Bacon versus Locke: Positioning the Individual in the Quest for Truth and Progress

Sir Francis Bacon and John Locke both wrote incredible essays that covered a variety of topics pertaining to the individual and the betterment of society. Both focused a great deal on the pursuit of truth and the very nature of knowledge, as an avenue to an ideal, for both the individual and their society. Bacon’s life spans the years from 1561 to 1626 and Locke’s from 1632 to 1704, making Bacon the predecessor of Locke and likely a source of inspiration to him, at least to some degree. Both men covered very similar subjects and held a lot of the same ideas. But I’m not here to argue that Locke’s essays are simply an evolution, an expansion, of Bacon’s ideas. Locke isn’t Bacon 2.0. Locke and Bacon each take a distinctly different approach in their works, particularly where they position the individual in the quest for truth and the best possible society. Bacon and Locke each wrote about the concept of individualism, specifically how individuals ought to interact with society. They explore this concept by considering the quest for truth, observation of the natural world and the progression of scientific knowledge, the role of language as symbolism and its potential to shape or even distort truth, and subjectivity as a hindrance to enlightenment. While the topics covered in their respective essays are quite similar, Bacon and Locke differ distinctly in how they position the individual within the framework of their rhetoric. Bacon positions the individual as a small part of a greater whole, society itself takes center stage, great emphasis is placed on the duties of the individual to better society, and Bacon’s detached third-person style of writing emphasizes his focus on group cohesion and the uplifting of society as a whole; by contrast, in Locke’s work society remains in the background, the stage for the individual to play out his life on, and Locke’s use of emotive, direct, and first-person writing emphasizes his placement of the individual as the center of all other philosophical ideas.

To start with the work of Bacon, a recurring theme that stands out in his work is the duty of the individual. Bacon uses his essays to persuade the individual to make the best choices for the betterment of society. He argues for altruism, even in the most intimate and personal of decisions, like the decision to marry or have children. It should be noted that the individual Bacon speaks to is indisputably male. There’s nothing wrong with this. Writers are free to direct their speech to a specific target audience. But it is interesting that Bacon is focused on the duties of the individual to better society, yet doesn’t address women directly. There are hints here and there of what he believes the best course of action to be for women, but his primary audience is always men. There is the hint of a misogynistic notion here, that women are not capable of honor or integrity, and therefore shouldn’t be held to the same standards are men. Not only does Bacon not trouble himself with teaching women how to be citizens of integrity and altruism, but he uses them as a tool to reinforce and shape the behavior of men.

In his essay “Of Marriage and Single Life,” Bacon starts out right away, in the very first line, positioning women and children as tools to shape the behavior of men. “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men, which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public (“Of Marriage and Single Life”). Here, Bacon is saying that women keep men out of trouble. They also hold men back, as according to Bacon, the most accomplished men are single. Women are positioned as both a burden and a safeguard, lumped in with children as the best course of altruism for the average man to take.

Moving on from the problematic (if not unexpected for the time period) positioning of women, it’s the positioning of the individual in relation to society that truly stands out about this essay, and in fact, all of Bacon’s essays. Bacon spends the bulk of the essay arguing that men should marry because married men are good for society. He throws a few lines in here and there, telling men why it might be nice for them to be married. “Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses (“Of Marriage and Single Life”). Bacon appeals to the individual here by pointing out that marriage comes with the benefits of sex, emotional intimacy, and compassionate care when they are ill. Yet the bulk of the essay makes no attempt to appeal to men by explaining how marriage will benefit them. Bacon argues that men with families are better citizens, because they care more about the future of civilization and the world they’re leaving for the next generation to inherit. Whereas, when it comes to unmarried men, “their thoughts do end with themselves, and account future times impertinences (“Of Marriage and Single Life”). Continuing this theme of altruism, Bacon posits that married men are better for society in a myriad of ways. They are better friends, better bosses, better workers, and all-around more amicable, loving and patient men. “Certainly wife and children are a kind of discipline of humanity (“Of Marriage and Single Life”). This essay, and truly the bulk of Bacon’s work, makes a detailed argument in favor of a specific behavior that will lead to the most pragmatic form of altruism, but it does this based on the assumption that his audience believes in altruism, believes in a cooperative society where the individual cares for their own happiness and not for the greater good of the world.

