Bacon in McLuhan 1 (Nashe thesis)

Man cannot look with understanding on the book of nature until he has been perfected in the art of grammar. (140)1

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) played an important role, or important roles, in McLuhan’s work from 1940 (when he began blocking out his Cambridge PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe) to 1980 (when he died on the last day of the year).

At the start of his thesis (submitted and approved in 1943) McLuhan specified that Bacon could and perhaps should have been its subject rather than Nashe:

What the present study tries to do directly for Nashe, it does incidentally for his contemporaries; so that if Nashe appears to be a kind of appendix to a chapter in the history of education, he is really intended to be a focal point [illustrating it]. Bacon or Donne would have served this function better in some ways than Nashe.  It would have been possible to relate them more complexly to their age, in so far as they were more complex and comprehensive writers. This study will achieve its end if it can indicate the lines along which further enlightenment concerning Bacon and Donne and their age is possible. (6)2 

Still, even with Nashe as its nominal subject, by describing the dynamics of education3 in terms of the trivium, that is of grammar vis-a-vis dialectic, on the one hand, and rhetoric, on the other — and this over the two millennia between classical Athens and Elizabethan England — McLuhan hoped to supply new illumination particularly on Bacon:

[Grammar’s] claim to be viewed as an important basis of scientific method, both during antiquity and continuously throughout medieval times, and in the work of Francis Bacon, has, I think, never been indicated before the present study. (15)

A central idea of the thesis, one which McLuhan would continue to pursue for the rest of his life, concerned the “Book of Nature” (7) with its implicated “language of nature” (16) — the “language” with its enabling “grammar” in which that “Book of Nature” was written:4

From the time of the neo-Platonists and Augustine to Bonaventura and to Francis Bacon, the world was viewed as a book, the lost language of which was analogous to that of human speech. Thus the art of grammar provided the sixteenth-century approach not only to the Book of Life in scriptural exegesis but to the Book of Nature, as well. (7)

[grammar’s] claim to be viewed as an important basis of scientific method… (15)

grammar and science were inseparably linked in their origins. (27)

Finding his place in a long line of Ciceronians, Bacon has the same conception [as the others in that line] of the function of the arts. Grammar is the art of gathering and interpreting congruous instances, whether phenomenal [physical nature, the exterior landscape] or textual [human nature, the interior landscape]. (57n45)

[Hugh of Saint Victor] shows like the Fathers before him and like Francis Bacon after him, that the arts are for the relief of man’s fallen state. Grammar is the most basic art of all. Man cannot look with understanding on the book of nature until he has been perfected in the art of grammar. (140) 

It is within this system of analogy, rooted in the ancient notions of the Logos and grammar, and seeking the light of revelation, that Bonaventure’s fellow Franciscans Grosseteste and [Roger] Bacon envisaged the importance of their physical experiments. There is thus no inconsistency but propriety in the fact that Roger Bacon, like Erasmus and Francis Bacon, asserted the primacy of the art of grammar in approaching both Scripture and the book of nature. (145)

Grammar as the interpretive study of the language of life and of nature aims to illuminate, not to conclude. Its aim is to open relationships for mutual regard — or to recognize relationships which are already open for mutual regard. Of course science can follow from this (and can follow from this alone); but so does every social activity extending from family interaction through all social exchange to “communication between divinity and humanity” (89n32):

Bacon considered his own aphoristic style in the Essays as part of a scientific technique of keeping knowledge in a state of emergent evolution.5 (57n45)

Francis Bacon’s remark in the [1623] De Augmentis [Scientiarum] (…) asserts the superiority of allegorical or parabolical poesy above all others “especially as religion itself commonly uses its aid as a means of communication between divinity and humanity.” (89n32, citing Works VIII, 442)

Donne is quite explicit about his rhetorical aims in preaching. His intention was to arrange his rhetorical effects in such a way as “to trouble the understanding, to displace, and discompose and disorder the judgement … or to empty it of former apprehensions, and to shake beliefe, with which it had possessed it self before, and then, when it is thus melted to poure it into new molds, when it is thus mollified, to stamp and imprint new formes, new images, new opinions in it.” [Donne Works 3, 275] Donne is here stating the Attic or anti-Ciceronian concept of style espoused by the Senecans. His words describe the aims set [for] themselves by Montaigne and Bacon in their essays.6

