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Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Born into an aristocratic family in London, Bacon studied at Cambridge University before beginning his residence at Gray’s Inn to prepare for a legal career.

After completing his education, he rose rapidly in the English government, eventually becoming Lord Chancellor.  But, as one source puts it,

His venality as a judge caused his downfall and imprisonment.

Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers, p. 277.

Bacon was ultimately pardoned by the king and spent the remainder of his life in philosophical pursuits.

In a New Scientist article published on the 400th anniversary of Bacon’s birth, author J.G. Crowther writes,

Bacon’s work on law influenced the drafting of the Code Napoleon, and the law reforms introduced by Sir Robert Peel, the originator of our “bobbies”.  As a lawyer, Bacon reached the head of his profession, and yet the law never had more than a secondary place in his interests.

Francis Bacon, Born 400 Years Ago

As a philosopher, Bacon is best known for his advocacy of inductive reasoning.  The Advancement of Learning is possibly his most famous work.

René Descartes (1596-1650)

In his humorous book Decartes in 90 Minutes, author Paul Strathern writes,

[Descartes] left school disappointed…His father sent him to study law at the University of Poitier.  [He] intended René to take up a respectable position in the legal profession just as his elder brother had done.  In those days such positions were filled by nepotism, a system that succeeded in producing approximately the same percentage of ludicrous and inadequate judges as today.  But after spending two years studying the law, Descartes decided that he had had enough of it.

Instead, he joined the military and later, after winning fame as a philosopher and mathematician, became personal tutor to the queen of Sweden.

A Discourse on Method and Meditations on the First Philosophy are two of his most important publications.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716)

Leibnitz was a true polymath who contributed to the development of mathematics, philosophy, and law.  He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Leipzig where his father was professor of moral philosophy.

Next he attended the University of Altdorf to study law.

Bertrand Russell tells us that

At the university he studied law, and in 1666 he obtained a Doctor’s degree at Altdorf, where he was offered a professorship, which he refused, saying he had “very different things in view.”

A History of Western Philosophy, p. 581.

Leibniz would become one of the leading philosophers and mathematicians in Europe.  He is most praised for his invention of calculus (which Newton also developed independently around the same time).

Voltaire (1694-1776)

François Marie Arouet (pen-named “Voltaire”) was born in Paris in 1694.  He received his early education from Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand.  Afterwards, young Voltaire was apprenticed to a notary in Paris and then sent to study law at Caen, Normandy.

But Voltaire had set his mind on a literary career.  According to William Durant,

When the time came for him to earn his living, he scandalized his father by proposing to take up literature as a profession.  “Literature,” said M. Arouet, “is the profession of the man who wishes to be useless to society and a burden to his relatives, and to die of hunger”;–one can see the table trembling under his emphasis.  So François went in for literature.

The Story of Philosophy, p. 262-263.

He is best known for his short satire Candide.

David Hume (1711-1776)

In his autobiography, Scottish philosopher David Hume tells us that he was born into a family of good standing.  His father came from landed gentry and his maternal grandfather, Sir David Falconer, was the president of the college of justice.

Hume did well in school and it’s no wonder that he was eventually sent to Edinburgh University to study law.  But Hume’s interest in literature soon led to him abandoning his legal education.

He writes,

My studious disposition, my sobriety, and my industry, gave my family a notion that the law was a proper profession for me; but I found an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning; and while they fancied I was pouring upon Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Virgil were the authors which I was secretly devouring.

During his life, he was best known as a historian.  But today he is considered one of Europe’s leading Empiricist philosophers.  Among his most notable works are Treatise of Human Nature, Philosophical Essays, and Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Born in Treves, Germany, Marx would become the foremost Socialist philosopher. 

Marx’s academic career was, at best, mediocre.  He studied law and philosophy first at the University of Bonn and then at the University of Berlin where he became acquainted with the writings of Hegel.

Rather than pursue a legal profession, Marx became a journalist, indefatigably publishing radical tracts about his Communist philosophy.

According to Marx,

The theory of the Communist may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.

Manifesto of the Communist Party, p. 21.

To H.L. Mencken,

Communism, like any other revealed religion, is largely made up of prophecies.