Chapter 1 Book 2 of Nova Organum

THE INTERPRETATION OF NATURE Icon

January 31, 2022

92 By far the greatest obstacle to the advancement of the sciences, and the undertaking of any new attempt or department, is in men’s despair and the idea of impossibility.

Men of a prudent and exact turn of thought are altogether diffident in matters of this nature, considering the obscurity of nature, the shortness of life, the deception of the senses, and weakness of the judgment.

They think, therefore, that in the revolutions of ages and of the world there are certain floods and ebbs of the sciences, and that they grow and flourish at one time, and wither and fall off at another, that when they have attained a certain degree and condition they can proceed no further.

If, therefore, any one believe or promise greater things, they impute it to an uncurbed and immature mind, and imagine that such efforts begin pleasantly, then become[74] laborious, and end in confusion. And since such thoughts easily enter the minds of men of dignity and excellent judgment, we must really take heed lest we should be captivated by our affection for an excellent and most beautiful object, and relax or diminish the severity of our judgment; and we must diligently examine what gleam of hope shines upon us, and in what direction it manifests itself, so that, banishing her lighter dreams, we may discuss and weigh whatever appears of more sound importance.

We must consult the prudence of ordinary life, too, which is diffident upon principle, and in all human matters augurs the worst. Let us, then, speak of hope, especially as we are not vain promisers, nor are willing to enforce or insnare men’s judgment, but would rather lead them willingly forward. And although we shall employ the most cogent means of enforcing hope when we bring them to particulars, and especially those which are digested and arranged in our Tables of Invention (the subject partly of the second, but principally of the fourth part of the Instauration), which are, indeed, rather the very object of our hopes than hope itself; yet to proceed more leniently we must treat of the preparation of men’s minds, of which the manifestation of hope forms no slight part; for without it all that we have said tends rather to produce a gloom than to encourage activity or quicken the industry of experiment, by causing them to have a worse and more contemptuous opinion of things as they are than they now entertain, and to perceive and feel more thoroughly their unfortunate condition. We must, therefore, disclose and prefix our reasons for not thinking the hope of success improbable, as Columbus, before his wonderful voyage over the Atlantic, gave the reasons of his conviction that new lands and continents might be discovered besides those[75] already known; and these reasons, though at first rejected, were yet proved by subsequent experience, and were the causes and beginnings of the greatest events.

83 Let us begin from God, and show that our pursuit from its exceeding goodness clearly proceeds from him, the author of good and father of light.

In all divine works, the smallest beginnings lead assuredly to some result, and the remark in spiritual matters that “the kingdom of God cometh without observation,” is also found to be true in every great work of Divine Providence, so that everything glides quietly on without confusion or noise, and the matter is achieved before men either think or perceive that it is commenced.

Nor should we neglect to mention the prophecy of Daniel, of the last days of the world, “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased,”[56] thus plainly hinting and suggesting that fate (which is Providence) would cause the complete circuit of the globe (now accomplished, or at least going forward by means of so many distant voyages), and the increase of learning to happen at the same epoch.

94 We will next give a most potent reason for hope deduced from the errors of the past, and the ways still unattempted; for well was an ill-governed state thus reproved, “That which is worst with regard to the past should appear most consolatory for the future; for if you had done all that your duty commanded, and your affairs proceeded no better, you could not even hope for their improvement; but since their present unhappy situation is not owing to the force of circumstances, but to your own errors, you have reason to hope that by banishing or correcting the latter[76] you can produce a great change for the better in the former.”

So if men had, during the many years that have elapsed, adhered to the right way of discovering and cultivating the sciences without being able to advance, it would be assuredly bold and presumptuous to imagine it possible to improve; but if they have mistaken the way and wasted their labor on improper objects, it follows that the difficulty does not arise from things themselves, which are not in our power, but from the human understanding, its practice and application, which is susceptible of remedy and correction. Our best plan, therefore, is to expose these errors; for in proportion as they impeded the past, so do they afford reason to hope for the future. And although we have touched upon them above, yet we think it right to give a brief, bare, and simple enumeration of them in this place.

