Francis Bacon,
The Great Instauration

Basil Montague, ed. and trans.
Excerpts from The Works, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Parry & MacMillan, 1854)

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Scanned by Alison Waugh and proofread by Monica Banas in 1996.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

Bacon's Preface


IT appears to me that men know not either their acquirements or their powers, and trust too much to the former, and too little to the latter. Hence it arises that, either estimating the arts they have become acquainted with at an absurd value, they require nothing more, or forming too low an opinion of themselves, they waste their powers on trivial objects, without attempting any thing to the purpose. The sciences have thus their own pillars, fixed as it were by fate, since men are not roused to penetrate beyond them either by zeal or hope: and inasmuch as an imaginary plenty mainly contributes to a dearth, and from a reliance upon present assistance, that which will really hereafter aid us is neglected, it becomes useful, nay, clearly necessary, in the very outset of our work, to remove, without any circumlocution or concealment, all excessive conceit and admiration of our actual state of knowledge, by this wholesome warning not to exaggerate or boast of its extent or utility. For, if any one look more attentively into that vast variety of books which the arts and sciences are so proud of, he will everywhere discover innumerable repetitions of the same thing, varied only by the method of treating it, but anticipated in invention; so that although at first sight they appear numerous, they are found, upon examination, to be but scanty. And with regard to their utility I must speak plainly. That philosophy of ours which we have chiefly derived from the Greeks, appears to me but the childhood of knowledge, and to possess the peculiarity of that age, being prone to idle loquacity, but weak and unripe for generation; for it is fruitful of controversy and barren of effects. So that the fable of Scylla seems to be a lively image of the present state of letters; for she exhibited the countenance and expression of a virgin, but barking monsters surrounded and fastened themselves to her womb. Even thus, the sciences to which we have been accustomed have their flattering and specious generalities, but when we come to particulars, which, like the organs of generation, should produce fruit and effects, then spring up altercations and barking questions, in the which they end, and bring forth nothing else. Besides, if these sciences were not manifestly a dead letter, it would never happen, as for many ages has been the case in practice, that they should adhere almost immovably to their original footing, without acquiring a growth worthy of mankind: and this so completely, that frequently not only an assertion continues to be an assertion, but even a question to be a question, which, instead of being solved by discussion, becomes fixed and encouraged; and every system of instruction successively handed down to us brings upon the stage the characters of master and scholar, not those of an inventor and one capable of adding some excellence to his inventions. But we see the contrary happen in the mechanical arts. For they, as if inhaling some life-inspiring air, daily increase, and are brought to perfection; they generally in the hands of the inventor appear rude, cumbrous, and shapeless, but afterwards acquire such additional powers and facility, that sooner may menís wishes and fancies decline and change, than the arts reach their full height and perfection. Philosophy and the intellectual sciences on the contrary, like statues, are adored and celebrated, but are not made to advance: nay, they are frequently most vigorous in the hands of their author, and thenceforward degenerate. For since men have voluntarily surrendered themselves, and gone over in crowds to the opinion of their leader, like those silent senators of Rome, they add nothing to the extent of learning themselves, but perform the servile duty of illustrating and waiting upon particular authors. Nor let any one allege that learning, slowly springing up, attained by degree its full stature, and from that time took up its abode in the works of a few, as having performed its predetermined course; and that, as it is impossible to discover any further improvement, it only [Page 335] remains for us to adorn and cultivate that which has been discovered. It were indeed to be wished that such were the case; the more correct and true statement, however, is, that this slavery of the sciences arises merely from the impudence of a few, and the indolence of the rest of mankind. For, no sooner was any particular branch of learning (diligently enough, perhaps) cultivated and laboured, than up would spring some individual confident in his art, who would acquire authority and reputation from the compendious nature of his method, and, as far as appearances went, would establish the art, whilst in reality he was corrupting the labours of his ancestors. Yet will this please succeeding generations, from the ready use they can make of his labour, and their wearisome impatience of fresh inquiry. But if any one be influenced by an inveterate uniformity of opinion, as though it were the decision of time--let him learn that he is relying on a most fallacious and weak argument. For not only are we, in a great measure, unacquainted with the proportion of arts and sciences that has been discovered and made its way to the public in various ages and regions, (much less with what has been individually attempted and privately agitated,) neither the births nor the abortions of time being extant in any register; but also that