Francis Bacon’s New Science of Life-Prolongation

Aaron L. Greenberg

Is a long life actually a better experience than a short one? Unlike his seventeenth-century contemporaries, who assumed that life gets qualitatively worse the longer it lasts, Francis Bacon proposed in The History Naturall And Experimentall, of Life and Death, Or of the Prolongation of Life (Latin 1623; English 1638) that longer life can be qualitatively better than shorter life. This paradigm of longevity, I argue, constituted a new scientific worldview: the question became not what kinds or ways of life are good, but rather what kinds or ways of life are good for long life. While modes of evaluating life became progressively medicalized and politicized in seventeenth-century England, they continued to be shaped by the theological and ethical traditions from which they emerged.

Bacon reorganized sociopolitical structures by reconceiving human life as an embodied thing in the world, subject to the influences of history, environment, nationality, individual lifestyle, and medical technology. Remarkably, the two most frequent words in The History of Life and Death are “living” and “bodies.” Instead of the ostensibly disembodied rational faculty–which orthodoxy traditionally used to characterize human beings–Bacon shifted focus to the embodied nutritive life shared by humans, animals, and plants according to Aristotle’s tripartite division.[1] Bacon’s new science accordingly called for “a two-fold search…considering mans body as livelesse and unnourished; and as living, and nourished.”[2] Synonymous with vegetative life, nutritive life names “the originative power the possession of which leads us to speak of things as living at all.”[3] The nutritive focus of Bacon’s new science of life-prolongation may appear myopic in light of the subsequent history of persistent vegetative states, but as Giorgio Agamben has remarked, the isolation of nutritive life “constitutes in every sense a fundamental event for Western science” that enabled advances in modern medicine and surgery.[4]

Bacon’s concept of nutritive life remained imbued with moral, theological, and political values, such that it was not inherently dehumanizing (despite its potential to be instrumentalized toward that end). However, the differentiation between the living (nourished) and the lifeless (unnourished) constituted an act of anthropogenesis–that is, a decision about what counts as human life. It is by authorizing or outlawing such anthropogenic decisions, Agamben has argued, that sovereignty institutes sociopolitical order.[5] Bacon’s interest in nutritive, embodied life facilitated the reordering of political sovereignty around the biological life of national populations, reflecting and enacting a nascent discourse of biopower. In the centuries following Bacon, this discourse increasingly aligned nutritive life “with the biological heritage of the nation,” according to Foucault,[6] as sovereignty was exercised “at the level of life itself…[which] gave power its access even to the body.”[7] The seventeenth-century physician Thomas Browne remarked that anyone has the power, if not the right, to kill anyone else: the “one comfort left [is] that though it be in the power of the weakest arme to take away life, it is not in the strongest to deprive us of death.”[8] Technical restrictions kept the life-prolonging power of seventeenth-century physicians from becoming the power to deprive of death (or, in other words, to render immortal), but Bacon’s work established the methodological and ideological conditions for this development in the future.

Several decades before publishing The History of Life and Death, Bacon listed life’s shortness as a primary impediment to knowledge in The Advancement of Learning (1605), an encyclopedic essay advocating empiricism. That humans do not know “the supreme or summary law of nature [does] not derogate from the capacity of the mind; but may be referred to the impediments, as of shortness of life, ill conjunction of labours, ill tradition of knowledge over from hand to hand, and many other inconveniences, whereunto the condition of man is subject.”[9] In other words, the potential capacity of the human mind is hindered by life’s shortness, inadequate collaboration, and the failure to transmit knowledge across generations. These impediments to knowledge are linked in Bacon’s mind because they hearken back to Hippocrates’ first aphorism, which Bacon and his contemporaries cited frequently. As one seventeenth-century translation rendered it,

Life is short, the art is long, occasion suddain, experience dangerous, judgment difficult. Neither is it suff[ici]ent that the Physician doe his office, unless the Patient, and those which are attendants about him do their duty, and that outward things be as well ordered, as those that are given inwardly.[10] 

Bacon elsewhere cited Hippocrates’ aphorism to argue that the aim of knowledge is to overcome the brevity of life through the longevity of art: “it is the duty and virtue of all knowledge to abridge the infinity of individual experience, as much as the conception of truth will permit, and to remedy the complaint of vita brevis, ars longa [life is short, art is long]; which is performed by uniting the notions and conceptions of sciences.”[11] Bacon’s “remedy” for Hippocrates’ “complaint” thus called for interdisciplinarity and transhistorical collaboration.

