Chapter 1 Book 2 of Nova Organum

THE INTERPRETATION OF NATURE Icon

January 31, 2022

122 People might object that we are being singular and harsh for trying to banish all authorities and sciences with one stroke and assault by our own efforts without the help of the ancients.

Now we are aware, that had we been ready to act otherwise than sincerely, it was not difficult to refer our present method to remote ages, prior to those of the Greeks (since the sciences in all probability flourished more in their natural state, though silently, than when they were paraded with the fifes and trumpets of the Greeks); or even (in parts, at least) to some of the Greeks themselves, and to derive authority and honor from thence; as men of no family labor to raise and form nobility for themselves in some ancient line, by the help of genealogies.

However, we trust the evidence of facts. And so we reject every kind of fiction and imposture; and think it of no more consequence to our subject, whether future discoveries were known to the ancients, and set or rose according to the vicissitudes of events and[98] lapse of ages, than it would be of importance to mankind to know whether the new world be the island of Atlantis,[66] and known to the ancients, or be now discovered for the first time.

For if the errors had not been rooted in the primary notions, some well conducted discoveries must have corrected others that were deficient. But since the errors were fundamental, and of such a nature, that men may be said rather to have neglected or passed over things, than to have formed a wrong or false judgment of them, it is little to be wondered at, that they did not obtain what they never aimed at, nor arrive at a goal which they had not determined, nor perform a course which they had neither entered upon nor adhered to.

With regard to our presumption, we allow that if we were to assume a power of drawing a more perfect straight line or circle than any one else, by superior steadiness of hand or acuteness of eye, it would lead to a comparison of talent; but if one merely assert that he can draw a more perfect line or circle with a ruler or compasses, than another can by his unassisted hand or eye, he surely cannot be said to boast of much. Now this applies not only to our first original attempt, but also to those who shall hereafter apply themselves to the pursuit. For our method of discovering the sciences merely levels men’s wits, and leaves but little to their superiority, since it achieves everything by the most certain rules and demonstrations. Whence (as we have[99] often observed), our attempt is to be attributed to fortune rather than talent, and is the offspring of time rather than of wit. For a certain sort of chance has no less effect upon our thoughts than on our acts and deeds.

123 We may apply to ourselves the joke of him who said, that water and wine drinkers could not think alike,[67] especially as it hits the matter so well.

For others, both ancients and moderns, have in the sciences drank a crude liquor like water, either flowing of itself from the understanding, or drawn up by logic as the wheel draws up the bucket. But we drink and pledge others with a liquor made of many well-ripened grapes, collected and plucked from particular branches, squeezed in the press, and at last clarified and fermented in a vessel. It is not, therefore, wonderful that we should not agree with others.

124 Another objection will without doubt be made, namely, that we have not ourselves established a correct, or the best goal or aim of the sciences (the very defect we blame in others). For they will say that the contemplation of truth is more dignified and exalted than any utility or extent of effects; but that our dwelling so long and anxiously on experience and matter, and the fluctuating state of particulars, fastens the mind to earth, or rather casts it down into an abyss of confusion and disturbance, and separates and removes it from a much more divine state, the quiet and tranquillity of abstract wisdom. We willingly assent to their reasoning, and are most anxious to effect the very point they hint at and require.

We are founding a real model of the world in the understanding, such as it is found to be, not such as man’s reason has distorted.[100]

Now this cannot be done without dissecting and anatomizing the world most diligently; but we declare it necessary to destroy completely the vain, little and, as it were, apish imitations of the world, which have been formed in various systems of philosophy by men’s fancies. Let men learn (as we have said above) the difference that exists between the idols of the human mind and the ideas of the divine mind. The former are mere arbitrary abstractions; the latter the true marks of the Creator on his creatures, as they are imprinted on, and defined in matter, by true and exquisite touches. Truth, therefore, and utility, are here perfectly identical, and the effects are of more value as pledges of truth than from the benefit they confer on men.

125 Others may object that we are only doing that which has already been done, and that the ancients followed the same course as ourselves.

They may imagine, therefore, that, after all this stir and exertion, we shall at last arrive at some of those systems that prevailed among the ancients: for that they, too, when commencing their meditations, laid up a great store of instances and particulars, and digested them under topics and titles in their commonplace books, and so worked out their systems and arts, and then decided upon what they discovered, and related now and then some examples to confirm and throw light upon their doctrine; but thought it superfluous and troublesome to publish their notes, minutes, and commonplaces, and therefore followed the example of builders who remove the scaffolding and ladders when the building is finished.

Nor can we believe the case to have been otherwise. But to any one, not entirely forgetful of our previous observations, it will be easy to answer this objection or rather[101] scruple; for we allow that the ancients had a particular form of investigation and discovery, and their writings show it.

But it was of such a nature, that they immediately flew from a few instances and particulars (after adding some common notions, and a few generally received opinions most in vogue) to the most general conclusions or the principles of the sciences, and then by their intermediate propositions deduced their inferior conclusions, and tried them by the test of the immovable and settled truth of the first, and so constructed their art. Lastly, if some new particulars and instances were brought forward, which contradicted their dogmas, they either with great subtilty reduced them to one system, by distinctions or explanations of their own rules, or got rid of them clumsily as exceptions, laboring most pertinaciously in the meantime to accommodate the causes of such as were not contradictory to their own principles. Their natural history and their experience were both far from being what they ought to have been, and their flying off to generalities ruined everything.

126 Another objection will be made against us, that we prohibit decisions and the laying down of certain principles, till we arrive regularly at generalities by the intermediate steps, and thus keep the judgment in suspense and lead to uncertainty. But our object is not uncertainty but fitting certainty, for we derogate not from the senses but assist them, and despise not the understanding but direct it. It is better to know what is necessary, and not to imagine we are fully in possession of it, than to imagine that we are fully in possession of it, and yet in reality to know nothing which we ought.

