Chapter 2e

The Idols of the Theater


61 The idols of the theatre:

  • are not innate
  • do not introduce themselves secretly into the understanding
  • are instilled and cherished by the fictions of theories and depraved rules of demonstration.

To attempt, however, or undertake their confutation would not be consistent with our declarations.

For since we neither agree in our principles nor our demonstrations, all argument is out of the question. And it is fortunate that the ancients are left in possession of their honors.

We detract nothing from them, seeing our whole doctrine relates only to the[34] path to be pursued. The lame (as they say) in the path outstrip the swift who wander from it, and it is clear that the very skill and swiftness of him who runs not in the right direction must increase his aberration.

Our method of discovering the sciences is such as to leave little to the acuteness and strength of wit, and indeed rather to level wit and intellect. For as in the drawing of a straight line, or accurate circle by the hand, much depends on its steadiness and practice, but if a ruler or compass be employed there is little occasion for either; so it is with our method.

Although, however, we enter into no individual confutations, yet a little must be said, first, of the sects and general divisions of these species of theories; secondly, something further to show that there are external signs of their weakness; and, lastly, we must consider the causes of so great a misfortune, and so long and general a unanimity in error, that we may thus render the access to truth less difficult, and that the human understanding may the more readily be purified, and brought to dismiss its idols.

62 The idols of the theatre, or of theories, are numerous, and may, and perhaps will, be still more so.

For unless men’s minds had been now occupied for many ages in religious and theological considerations, and civil governments (especially monarchies), had been averse to novelties of that nature even in theory (so that men must apply to them with some risk and injury to their own fortunes, and not only without reward, but subject to contumely and envy), there is no doubt that many other sects of philosophers and theorists would have been introduced, like those which formerly flourished in such diversified abundance among the Greeks.

For as many imaginary theories of the heavens can be deduced from the phenomena of the sky, so[35] it is even more easy to found many dogmas upon the phenomena of philosophy—and the plot of this our theatre resembles those of the poetical, where the plots which are invented for the stage are more consistent, elegant, and pleasurable than those taken from real history.

In general, men take for the groundwork of their philosophy either too much from a few topics, or too little from many; in either case their philosophy is founded on too narrow a basis of experiment and natural history, and decides on too scanty grounds. For the theoretic philosopher seizes various common circumstances by experiment, without reducing them to certainty or examining and frequently considering them, and relies for the rest upon meditation and the activity of his wit.

There are other philosophers who have diligently and accurately attended to a few experiments, and have thence presumed to deduce and invent systems of philosophy, forming everything to conformity with them.

A third set, from their faith and religious veneration, introduce theology and traditions; the absurdity of some among them having proceeded so far as to seek and derive the sciences from spirits and genii. There are, therefore, three sources of error and three species of false philosophy; the sophistic, empiric, and superstitious.

63 Aristotle is the most eminent instance of the first. He:

  • corrupted natural philosophy by logic.
  • formed the world of categories
  • assigned to the human soul the noblest of substances, a genus determined by words of secondary operation
  • treated of density and rarity (by which bodies occupy a greater or lesser space)
  • by the frigid distinctions of action and power, asserted that there was a peculiar and proper motion in all bodies[36]
  • if they shared in any other motion, it was owing to an external moving cause,
  • imposed innumerable arbitrary distinctions on the nature of things
  • was more anxious to definitions in teaching and the accuracy of the wording of his propositions, than the internal truth of things.

The greatest natural philosophies of among the Greeks were:

  • the similar parts of Anaxagoras
  • the atoms of Leucippus and Democritus
  • the heaven and earth of Parmenides
  • the discord and concord of Empedocles[26]
  • the resolution of bodies into the common nature of fire
    • their condensation according to Heraclitus

Aristotle’s physics are mere logical terms.

  • He remodelled the same subject in his metaphysics under a more imposing title.
  • He was more a realist than a nominalist.

Nor is much stress to be laid on his frequent recourse to experiment in his books on animals, his problems, and other treatises; for he had already decided, without having properly consulted experience as the basis of his decisions and axioms, and after having so decided, he drags experiment along as a captive constrained to accommodate herself to his decisions: so that he is even more to be blamed than his modern followers (of the scholastic school) who have deserted her altogether.

64 The empiric school produces more deformed and monstrous dogmas than the sophistic or theoretic school.

It is not founded in the light of common notions (which, however poor and superstitious, is yet in a manner universal, and of a general tendency), but in the confined obscurity of a few experiments.

Hence this species of philosophy appears probable, and almost certain to those who are daily practiced in such experiments, and have thus corrupted their imagination, but incredible and futile to others.

An example is the alchemists and their dogmas

We could not, however, neglect to caution others against this school, because we already foresee and augur, that if men be hereafter induced by our exhortations to apply seriously to experiments (bidding farewell to the sophistic doctrines), there will then be imminent danger from empirics, owing to the premature and forward haste of the understanding, and its jumping or flying to generalities and the principles of things. We ought, therefore, already to meet the evil.

45 The corruption of philosophy by the mixing of it up with superstition and theology, is of a much wider extent, and is most injurious to it both as a whole and in parts.

For the human understanding is no less exposed to the impressions of fancy, than to those of vulgar notions. The disputatious and sophistic school entraps the understanding, while the fanciful, bombastic, and, as it were, poetical school, rather flatters it.

There is a clear example of this[38] among the Greeks, especially in Pythagoras, where, however, the superstition is coarse and overcharged, but it is more dangerous and refined in Plato and his school. This evil is found also in some branches of other systems of philosophy, where it introduces abstracted forms, final and first causes, omitting frequently the intermediate and the like. Against it we must use the greatest caution; for the apotheosis of error is the greatest evil of all, and when folly is worshipped, it is, as it were, a plague spot upon the understanding. Yet some of the moderns have indulged this folly with such consummate inconsiderateness, that they have endeavored to build a system of natural philosophy on the first chapter of Genesis, the book of Job, and other parts of Scripture; seeking thus the dead among the living.[28]

This folly is the more to be prevented and restrained, because not only fantastical philosophy, but heretical religion spring from the absurd mixture of matters divine and human. It is therefore most wise soberly to render unto faith the things that are faith’s.


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