Francis Bacon is probably the single most cited figure in McLuhan’s 1962 book of citations, The Gutenberg Galaxy. This was twenty years after McLuhan’s engagement with Bacon in the early 1940s in his PhD thesis on Thomas Nashe and the essays on Bacon associated with it.1 Bacon was mentioned here and there in the intervening period by McLuhan, but never substantially. Then in the early 1960s Bacon suddenly emerged once again as a central figure in McLuhan’s work.
It would seem that McLuhan’s sense of the general importance of Bacon didn’t change, but his appreciation of the nature of that importance did. He came to find in Bacon what he had previously missed and what he first had to learn from Wyndham Lewis and Harold Innis in order to see it there: the insight, namely, that “no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions“ (full passage from Bacon’s Novum Organum cited below in the selection from The Gutenberg Galaxy, 184).
In the early 1940’s McLuhan was only a few years out from his religious conversion, which had resulted from an intense study of Catholicism beginning with Chesterton but culminating in Hopkins and Maritain. From that personal experience, combined with the critical theory of Eliot, Richards and Leavis that he imbibed at Cambridge at the same time, he had the notion that the great problems of the world were problems of individual reading — and that individual reading, therefore, required renovation. On the other hand, however, he had had the notion since his teens that education was more a societal than a school process and that economics, billboards and radio had decisive effect on it. He had yet to resolve how the individual and social components of human experience come to be knotted.
In the course of the 1940s McLuhan began to perceive through Lewis and Innis (with Mallarmé playing a decisive supporting role) how to bring these strands together via the study of media. The reading of the world and of the world’s traditions — the reading of our exterior and interior landscapes — was indeed the crux of the matter, but reading was not a matter of individual insight and decision. Instead, it was exactly the ‘individual’ and ‘its’ insight that had to be decided and determined. What was needed, then, and what McLuhan found to be prescribed already in Bacon, was the exercise of “that faculty which (…) is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials” (The Classical Trivium, 51) but directed now on our technologically extended collective sensibilities (from which our individual ones derive as a secondary constellation): Understanding Media.
So it was that Bacon was revisioned by McLuhan as foreseeing a way out of what Innis called “the fundamental solipsism of Western civilization”2 (and Bacon “total defection from God (…) to depend wholly upon himself“)3 via “laws of media”. Furthermore, McLuhan fully shared, and was motivated in his turn by, the religious ground of Bacon’s insight. Both saw the alienation of human beings from God as the cause and further effect of the great problems of the world. Both saw that the repair of that alienation could, and arguably could only, come from essential investigation into the landscapes, exterior and interior, of that world. From them, and arguably from them alone, could come the desperately needed turn. Both were books of instruction for the soul’s direction.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 183
The figure of Francis Bacon has always seemed full of contradictions. As the PR man for modern science, he has been found to have both feet firmly planted in the Middle Ages. His prodigious Renaissance reputation baffles those who can find nothing scientific in his method. (…) Simply on his own terms, however, he does make sense. He hangs together once you grant his assumption that Nature is a Book whose pages have been smudged by the Fall of Man.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 184
Bacon himself was aware of the discontinuity between his age and previous history as consisting in the rise of mechanism. He writes in Novum Organum: “It is well to observe the force and effect and consequences of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 129, Works VIII, 162.]
