Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science
It is now more than ten years since Paolo Rossi’s book on Bacon was published in Italy. Those who have known this book have been aware that it made, for the first time, the right historical approach to Bacon. Now that it is at last available in translation, it makes an important contribution to Bacon studies in the English-speaking world, even though since its first publication in 1957 there have been movements in the history of thought which will make some of its themes seem less revolutionary and surprising than they did when the book first appeared.
Rossi was trained in the Italian historical-philosophical school, led by Eugenio Garin, in which the Renaissance magical tradition, with its glorification of Man as Magus, was seen as important in the pre-history of the scientific revolution. In this book, he applies this tradition to Francis Bacon. He shows that many of Bacon’s major themes can be found in Cornelius Agrippa’s textbook of Renaissance magic. In his De occulta philosophia, Agrippa outlines the Renaissance Hermetic tradition, incorporating the ideas and attitudes of Marsilio Ficino and of Pico della Mirandola, and takes Renaissance magic further in the direction of bold presentation of magical science as power, and of Man, the Magus, as dominator over nature and as operator. The domination of nature was to be, of course, the major Baconian objective, and the theme of the use of science for the betterment of man’s estate, so characteristic of Bacon, is also to be found, in the form of magical science, in Agrippa. These discoveries will cause little surprise today now that knowledge of the importance of the Renaissance Hermetic tradition is widespread. The book on Agrippa by Charles C. Nauert, which I reviewed in these pages in March, 1966, carries the Agrippa-Bacon comparison further, though Nauert did not know of Rossi’s book and arrived independently at similar conclusions.
Though some of Rossi’s themes are thus no longer novel, his analyses of Bacon’s reactions against the Renaissance magical tradition to which he was at the same time indebted have not been explored elsewhere in such depth. Rossi presents Bacon as in reaction against the Renaissance Magus ideal largely on moral grounds. He deplores the self-centeredness and spiritual pride of those who use their knowledge and powers for self-glorification. The works of God in nature must be approached with profound humility; scientific knowledge should not be kept secret while its possessor glorifies himself with pretensions of omniscience and power. The work of those who seek into the truths of nature must be shared with others; only through collaboration of many workers can advances be made, and these advances are to be made in the interests of mankind at large, and not for individual aggrandizement.
These Baconian themes, which foreshadow cooperative scientific effort in institutions such as the Royal Society, are well known. What Rossi shows, through his attempt throughout the book to place Bacon in a historical context, is that Bacon was here reacting against the Magus ideal. Though his program of man as operator and dominator of nature derives from the Magus ideal, he reacts from it in the direction of the need for humility, openness, and for pooling one’s efforts in collaboration, as necessary for scientific advance. Through these sound and reasonable arguments, Bacon makes an impression of modernity, of having crossed the frontiers, leaving behind him that atmosphere which we have to make a tremendous mental effort to enter—the atmosphere surrounding a Renaissance Magus—and entering the modern, soberer world of sensible scientific collaboration which we can understand without difficulty.
YET BACON is himself steeped in the Renaissance tradition. In The Advancement of Learning he discusses subjects which belong fully in the sphere of the Magus, such as “fascination.” Moreover, as Rossi points out, the “simple forms” to which he wishes to reduce nature are based on alchemical principles. He does not discard astrology, but wants a reformed astrology. In fact his program does not, whatever he may say, discard the Renaissance tradition but is a reform of it, fundamentally a moral movement in which the proud and pretentious Magus transforms into the humble scientist.
Seen in this light, as both continuing Renaissance traditions and opposing them, Bacon becomes once more a key figure in the history of thought, not for the old nineteenth-century reasons and wrong assessments, such as his emphasis on experiment, but as a figure in whom we can study those subtle transformations through which Renaissance themes become, in the seventeenth century, modernized, as it were, and are given a more reasonable aspect. Bacon is not an impossible Renaissance Magus; he is quite possible as a member of the future Royal Society. The times have moved, the atmosphere has changed, yet it is basically the Renaissance Hermetic tradition which is modulated or transformed into a seventeenth-century outlook through the mind of Francis Bacon.
