Editor's comment

Bacon’s achievement was indirect but it was a paradigm change of monumental proportions. His writings motivated the intellects who changed the world and spelled out the optimism and resolution of the Renaissance.

He thought that given time men could control and remake everything and, in Will Durant’s words, “perhaps at last learn the noblest lesson of all. That man must not fight man, but must make war only on the obstacles that nature offers to the triumph of man.”

Bacon writes, “It will not be amiss to distinguish the three kinds, and as it were grades, of ambition in mankind. The first is of those who desire to extend their power in their native country; which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labor to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men; this certainly has more dignity, but not less covetousness. But if a man endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition is without doubt both a more wholesome thing and a nobler than the other two.”





Reading on: The Baconian worldview

Randall, John H. Jr. The Making of the Modern Mind Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Columbia University Press, New York 1976 [excerpts — 950 words]


Francis Bacon’s patient collection of instances without much plan and without the use of mathematics was not destined to be used by the great seventeenth-century physicists; but looking beyond them and their narrower interests, he foresaw the vaster realms where mathematics has as yet had little scope, and such collecting is the only source of knowledge. In natural history and in biology — in Darwin’s formulation of his famous theory — Bacon’s method has been most literally followed.

This early faith in method is shared by Bacon and Descartes. Bacon says, “The cause and root of nearly all evils in the sciences is this — that while we falsely extol and admire the powers of the human mind we neglect to seek for its true helps. Neither the naked hand nor the understanding left to itself can effect much. It is by instruments and helps that the work is done, which are as much wanted for the understanding as for the hand.”

His contemporary Descartes went farther, as well he might, for it was he who formulated, generalized, and popularized Galileo’s ideas. “The power of forming a good judgment and of distinguishing the true from the false — common sense or reason — is by nature equal in all men. The diversity of our opinions does not proceed from some men being more rational than others, but solely from the fact that our thoughts pass through diverse channels. For to be possessed of good mental powers is not sufficient; the principal matter is to apply them well” — in a word, Method is the whole secret of success in science, that method which is “a more powerful instrument of knowledge than any other that has been bequeathed to us by human agency, as being the source of all others.”

Francis Bacon, writing at the end of this whole formative period of disgust with the old learning and search for a new method, can well summarize the great intellectual change. He attacks “contentious learning” [the citing of Greek authorities] as a study of words and not matter. The famed Greeks “assuredly have that which is characteristic of boys; they are prompt to prattle but cannot generate; for their wisdom abounds in words but is barren of works… From all these systems of the Greeks, and their ramifications through particular sciences, there can hardly after the lapse of so many years be adduced a single experiment which tends to relieve and benefit the condition of man.”

[Bacon urged] men to turn to a method that should give them knowledge both certain and useful. That is the greatest note sounded by all these eager seekers— useful knowledge. No longer the glory of God, but the enlarging of the bounds of human empire over nature — that is the new goal of science…

In this search for power over Nature, this Faust-like spirit of the new science occurs at last the marriage of the knowledge of the world and the service of man. It was science serving… the rising commercial and industrial classes. All the early scientific thinkers shared this gospel of bending Nature to man’s will; but one has made it peculiarly his own by his ringing enthusiasm and iteration, and it is this we mean when we speak of the “Baconian spirit.”

“Now the true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers.” Not power over men, but power over Nature; and that power is the fruit of knowledge. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; not by the anticipation of Nature in some magic dream, but by the study and interpretation of Nature will there rise the kingdom of man. Such investigation is “laborious to search, ignoble to meditate, harsh to deliver, illiberal to practice, infinite in number, and minute in subtlety.” But none the less it is the noblest jewel in man’s possession, for “of a truth the knowledge of the causes and secret motions of things has proved to bring the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

That this practical goal of science was shared not merely by the inspired prophet but by the real investigators of physics, needs only a closing quotation from the great formulator of the new world view, Descartes. “It is possible to attain knowledge which is very useful in life instead of that speculative philosophy which is taught in the Schools… and thus render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.”