Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 3)

I first read about Bacon in a book by Francis Schaeffer.

John Whitehead in an article noted:

Bacon’s work epitomizes the spirit of twentieth century man—a grasping for meaning and dignity within an environment of dehumanization and meaninglessness. He once said: “Nietzsche forecast our future for us—he was the Cassandra of the nineteenth century—he told us it’s all so meaningless we might as well be extraordinary.”


Below is a portion of an article by Os Guinness

“I come too early. My time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way.” Nietzsche“To be a man means to reach toward being God.” Jean Paul Sartre“In seeking to become angels we may become less than men.” Pascal“True civilization does not lie in gas, nor in steam, nor in turntables. It lies in the reduction of the traces of original sin.” Baudelaire“It is becoming more and more obvious, that it is not starvation, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is mankind’s greatest danger.” Carl Jung“It is in our hearts that the evil lies, and it is from our hearts that it must be plucked Out.” Bertrand Russell“Oh great gods, how far he lies from his destination!” Fillini, Fellini’s Satyricon1


Western culture is marked at the present moment by a distinct slowing of momentum, or perhaps, more accurately, by a decline in purposefulness and an increase in cultural introspection. This temporary lull, this vacuum in thought and effective action, has been created by the convergence of three cultural trends, each emphasizing a loss of direction. The first is the erosion of the Christian basis of Western culture, an erosion with deep historical causes and clearly visible results. The second is the failure of optimistic humanism to provide an effective alternative in the leadership of the post-Christian culture. And the third is the failure of our generation’s counter culture to demonstrate a credible alternative to either of the other two — Western Christianity and humanism.

The convergence of these three factors in the late sixties marks this period as especially important. What is at stake is nothing less than the direction of Western man. Only a few years ago the dismissal of Christianity was held to be a prerequisite for cultural advance. The decline of Christianity thus represented a cure for man’s problems, not a cause. So with the dawning of optimistic humanism the decline of Christianity was welcomed. Its adherents would be the only losers.

But that was yesterday. And contemporary yesterdays have a habit of suddenly seeming a hundred years ago. Today the cultural memory of traditional values hangs precariously like late autumn leaves, and in the new wintry bleakness optimism itself is greying. Now it appears that all of Western culture may be the loser.

My purpose is first to examine humanism, partially as a movement in itself but even more as a backdrop against which to appreciate the need for an alternative; then to chart the alternative offered by the counter culture with all its kaleidescopic variety; and finally, to present a third way as a more viable option in the light of man’s current situation. The weaknesses in both humanism and the counter culture are pointed out, not to negate much that has been extremely sensitive and intensely human, but to show the inevitability of their failures. The critique at least serves to illustrate certain mistakes that must not be repeated, and it highlights important questions and dilemmas with which further alternatives must grapple.

A third way is desperately necessary because the present options are growing more obviously unacceptable. And, in fact, there is a Third Way — one which is becoming increasingly welcome to a large number of sensitive searchers and free-spirited individuals who make up a major part of those dissatisfied with things as they are. This Third Way holds the promise of realism without despair, involvement without frustration, hope without romanticism. It combines a concern for humanness with intellectual integrity, a love of truth with a love of beauty, conviction with compassion and deep spirituality. But this is running ahead.

The Surfacing of Pessimism

Now we can see an important point more clearly. Optimistic humanism was only one stream of secular humanism. Its reverse was pessimistic humanism, and if the optimism was characteristically strong in academic circles, it is now evident that pessimism was more prevalent in the wider reality of life. Pessimistic humanism was always there, like a subterranean stream, murky in its depths and dark in its apprehension of dilemmas. It is this subterranean stream that is now threatening to surface and usurp the dignity and dominance of optimistic humanism.

Again we must go back in history to realize the full importance of this surfacing pessimism. Its genius was to see that behind the apparent stability of the nineteenth-century world in which modern humanism was born stood a different reality. Both Nietzsche and Kirkegaard were men who lived in passionate revolt against the smugness of the nineteenth century, particularly against the cheapness of its religious faith and the brash confidence of its secular reasoning, or generally against its shallow optimism, wordy idealism and tendency to conform. Such a smug world was not just false but dangerously foolish, if the true nature of reality lay elsewhere.

It is amazing that this subterranean pessimism was not taken more seriously earlier. But it was derided as the “Devil’s Party” — the poets, philosophers and prophets of chaos and catastrophe — and all too easy to dismiss.13 Some were ignored. Their repeated warnings were simply relegated to the status of cultural myth having only an innocuous respectability. In 1832 Hemrich Heine had said, “Do you hear the little bell tinkle? Kneel down — one brings the sacraments for a dying God.”14 Nietzsche’s later cry of the death of God and his searching diagnosis (“Everything lacks meaning. What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The goal is lacking; the answer is lacking to our ‘Why?’”)15 were not taken seriously either. After all, wasn’t Heine a poet, and wasn’t Nietzsche later deranged?