Obviously Bacon knows that these hyper-individualists exist, for he references them when talking about the unmarried men who have “certain self-pleasing and humorous minds (“Of Marriage”). But as far as his audience, he doesn’t argue for altruism; he only explains the best way to inspire altruism and good citizenship in men, working on the assumption that his audience already sees the value in altruism, and like him, considers the individual as a tool to shape society, one that must be endowed with certain duties and responsibilities. One of these duties is to care about the future of society and shape one’s behavior accordingly, and one of these responsibilities is to marry and have children, so that one is motivated to fulfill their altruistic duties.

Bacon’s writing style keeps the essay focused on the collective, with the individual situated as duty-bound to the collective. He doesn’t use first-person, and he doesn’t refer to specific men, but rather men in the abstract. He refers to everyone and no one all at once, and this rhetorical device keeps the emphasis on society. In “Of Superstition,” Bacon explains why religion is important for the overall good of society, telling readers that it’s better for a man to have no opinion of God than to hold unsavory superstitions. He doesn’t make his argument based on the individual’s happiness and well-being, but on the well-being of society as a whole. He does the same in his short colonialist essay “Of Plantations,” where he argues in favor of imperialist practices. This is one of the few essays where he dips into first person briefly, with the lines, “For I may justly account new plantations to be the children of former kingdoms. I like a plantation in a pure soil; that is, where people are not displanted to the end to plant others (“Of Plantations.”) One reason why Bacon may have chosen to shift from a detached narrative style to speaking directly to the reader in first person is because this is a subject he cares deeply about. There are certainly some ethical issues with imperialism that we are aware of in the modern day, but according to Bacon’s essay, he viewed it as yet another act of altruism, and this essay has a good deal in common thematically with his aforementioned essay “Of Marriage and Single Life.” In both works, he is advocating for a specific action (and in “Of Plantations” he actually gets very detailed with his instructions, down to what crops should be planted and how the government should be structured) with the ultimate goal of making the world better for future generations. In “Of Marriage” he argues that men should get married so that they care about the future of society and in “Of Plantations” he draws correlations between parenthood and colonies, using the metaphor that colonies are “the children of former kingdoms.” He positions colonies as something positive, like new life, and crafts an image of colonies as a forward-thinking progression of advanced society. Today we know that colonies are not a positive for either the individual or the society (at least not the invaded society of subalterns), but even with a flawed outlook colored by the time period in which Bacon lived, this essay is still a good example of Bacon’s propensity for positioning the individual, not as a means onto himself, but as a means to end, that end being the progression and safeguarding of society.

This is not the case for Locke. Taking a look at one of Locke’s most influential essays, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Locke positions the individual very differently than Bacon, not as the means to achieve an ideal society, but as an entity deserving of idealism all of their own accord. This essay focuses on the learning and intellectual growth of the individual. Locke explains how understanding forms and how a man can build on one block to knowledge to form another and then another and so on. “Every step the mind takes in its progress towards knowledge makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best, too, for the time at least (Locke).” Knowledge is described here, not just as something to be gained, captured, or achieved, but as a journey, a journey where each individual movement reveals something new to the individual and is an experience to be savored. What truly drives this point home is Locke’s personal and candid, first person writing style. He makes off-hand quips about possibly being “too lazy or too busy.” He explains exactly why he is writing the essay, what he hopes to achieve, and in a display of humility (albeit quite a factitious one) admits there is always a chance the reader won’t get anything out of the essay because “it was not meant for those that had already mastered this subject (Locke).”

Making the essay even more immediate and personal, placing even greater focus on the individual by making the reading of the essay very intimate and casual, Locke even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly. “I here put into thy hands what has been the diversion of some of my idle and heavy hours; if it has the good luck to prove so any of thine, and thou hast but half so much pleasure in reading as I had in writing it, thou wilt as little think thy money, as I do my pains, ill-bestowed (Locke).” Not only does Locke speak directly to the reader, figuratively removing the barrier of space and time that exists between writer and reader, but he creates a greater sense of intimacy by using the metaphor of actually placing the book into the reader’s hands. There is the imagery of friendship and camaraderie. Society plays a part in Locke’s writing, but unlike the works of Bacon, they are a second though, coming after the individual, whereas Bacon positions those two concepts in the reverse.

Bacon and Locke’s writings overlap thematically a great deal when it comes to observation, the accumulation of knowledge, and the natural world. Both men were incredibly interested in the natural world and science, as well as the very act of knowledge creation. When it comes down to how best to accumulate knowledge, they each wrote about observing natural phenomena, and the role that language can play in the creation of knowledge.

