Bacon’s late writings laid the foundation for a new scientific culture, as he had hoped. Any great step in humanity’s progress has to be imagined in an almost mystical vision of what could be, before people are motivated to realise it. In Novum Organum, Bacon outlined the new scientific method (organum); in New Atlantis, he described scientific culture in idealised, utopian fashion. The vision had to wait for forty years until a group of scientists, philosophers and philanthropists inspired by Bacon’s ideas, founded the Royal Society in 1667. In the last five years of his life, Bacon had written almost exclusively in Latin, and translated certain English writings into what was then the Universal Language. As a result, he was known and admired on the continent; thus were the seeds sown for a pan-European scientific movement.
During his final years Bacon became a near legendary figure, admired by his peers for his writings and his life. His death in 1626 was mourned in a set of learned elegies, the Manes Verulaminani (available at Penn Leary’s website), which show a degree of admiration far surpassing the conventional, sycophantic tributes commonly given to deceased dignitaries. The superlative regard in which Bacon was held led to the phenomenon of Baconianism, which has continued in almost unbroken form to this day. The veneration of great men is a two-edged sword: the Francis Bacon Society is an heir to the difficult but worthwhile task of attempting to maintain awareness of Bacon’s universal talent and contribution, without lapsing into hero-worship and the cult mentality that often ensues.
In the Enlightenment era, Bacon became a symbol for science and reason: reduced to a symbol, his actual philosophy was misunderstood and frequently unread. His classical learning and poetic, imagistic use of language were forgotten, as was the comprehensive, harmonious scheme of his Great Instauration. In the 19th century Romantic reaction against Enlightenment-era rationalism, Bacon-as-symbol was re-evaluated as a mere precursor of scientific rationalism. In line with this prejudice was seen as unpoetic and materialistic. In contrast, the Romantic era projected its positive pre-occupations onto Shakespeare, believed to be a naive but inspired rustic, producing great poetry by pure inspiration.
Accordingly, at the time when the authorship controversy reached its peak, Shakespeare’s public reputation was at its zenith and Bacon’s at its nadir. Aside from the prejudices of the nineteenth century, the main reason for this was the extraordinary influence of Victorian historian Macaulay, who wrote a highly inaccurate, damning life of Bacon. In consequence, at the height of the authorship question, many were unwilling to countenance Bacon’s involvement. The Society had to spend much time and effort clearing Bacon’s name. This would have been unnecessary in a less moralistic age, such as our own: neither Shakespeare, Bacon nor anyone else need be of saintly, unblemished character to have written great poetry.
The lack of respect with which Baconian claims were treated, led to a destructive adversarial stance on both sides, which has hindered our understanding of Bacon, Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Age. The ultimate irony is that Bacon, the greatest opponent of emotionally-driven prejudice, has attracted more of this than almost any other literary figure of the modern era.