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 185
Bacon was more impressed by the meaning of print as applied knowledge than anybody else except Rabelais. The entire Middle Ages had regarded Nature as a Book to be scanned for the vestigia dei. Bacon took the lesson of print to be that we could now literally get Nature out in a new and improved edition. An encyclopedia is envisaged. It is his complete acceptance of the idea of the Book of Nature that makes Bacon so very medieval and so very modern. But the gap is this. The medieval Book of Nature was for contemplatio like the Bible. The Renaissance Book of Nature was for applicatio (…) like movable types. A closer look at Francis Bacon will (…) elucidate the transition from the medieval to the modern world.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 185
Erasmus directed the new print technology to the traditional uses of grammatica and rhetoric and to tidying up the sacred page. Bacon used the new technology for an attempt to tidy up the text of [the Book of] Nature.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 186
A strange wedding of the medieval Book of Nature and the new Book [of Nature] from movable types was conducted by Francis Bacon.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 187-188
our present goal is (…) to relate Bacon’s notion of science to the medieval tradition of the two Scriptures of Revelation and [of] Nature (…):
“for as the Psalms and other Scriptures [of Revelation] do often invite us to consider and magnify the great and wonderful works of God, so if we should rest only in the contemplation of the exterior of them, as they first offer themselves to our senses, we should do a like injury unto the Majesty of God, as if we should judge or construe of the store of some excellent jeweller, by that only which is set out toward the street in his shop. The other [scriptures of Nature], because they minister a singular help and preservative against unbelief and error: for our Saviour saith, You err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God; laying before us two books or volumes to study, if we will be secured from error; first, the Scriptures, revealing the Will of God; and then the creatures expressing His Power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the Scriptures, by the general notions of reason and rules of speech; but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon His works. Thus much therefore for divine testimony and evidence concerning the true dignity and value of Learning.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 143-144.]
The next passage gives Bacon’s ever-recurrent theme that all of the arts are forms of applied knowledge for the sake of diminishing the effects of the Fall:
“Concerning speech and words, the consideration of them hath produced the science of grammar: for man still striveth to reintegrate himself in those benedictions, from which by his fault he hath been deprived; and as he hath striven against the first general curse by the invention of all other arts, so hath he sought to come forth of the second general curse, which was the confusion of tongues, by the art of grammar; whereof the use in a mother tongue is small, in a foreign tongue more; but most in such foreign tongues as have ceased to be vulgar tongues, and are turned only to learned tongues.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 2, Works VI, 285.]
It is the Fall of Man which engenders the arts of applied knowledge for the relief of man’s fallen estate:
“So in the age before the flood, the holy records within those few memorials which are there entered and registered have vouchsafed to mention and honour the name of the inventors and authors of music and works in metal. In the age after the flood, the first great judgment of God upon the ambition of man was the confusion of tongues; whereby the open trade and intercourse of learning and knowledge was chiefly imbarred.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 138-139.]
Bacon has the utmost regard for the kind of work done by unfallen man:
“After the creation was finished, it is set down unto us that man was placed in the garden to work therein; which work, so appointed to him, could be no other than work of Contemplation; that is, when the end of work is but for exercise and experiment, not for necessity; for there being then no reluctation of the creature, nor sweat of the brow, man’s employment must of consequence have been matter of delight in the experiment, and not matter of labour for the use.4 Again, the first acts which man performed in Paradise consisted of the two summary parts of knowledge; the view of creatures, and the imposition of names. As for the knowledge which induced the fall, it was (…) not the natural knowledge of creatures, but the moral knowledge of good and evil(…) which man aspired to know; to the end to make a total defection from God and to depend wholly upon himself.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 137-138.]
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 188-190
Before the Fall the purpose of work was just for experience or “experiment,” “not for necessity,” “nor matter of labour for the use.” Strangely, although Bacon is quite explicit and repetitive in his derivation of the program of applied knowledge from the Scriptures, his commentators have avoided this issue. Bacon pushes Revelation into every part of his program stressing, not only the parallelism between the book[s] of Nature and of Revelation, but also between the methods used in both.
Bacon’s conception of applied knowledge concerns the means of restoring the text of the Book of Nature which has been defaced by the Fall, even as our faculties have been impaired. Just as Bacon strives to mend the text of Nature by his Histories, so he sought to repair our faculties by his Essays or Counsels (…). The broken mirror or glass of our minds no longer lets “light through” but enchants us with broken lights, besetting us with Idols.