In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Locke writes, “the sciences will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity” revealing that something else he has in common with Bacon is his wish to create a better world for the future of humanity. It may not be his primary focus, but it is still a goal of his. He views language as a system of symbols that, while they can transmit information, they can also obscure it when wielded carelessly. “It is ambition enough to be employed as an under-laborer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge; which certainly had been very much more advanced in the world, if the endeavors of ingenious and industrious men had not been cumbered with the learned but frivolous use of uncouth, unaffected, or unintelligible terms introduced into the sciences (Locke).” He continues on to say, “Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard or misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation (Locke).” Locke is expressing deep concern for facts being twisted, or at the very least not properly communicated, by long-winded and pretentious speech. Of course, if knowledge can’t be transferred this is a loss to society, but by framing this is a human-to-human interaction, rather than talking about large-scale communications, Locke keeps the focus on the autonomous individual.

Bacon also discusses the importance of language in both creating and spreading knowledge. In his essay “The Advancement of Learning” Bacon writes, “it is a thing not hastily to be condemned to clothe and adorn the obscurity of philosophy itself with sensible and plausible elocution (“The Advancement of Learning”).” While Locke’s thoughts on clear speech are expressed quite similarly to Bacon’s, I’d say Bacon goes a bit further with the distance of the narrative. Locke is a bit less personal and direct than usual when writing about precision of words, but Bacon truly distances himself from the narrative and creates a feeling of abstractness with the words “it is a thing.” There isn’t a single pronoun of reference to people in that statement. The focus is on philosophy and the exchange of ideas.

Not only a clarity of language but a focus on objectivity was a theme in Bacon’s work, and to a lesser extent, also in Locke’s work. It makes sense that with Bacon’s objective, detached style of writing, his essays would focus on objectivity more than Locke’s, which use a personal, candid, and often quite humorous style. In his essay, “Francis Bacon’s Concept of Objectivity and the Idols of the Mind,” Perez Zagorin explains the roots of these ideas of objectivity that Bacon was striking at in his discussions of language. He writes, “In the Western intellectual tradition, some of the ingredients presently constituting the concept of objectivity long antedated the time of Francis Bacon and can be traced back to antiquity (Zagorin).” He goes on to say, “In Greek philosophy an awareness of what might be called ontological objectivity as the determination of the way things really are was implicit in the speculations and enquiries of the pre-Socratic thinkers (Zagorin).” So while Locke draws on Bacon, Bacon also draws on the knowledge that came before him. This is especially interesting when considering that it’s this very process of knowledge building upon itself like a series of steps that both writers discuss in their respective essays, when they write about the pursuit for truth and how observation in natural sciences should best be practiced.

One conclusion would could draw from the comparison of these two essayists is that while they shared a number of values and viewpoints, at their cores, Locke is more of an individualist and Bacon more of a collectivist. In the article “John Locke and Rugged Individualism,” Henry Moulds posits a theory that it’s not entirely useful to look at Locke through such a strong lens of individualism. His essay analyzes Locke’s works from an economic perspective, considering whether Locke’s ideas could be better applied to capitalism or socialism. Economics are not the focus of this essay, but I still feel this is a helpful article to reference as capitalism and socialism are also, in a way, comparisons of the individual versus the collective. Moulds writes, “Traditionally, John Locke has been regarded as the John the Baptist, if not the Founding Father of laissez-faire capitalism and rugged individualism. Such a view ought to have been expressed with caution since the Lockian corpus contains no treatise on economics…(Moulds).” This article does an excellent job os parcing out which of Locke’s theories are well-suited to an argument for capitalism and which are better to use in an argument for socialism. Furthermore, Moulds makes a real attempt to honestly consider all of Locke’s ouvre and place him on the economic political spectrum accurately, at least where he would have been placed when juxtaposed against mainstream views towards individual property rights of the time. “Locke certainly says that one can accumulate as much money as one pleases-if one does not violate the laws of nature in doing so (Moulds).” While I think Moulds makes a fair argument, what he fails to do is acknowledge that Locke may have been neither truly capitalist or truly socialist, but that doesn’t mean the core of his philosophies are not capitalistic in nature.

Capitalism is individualism. It’s an economic system that takes an incredibly similar position on individualism as Locke: a system where individuals put their own interests first, but that doesn’t mean there is no regard given for the common good of society. In summarizing some of Locke’s beliefs, Moulds writes, “In civil society, men still have the right and duty to labor. By the labor on their own land, they will add to their property. And their labor, though for themselves, ought to also be for the common good (Moulds).” Locke did place some importance on the general welfare of society, just as Bacon placed some importance on the happiness and liberty of the individual, but it’s the placement of the individual before society that creates the contrast between Locke and Bacon. Locke believed individuals should benefit themselves first, and they shouldn’t actively harm or diminish society, but the individual was well within his rights to take care of his own interests first and foremost. As we can see in Bacon’s essay “Of Marriage and Single Life,” Bacon did not feel this way at all, and thought individuals ought to think about the common good of the world in every choice they made, right down to whether or not they married or had children.