95 Those who have treated of the sciences have been either:

  • empirics or
    • These are like ants which only heap up and use their store
  • dogmatical.[57]
    • These are like spiders which spin out their own webs.

The bee is a mean between both. It extracts matter from the flowers of the garden and the field, but works and fashions it by its own efforts.

The true labor of philosophy resembles hers, for it neither relies entirely or principally on the powers of the mind, nor yet lays up in the memory the matter afforded by the experiments of natural history and mechanics in its raw state, but changes and works it in the understanding. We have good reason,[77] therefore, to derive hope from a closer and purer alliance of these faculties (the experimental and rational) than has yet been attempted.

96 Natural philosophy is not yet to be found unadulterated, but is impure and corrupted—by logic in the school of Aristotle, by natural theology in that of Plato,[58] by mathematics in the second school of Plato (that of Proclus and others)[59] which ought rather to terminate natural philosophy than to generate or create it. We may, therefore, hope for better results from pure and unmixed natural philosophy.

97 No one has yet had the firmness and severity to resolve upon and undertake the task of entirely abolishing common theories and notions, and applying the mind afresh, when thus cleared and levelled, to particular researches;

hence our human reasoning is a mere farrago and crude mass made up of a great deal of credulity and accident, and the puerile notions it originally contracted.

But if a man of mature age, unprejudiced senses, and clear mind, would betake himself anew to experience and particulars, we might hope much more from such a one; in which respect we promise ourselves the fortune of Alexander the Great, and let none accuse us of vanity till they have heard the tale, which is intended to check vanity.

For Aeschines spoke thus of Alexander and his exploits:

“We live not the life of mortals, but are born at such a period that posterity will relate and declare our prodigies”

As if he considered the exploits of Alexander to be miraculous.

But in succeeding ages[60], Livy took a better view of the fact, and has made some such observation as this upon Alexander: “That he did no more than dare to despise insignificance.”

So in our opinion posterity will judge of us, that we have achieved no great matters, but only set less account upon what is considered important; for the meantime (as we have before observed) our only hope is in the regeneration of the sciences, by regularly raising them on the foundation of experience and building them anew, which I think none can venture to affirm to have been already done or even thought of.

98 The foundations of experience (our sole resource) have hitherto failed completely or have been very weak; nor has a store and collection of particular facts, capable of informing the mind or in any way satisfactory, been either sought after or amassed.

On the contrary, learned, but idle and indolent, men have received some[79] mere reports of experience, traditions as it were of dreams, as establishing or confirming their philosophy, and have not hesitated to allow them the weight of legitimate evidence.

So that a system has been pursued in philosophy with regard to experience resembling that of a kingdom or state which would direct its councils and affairs according to the gossip of city and street politicians, instead of the letters and reports of ambassadors and messengers worthy of credit.

Nothing is rightly inquired into, or verified, noted, weighed, or measured, in natural history; indefinite and vague observation produces fallacious and uncertain information. If this appear strange, or our complaint somewhat too unjust (because Aristotle himself, so distinguished a man and supported by the wealth of so great a king, has completed an accurate history of animals, to which others with greater diligence but less noise have made considerable additions, and others again have composed copious histories and notices of plants, metals, and fossils), it will arise from a want of sufficiently attending to and comprehending our present observations; for a natural history compiled on its own account, and one collected for the mind’s information as a foundation for philosophy, are two different things.

They differ in several respects, but principally in this—the former contains only the varieties of natural species without the experiments of mechanical arts; for as in ordinary life every person’s disposition, and the concealed feelings of the mind and passions are most drawn out when they are disturbed—so the secrets of nature betray themselves more readily when tormented by art than when left to their own course. We must begin, therefore, to entertain hopes of natural philosophy then only, when we have a better compilation of natural history, its real basis and support.

99 Even in the abundance of mechanical experiments, there is a very great scarcity of those which best inform and assist the understanding.

For the mechanic, little solicitous about the investigation of truth, neither directs his attention, nor applies his hand to anything that is not of service to his business. But our hope of further progress in the sciences will then only be well founded, when numerous experiments shall be received and collected into natural history, which, though of no use in themselves, assist materially in the discovery of causes and axioms; which experiments we have termed enlightening, to distinguish them from those which are profitable. They possess this wonderful property and nature, that they never deceive or fail you; for being used only to discover the natural cause of some object, whatever be the result, they equally satisfy your aim by deciding the question.