Other warnings were dismissed as only to be expected from the theory or temperament of their particular authors. Repeatedly in the 1930s, George Orwell depicted Western intellectuals as men who in blithe ignorance were sawing off the very branch on which they were sitting. Malcolm Muggeridge in his articles lanced open the “death wish of liberalism.” C. S. Lewis carefully made his exposures in “The Funeral of a Great Myth.”16 But the serious disquiet of Orwell, the humorous if testy honesty of Muggeridge and the gentle clarity and utter reasonableness of C. S. Lewis were before their time. They were predictable. They were ignored.

But the rising tide of disquiet cannot now be ignored. It is becoming the accepted mood of much recent judgment, as a hundred illustrations could quickly show. Writing in 1961 specifically on problems of Western culture, Frantz Fanon mocked, “Look at them today, swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.”17 In the same context, Jean Paul Sartre challenged, “Let us look at ourselves if we can bear to, and see what is becoming of us. First we must face that unexpected revelation, the strip tease of our humanism.”18 These two men could easily be dismissed as pessimistic, prejudiced politically and philosophically, but the disquiet does not stop there. Coming closer to the heart of humanism and speaking almost as an heir to a distinguished humanist house, Aldous Huxley described himself this way: “I was born wandering between two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born, and have made in a curious way the worst of both.”19 From the world of science John Rader Platt, the American biophysicist, said, “The world has now become too dangerous for anything less than Utopia.”20 Norman O. Brown, a man famous for the lyrical romanticism of his visions, admitted, “Today even the survival of humanity is a utopian hope.”21

There can be no stable equilibrium between optimism and pessimism but only an uneasy oscillation between the two. Optimistic humanism is strong in its stress on the aspirations of man but weak in its understanding of his aberrations. Accordingly, it lacks a base for the fulfillment of the former and its solutions to the latter are deficient; thus its ultimate optimism is eternally romantic. Pessimistic humanism, on the other hand, insists on the absurdity of man’s aspirations and speaks to the heart of his aberrations, but the price of its realism is the constant pull toward despair. This clear contrast throws further light on the current crisis.

Four Pillars of Optimistic Humanism

Optimistic humanism is being exposed as idealism without sufficient ideals. More accurately, its ideals are impossible to attain without a sufficient basis in truth, and this is just what its rationalistic premises are unable to provide. This is the key weakness of each of the four central pillars of optimistic humanism.

The first pillar is the belief in reason. Here optimistic humanism is forced to its initial leap of faith… Much of what was called reasoning is now more properly called rationalizing.

Modern philosophy also has reduced the pretentions of reason. For man, speaking from a finite reference point without divine revelation, to claim to have found a “universal” is not just to be mistaken. The claim itself is meaningless. For most modern men, objectivity, universals or absolutes are in a realm beyond the scope of reason; in this realm there is only the existential, non-rational, subjective understanding of truth.

Both psychology and philosophy have thus clipped the proud wings of rationalism and the unlimited usefulness of reason by itself. By rationalism I do not mean “rationalism” as opposed to “empiricism” but rather the hidden premise common to both — the humanist’s leap of faith in which the critical faculty of reason is tacitly made into an absolute and used as a super-tool to marshal particulars and claim meaning which in fact is proper only to the world of universals.

The second pillar is the belief in progress. The orientation toward the future introduced into Western culture by Christian linear teleology was secularized by the Enlightenment. Ostensibly it had been given objective scientific support by the evolutionary theory. It was widely believed that nature was marching forward inevitably to higher and higher views of life (as expressed, for instance, in the philosophy of Herbert Spencer). But this is now being drastically undermined. Many point to evidence of an evolutionary crisis, somewhat tarnishing the comfortable image of inevitable progress with man at the center of the stage controlling his own evolution. Some even predict the extinction of the human species.

The third pillar is the belief in science as the guide to human progress and the provider of an alternative to both religion and morals. If “evolution is good,” then evolution must be allowed to proceed and the very process of change becomes absolutized.

The fourth pillar is the belief in the self-sufficiency of man. A persistent erosion of man’s view of himself is occurring. The fact that man has made so many significant scientific discoveries points strongly to the significance of man, yet the content of these same scientific discoveries underscores his insignificance. Man finds himself dwarfed bodily by the vast stretches of space and belittled temporally by the long reaches of time. Humanists are caught in a strange dilemma. If they affirm the greatness of man, it is only at the expense of ignoring his aberrations. If they regard human aberrations seriously, they have to escape the dilemma raised, either by blaming the situation on God (and how often those most strongly affirming the non-existence of God have a perverse propensity to question his goodness!) or by reducing man to the point of insignificance where his aberrations are no longer a problem. During World War II, Einstein, plagued by the mounting monstrosity of man against man, was heard to mutter to himself, “After all, this is a small star.”23 He escaped the dilemmas of man’s crime and evil but only at the price of undermining man’s significance.


  • Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 125, in The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), p. 96; C. G. Jung. “Epilogue,” Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Routledge Books, 1933); Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 110; Federico Fellini, Fellini’s Satyricon, ed. Darlo Zanelli, trans. Eugene Walters and John Matthews (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), p. 269.
  • Quoted in Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (London: John Murray Ltd., 1971), p. 104.
  • Quoted in ibid., p. 101.
  • Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1966), p. 44.
  • Ibid.,p.417.
  • Michael Harrington, The Accidental Century (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 31.
  • Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (New York: Mentor Books, 1951).
  • Julian Huxley, ed., The Humanist Frame (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1961), p. 44.
  • Ibid.,p.7.
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne, “Hymn of Man.”
  • J. Huxley, p. 6.
  • Ibid., p. 26.
  • Harrington, p. 35.
  • Heinrich Heine, quoted in WaIter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), p. 375.
  • Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 1-2, quoted in Kaufmann, p. 103.
  • C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (London: Geoffrey Bles Ltd., 1967), p. 82.
  • Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 251.
  • lbid., p.21.
  • Letter of Aldous Huxley to Sibylle Bedford quoted in Time, May 4, 1970.
  • J. R. Platt, The Step to Man (New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1966), p. 196.
  • Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death (London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1968), p. 267.
  • See discussion in Nigel Calder, Technopolis (London: MacGibbon & Kee Ltd., 1969), pp. 98-99.
  • Arnold Toynbee, “Changing Attitudes towards Death in the Modern Western World” in Arnold Toynbee and others, Man’s Concern with Death (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1968), p. 125.
  • Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1967), p. 15.
  • Viktor E. Frankl, “Reductionism and Nihilism” in Beyond Reductionism, ed. Arthur Koestler and J. R. Smythies (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1969), p. 398.
  • Mortimer J. Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (London: Holt, Rinehart & Winston Ltd., 1967).
  • Quoted in T. M. Kitwood, What Is Human? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1970), p. 49.
  • Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, IV, 1, as quoted in Kaufmann, pp. 83-84.
  • Harrington, p. 26.
  • Koestler, p. 313.
  • Fanon, pp. 251-52.
  • Harrington, p. 36.
  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, Standard Works of Freud, 21 (London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1961), p. 91-92.
  • Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), pp. 243-44.
  • Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 125.
  • Quoted in Gay, p. 65.
  • Quoted in Kitwood, p. 54.
  • Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 75.
  • Nietzsche, p. 409.
  • Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, I, 11, in The Portable Nietzsche, p. 160.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed (New York: Signet Classics, 1962), pp. 384-85.
  • Camus, The Rebel, p. 199.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, Inc., 1968), p. 733.
  • Quoted in Camus, The Rebel, p. 58.
  • Quoted in ibid., p. 62.
  • Quoted in ibid.
  • Quoted in ibid.
  • Heller, p. 76.
  • Nietzsche, Zarathustra’s Prologue, 4, in The Portable Nietzsche, p. 126.
  • Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 191.
  • Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 566.
  • Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1956).
  • Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1958).
  • Yoko Ono, Grapefruit (London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1970).
  • Paul Simon, The Paul Simon Songbook, C.B.S. 62579.
  • Jean Luc Godard, La Chinoise, filmed 1967.
  • Quoted in H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1970), p. 174.
  • Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), p.321.
  • Chores and Roy Medvedev, A Question of Madness (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
  • “Psychoadaptation, or How to Handle Dissenters,” Time,September 27, 1971, p. 45.
  • lbid., p.44.
  • Quoted in Harrison Salisbury, “Introduction,” The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. ix.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (New York: Bantam Books, 1958), p. 71.
  • Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 123.
  • Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Routledge Books, 1956).
  • R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 24.
  • Ibid., p.24.
  • David Cooper, ed., The Dialectics of Liberation (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968).
  • Malcolm Muggeridge, Tread Softly for You Tread on My Jokes (Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.), p. 28.
  • Ibid., p. 29.
  • Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs (Glasgow: Fontana, 1970), p. 70.
  • Ibid., p. 44.
  • Ibid., p. 339.
  • Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, trans. Anna Bostock (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963).
  • Lewis Feuer, “What Is Alienation? The Career of a Concept,” New Politics, Spring 1962, pp. 116-34.
  • Fischer, p. 80.
  • Erich Frornm, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1961).
  • Hermann Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 4 vols. (Nutley, N.J.: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1957); The Twilight of Western Thought (Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1960).
  • Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1968); Escape from Reason(Downers Grove, III.: InterVarsity Press, 1968).
  • J. A. Rushdoony, “Preface,” Dooyeweerd, The Twilight of Western Thought, p. 9.
  • Camus, The Rebel, p. 16.
  • Nietzsche in a letter to Gersdorff, November 7, 1970, quoted in Erich Heller, p. 70.
  • Ibid., p.181.
  • Fromm, Sane Society, p. 360.
  • Laing, The Politics of Experience, p. 118.


Os Guinness is an Englishman born in China during the war with Japan and educated at the University of London. He has traveled widely in the East and lectured to student groups in Europe, the United States and Canada. His major work was with Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland.

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