Perhaps it is this focus on the common good that drove Bacon to devote so much of his writings to the accumulation of knowledge. A world with more accurate information is a better world for everyone in it. Scientific discovery leads to incredible net benefits for society, from practical everyday inventions, to medical advances, to innovations across the board, in agriculture, architecture, social sciences, and so on and so forth. Bacon’s essays are very pragmatic, and the pragmatic viewpoint to take is that discovery and communication of truth, advancement in science, is good for society. In A Culture of Growth, Joel Mokyr writes about Bacon’s contributions to the field of natural science and what the process of observation and scientific discovery was like during Bacon’s time. “In a widely cited short essay written in 1592, Bacon laid out his view of what knowledge was and ought to be. Up to his day…technological progress had been the result of small and accidental inventions made by craftsmen…It was a theme he repeated over and over again in his later writing and one that the Royal Society subscribed to (Mokyr).” Because Bacon was influential not only in terms of ideas, but in terms of actual action and study in the natural sciences. Bacon’s work influenced the scientific practices of the Royal Society and “became the desideratum of the experimental work carried out by many members of the early Royal Society (Anstey).”

One of Bacon’s essays that delves into this discovery of scientific knowledge is “Novum Organum.” Bacon explains that truth is objective, but a human’s subjective way of viewing the world has the potential to distort this objective truth. “The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe (“Novum Organum”). This may be part of the reason why Bacon urges individuals to look beyond themselves and strive for altruism, because human reason and observation is all flawed. It’s only through cooperation and pooling knowledge together that humans can overcome their individual biases.

Locke shared Bacon’s skepticism of human perception. In “Toleration and the Skeptical Inquirer in Locke,” Sam Black writes about Locke’s views on the acquisition of knowledge and the limits of human understanding. He writes, “Locke…refuses to classify as knowledge even those ordinary commonplaces on which all persons rely in their daily affairs. In this vein, he claims that even if all Englishmen noted that it froze in England last winter or that there were swallows in the summer, this would still amount to a merely probable truth (Black).” For Locke observation and verifying knowledge is paramount. Anything that can not be proven is up for scrutiny. “Locke takes very seriously the project of surveying, marking, and policing the boundaries which divide fact from opinion (Black).” According to Black, Locke viewed opinion and fact as two very different things, not as two ideas that relate to each other, but as distinct and separate spheres. This very much plays into Locke’s all-encompassing ideology of individualism. Here, the individual is distinct from the observable natural world. An individual may observe the world, but (just as Bacon argued) those ideas are prone to be flawed.

Related to this idea, Locke argues in favor of self-discipline. In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Locke explains why it is so important for individuals to exercise discipline and self-control over their own thought processes. He writes, “I know there are not words enough in any language to answer all the variety of ideas that enter into men’s discourses and reasonings. But this hinders not but that when anyone uses any term, he may have had in his mind a determines idea which he makes it the sign of, and to which he should keep it steadily annexed during that present discourse (Locke).” In this passage, we see Locke explaining how individuals might come into a discussion with preconceived notions, and instead of fully considering a topic or idea, they find ways to take the facts they are being given and make them fit the narratives they already harbor in their minds.

Both Bacon and Locke understood the limits of human understanding and perception and created organized systems for men to try and overcome these. Overcoming human limits, at least as much as possible, was a goal for both. Although I’d say it was much more of a priority for Bacon, which is probably why his works have stood the test of time in regards to the natural sciences. His methods on observing science and experimentation were applied to the Royal Society and observation remains an important aspect of science today. With Bacon’s methods, the focus is directed outward from the flawed perceptions of the individual to the outer world. It is somewhat ironic that the very tool which must be used to collect data, the tool of human perception, is exactly what Bacon is worried about distorting the data.

Bacon’s ideas are all brought together in his work of fiction “The New Atlantis.” Bacon applies all of his ideas about how best to run a society and lays them all out in this work. His beliefs about individual duties regarding society are abstracted here through the lens of fiction. The way the story focuses primarily on explaining the intricate workings of the society, reinforces Bacon’s philosophical emphasis on the collective. There are individual characters in this story, but just as in his non-fiction essays, the individuals exist to prop up the whole.