100 We must not only search for, and procure a greater number of experiments, but also introduce a completely different method, order, and progress of continuing and promoting experience. For vague and arbitrary experience is (as we have observed), mere groping in the dark, and rather astonishes than instructs. But when experience shall proceed regularly and uninterruptedly by a determined rule, we may entertain better hopes of the sciences.

101 But after having collected and prepared an abundance and store of natural history, and of the experience required for the operations of the understanding or philosophy, still the understanding is as incapable of acting on such materials of itself, with the aid of memory alone, as any person would be of retaining and achieving, by memory, the computation of an almanac.

Yet meditation has hitherto done more for discovery than writing, and no[81] experiments have been committed to paper. We cannot, however, approve of any mode of discovery without writing, and when that comes into more general use, we may have further hopes.

102 Besides this, there is such a multitude and host, as it were, of particular objects, and lying so widely dispersed, as to distract and confuse the understanding; and we can, therefore, hope for no advantage from its skirmishing, and quick movements and incursions, unless we put its forces in due order and array, by means of proper and well arranged, and, as it were, living tables of discovery of these matters, which are the subject of investigation, and the mind then apply itself to the ready prepared and digested aid which such tables afford.

103 When we have thus properly and regularly placed before the eyes a collection of particulars, we must not immediately proceed to the investigation and discovery of new particulars or effects, or, at least, if we do so, must not rest satisfied therewith. For, though we do not deny that by transferring the experiments from one art to another (when all the experiments of each have been collected and arranged, and have been acquired by the knowledge, and subjected to the judgment of a single individual), many new experiments may be discovered tending to benefit society and mankind, by what we term literate experience; yet comparatively insignificant results are to be expected thence, while the more important are to be derived from the new light of axioms, deduced by certain method and rule from the above particulars, and pointing out and defining new particulars in their turn. Our road is not a long plain, but rises and falls, ascending to axioms, and descending to effects.

104 Nor can we suffer the understanding to jump and fly from particulars to remote and most general axioms (such as are termed the principles of arts and things), and thus prove and make out their intermediate axioms according to the supposed unshaken truth of the former.

This, however, has always been done to the present time from the natural bent of the understanding, educated too, and accustomed to this very method, by the syllogistic mode of demonstration. But we can then only augur well for the sciences, when the assent shall proceed by a true scale and successive steps, without interruption or breach, from particulars to the lesser axioms, thence to the intermediate (rising one above the other), and lastly, to the most general. For the lowest axioms differ but little from bare experiment;[61] the highest and most general (as they are esteemed at present), are notional, abstract, and of no real weight. The intermediate are true, solid, full of life, and upon them depend the business and fortune of mankind; beyond these are the really general, but not abstract, axioms, which are truly limited by the intermediate.

We must not then add wings, but rather lead and ballast to the understanding, to prevent its jumping or flying, which has not yet been done; but whenever this takes place, we may entertain greater hopes of the sciences.

105 In forming axioms, we must invent a different form of induction from that hitherto in use; not only for the proof and discovery of principles (as they are called), but also of minor, intermediate, and, in short, every kind of axioms.

The induction which proceeds by simple enumeration is puerile, leads to uncertain conclusions, and is exposed to danger from one contradictory instance, deciding generally from too small a number of facts, and those only the most obvious.

But a really useful induction for the discovery and demonstration of the arts and sciences, should separate nature by proper rejections and exclusions, and then conclude for the affirmative, after collecting a sufficient number of negatives.

Now this has not been done, nor even attempted, except perhaps by Plato, who certainly uses this form of induction in some measure, to sift definitions and ideas.

But much of what has never yet entered the thoughts of man must necessarily be employed, in order to exhibit a good and legitimate mode of induction or demonstration, so as even to render it essential for us to bestow more pains upon it than have hitherto been bestowed on syllogisms. The assistance of induction is to serve us not only in the discovery of axioms, but also in defining our notions. Much indeed is to be hoped from such an induction as has been described.

