. Locating the platform of the good again within nature, he argues that this division between the active and passive, private good ‘is formed also in all things; and is best disclosed in the two several appetites in creatures, the one to preserve or continue themselves, and the other to dilate or multiply themselves; whereof the latter seemeth to be the worthier.’ Bacon identifies the passive, private good with the Stoic notion of oikeiôsis (οἰκείωσις); that is, with the perceptive capacity of natural beings which enables their self-preservation. The active, private good, however, is the worthier, because it is grounded in the desire of all natural beings not only to self-preserve, but to self-preserve through multiplication. There is ‘impressed upon all things a triple desire or appetite proceeding from love to themselves,’ of which, he contends, the desire for ‘multiplying and extending [one’s] form upon other things’ is the greatest. Once a man realizes that he is mortal and subject to fortune, he will not only conserve himself (e.g., eat, sleep, and avoid danger), but will attempt to gain some form of immortality (e.g., beget children, cultivate fame and honour). For, ‘to preserve in state is the less, to preserve with advancement is the greater.’ Nevertheless, although sometimes conducive to it, one should never assume that the active, private good has any strict ‘identity with the good of society’ (i.e., the greater good).

1.5 Cultivating the Passive, Private Good [pp. 250-251]
Bacon’s identification of oikeiôsis with the passive, private good has already been noted above, however it should also be said that in all likelihood he adopted this concept from the Italian natural philosopher Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588) rather than any Stoic source per se. It is in this passage that Bacon’s criticism of the Neostoic ideals of Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) can be found. Bacon poses the question of whether it is better to contrive that which brings comfort to our current state of being through cultivating a pure ‘equality’ or constancy of mind (which, he says, has less ‘mixture of evil’); or through making alterations in our life (which, he notes, has more ‘power for good’). Drawing upon Plato’s dialogue the Gorgias, he argues that, on the one side, the happiness of he who cultivates a constant mind is like the happiness of ‘a block or stone’; but the happiness of he who is continually altering his life is, on the other, like the happiness of one who does ‘nothing but itch and scratch.’ Bacon argues that neither is superior to the other; that the cultivation of a constant mind is just an attempt to conserve what good is already present, while continual change can never rightly achieve its end. He claims that those ancient philosophers who attempted to make the mind ‘uniform and harmonious’ were hypocrites because, while they were trying to discipline other men’s minds, ‘they themselves were men dedicated to a private, free, and unapplied course of life.’ He argues, therefore, that men should ‘imitate the wisdom of jewellers; who, if there be a grain or a cloud or an ice which may be ground forth without taking too much of the stone, they help it; but if it should lessen and abate the stone too much, they will not meddle with it: so ought men to procure serenity as they destroy not magnanimity.’ In other words, he is using this metaphor to say that the conservation of a constancy of mind is a good thing so long as it does not detract from the active life; from ‘magnanimity’ [i.e., generosity or a charitable state of mind].

1.6 Duty and Vocation [pp. 252-254]
Last but not least, Bacon locates his view of what the active, passive good entails on a pragmatic level within the Protestant notion of vocation. He writes that duty—‘the regiment and government of every man over himself, and not over others’—is the principal aim of cultivating the active, passive good. Following Luther and Calvin, he argues that it is each man’s responsibility to engage in that particular vocation in which he is able to attain personal betterment and, through this means, contribute to the betterment of the commonwealth.

2. The Culture of the Mind [pp. 255-256]
The second aspect of moral philosophy concerns the cultivation or ‘husbandry’ of the mind towards the good, without which the good would be merely ‘a fair image or statue.’ This notion of the culture of the mind originates in the celebrated dictum of Cicero, ‘cultura… animi philosophia est’ (Tusculanae disputationes, II, 5:13-4). And, as such, it is based upon a broadly Stoic conception of moral philosophy as consisting in a process of liberating the mind from false opinions and disruptive passions. However, there are a number of features to Bacon’s cultura animi that distinguish it sharply from the original, Stoic conception. The first point of difference to note is that the justification which underscores the need for a culture of the mind whatsoever is, according to Bacon, the theological doctrine of the Fall. In this Augustinian view, the mind is perceived as having been damaged as a result of original sin, thereby necessitating a medicine to subdue the unruly passions. In these passages of the 1605 Advancement, Bacon contends that ‘the cure of men’s minds belongeth to sacred Divinity,’ a view which adheres to the traditional, medieval view of philosophy as ‘a wise servant and humble handmaid’ to theology. The religious justification for the culture of the mind, moreover, is strongly mediated through the Protestant conception of charity (caritas). However, with the publication of the Novum organum in 1622, Bacon excerpts the culture of the mind from its traditional role as a servant to theology, and cements it within the foundational stage of the new philosophy. Nearly twenty years later, the culture of the mind—the clearing of perturbations and presuppositions (‘Idols’)—becomes the principal duty of the natural philosopher. It might be noted, however, that he is already referring to the medicine of the mind as a means ‘to awake the sense [i.e., revive man’s power of sensation]’ in The Advancement.