Just as Bacon draws on traditional inductive grammatica for his exegesis of the two books of Nature and Revelation, so he relies heavily on the Ciceronian conception of eloquence as applied knowledge, explicitly uniting Cicero and Solomon in this regard (…):
“Neither needeth it at all to be doubted, that this knowledge should be so variable as it falleth not under precept; for it is much less infinite than science of government, which, we see, is laboured and in some part reduced. Of this wisdom, it seemeth some of the ancient Romans in the saddest and wisest times were professors; for Cicero reporteth that it was then in use for senators that had name and opinion for general wise men, as Coruncanius, Curius, Laelius, and many others, to walk at certain hours in the Place, and to give audience to those that would use their advice; and that the particular citizens would resort unto them, and consult with them of the marriage of a daughter, or of the employing of a son, or of a purchase or bargain, or of an accusation, and every other occasion incident to man’s life. So as there is a wisdom of counsel and advice even in private causes, arising out of a universal insight into the affairs of the world; which is used indeed upon particular causes propounded, but is gathered by general observation of cases of like nature. For so we see in the book which Q. Cicero writeth to his brother, De petitione consulatus (being the only book of business that I know written by the ancients), although it concerned a particular action set on foot, yet the substance thereof consisteth of many wise and politic axioms, which contain not a temporary, but a perpetual direction in the case of popular elections. But chiefly we may see in those aphorisms which have place among divine writings, composed by Salomon the king (of whom the Scriptures testify that his heart was as the sands of the sea, encompassing the world and all worldly matters), we see, I say, not a few profound and excellent cautions, precepts, positions, extending to much variety of occasions; whereupon we will stay awhile, offering to consideration some number of examples.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 2, Works VI, 351-352.]
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 190
Bacon has much to say of Solomon as the forerunner of himself. In fact, he derives his pedagogical theory of aphorism from Solomon:
“So like wise in the person of Salomon the King, we see the gift or endowment of wisdom and learning, both in Salomon’s petition and in God’s assent thereunto, preferred before all other terrene and temporal felicity. By virtue of which grant or donative of God Salomon became enabled not only to write those excellent Parables or Aphorisms concerning divine and moral philosophy; but also to compile a Natural History of all verdure, from the cedar upon the mountain to the moss upon the wall (which is but a rudiment between putrefaction and a herb), and also of all things that breathe or move. Nay, the same Salomon the King, although he excelled in the glory of treasure and magnificent buildings, of shipping and navigation, of service and attendance, of fame and renown, and the like, yet he maketh no claim to any of those glories, but only to the glory of inquisition of truth; for so he saith expressly, The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the king is to find it out [Prov 25:2]; as if, according to the innocent play of children, the Divine Majesty took delight to hide His works, to the end to have them found out; and as if kings could not obtain a greater honour than to be God’s playfellows in that game; considering the great commandment of wits and means, whereby nothing needeth to be hidden from them.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 141.]
Bacon’s allusion to scientific discovery as a children’s game brings us close to another of his basic notions, that as man lost his Eden through pride he must regain it by humility:
“So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII, 99.]
Earlier (…) Bacon insisted in the same way that “the course I propose for the discovery of sciences is such as leaves but little to the acuteness and strength of wits, but places all wits and understandings nearly on a level.” [Novum Organum, aphorism 41, Works VIII, 89.]