106 In forming our axioms from induction, we must examine and try whether the axiom we derive be only fitted and calculated for the particular instances from which it is[84] deduced, or whether it be more extensive and general.

If it be the latter, we must observe, whether it confirm its own extent and generality by giving surety, as it were, in pointing out new particulars, so that we may neither stop at actual discoveries, nor with a careless grasp catch at shadows and abstract forms, instead of substances of a determinate nature: and as soon as we act thus, well authorized hope may with reason be said to beam upon us.

107 Here, too, we may again repeat what we have said above, concerning the extending of natural philosophy and reducing particular sciences to that one, so as to prevent any schism or dismembering of the sciences; without which we cannot hope to advance.

108 Such are the observations we would make in order to remove despair and excite hope, by bidding farewell to the errors of past ages, or by their correction. Let us examine whether there be other grounds for hope.

First, if many useful discoveries have occurred to mankind by chance or opportunity, without investigation or attention on their part, it must necessarily be acknowledged that much more may be brought to light by investigation and attention, if it be regular and orderly, not hasty and interrupted.

Aalthough it may now and then happen that one falls by chance upon something that had before escaped considerable efforts and laborious inquiries, yet undoubtedly the reverse is generally the case. We may, therefore, hope for further, better, and more frequent results from man’s reason, industry, method, and application, than from chance and mere animal instinct, and the like, which have hitherto been the sources of invention.

109 We may also derive some reason for hope from the circumstance of several actual inventions being of such a[85] nature, that scarcely any one could have formed a conjecture about them previously to their discovery, but would rather have ridiculed them as impossible.

For men are wont to guess about new subjects from those they are already acquainted with, and the hasty and vitiated fancies they have thence formed: than which there cannot be a more fallacious mode of reasoning, because much of that which is derived from the sources of things does not flow in their usual channel.

If, for instance, before the discovery of cannon, one had described its effects in the following manner: There is a new invention by which walls and the greatest bulwarks can be shaken and overthrown from a considerable distance; men would have begun to contrive various means of multiplying the force of projectiles and machines by means of weights and wheels, and other modes of battering and projecting.

But it is improbable that any imagination or fancy would have hit upon a fiery blast, expanding and developing itself so suddenly and violently, because none would have seen an instance at all resembling it, except perhaps in earthquakes or thunder, which they would have immediately rejected as the great operations of nature, not to be imitated by man.

So, if before the discovery of silk thread, any one had observed, that a species of thread had been discovered, fit for dresses and furniture, far surpassing the thread of worsted or flax in fineness, and at the same time in tenacity, beauty, and softness; men would have begun to imagine something about Chinese plants, or the fine hair of some animals, or the feathers or down of birds, but certainly would never have had an idea of its being spun by a small worm, in so copious a manner, and renewed annually. But if any one had ventured to suggest the silkworm, he would[86] have been laughed at as if dreaming of some new manufacture from spiders.

So again, if before the discovery of the compass, any one had said, that an instrument had been invented, by which the quarters and points of the heavens could be exactly taken and distinguished, men would have entered into disquisitions on the refinement of astronomical instruments, and the like, from the excitement of their imaginations; but the thought of anything being discovered, which, not being a celestial body, but a mere mineral or metallic substance, should yet in its motion agree with that of such bodies, would have appeared absolutely incredible. Yet were these facts, and the like (unknown for so many ages) not discovered at last either by philosophy or reasoning, but by chance and opportunity; and (as we have observed), they are of a nature most heterogeneous, and remote from what was hitherto known, so that no previous knowledge could lead to them.

We may, therefore, well hope[62] that many excellent and useful matters are yet treasured up in the bosom of nature, bearing no relation or analogy to our actual discoveries, but out of the common track of our imagination, and still undiscovered, and which will doubtless be brought to light in the course and lapse of years, as the others have been before them; but in the way we now point out, they may rapidly and at once be both represented and anticipated.

110 There are, moreover, some inventions which render[87] it probable that men may pass and hurry over the most noble discoveries which lie immediately before them.