As he confronted the inevitability of his own mortality, Bacon spent much of his late career trying to prolong biological life. He appended to his unfinished and posthumously published utopian novel New Atlantis (1627) a kind of new scientific wish list for humankind, the first five items of which are the following:

THE prolongation of life.

The restitution of youth in some degree.

The retardation of age.

The curing of diseases counted incurable.

The mitigation of pain.[12]

The History of Life and Death may be read, then, as Bacon’s discovery of a real place for the utopian vision of longer life that he imagined in New Atlantis. The introductory “Access” to The History reprises the vita brevis, ars longa trope. “Ancient is the saying and complaint,” Bacon recalled, “that Life is short, and Art long. Therefore our labours intending to perfect Arts, should by the assistance of the Author of Truth and Life, consider by what meanes the Life of man may be prolonged.”[13] Overturning the Christian and Stoic contempt for life-prolongation that had accumulated during the two millennia since Hippocrates lived, Bacon once again framed the shortness of life as a medical concern.

Life is “longer, for the most part,” Bacon reported, “when the times are barbarous, and Men fare lesse deliciously, and are more given to Bodily Exercises: Shorter, when the Times are more Civill, and Men abandon themselves to Luxury and Ease.”[14] This empirical observation raises ethical and political questions in the context of The History of Life and Death, which ranks human, animal, and plant lifeforms by the length of their lives, while hierarchizing human ways of life according to their conduciveness to longevity. Rather than isolating and extrapolating the importance of bodily exercise for longer life, Bacon instead implied that it is better to live during “barbarous” times than during times of peace, because the former is better for long life. Translating longevity research from a descriptive to a prescriptive science thus required the revaluation of competing and inherently ambivalent values.

Bacon classified human lives according to skin type, observing that hard, thick, spongy, close-grained, and smooth skin, along with “great wrinkles in the forehead are better signes [of long life] than a smooth forehead.” He categorized hair type, recording that bristly hair “is a better signe of long life than dainty soft locks,” that black or red hair and a freckled complexion “are [better] signes of longer life, than a white haire and Complexion,” and that early balding “is an indifferent signe,” because many are “yet long-liv’d” who go bald early.[15] Although Bacon rejected theological predetermination, these observations betray a proto-biological determinism that complicates his endorsement of life-prolonging practices, diets, medicines, and habits.[16] Bacon did not indicate how his data on bodily signs of longevity might be instrumentalized, but a range of potential uses can be imagined: for example, to determine with distributive justice (or eugenic biopower) who can access a finite resource of life-prolonging medicines; or, more innocuously, for his readers to use these signs as a self-diagnostic tool to plan their lives strategically according to their expectations of longevity.

Regarding bodily “proportion,” Bacon observed (contrary to modern findings) that tall-statured people live longer than those of “low stature,” that small waists and long legs “betoken longer life” than short legs and large waists do, while a proportionately small head, average-sized neck, large nostrils, wide mouth, and fatness in youth but not in age “signifie long life.” His list is an exhaustive but infinitely expandable taxonomy of human lifeforms. The History of Life and Death thus assigns new meaning to the ancient notion that life should be measured not by its duration but by its proportion and shape. Where tradition conceived this proportion as a moral or ethical quality—such that short life well lived is more perfect than long life lived without proportionately great purpose—Bacon instead called attention to the physical proportions of embodied life. This shift from the soul to the body, concomitant with historical transitions from theology and ethics toward science and politics, inaugurated a new paradigm by which to reevaluate existing hierarchies of life.

Perhaps more telling than the myriad causes and signs of longevity included in The History of Life and Death are those that Bacon excluded. His rejection of astrological influences on lifespan, for instance, is especially characteristic of seventeenth-century English culture. “Astrologicall Observations drawne from the Horoscope or Nativity,” Bacon declared, “are not allowable.”[17] Bacon’s exclusion of astrology served to shift focus to previously overlooked causes of longevity, including age, level of health, lifestyle, and even the marital status of one’s parents at conception.[18] He reported, for example, that the lives of bastards are shorter than the lives of legitimate children; the latter, “begotten in lawfull Wedlock, not in Fornication, and in the morning, their Parents being not too lusty and wanton, doe live long.”[19] Although this substitution of humoral theory for astrology represents a shift toward empiricism, Bacon’s observation of the lives of bastards betrays his own moralizing prejudices and ingrained ideologies. Notwithstanding the exhaustive capaciousness of The History of Life and Death, Bacon failed to take into account how socioeconomic hardship potentially influenced the longevity of bastards no less than the unlawfulness of their birth or the ostensible lust of their parents.

