Francis Bacon, The Major Works

Bacon, Francis.  The Major Works.  New York: Oxford, 2002.

Francis Bacon was not the opponent of Aristotle and tradition that common knowledge made him to be.  Aristotle was only a problem when people read final causes into inanimate objects, thus rendering science impossible.  What was needed, and what Bacon struggled to say, was an understanding of nature as contingent rationality.

We are not seeking the “pure knowledge” of universals, a pre-fall knowledge (125).  Rather, what we aim for is knowledge as application, which is much closer to the biblical view of applied wisdom.

The error was not in using Aristotle’s forms and substances, but in the endless multiplying of them by the schoolmen (196).  This had the added error of reading them into nature, making nature something in itself rather than something contingent.

Metaphysics has its place as a tool, not a goal. It should be an open-ended system.

A Defense of a Life of Study

The Romans never ascended the heights of empire until they achieved the heights of other disciplines (131).  Societies that are too focused on teaching practicalities end up losing much of education.

Bacon’s main problem with previous models: the emphasis in those times was on copying rather than substance.  This was particularly the case in using Cicero as a model. This means substance is more important than the beauty of words.

On Trusting Authorities

“For disciples owe unto their masters a temporary belief and suspension of their own judgment until they be fully instructed” (144).  Antiquity helps us discover the truth, but once discovered we have to move forward. 

When one approaches nature (or rational inquiry), does one begin with “certainties” or does one maintain a humble and open frame of mind?  Bacon notes of older models: “If a man begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content with doubts, he shall end in certainties” (147).

Book II

Book II is a discourse on university curricula, of proper subjects of study and when to study them.  It is interesting, yet of limited value today. We get a short treatment of Bacon’s ambivalent attitude towards “magic.”  On one hand, he knew, ala the Bible, that delving into magic was forbidden.  On the other hand, he did not quite dismiss the sometimes accurate results from magic.  What we wanted and never got was a systematic understanding of “white magic.”

Interesting Tidbits and Essays

Bacon’s Essays are always insightful, if not always deep.  He has an interesting method of employing his main idea as the opening sentence.  If Bacon were alive today, he would dominate the Twitter world.

“Miracles convert not atheists, but idolaters” (191).

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out” (347).

“Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state, servants of fame; and servants of business” (359).

“As for nobility in particular persons; it is a reverend thing to see an ancient castle or building not in decay; or to see a fair timber tree sound and perfect” (365).

“I had rather believe all the fables in legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind” (371).

“We take cunning for a sinister or crooked wisdom” (383).

“It hath been an opinion, that the French are wiser than they seem, and the Spaniards seem wiser than they are” (389).

“Riches are for spending, and spending for honour and good actions” (396).

“Suspicions among thoughts are like bats amongst birds, they ever fly by twilight” (405).

“I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue” (409).

“Nature is often hidden; sometimes overcome; seldom extinguished” (417).

“Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set” (425).

Of course, there is his legendary essay on study, which is worth reading in its entirety.


Not everything Bacon said stands the test of time.  He was correct, however, to see the direction that scientific knowledge had to go.


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