uniformity itself, and its duration are not to be considered of any great moment. For, however varied the forms of civil government may be, there is but one state of learning, and that ever was and ever will be the democratic. Now with the people at large, the doctrines that most prevail are either disputatious and violent, or specious and vain, and they either ensnare or allure assent. Hence, without question, the greatest wits have undergone violence in every age, whilst others of no vulgar capacity and understanding have still, from consulting their reputation, submitted themselves to the decision of time and the multitude. Wherefore, if more elevated speculations have perchance anywhere burst forth, they have been from time to time blown about by the winds of public opinion, and extinguished; so that time, like a river, has brought down all that was light and inflated, and has sunk what was weighty and solid. Nay, those very leaders who have usurped, as it were, a dictatorship in learning, and pronounce their opinion of things with so much confidence, will yet, when they occasionally return to their senses, begin to complain of the subtility of nature, the remoteness of truth, the obscurity of things, the complication of causes, and the weakness of human wit. They are not, however, more modest in this than in the former instances, since they prefer framing an excuse of the common condition of men and things, to confessing their own defects. Besides, it is generally their practice, if some particular art fail to accomplish any object, to conclude that it cannot be accomplished by that art. But yet the art cannot be condemned, for she herself deliberates and decides the question; so that their only aim is to deliver their ignorance from ignominy. The following statement exhibits sufficiently well the state of knowledge delivered down and received by us. It is barren in effects, fruitful in questions, slow and languid in its improvement, exhibiting in its generality the counterfeit of perfection, but ill filled up in its details, popular in its choice, but suspected by its very promoters, and therefore bolstered up and countenanced with artifices. Even those who have been determined to try for themselves, to add their support to learning, and to enlarge its limits, have not dared entirely to desert received opinions, nor to seek the springhead of things. But they think they have done a great thing if they intersperse and contribute something of their own, prudently considering that by their assent they can save their modesty, and by their contributions their liberty. Whilst consulting, however, the opinions of others, and good manners, this admired moderation tends to the great injury of learning: for it is seldom in our power both to admire and surpass our author, but, like water, we rise not higher than the springhead whence we have descended. Such men, therefore, amend some things, but cause little advancement, and improve more than they enlarge knowledge. Yet there have not been wanting some, who, with greater daring, have considered every thing open to them, and, employing the force of their wit, have opened a passage for themselves and their dogmas by prostrating and destroying all before them; but this violence of theirs has not availed much, since they have not laboured to enlarge philosophy and the arts, both in their subject matter and effect; but only to substitute new dogmas, and to transfer the empire of opinion to themselves, with but small advantage; for opposite errors proceed mostly from common causes. Even if some few, who neither dogmatise nor submit to dogmatism, have been so spirited as to request others to join them in investigation, yet have such, though honest in their zeal, been weak in their efforts. For they seem to have followed only probable reasoning, and are hurried in a continued whirl of arguments, till, by an indiscriminate license of inquiry, they have enervated the strictness of investigation. But not one has there been found of a disposition to dwell sufficiently on things themselves and experience. For some again, who have committed themselves to the waves of experience, and become almost mechanics, yet in their very experience employ an unsteady investigation, and war not with it by fixed rules. Nay, some have only proposed to themselves a few paltry tasks, and think it a great thing if they can work out one single discovery, a plan no less beggarly than unskilful. For no one examines thoroughly or successfully the nature of any thing in the thing itself, but after [Page 336] a laborious variety of experiments, instead of pausing there, they set out upon some further inquiry. And we must by no means omit observing, that all the industry displayed in experiment, has, from the very first, caught with a too hasty and intemperate zeal at some determined effect; has sought (I say) productive rather than enlightening experiments, and has not imitated the Divine method, which on the first day created light alone, and assigned it one whole day, producing no material works thereon, but descending to their creation on the following days. Those who have attributed the pre-eminence to logic, and have thought that it afforded the safest support to learning, have seen very correctly and properly that man's understanding, when left to itself, is deservedly to be suspected. Yet the remedy is even weaker than the disease; nay, it is not itself free from disease. For the common system of logic, although most properly applied to civil matters, and such arts as lie in discussion and opinion, is far from reaching the subtility of nature, and, by catching at that which it cannot grasp, has done more to confirm, and, as it were, fasten errors upon us, than to open the way to truth.