In The Advancement [of Learning, 1605] Bacon contrasts the two modes of delivering knowledge as the modes of aphorism and [of] orderly method: “But the writing in aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in Method doth not approach. For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid: for Aphorism, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse illustration is cut off: recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off…. And lastly, Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total do secure men, as if they were at farthest.” [Works VI, 291Both Montaigne and Bacon made compromises, gradually admitting examples, authorities, and descriptions, but persisting in their original intention of employing an aphoristic style in order to dislocate the mind from its customary courses.7 (200-201)

Contrary to the common supposition that self-interest necessarily counts against the truth of a matter,8 the thesis places repeated emphasis on the properly utilitarian character of an enterprise like Bacon’s when it is pursued in true self-interest:

Bacon’s account of the history of philosophy in the Novum Organum [1620] is almost identical with Cicero’s [in works written almost 1700 years before in the middle of the first century BC]. This is not strange, since both hold the view that the arts are entirely to be judged on the basis of their usefulness to man. (56n43)

Bacon never for a moment ceases to view the business of the arts as being the relief of man’s fallen moral state. In this matter he is in perfect accord with (…) a long tradition in which man’s task had been defined as “as the organization of our earthly exile into a sort of suburb of the heavenly kingdom.”9 (56n43)10

Just as Bacon was later to claim in attacking the dialecticians, St. Augustine says arts and knowledge are for use, for the relief of man’s estate; and, as Bacon freely admits, the greatest art is theology, since it is for the relief of man’s spiritual estate.11  (73n45)

It is, of course, the utilitarianism of Bacon which charms Macaulay, and the utilitarianism of the fathers from which Bacon’s derives, is, of course, intense. Nothing was more utilitarian than the salvation they preached. Naturally the arts and sciences which assisted in this grand utilitarian scheme were also of great practical concern. The Middle Ages were completely utilitarian. Even the classics were of utility and St Bonaventure the theologian put up a much better case for the study of classics than Macaulay the civil servant. Insofar as Macaulay retains a grasp of the Ciceronian view of the great utility of eloquence as a political wisdom, he can thank Bacon and the Fathers. (147)

McLuhan’s deepest intent in the thesis was to begin showing the hidden roots of modern science and of modernity generally. As roots these had never been lost and never could be lost; but they could be obscured and for all the world could seem to be lost. And this for essential reasons.12 This radical intent was, again, a matter McLuhan would pursue for the rest of his life.

In his Filium Labyrinthi [1606], Francis Bacon shows himself an exception to the Renaissance habit of ignoring the predecessors of the hated Schoolmen. After conventionally attacking the contentious dialectical learning which the Schoolmen had derived from (…) Aristotle, he says [that] the true and precious heritage of antiquity, both natural and revealed knowledge, has been preserved by the Church: “in the bosom and lap thereof, in the greatest injuries of times, ever preserved as holy relics, [were] the books of philosophy and all heathen learning”. [Works VI, 423] (87n27)

Bacon [was] an enthusiastic exponent of the revived grammatical theology and encyclopedia of the arts, which had been neglected by the dialectical Schoolmen: “and lastly in our times (…) when Luther and the divines of the Protestant church on the one side, and the Jesuits on the other, have enterprised to reform, the one the doctrine, the other the discipline and manners of the Church of Rome, (…) both of them [together] have awaked (…) human learning.” [Works VI, 423]13 (87n27)

In the De Augmentis [1623] discussing the relation of dialectics and scientific method, Bacon makes quite explicit that he approves the Old Logic: “And herein Ramus merited better in reviving those excellent rules of propositions that they should be true, universally, primarily, and essentially…”. [Works IX, 128]14 Bacon’s impatience with the “vermiculate questions” of the schoolmen is owing to his conviction that this tradition of logic with its rhetorical topics dealt with arguments and things, while that of the Aristotelians dealt with words only. (105n4)15