Bacon observed that the mother’s diet during pregnancy has “considerable” effects on the child’s longevity, but that it is difficult to give “rules for judging of Childrens long life by their begetting, and Birth,” for two reasons. First, individual life outcomes often contradicted expectations predicted by the data. Second, such prescriptions for longevity would require Bacon to hierarchize traditionally incommensurable values, such as whether it is better for English lives to be qualitatively strong or quantitatively long—something he was unwilling to do. “Children begotten with a lively courage, prove strong,” Bacon remarked, “but through their spirits sharpe inflammation are not long-liv’d.”[20] Rather than decide between improving life’s quality and increasing its quantity, Bacon envisioned a future where longer life and stronger life would be one and the same.

Defying the consensus among seventeenth-century physicians (still current today) that decay and senescence are both inevitable and irreversible, Bacon claimed that this belief is “ignorant and vaine,” because “young living creatures being all over and wholly repaired, do by their increasing in quantity, and growing better in quality, shew that if the measure and manner of repairing decayed not, the matter of repairing might be eternall.”[21] In other words, Bacon suggested that because up to a certain point young bodies become better as they age, then theoretically it should be possible to continue improving the quality of life indefinitely into old age. Centuries before the discovery of DNA and telomeres, Bacon intuited that the challenge of life-prolongation was not to preserve bodies themselves but rather to maintain the process by which bodies “repair” themselves.

The idea that nutritive, embodied life “might be eternall” reflects an immanentization of theological values within the sphere of biology. Investigating modern medicine’s preoccupation with life-prolongation, Michael Mack has argued that “the promise of eternal life has turned immanent in the medical ideal of the long life” such that “the term ‘longevity’ bears what Giorgio Agamben [calls] the theological ‘signature’ of eternal life.” [22] It would be possible to prolong quality life indefinitely, Bacon believed, were it not for “the unequall repairing of some parts sufficiently, others hardly and badly in Age,” which makes human bodies “undergoe Mezentius torment, living in the embraces of the dead untill they dye, and being easily repairable, yet through some particular difficulty in restoring, doe decay.”[23] Mezentius is the Etruscan king from Virgil’s Aeneid who killed people by binding them to dead corpses. The trope was widespread and versatile in Bacon’s culture.[24] In the context of life-prolongation, the allusion to Mezentius yields several interpretations that complicate Bacon’s hope that physicians will become “Stewards of Divine Omnipotency and Clemency, in prolonging and renewing the life of Man.”[25] First, Mezentius’ victims emblematize old age as a living death wherein some body parts continue to repair while other parts decay. Second, the trope refers to Bacon’s “two-fold search…considering mans body as livelesse and unnourished; and as living, and nourished.”[26] The allusion to Mezentius finally takes on a life of its own to betray Bacon’s potential misgivings about the new science of life-prolongation. Bacon’s contemporaries knew that Aeneas mortally wounds Mezentius in battle and that the latter’s son, Lausus, gives his own life to prevent Aeneas from finishing the kill. Surrounded by the dead and dying, Mezentius survives a short while longer to mourn his son, tragically epitomizing the disproportionately great cost of modest, even negligible, gains in life-prolongation.

It is well worth revisiting The History of Life and Death today, amidst growing public interest in and funding for life-prolonging initiatives at major universities, the Mayo Clinic, the Buck Institute, and biotech firms such as Google’s California Life Company. Notwithstanding advances of modern science that have met and surpassed Bacon’s expectations for life-prolongation—including refrigeration and the ability to sustain life through artificial nourishment—the state of the art has progressed modestly. According to Luigi Ferrucci, director of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging that has been ongoing since 1958, “on some of the big questions, such as whether longevity is caused mainly by genes or mainly by lifestyle and environment, we just have no idea at all.”[27] Still, many are hopeful, some even certain, as Bacon was four centuries ago, that a future of longer human life is imminent. If so, then now is the time to revisit ancient ethical questions about the relative values of life.

Aaron Lee Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in English from Northwestern University. He teaches Literature and Writing at Roosevelt University and National Louis University. He also serves on the Core Faculty of the McGaw Bioethics Clinical Scholars Program at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. Website: www.aaronleegreenberg.com

Works Cited

[1] Jeffrey Nealon, Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life (Stanford University Press, 2016), 36-37.

[2] Bacon, The historie of life and death, 7.

[3] Aristotle, De Anima, trans. J.A. Smith, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 557.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 14-15.

[5] Ibid., 79.