2.1 The First Article: Distribution of the Characters and Tempers of Man [pp. 256-258]
Bacon claims that his culture of the mind is to be a scientia; that is, a procedure based upon empirically verifiable knowledge. The first challenge, or ‘article’, of the culture of the mind is to create a record of the ‘true distributions and descriptions of the several characters and tempers of men’s natures and dispositions.’ Since, ‘in the culture and cure of the mind of man,’ there are ‘two things … without our command; points of nature, and points of fortune,’ it is expedient to discover what can and what cannot be altered. Such knowledge includes men’s various tempers, whether they be ‘sensitive’ and ‘dry’ or ‘humorous’ and ‘impulsive’, as well as the effect of those external forces (i.e., of nature and our body) upon the mind, such as climate and gender. The best place to discover all these varieties of the human mind, argues Bacon, is in ‘history, poesy, and daily experience,’ which are ‘as goodly fields where these observations grow.’ Bacon seems closest to Montaigne in passages like these: his insistence that men possess varying tempers which, in order to accommodate the medicine of the mind thereunto, must first be recorded, are certainly reminiscent of Montaigne’s humanist, rather than philosophical, disposition.

2.2 The Second Article: The Passions [pp. 258-260]
The second article concerning the culture of the mind is the ‘the inquiry touching the affections [i.e. passions].’ For, just ‘as in medicining of the body’ it is crucial to know ‘the divers complexions and constitutions, secondly the diseases, and lastly the cures,’ so too ‘in medicining the mind,’ after we possess a knowledge of ‘the divers characters of men’s natures,’ we must ‘know the diseases and infirmities of the mind, which are no other than the perturbations and distempers of the affections [i.e. the emotional disturbances or agitations of the passions].’ Bacon praises the Stoics in this passage, writing that ‘better travails [i.e., pains] I suppose [have] the Stoics taken in this argument, as far as I can gather by that which we have at second hand.’ The obvious point to note is Bacon’s admission to not having had access to Stoic texts (whether or not he had read the editions of Lipsius, even by 1605, seems to be called into question here). The second point to note is his overall praise for Stoic treatises on the passions (Vickers’ notes that Bacon is probably referring to the writings of Plutarch and Seneca on anger and consolation). Finally, Bacon’s indebtedness to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) surfaces here. He suggests that, just as in the maintenance of the state, part of the medicine of the mind involves a knowledge of how ‘to set affection against affection, and to master one by another.’

2.3 The Third Article: Custom and Habit [p. 260]
The third article discusses those aspects of the culture of the mind ‘which are within our own command, and have force and operation upon the mind to affect the will and appetite and to alter manners’, including: ‘custom, exercise, habit, education, example, imitation, emulation, company, friends, praise, reproof, exhortation, fame, laws, books, [and] studies.’ Bacon is particularly critical of Aristotle in this respect for having held the opinion that ‘of those things which consist [i.e., remain settled] by nature nothing can be changed by custom; using for example, that if a stone be thrown ten thousand times up, it will not learn to ascend’ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, ii. 1, 1103a19 ff.). Bacon admits that even though ‘in things wherein nature is peremptory [i.e. positively fixed]’ Aristotle is correct, ‘yet it is otherwise in things wherein nature admitteth a latitude.’ Here he provides examples of the flexibility of nature, including: ‘that a strait glove will come more easily on with use’ and ‘that a wand [i.e., a stick] will by use bend otherwise than it grew.’ And man, of course, is the most flexible part of nature.

2.4 The Fourth Article: Precepts and Exercises of the Mind [pp. 260-262]
The fourth article outlines the nature of those practical ‘Precepts or Exercises’ which Bacon believes are necessary to bend the mind towards the good. Although the mind might have a natural inclination or instinct to the greater good—Bacon frequently refers to the Stoic notion of ‘sparks’ (igniculi) or ‘seeds’ (semina) of natural reason in this respect—the effect of the Fall is such that the mind requires ‘helps’ or ‘aids’. In his later writings, Bacon suggests that it is his Novum organum, or ‘new instrument’, that will function as a ‘compass’ to straighten the mind. However, in the Advancement he prescribes four exercises as examples of the practical method to be employed for the cultivation of the mind. In the end, however, he cautions men not to take such exercises (‘doctrines of morality’) too strictly, for sometimes they ‘make men too precise [i.e., strict in observing rules], arrogant, and incompatible [i.e., unsociable].’ Bacon likely has Calvinist treatises of conscience in mind here and, in particular, their popularity amongst Puritans, of whose extreme self-righteousness he disapproved.

2.5 The Fifth Article: Cultivating Charity [pp. 262-265]
The fifth and final article, which concerns the cultivation of charity, brings the text full circle to the nature of the highest good. Bacon claims that this last part is ‘sacred and religious.’ For, it involves ‘the electing and propounding unto a man’s self good and virtuous ends of his life, such as may be in a reasonable sort within his compass to attain.’ In other words, while the end goal of a man’s life is the most critical aspect of the culture of the mind, it must be something that is within his individual capacity to attain. Employing an analogy from nature, Bacon argues that, like nature when she ‘makes a flower … she formeth rudiments of all the parts at one time,’ if a man sets himself the correct, virtuous end, then he will cultivate all good habits simultaneously. But far from suggesting that there are multiple ends suitable to each individual life, what he is actually saying is that there is one end suitable to all; and that this is ‘charity’. We must cultivate that natural spark of charity which God implanted in our souls, for only ‘it comprehendeth and fasteneth all virtues together.’ Bacon thus identifies charity as the greater good or good of the whole. Nonetheless, it is possible to see that the potential ways in which charity can manifest itself through the active life are vast. It is this cultivation of the active, charitable disposition that ultimately gives our earthly life definitive meaning.