Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Two Birthdays

Today, the 22nd of January, is, or are, or would have been (Oh you know what I mean) the birthday(s) of Francis Bacon and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Two people about whom there are misconceptions.

Francis Bacon (not the painter, the other one) gets called things like ‘The Father of Modern Science.’ But he wasn’t a scientist, and not just because the word had not yet been coined. ‘Philosopher’ would be nearer the mark, and in those days people whom we should now call scientists were called philosophers. Later those kinds of philosophers became known as ‘Natural Philosophers’. Francis Bacon rarely if ever ‘did’ what we should now call science: experiments designed to refute (not ‘confirm’) speculative theories. What he did do was suggest that this was the way what would later be called science should proceed: by observation and experiment. Up until then even those philosophers who tried to tell us how the world actually is contented themselves with speculation, but rarely if ever tested their ideas by observation or experiment. In ancient Athens this led one wit, who had heard that a certain group of philosophers had defined ‘Man’ as ‘Featherless Biped’ to pluck a chicken and toss it over their garden wall.


Byron is commonly said to have ‘fought’ for Greek Independence, but his fighting was metaphorical; it was in the field of what is now called Public Relations. He was frightfully famous, so when he came out in favour of an Independent Greek nation it boosted morale among those who were fighting, and encouraged Greece’s friends in other countries. True, he did go to Greece and engage in diplomatic efforts to unite various factions who seemed more interested in fighting each other rather than the Turks (so what’s new?), and he liked to swan around in various forms of Greek costume, notably the Souliot which involved wearing a skirt; something he enjoyed. Did he ‘Die for Greece’? Well, he caught malaria in the notoriously unhealthy marshy area of Missolonghi and died.

Wasn’t he a great poet too? He did write a few beautiful lyric poems — short concentrated pieces of about sonnet length — but his literary reputation rests on the long works like ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Childe Harold’. Fine literature, certainly, but verse, not poetry.

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