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 190-191
Print had inspired Bacon not only with the idea of applied knowledge by means of the homogeneity of segmental procedure, but it gave him the assurance that men would be levelled in their capacities and performance as well. Some strange speculations have resulted from this doctrine, but few would care to dispute the power of print to level and to extend the learning process as much as cannon or ordnance did level castles and feudal privilege.5 Bacon, then, argues that the text of [the Book of] Nature can be restored by great encyclopedic fact-finding sweeps. Man’s wits can be reconstructed so that they can once again mirror the perfected Book of Nature. His mind is now an enchanted glass, but the hex can be removed. It is quite clear, then, that Bacon would have no respect for scholasticism any more than for the dialectics of Plato and Aristotle because it is the duty of Art to perfect and exalt Nature; but they contrariwise have wronged, abused, and traduced Nature.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, 191-192
Early in The Advancement of Learning, Bacon has a compact history of Renaissance prose that illuminates the role of printing indirectly: “Martin Luther, conducted no doubt by a higher providence, but in discourse of reason finding what a providence he had undertaken against the bishop of Rome and the degenerate traditions of the church, and finding his own solitude, being no ways aided by the opinion of his own time, was enforced to awake all antiquity, and to call former times to his succours to make a party against the present time. So that the ancient authors, both in divinity and in humanity, which had long time slept in libraries, began generally to be read and revolved. Thus by consequence did draw on a necessity of a more exquisite travail in the languages original, wherein those authors did write, for the better understanding of those authors, and the better advantage of pressing and applying their words. And thereof grew again a delight in their manner of style and phrase, and an admiration of that kind of writing; which was much furthered and precipitated by the enmity and opposition that the propounders of those primitive but seeming new opinions had against the schoolmen; who were generally of the contrary part, and whose writings were altogether in a different style and form; taking liberty to coin and frame new terms of art to express their own sense, and to avoid circuit of speech, without regard to the pureness, pleasantness, and, as I may call it, lawfulness of the phrase or word.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 118-119.]
Bacon says here that the entire humanist effort in languages and historical revival was incidental to religious differences. The printing presses made available authors of remote times. People began to imitate their styles. The schoolmen had such a technical terse way that they fell quite out of fashion, being utterly unable to develop any popularity with the new reading public. The growing public could only be won by flowery rhetoric and, Bacon goes on to say:
“for the winning and persuading of them, there grew of necessity in chief price and request eloquence and variety of discourse, as the fittest and forciblest access into the capacity of the vulgar sort: so that these four causes concurring, the admiration of ancient authors, the hate of the schoolmen, the exact study of languages, and the efficacy of preaching, did bring in an affectionate study of eloquence and copie of speech, which then began to flourish. This grew speedily to an excess; for men began to hunt more after words than matter; more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention or depth of judgment. Then grew the flowing and watery vein of Osorius the Portugal bishop, to be in price. Then did Sturmius spend such infinite and curious pains upon Cicero the Orator, and Hermogenes the Rhetorician, besides his own books of Periods and Imitation, and the like. Then did Car of Cambridge, and Ascham with their lectures and writings almost deify Cicero and Demosthenes, and allure all young men that were studious, unto that delicate and polished kind of learning. Then did Erasmus take occasion to make the scoffing Echo: decem annos consumpsi in legendo Cicerone; and the Echo answered in Greek, Ove Asine. Then grew the learning of the schoolmen to be utterly despised as barbarous. In sum, the whole inclination and bent of those times was rather towards copie than weight.” [The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1, Works VI, 119-129.]
There in a page or so Bacon renders a detailed image of the literary struggles and fashions of his day. Like his idea of scientific methods, his idea of the literary scene is rooted in religion. His outline of a history of English prose has yet to be examined seriously by literary historians. When, for example, Bacon says [at the end of the preceding passage]: “Then grew the learning of the Schoolmen to be utterly despised as barabarous” he does not say that he himself despises it. He has no respect for the ornate and affected eloquence that was [then] currently trumped up.
- See Bacon in McLuhan 1 and 2. ↩
- Empire and Communications, 1950 edition, 67; 1972 edition, 56. ↩
- The Advancement of Learning as cited in The Gutenberg Galaxy, 187-188 passage given below. ↩
- An ever-repeated topic in McLuhan’s later work is the relation of ‘school’ to the Latin ‘schola‘ = leisure. He may well have been gesturing with this to Bacon’s notion that the natural vocation of humans is to the delightful appreciation of creation. ↩
- McLuhan made the same points earlier in GG: “Although the main work was done by Cromwell and Napoleon, “ordnance” (or cannon) and gunpowder had (…) begun the levelling of castles, classes, and feudal distinctions. So print, says Rabelais, has begun the homogenizing of individuals and of talents. Later in the same century Francis Bacon was prophesying that his scientific method would level all talents (…) Bacon’s ‘method’ (…) was the extension of the idea of the new printed page to the whole encyclopedia of natural phenomena.” (148) ↩