To sum up, therefore, our observations, neither reliance upon others, nor their own industry, appear hitherto to have set forth learning to mankind in her best light, especially as there is little aid in such demonstrations and experiments as have yet reached us. For the fabric of this universe is like a labyrinth to the contemplative mind, where doubtful paths, deceitful imitations of things and their signs, winding and intricate folds and knots of nature everywhere present themselves, and a way must constantly be made through the forests of experience and particular natures, with the aid of the uncertain light of the senses, shining and disappearing by fits. But the guides who offer their services are (as has been said) themselves confused, and increase the number of wanderings and of wanderers. In so difficult a matter we must despair of man's unassisted judgment, or even of any casual good fortune: for neither the excellence of wit, however great, nor the die of experience, however frequently cast, can overcome such disadvantages. We must guide our steps by a clue, and the whole path, from the very first perceptions of our senses, must be secured by a determined method. Nor must I be thought to say, that nothing whatever has been done by so many and so much labour; for I regret not our discoveries, and the ancients have certainly shown themselves worthy of admiration in all that requires either wit or abstracted meditation. But, as in former ages, when men at sea used only to steer by their observations of the stars, they were indeed enabled to coast the shores of the Continent, or some small and inland seas; but before they could traverse the ocean and discover the regions of the new world, it was necessary that the use of the compass, a more trusty and certain guide on their voyage, should be first known; even so, the present discoveries in the arts and sciences are such as might be found out by meditation, observation, and discussion, as being more open to the senses and lying immediately beneath our common notions: but before we are allowed to enter the more remote and hidden parts of nature, it is necessary that a better and more perfect use and application of the human mind and understanding should be introduced.

We, for our part at least, overcome by the eternal love of truth, have committed ourselves to uncertain, steep, and desert tracks, and trusting and relying on Divine assistance, have borne up our mind against the violence of opinions, drawn up as it were in battle array, against our own internal doubts and scruples, against the mists and clouds of nature, and against fancies flitting on all sides around us: that we might at length collect some more trustworthy and certain indications for the living and posterity. And if we have made any way in this matter, no other method than the true and genuine humiliation of the human soul has opened it unto us. For all who before us have applied themselves to the discovery of the arts, after casting their eyes a while upon things, instances, and experience, have straightway invoked, as it were, some spirits of their own to disclose their oracles, as if invention were nothing but a species of thought. But we, in our subdued and perpetual intercourse with things, abstract our understanding no farther from them than is necessary to prevent the confusion of the images of things with their radiation, a confusion similar to that we experience by our senses: and thus but little is left for the powers and excellence of wit. And we have in teaching continued to show forth the humility, which we adopt in discovering. For we do not endeavour to assume or acquire any majestic state for these our discoveries, by the triumphs of confutation, the citing of antiquity, the usurpation of authority, or even the veil of obscurity, which would easily suggest themselves to one endeavouring to throw light upon his own name, rather than the minds of others. We have not, I say, practised either force or fraud on men's judgments, nor intend we so to do; but we conduct them to things themselves and the real connexion of things, that they may themselves behold what they possess, what they prove, what they add, and what they contribute to the common stock. If, however, we have in any matter given too easy credit, or slumbered and been too inadvertent, or have mistaken our road, and broken off inquiry, yet we exhibit things plainly and openly, so that our errors can be noted and separated before they corrupt any further the mass of sciences, and the continuation of our labours [Page 337] is rendered easy and unembarrassed. And we think that by so doing we have established forever the real and legitimate union of the empiric and rational faculties, whose sullen and inauspicious divorces and repudiations have disturbed every thing in the great family of mankind.