For one thing, there is little plot to the story, beyond the characters and events existing to showcase Bacon’s ideas about ethics, politics, and other smaller pragmatic aspects of running an ideal society. “We came at our day and hour, and I was chosen by my fellows for the private access (“The New Atlantis”). Here we have the inciting event of the story. It’s given in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. There’s no emotion attached to it. This is because Bacon’s emphasis in writing this fiction is not to explore character or the depth of emotion in the human experience. This is a truly plot-driven story, giving it the same sense of pragmatic detachment that characterize Bacon’s non-fiction works.

The leader of this New Atlantis utopia is introduced after his ornate rooms are described. “We found him in a fair chamber, richly hanged, and carpeted under foot, without any degrees to the state (“The New Atlantis”). By emphasizing the setting over the character, the leader of this utopia, the emphasis is again placed on society as a whole, and never on the individual. Even his clothing is described before the leader character is given a single line of dialogue. “His undergarments were the like that we saw him wear in the chariot; but instead of his gown, he had on him a mantle with a cape of the same fine black, fastened about him (“The New Atlantis”). Everything around the leader is described in vivid detail, the leader’s clothing, his throne room, even the servants that flank him on either side, but little description is given to the leader. When the leader does speak, he does not talk about himself. He doesn’t spare a single line of dialogue on talking about who he is, because he isn’t really a character, he’s a symbol and he’s there to explain how this society works to readers. He goes into incredible detail on a number of issues. It’s very reminiscent of Bacon’s essay “Of Plantations” where he goes as far as to explain what crops to plant. The leader of New Atlantis talks about the deep caves they have dug, explaining a bit about how those caves were dug, and he talks about compositing and soil, and how they filter pools of water, turning salt water to fresh water.

The writing style of this story is quite utilitarian. The sentences are repetitive and bland, but they serve their purpose. They aren’t meant to be beautiful prose; they are meant to be convey direct information and they serve their purpose. There are huge chunks of the text where one paragraph after the next starts the same. The first sentence of each paragraph begins with either the words “we have” or “we have also.” The use of the word “we” is yet another way that Bacon keeps the emphasis on the collective over the individual.

Bacon and Locke were both incredibly influential, and they covered many of the same subjects, but they approached these subjects in different ways, and the primary difference is the positioning of the individual in the quest for truth and progress. For Bacon, the individual is positioned as part of the collective, and the individual’s duties are too better society and work towards the progress and betterment of society; for Locke, the collective is secondary to the individual. Individuals are autonomous and Locke argues that they are justified in seeking individual liberty and happiness. Locke’s focus is not on altruism, but rather lack of harm. The individual does not have a duty to put the progress of society and truth above himself; he only has a duty not to do active harm to society, and if an individual can be persuaded to behave in an altruistic way, this is ideal for both society and all the individual members of society.

Locke is remembered as the father of liberty and individualism and Bacon as the father of observational methods of natural science. Both were skilled writers, and one of the most interesting components of their respective essays are how their views of individualism versus collectivism ring through in ever word choice, every narrative device.

Works Cited

Anstey, Peter R. “Locke, Bacon and Natural History.” Early Science and Medicine, vol. 7, no. 1, 2002, pp. 65–92. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

Bacon, Sir Francis. “Novum Organum.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century, 10th edition. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 2018. p.p. 1227-1231.

Bacon, Sir Francis. “Of Marriage and Single Life.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century, 10th edition. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 2018. p.p. 1214-1215.

Bacon, Sir Francis. “Of Plantations.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century, 10th edition. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 2018. p.p. 1219-1221.

Bacon, Sir Francis. “Of Superstition.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century, 10th edition. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 2018. p.p. 1218-1219.

Bacon, Sir Francis. “The New Atlantis.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and The Early Seventeenth Century, 10th edition. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 2018. p.p. 1231-1236.

Black, Sam. “Toleration and the Skeptical Inquirer in Locke.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 28, no. 4, 1998, pp. 473–504. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

Locke, John. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, 10th edition. W.W. Norton and Company. New York. 2018. p.p. 106-109.

Mokyr, Joel. “Francis Bacon, Cultural Entrepreneur.”A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, Princeton University Press, Princeton; Oxford, 2017, pp. 70–98. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

Moulds, Henry. “John Locke & Rugged Individualism.”American Journal of Economics & Sociology, vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. 1965, pp. 97–109. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1536-7150.1965.tb02898.x. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

Zagorin, Perez. “Francis Bacon’s Concept of Objectivity and the Idols of the Mind.” The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 34, no. 4, 2001, pp. 379–393. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

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