127 Are we perfecting natural philosophy[102] alone according to our method? Or the other sciences also, such as logic, ethics, politics?

We certainly intend to comprehend them all.

Common logic regulates matters by syllogisms. It is applied not only to natural, but also to every other science, so our inductive method likewise comprehends them all.[68]

For we form a history and tables of invention for anger, fear, shame, and the like, and also for examples in civil life, and the mental operations of memory, composition, division, judgment, and the rest, as well as for heat and cold, light, vegetation, and the like.

But since our method of interpretation, after preparing and arranging a history, does not content itself with examining the operations and disquisitions of the mind like common logic, but also inspects the nature of things, we so regulate the mind that it may be enabled to apply itself in every respect correctly to that nature. On that account we deliver numerous and various precepts in our doctrine of interpretation, so that they may apply in some[103] measure to the method of discovering the quality and condition of the subject matter of investigation.

128 Let none even doubt whether we are anxious to destroy and demolish the philosophy, arts, and sciences, which are now in use. On the contrary, we readily cherish their practice, cultivation, and honor; for we by no means interfere to prevent the prevalent system from encouraging discussion, adorning discourses, or being employed serviceably in the chair of the professor or the practice of common life, and being taken, in short, by general consent as current coin.

Nay, we plainly declare, that the system we offer will not be very suitable for such purposes, not being easily adapted to vulgar apprehensions, except by effects and works. To show our sincerity in professing our regard and friendly disposition toward the received sciences, we can refer to the evidence of our published writings (especially our books on the Advancement of Learning).

We will not, therefore, endeavor to evince it any further by words; but content ourselves with steadily and professedly premising, that no great progress can be made by the present methods in the theory or contemplation of science, and that they cannot be made to produce any very abundant effects.

129

  1. The introduction of great inventions appears one of the most distinguished of human actions

The ancients assigned:

  • divine honors to inventors
  • but only heroic honors to those who displayed civil merit (such as the founders of cities and empire legislators, the deliverers of their country from lasting misfortunes, the quellers of tyrants, and the like).

The judgment of antiquity is correct. The benefits derived from inventions may extend to mankind in general. But civil benefits to particular spots alone; the latter, moreover, last but for a time, the former forever.

Civil reformation seldom is carried on without violence and confusion, while inventions are a blessing and a benefit without injuring or afflicting any.

Inventions are also, as it were, new creations and imitations of divine works, as was expressed by the poet:[69]

“Primum frugiferos fœtus mortalibus ægris Dididerant quondam præstanti nomine Athenæ Et recreaverunt vitam legesque rogarunt.”

Solomon flourished in:

  • his empire
  • wealth[105]
  • the magnificence of his works
  • his court
  • his household
  • the splendor of his name
  • the most unbounded admiration of mankind.

Yet he still placed his glory in none of these. Instead, he declared[70] that it is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the glory of a king to search it out.

Again, let any one but consider the immense difference between men’s lives in the most polished countries of Europe, and in any wild and barbarous region of the new Indies, he will think it so great, that man may be said to be a god unto man, not only on account of mutual aid and benefits, but from their comparative states—the result of the arts, and not of the soil or climate.

We should notice the force, effect, and consequences of inventions, the greatest of which are:

  • gunpowder
  • the compass.

These three have changed the appearance and state of the world

  • in literature
  • in warfare
  • in navigation

Innumerable changes have been thence derived, so that no empire, sect, or star, appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.

It will, perhaps, be as well to distinguish three species and degrees of ambition.

  1. That of men who are anxious to enlarge their own power in their country, which is a vulgar and degenerate kind; next, that of men who strive to enlarge the power and empire of their country over mankind, which is more dignified but not less covetous; but if one were to endeavor to renew and enlarge the power and empire of mankind in general over the universe, such ambition[106] (if it may be so termed) is both more sound and more noble than the other two.

Now the empire of man over things is founded on the arts and sciences alone, for nature is only to be commanded by obeying her.

Besides this, if the benefit of any particular invention has had such an effect as to induce men to consider him greater than a man, who has thus obliged the whole race, how much more exalted will that discovery be, which leads to the easy discovery of everything else!

Yet (to speak the truth) in the same manner as we are very thankful for light which enables us to enter on our way, to practice arts, to read, to distinguish each other, and yet sight is more excellent and beautiful than the various uses of light; so is the contemplation of things as they are, free from superstition or imposture, error or confusion, much more dignified in itself than all the advantage to be derived from discoveries.

Lastly, let none be alarmed at the objection of the arts and sciences becoming depraved to malevolent or luxurious purposes and the like, for the same can be said of every worldly good; talent, courage, strength, beauty, riches, light itself, and the rest. Only let mankind regain their rights over nature, assigned to them by the gift of God, and obtain that power, whose exercise will be governed by right reason and true religion.

130 But it is time for us to lay down the art of interpreting nature, to which we attribute no absolute necessity (as if nothing could be done without it) nor perfection, although we think that our precepts are most useful and correct.

For we are of opinion, that if men had at their command a proper history of nature and experience, and would apply themselves steadily to it, and could bind themselves to two things:

  1. to lay aside received[107] opinions and notions;
  2. to restrain themselves, till the proper season, from generalization, they might, by the proper and genuine exertion of their minds, fall into our way of interpretation without the aid of any art.

For interpretation is the true and natural act of the mind, when all obstacles are removed: certainly, however, everything will be more ready and better fixed by our precepts.

Yet do we not affirm that no addition can be made to them; on the contrary, considering the mind in its connection with things, and not merely relatively to its own powers, we ought to be persuaded that the art of invention can be made to grow with the inventions themselves.

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