For however the discovery of gunpowder, silk, the compass, sugar, paper, or the like, may appear to depend on peculiar properties of things and nature, printing at least involves no contrivance which is not clear and almost obvious.

But from want of observing that although the arrangement of the types of letters required more trouble than writing with the hand, yet these types once arranged serve for innumerable impressions, while manuscript only affords one copy; and again, from want of observing that ink might be thickened so as to stain without running (which was necessary, seeing the letters face upward, and the impression is made from above), this most beautiful invention (which assists so materially the propagation of learning) remained unknown for so many ages.

The human mind is often so awkward and ill-regulated in the career of invention that it is at first diffident, and then despises itself. For it appears at first incredible that any such discovery should be made, and when it has been made, it appears incredible that it should so long have escaped men’s research.

All which affords good reason for the hope that a vast mass of inventions yet remains, which may be deduced not only from the investigation of new modes of operation, but also from transferring, comparing, and applying these already known, by the method of what we have termed literate experience.

111 Nor should we omit another ground of hope. Let men only consider (if they will) their infinite expenditure of talent, time, and fortune, in matters and studies of far inferior importance and value; a small portion of which applied to sound and solid learning would be sufficient to overcome[88] every difficulty. And we have thought right to add this observation, because we candidly own that such a collection of natural and experimental history as we have traced in our own mind, and as is really necessary, is a great and as it were royal work, requiring much labor and expense.

112 Let no one be alarmed at the multitude of particulars, but rather inclined to hope on that very account.

For the particular phenomena of the arts and nature are in reality but as a handful, when compared with the fictions of the imagination removed and separated from the evidence of facts.

The termination of our method is clear, and I had almost said near at hand; the other admits of no termination, but only of infinite confusion. For men have hitherto dwelt but little, or rather only slightly touched upon experience, while they have wasted much time on theories and the fictions of the imagination. If we had but any one who could actually answer our interrogations of nature, the invention of all causes and sciences would be the labor of but a few years.

113 Let those who distrust their own powers observe myself, one who have among my contemporaries been the most engaged in public business, who am not very strong in health (which causes a great loss of time), and am the first explorer of this course, following the guidance of none, nor even communicating my thoughts to a single individual; yet having once firmly entered in the right way, and submitting the powers of my mind to things, I have somewhat advanced (as I make bold to think) the matter I now treat of. Then let others consider what may[89] be hoped from men who enjoy abundant leisure, from united labors, and the succession of ages, after these suggestions on our part, especially in a course which is not confined, like theories, to individuals, but admits of the best distribution and union of labor and effect, particularly in collecting experiments. For men will then only begin to know their own power, when each performs a separate part, instead of undertaking in crowds the same work.

114 A fainter and uncertain breeze of hope were to spring up from our new continent, yet we consider it necessary to make the experiment, if we would not show a dastard spirit.

For the risk attending want of success is not to be compared with that of neglecting the attempt; the former is attended with the loss of a little human labor, the latter with that of an immense benefit. For these and other reasons it appears to us that there is abundant ground to hope, and to induce not only those who are sanguine to make experiment, but even those who are cautious and sober to give their assent.

115 Such are the grounds for banishing despair, hitherto one of the most powerful causes of the delay and restraint to which the sciences have been subjected; in treating of which we have at the same time discussed the signs and causes of the errors, idleness, and ignorance that have prevailed; seeing especially that the more refined causes, which are not open to popular judgment and observation, may be referred to our remarks on the idols of the human mind.

Here, too, we should close the demolishing branch of our Instauration, which is comprised in three confutations: 1, the confutation of natural human reason left to itself; 2, the confutation of demonstration; 3, the confutation of theories,[90] or received systems of philosophy and doctrines. Our confutation has followed such a course as was open to it, namely, the exposing of the signs of error, and the producing evidence of the causes of it: for we could adopt no other, differing as we do both in first principles and demonstrations from others.