[6] Ibid., 15. See also Hobbes, Leviathan, 163. “The nutrition of a commonwealth consisteth, in the plenty, and distribution of materials conducing to life: in concoction, or preparation; and (when concocted) in the conveyance of it, by convenient conduits, to the public use.”

[7] Michel Foucault, “Right of Death and Power over Life,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rainbow (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 258-272;  265

[8] Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1.44. Cf. Hobbes, Leviathan, 82. “For as to the strength of the body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself.”

[9] Francis Bacon, The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 123.

[10] Hippocrates and Galen, The Aphorisms of Hippocrates, Prince of Physitians, ed. Jan Van Heurne (London, 1655).

[11] Bacon, The Major Works, 197.

[12] Ibid., 488-489.

[13] Bacon, The historie of life and death, 1-2. Bacon’s revision of Hippocrates recalls Marsilio Ficino’s argument in book 2 of Three Books on Life (De vita libri tres, 1489), promisingly titled How to Prolong Your Life. In the book’s first chapter—“For the perfecting of our knowledge, a long life is necessary: the care that must be taken”—Ficino “conclude[d] that Hippocrates was right in saying that art is long and that we are unable to pursue it unless we have a long life” (167).

[14] Bacon, Historie naturall and experimentall, of life and death, 137.

[15] Ibid., 121.

[16] Nikolas Rose has noted “the pessimism of most sociological critics, who suggest that we are seeing the rise of a new biological and genetic determinism. Instead I argue that we are seeing the emergence of a novel somatic ethics, imposing obligations yet imbued with hope, oriented to the future yet demanding action in the present. On the one hand, our vitality has been opened up as never before for economic exploitation and the extraction of biovalue, in a new bioeconomics that alters our very conception of ourselves in the same moment that it enables us to intervene upon ourselves in new ways, On the other hand, our somatic, corporeal neurochemical individuality has become opened up to choice, prudence, responsibility, to experimentation, to contestation, and so to a politics of life itself (The Politics of Life Itself, 8).

[17] Bacon, The historie of life and death, 124.

[18] Ibid., 117-118.

[19] Ibid., 118-119.

[20] Ibid., 118.

[21] Ibid., 1-2. Bacon’s suggestion that human bodies might be eternal articulates in a new scientific context the notion mythologized by Spenser in his account of the Gardin of Adonis, where “[a]ll things” come into being by “borrow[ing] matter, whereof they are made,” matter that “[b]ecomes a body, and doth then inuade/The state of life, out of the griesly shade./That substaunce is eterne,” remaining even after “the life decayes, and forme does fade,” perpetually assuming new forms of life (FQ, III.vi.37). But whereas Spenser’s eternal substance survives the individual lives of which it is a substrate, Bacon hopes to secure the identity of human bodies upon an eternal foundation. The idea of eternal matter was not new for early moderns, tracing back at least to the Roman poet Lucretius, who writes in On Nature of Things, which became a foundational text for early modern thought, that “[a]ll objects would be destroyed by a single cause/If there were not eternal matter to hold them together” and that “[m]atter…[c]an be eternal, though everything made of it dies” (De Rerum Natura, trans. C.H. Sisson [New York: Routledge, 2003], 21; 28. Cf. Gregg Easterbrook reiterates a version of Bacon’s hypothesis in a recent article in The Atlantic recently (“What Happens When We All Live to 100?”). “Drugs that lengthen health span are becoming to medical researchers what vaccines and antibiotics were to previous generations in the lab: their grail. If health-span research is successful, pharmaceuticals as remarkable as those earlier generations of drugs may result. In the process, society might learn the answer to an ancient mystery: Given that every cell in a mammal’s body contains the DNA blueprint of a healthy young version of itself, why do we age at all?”

[22] Michael Mack, Philosophy and Literature: Challenging Our Infatuation with Numbers (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 11.

[23] Ibid., 4.

[24] A group of Catholic authors supposed in 1630 that joining “in one selfe-same Societie” the Catholic Church and “all the other hereticall and schismaticall sects” was “like [joining] Mezentius dead bodies with liuing bodies” (Du Perron et al., The Reply of the Most Illustrious Cardinall of Perron, to the Answeare of the Most Excellent King of Great Britain [Douay, 1630], 405).

[25] Bacon, “To the Living and Posterity,” The historie of life and death.

[26] Bacon, The historie of life and death, 7.

[27] Luigi Ferrucci, quoted in Gregg Easterbrook, “What Happens When We All Live to 100?” The Atlantic, October 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/what-happens-when-we-all-live-to-100/379338/.

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