  1. Page numbers below, unless otherwise specified, are from the posthumous publication in 2006 of Marshall McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time, retitled in its printing as The Classical Trivium and edited by W.T. Gordon.
  2. In papers from the early 1940s which remained unpublished in his lifetime,  McLuhan himself attempted to pursue such “further enlightenment concerning Bacon”. One paper was intended for the Journal of the History of Ideas, but was not revised as the editors wished and never did appear there. Another was intended for an MLA meeting which was cancelled on account of the war. These two papers were eventually published posthumously and will be discussed in future posts in this series.
  3. The dynamics of education — broadly considered as the variable ontological and epistemological foundations of individual and social culture.
  4. The genitive construction, “language of nature”, must be considered both  subjectively and objectively. That is, nature is both the object of this language and its author (or subject). Only when we learn this language can we learn about nature — precisely because it is nature’s own in multiple senses.
  5. The phrase “emergent evolution” points to two times, one that is eruptive or emergent and one that is continuous or in evolution. Times plural are combined in all life and all knowledge.
  6. It is no contradiction when McLuhan sometimes describes Bacon as Ciceronian and sometimes again as anti-Ciceronian. Bacon was a grammarian, in McLuhan’s view, and the crux of grammar derives exactly from its power to hold together without merger such complex matters as anti-Ciceronian dialectic and Ciceronian rhetoric.
  7. In a May 22, 1944 letter to John Randall, editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas, which had rejected a paper on Bacon drawn from his Nashe thesis, McLuhan wrote: “This Bacon paper was intended as a raid, but not as a raid to set up a scholastic regime — merely a raid to upset a mass of complacent cliché.” (Cited by Gordon In Escape into Understanding, 116.)
  8. This notion is, of course, often extended through the observation that everything shows some self-interest, so that there is, therefore, no such thing as the truth of any matter.
  9. McLuhan takes this phrase from St Bonaventure, translated by Gilson in The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure, 479.
  10. At the start of his 2006 edition of the Nashe thesis, W.T. Gordon states that “With the exception of pages 192 to 197 of this edition, published as ‘Cicero and the Renaissance Training for Prince and Poet’ in Renaissance and Reformation Studies VI, 3 (1970), pages 38- 42, none of the material has appeared in print previously.” But this is mistaken. Pages 197 to 202 of his edition appeared in another issue of Renaissance and Reformation Studies (VII:1, 1970, 3-7) as ‘The Ciceronian Program in Pulpit and in Literary Criticism’. Furthermore, Eric McLuhan included many pieces of the thesis in papers he published after his father’s death. Parts of this 56n43 footnote, for example, appeared in Eric’s ‘Francis Bacon’s Theory of Communication and Media’, McLuhan Studies, 1996, Issues 3 and 4.
  11. This is another note from the thesis used by Eric McLuhan in his ‘Francis Bacon’s Theory of Communication and Media’ essay. See note 10 above for details.
  12. Leibniz, Monadology (1714): “this is the way of obtaining as much variety as possible (…) that is, it is the way of obtaining as much perfection as possible.”
  13. McLuhan continued: “The Jesuits shared with (…) Bacon the Ciceronian doctrine of the primacy of eloquence and political or civil prudence among the arts and sciences. Without these, knowledge could never, they said, be applied to the relief of man’s fallen state.” (87n27) The conclusion intended here was not that politics or other civil pursuits are more important than the arts and sciences. It was, rather, that all humans understand family and society in some fashion and the key to this understanding is also the key to the arts and sciences. Call it ‘language’ or ‘grammar’ — it is that medium that links the generations in time and the members of family and society in every present. The sciences must understand this key both as something that is, indeed, something that is superlatively, but also as that medium into which they themselves must fully enter if they are to succeed. The arts and sciences must, this is to say, relate to their various subject matters — and know that they thus relate to them — as naturally as family and society members do in their mutual intercourse.
  14. Bacon continues here: “Ramus merited better in reviving those excellent rules (…) than he did in introducing his uniform method and dichotomies; and yet it comes ever to pass, I know not how, that in human affairs (according to the common fiction of the poets) ‘the most precious things have the most pernicious keepers’.” McLuhan was intrigued with the complexity of Bacon’s sentiment here and therefore recommended to his best student at the time, Walter Ong S.J., that he pursue a study of Ramus. In fact, Ong did just this. He went on to complete his PhD on the topic at Harvard a dozen years later — part of which, published as Ramus and Talon Inventory, was dedicated to McLuhan “who started all this”.
  15. Emphasis added. Words are not words merely as sounds or as marks on paper. Indeed, grammar is not properly concerned with words in these ways at all, but with words in essential relation to things.