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ARCHBISHOP WHATelly ON BACON - - -
HIS is in every way a remarkable book. We have before us in this volume the most generally popular work of the greatest and meanest man of his time, with a Commentary of Annotations by the man who, of all living authors, approaches in many of his intellectual characteristics nearest to Bacon himself. We find in the writings of Archbishop Whately the same independence of thought which distinguishes the writings of Bacon ; the same profusion of illustration by happy analogies which is characteristic of Bacon’s later works ; the same clearness, point, and precision of style. We do not wonder that the accomplished
* Bacon's Essays: with Annotations by Richard Whately, D.D., Archbishop of Dublin. London: 1857.
prelate, accustomed (as he tells us in his Preface) to write down from time to time the observations which suggested themselves to him in reading Bacon’s Essays, should have found them grow beneath his hand into a volume; and we cannot but regard it as a boon conferred upon all educated men, that this volume has been given to the world. Nor must we omit to remark, in this age of readers for mere entertainment, that although the volume be a large one, written by an archbishop, and consisting of comments upon the thoughts of a great philosopher, the book is invested with such an attractive interest, that it cannot fail to prove a readable and entertaining one, even to minds unaccustomed to high-class thought and incapable of severe thinking. The somewhat severe terseness of the Essays is relieved by the lighter and more popular tone of the Annotations. Archbishop Whately’s mind is of that nature that it takes up each of a vast range of subjects with equal ease, and apparently with equal gusto ; grappling with a great difficulty or unravelling a great perplexity with no more appearance of effort than when lightly touching a social folly, such as might have invited the notice of the author of The Book of Snobs, or when playfully blowing to the winds an error not worth serious refutation. Hardly ever in the range of literature have we observed the workings of an intellect in which nervous strength is so combined with delicate tact. We are reminded of Mr. Nasmyth's steam-hammer, which can smash a mass of steel in shivers, or by successive taps drive a nail through a half-inch plank.
We are thankful that in noticing this book, we are concerned rather with the Annotator than with the Essayist; for not without much pain can we look back on Lord Bacon's history. There is something jarring in the mingled feelings of admiration and disgust with which we think of Bacon’s greatness and meanness; his intellectual grasp, his keen insight, his wit, his imagination sober in its wildest flights, his serene temper, his brilliant conversation, his courtly manners, his freedom from arrogance and pretence; and then, on the other side, his cold heart and mean spirit, his low and unworthy ambition, his despicable selfishness, his flagrant dishonesty, his crawling servility, his perfidy as a friend, his sneakiness as a patriot, his corruption as a judge. As to his intellectual greatness there can be no question; though there can be no error more complete than to regard him as the inventor or discoverer of the Inductive Philosophy. He did not invent it; he did not skilfully apply it. His philosophy differed from that which preceded it less in method than in aim ; and it is glory enough to have mainly contributed to turn the thoughts and the efforts of thoughtful and energetic men away from the profitless philosophy of the schools to the practical good of mankind. In the commodis humanis inservire we have the end and the spirit of the Baconian philosophy.
The Essays constitute Bacon's most popular work, if not his greatest. They illustrate in thought and style what was said of him by Ben Jonson, that “No man ever spoke more neatly, more pressly, more weightily,
nor suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he