It is time for us therefore to come to the art itself, and the rule for the interpretation of nature: there is, however, still something which must not be passed over. For the intent of this first book of aphorisms being to prepare the mind for understanding, as well as admitting, what follows, we must now, after having cleansed, polished, and levelled its surface, place it in a good position, and as it were a benevolent aspect toward our propositions; seeing that prejudice in new matters may be produced not only by the strength of preconceived notions, but also by a false anticipation or expectation of the matter proposed. We shall therefore endeavor to induce good and correct opinions of what we offer, although this be only necessary for the moment, and as it were laid out at interest, until the matter itself be well understood.

116 First, then, we must desire men not to suppose that we are ambitious of founding any philosophical sect, like the ancient Greeks, or some moderns, as Telesius, Patricius, and Severinus.[63]

For neither is this our intention,[91] nor do we think that peculiar abstract opinions on nature and the principles of things are of much importance to men’s fortunes, since it were easy to revive many ancient theories, and to introduce many new ones; as, for instance, many hypotheses with regard to the heavens can be formed, differing in themselves, and yet sufficiently according with the phenomena.

We bestow not our labor on such theoretical and, at the same time, useless topics. On the contrary, our determination is that of trying, whether we can lay a firmer foundation, and extend to a greater distance the boundaries of human power and dignity. And although here and there, upon some particular points, we hold (in our own opinion) more true and certain, and I might even say, more advantageous tenets than those in general repute (which we have collected in the fifth part of our Instauration), yet we offer[92] no universal or complete theory. The time does not yet appear to us to be arrived, and we entertain no hope of our life being prolonged to the completion of the sixth part of the Instauration (which is destined for philosophy discovered by the interpretation of nature), but are content if we proceed quietly and usefully in our intermediate pursuit, scattering, in the meantime, the seeds of less adulterated truth for posterity, and, at least, commence the great work.

117 As we pretend not to found a sect, so do we neither offer nor promise particular effects; which may occasion some to object to us, that since we so often speak of effects, and consider everything in its relation to that end, we ought also to give some earnest of producing them.

Our course and method, however (as we have often said, and again repeat), is such as not to deduce effects from effects, nor experiments from experiments (as the empirics do), but in our capacity of legitimate interpreters of nature, to deduce causes and axioms from effects and experiments; and new effects and experiments from those causes and axioms.

And although any one of moderate intelligence and ability will observe the indications and sketches of many noble effects in our tables of inventions (which form the fourth part of the Instauration), and also in the examples of particular instances cited in the second part, as well as in our observations on history (which is the subject of the third part); yet we candidly confess that our present natural history, whether compiled from books or our own inquiries, is not sufficiently copious and well ascertained to satisfy, or even assist, a proper interpretation.

If, therefore, there be any one who is more disposed and prepared for mechanical art, and ingenious in discovering effects, than in the mere management of experiment, we[93] allow him to employ his industry in gathering many of the fruits of our history and tables in this way, and applying them to effects, receiving them as interest till he can obtain the principal. For our own part, having a greater object in view, we condemn all hasty and premature rest in such pursuits as we would Atalanta’s apple (to use a common allusion of ours); for we are not childishly ambitious of golden fruit, but use all our efforts to make the course of art outstrip nature, and we hasten not to reap moss or the green blade, but wait for a ripe harvest.

118 There will be some, without doubt, who, on a perusal of our history and tables of invention, will meet with some uncertainty, or perhaps fallacy, in the experiments themselves, and will thence perhaps imagine that our discoveries are built on false foundations and principles.

There is, however, really nothing in this, since it must needs happen in beginnings.[64] For it is the same as if in writing or printing one or two letters were wrongly turned or misplaced, which is no great inconvenience to the reader, who can easily by his own eye correct the error; let men in the same way conclude, that many experiments in natural history may be erroneously believed and admitted, which are easily expunged and rejected afterward, by the discovery of causes and axioms.

It is, however, true, that if these errors in natural history and experiments become great, frequent, and continued, they cannot be corrected and amended by[94] any dexterity of wit or art. If then, even in our natural history, well examined and compiled with such diligence, strictness, and (I might say) reverential scruples, there be now and then something false and erroneous in the details, what must we say of the common natural history, which is so negligent and careless when compared with ours? or of systems of philosophy and the sciences, based on such loose soil (or rather quicksand)? Let none then be alarmed by such observations.