Since, therefore, these matters are beyond our control, we in the beginning of our work pour forth most humble and ardent prayers to God the Father, God the Word, and God the Spirit, that, mindful of the cases of man, and of his pilgrimage through this life, in which we wear out some few and evil days, they would vouchsafe through our hands to endow the family of mankind with these new gifts; and we moreover humbly pray that human knowledge may not prejudice divine truth, and that no incredulity and darkness in regard to the divine mysteries may arise in our minds upon the disclosing of the ways of sense, and this greater kindling of our natural light; but rather that, from a pure understanding, cleared of all fancies and vanity, yet no less submitted to, nay, wholly prostrate before the divine oracles, we may render unto faith the tribute due unto faith. And, lastly, that being freed from the poison of knowledge, infused into it by the serpent, and with which the human soul is swoln and puffed up, we may neither be too profoundly nor immoderately wise, but worship truth in charity.

Having thus offered up our prayers, and turning our thoughts again towards man, we propound some salutary admonitions, and some just requests. First, then, we admonish mankind to keep their senses within the bounds of duty as regards divine objects. For the senses, like the sun, open the surface of the terrestrial globe, but close and seal up that of the celestial; next, that, whilst avoiding this error, they fall not into the contrary, which will surely be the case, if they think the investigation of nature to be in any part denied as if by interdict. For it was not that pure and innocent knowledge of nature, by which Adam gave names to things from their properties, that was the origin or occasion of the fall, but that ambitious and imperious appetite for moral knowledge, distinguishing good from evil, with the intent that man might revolt from God and govern himself, was both the cause and means of temptation. With regard to the sciences that contemplate nature, the sacred philosopher declares it to be "the glory of God to conceal a thing, but of the king to search it out," just as if the Divine Spirit were wont to be pleased with the innocent and gentle sport of children, who hide themselves that they may be found; and had chosen the human soul as a playmate out of his indulgence and goodness towards man. Lastly, we would in general admonish all to consider the true ends of knowledge, and not to seek it for the gratifications of their minds, or for disputation, or that they may despise others, or for emolument, or fame, or power, or such low objeets, but for its intrinsic merit and the purposes of life, and that they would perfect and regulate it by charity. For from the desire of power the angels fell, and men from that of knowledge; but there is no excess in charity, and neither angel nor man was ever endangered by it.

The requests we make are three. Of ourselves we say nothing; but for the matter which we treat, we desire men not to regard it as an opinion, but as a work, and to hold it for certain that we are not laying the foundation of any sect or theory, but of that which will profit and dignify mankind. In the next place, that they should fairly consult their common advantage, laying aside the jealousies and prejudices of opinions, and themselves participate in the remaining labours, when they have been rescued by us from the errors and impediments of the road, and furnished with our defence and assistance. Moreover, that they should be strong in hope, and should not pretend or imagine that our instauration is an infinite work, surpassing human strength, since it is really an end and legitimate termination of infinite error, yet that they should still recollect the mortal lot of man, and not trust that the matter can be altogether perfected within the course of one age, but deliver it over to succeeding ages, and, finally, that they should not arrogantly search for the sciences in the narrow cells of human wit, but humbly in the greater world. That, however, which is empty is commonly vast, whilst solid matter is generally condensed, and lies in a small space. Lastly, we must require (lest any one should be disposed to injustice towards us in the very point on which our subject turns) that men would consider how far they imagine they can be permitted to comment and pass judgment on our work, after considering what it is necessary for us to claim for ourselves, if we would preserve any consistency, seeing we reject all human methods that are premature, anticipating, carelessly and too rapidly abstracted from things as regards the investigation of nature, considering them to be changeable, confused, and badly constructed; nor is it to be required that we should be judged by that which we ourselves arraign.

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