“What is truth?” Sitting in his dismal cell in the Tower of London, Francis Bacon started his inquiry into the metaphysics of truth. He was found guilty on no less than 23 charges of corruption. If Edward Coke, his lifelong enemy, was not the leader of the investigation team, he would have been found innocent.
“What is truth?” asked Pilate to Jesus. Bacon continued his inquiry. He was writing an essay. Pilate did not wait for the answer. Nor did Jesus answer. The answer would have served no purpose for either. Truth is what serves your purpose.
“Truth is like pearl looking best in daylight,” wrote Bacon. “But it will not rise to the price of a diamond that looks best in varied lights. A mixture of lie always adds pleasure. The lie converts the pearl into diamond. Prose into poetry. What would a man’s life be without his mind’s vain opinions, flattering hopes, and false valuations? Men would be poor shrunken creatures full of melancholy, unpleasant even to themselves, without the delights proffered by falsehood.”
He had defended himself delightfully well with the help of the dazzling sparkles of falsehood. “With respect to the charge of bribery I am as innocent as any man born on St Innocent’s Day,” he had declared to the royal tribunal. “I never had a bribe or reward in my eye or thought when pronouncing judgment or order.”
That was equivocation par excellence. I, Francis Bacon, am a philosopher. He gloated. When you people of puny minds conquer with the sword, I make my conquests with my brain. You conquer lands; I conquer truths.
Did I utter any falsehood when I claimed to be as innocent as any man born on St Innocent’s Day? How many men born on that day or any day are innocent? Ever? It is also true that I did not think of the bribes when I pronounced the judgments.
Didn’t my personal secretary, none other than the chaplain William Rawley, a man of God, declare me innocent? Didn’t he say that I examine the cases with the severity of an honest judge but pronounce the judgment with the compassion of a tender heart?
And Reverend Rawley is an honest man. Isn’t he? Well, there was no need for him to go the extent of declaring that Alice Barnham loved me truly. She never loved me. He knew it too. She was a little girl of 14 when I married her. I was 45. Ten years ago, as a more energetic and handsome young man, I wooed Elizabeth Hatton. She accepted my proposal too. But just before the marriage was finalised, she discovered Edward Coke. Sir Edward Coke, whom the Queen had made the Attorney-General just to despise me. What Elizabeth loved was neither me nor Edward. Like most women, she loved the power that her husband would wield. I was just a straggler who never made it to the good books of the Queen. I was a pauper who lived on the generosity of Lord Essex, Robert Devereux, whom I could not save from charges of treason much as I tried. The Queen edited my reports. I created truths to save Robert. The Queen re-created truths to execute Robert. What is truth?
Alice betrayed me too. If Elizabeth’s truth lay in power and prestige, Alice’s lay in the delights of life. She relished my sonnets about her while she made love to John Underhill.
Truth is like diamond. It sparkles better in varied lights.
I am a philosopher. I conquer with my brain. I create truths and their varied colours. But the conquerors of lands conquered my women. For the sake of the record, however, Reverend Rawley is going to write in his biography of me that Alice had “much conjugal love and respect” for me. He might even lay it on a little too thick. He might write that she always carried with her the souvenir I had presented her. Jokes. Jokes.
How unbearable would human life be without those jokes?
In order to throw me in the Tower, they extracted my confession by blackmailing me. “The charge of sodomy will be brought against you,” they said, if I didn’t confess to corruption and bribe-taking. They would field some handsome young men as witnesses. As victims of my sodomy.
They can’t ask the King for the testimony, you see. That is the biggest joke.
The King, James I, shared some of my proclivities in matters of carnal love. Now you know why he paid up the enormous fine of £40,000 on my behalf. He will soon take me out of this prison too. I know that. And he will raise me to high positions. But I won’t take revenge on Coke and Underhill and others. Reverend Rawley was right: I have a tender heart, after all.
“‘What is truth?’ asked the jesting Pilate...” Sitting in his dismal cell in the Tower of London, Francis Bacon started his inquiry into the metaphysics of truth.