119 Our history and experiments will contain much that is light and common, mean and illiberal, too refined and merely speculative, and, as it were, of no use, and this perhaps may divert and alienate the attention of mankind.

With regard to what is common; let men reflect, that they have hitherto been used to do nothing but refer and adapt the causes of things of rare occurrence to those of things which more frequently happen, without any investigation of the causes of the latter, taking them for granted and admitted.

Hence, they do not inquire into the causes of gravity, the rotation of the heavenly bodies, heat, cold, light, hardness, softness, rarity, density, liquidity, solidity, animation, inanimation, similitude, difference, organic formation, but taking them to be self-evident, manifest, and admitted, they dispute and decide upon other matters of less frequent and familiar occurrence.

But we (who know that no judgment can be formed of that which is rare or remarkable, and much less anything new brought to light, without a previous regular examination and discovery of the causes of that which is common, and the causes again of those causes) are necessarily compelled[95] to admit the most common objects into our history. Besides, we have observed that nothing has been so injurious to philosophy as this circumstance, namely, that familiar and frequent objects do not arrest and detain men’s contemplation, but are carelessly admitted, and their causes never inquired after; so that information on unknown subjects is not more often wanted than attention to those which are known.

120 With regard to the meanness, or even the filthiness of particulars, for which (as Pliny observes), an apology is requisite, such subjects are no less worthy of admission into natural history than the most magnificent and costly; nor do they at all pollute natural history, for the sun enters alike the palace and the privy, and is not thereby polluted.

We neither dedicate nor raise a capitol or pyramid to the pride of man, but rear a holy temple in his mind, on the model of the universe, which model therefore we imitate. For that which is deserving of existence is deserving of knowledge, the image of existence. Now the mean and splendid alike exist. Nay, as the finest odors are sometimes produced from putrid matter (such as musk and civet), so does valuable light and information emanate from mean and sordid instances. But we have already said too much, for such fastidious feelings are childish and effeminate.

121 The next point requires a more accurate consideration, namely, that many parts of our history will appear to the vulgar, or even any mind accustomed to the present state of things, fantastically and uselessly refined.

Hence, we have in regard to this matter said from the first, and must again repeat, that we look for experiments that shall afford light rather than profit, imitating the divine creation, which,[96] as we have often observed, only produced light on the first day, and assigned that whole day to its creation, without adding any material work.

If any one, then, imagine such matters to be of no use, he might equally suppose light to be of no use, because it is neither solid nor material. For, in fact, the knowledge of simple natures, when sufficiently investigated and defined, resembles light, which, though of no great use in itself, affords access to the general mysteries of effects, and with a peculiar power comprehends and draws with it whole bands and troops of effects, and the sources of the most valuable axioms.

So also the elements of letters have of themselves separately no meaning, and are of no use, yet are they, as it were, the original matter in the composition and preparation of speech. The seeds of substances, whose effect is powerful, are of no use except in their growth, and the scattered rays of light itself avail not unless collected.

But if speculative subtilties give offence, what must we say of the scholastic philosophers who indulged in them to such excess? And those subtilties were wasted on words, or, at least, common notions (which is the same thing), not on things or nature, and alike unproductive of benefit in their origin and their consequences: in no way resembling ours, which are at present useless, but in their consequences of infinite benefit.

Let men be assured that all subtile disputes and discursive efforts of the mind are late and preposterous, when they are introduced subsequently to the discovery of axioms, and that their true, or, at any rate, chief opportunity is, when experiment is to be weighed and axioms to be derived from it. They otherwise catch and grasp at nature, but never seize or detain her: and we may well apply to nature that which has been said of opportunity[97] or fortune, that she wears a lock in front, but is bald behind.

In short, we may reply decisively to those who despise any part of natural history as being vulgar, mean, or subtile, and useless in its origin, in the words of a poor woman to a haughty prince,[65] who had rejected her petition as unworthy, and beneath the dignity of his majesty: “Then cease to reign”; for it is quite certain that the empire of nature can neither be obtained nor administered by one who refuses to pay attention to such matters as being poor and too minute.

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