As Rossi shows, Bacon thought of the proud Renaissance philosophers, imposing their systems on the universe from the isolation of their haughty self-communings, as having brought about a second Fall of Man through their pride and presumption in impressing their own image on the divine creation, instead of studying it with humility. The reform needed is a moral process, a humble approach to nature through observation and experiment. By this process, eventually, the innocent communion with nature which Adam had before the Fall will be restored. Bacon’s “Great Instauration” of the sciences was intended to lead to this millennium, perhaps in a fairly short time—for Bacon believed that a full understanding of nature might be achieved fairly quickly, once errors and fallacies were put aside and the true method established. Here too, in his Adam mysticism, Bacon has affinities with Agrippa who believed that through the procedures of learned magic the Magus could achieve a communion with nature like that of Adam before the Fall. But here again the Baconian atmosphere is different, and his reasonable arguments in favor of scientific cooperation and his stress on the importance of technological development for the betterment of man’s estate have a modern ring. They can be, and often are, read without noticing the passages which reveal the underlying cosmic mysticism, so that Bacon as a thinker makes a different impression from that of his predecessors.
These differences are subtle, and it is the great merit of Rossi’s book that he draws attention to the fine points that arise when Bacon is seen against the background of the Renaissance philosophies which he is discarding with disapproval while he is, at the same time, emergent from them. Through this historical approach the whole problem of Bacon becomes much richer and more complex than in those oversimplified clichés about him which are passed around in general histories of culture.
ROSSI’S BOOK is a beginning rather than an end, and many of the stimulating ideas which he adumbrates demand further exploration. It is possible, for example, that some of Bacon’s mistakes might have arisen from his anxiety to disassociate himself from the Magus tradition and, at the same time, his wish to make a powerful plea for scientific advance by putting it on a more morally acceptable basis. For example, it has been thought surprising that Bacon should have rejected the Copernican hypothesis. Might one reason for this be that it was associated in his mind with the proud assumptions of a Renaissance animist philosopher, and with, in particular, the philosophy of Giordano Bruno—who is mentioned by name by Bacon, together with Patrizzi, Campanella, and Gilbert, as an example of a philosopher of the “second Fall”—who had associated heliocentricity with his magical and Hermetic outlook? Again, Bacon’s disapproval of Gilbert on the magnet has caused surprise as coming from the advocate of scientific research. What Bacon disapproved of was Gilbert’s imposition of his magnetic philosophy on the cosmos, after the manner of a Magus; there are indeed passages in the De magnete which are very close to Bruno.
Finally—and this is perhaps a point of considerable potential importance—the question might be asked whether Bacon’s underrating of mathematics might be traced to a wish to disassociate himself from the Renaissance tradition in which number held a place of primary importance. In particular, the surviving influence and reputation of John Dee in Bacon’s time should be taken into account. Dee was a Magus and a spiritualist as well as a mathematician, and in his Preface to Euclid of 1570 had set out a program for scientific advance which was actually of greater scientific importance than the program of The Advancement of Learning because it was based on an appeal for the revival and encouragement of mathematical studies. Rossi’s method of Baconian study should be extended to the study of Bacon against the background of both the Dee mathematical tradition and of the contemporary philosophy of Robert Fludd, which seems, and indeed is, the antithesis of that of Bacon: for Fludd’s may be the example of a philosophy which imposes its own patterns on the universe of which Bacon is chiefly thinking. It is interesting that Fludd enthusiastically welcomed Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, published two years after Bacon’s death. For Fludd, the discovery was a confirmation of parallelism between Macrocosm and Microcosm—the basis of his own Hermetic philosophy—showing a connection between circular movement in the heaven of the Macrocosm and in the body of man, the Microcosm. A recent study of Harvey by Walter Pagel has emphasized Fludd’s welcoming attitude to his thought, and has suggested that the circle analogy may even have been a factor in leading Harvey to his discovery.
At any rate it may perhaps be said that the approach to Harvey’s problem through the contemplation of the circle as a possible “model” may bring us closer to what we now know about the basis of scientific discovery in hypothesis than was Bacon’s insistence on experiment. Yet, if Bacon may sometimes have gone wrong in his reactions against mathematical magicians and their mystical diagrams, these reactions in themselves were modern and progressive, and were beginning to create the more rational atmosphere of a new era.
Rossi devotes a long chapter to analysis of Bacon’s use of mythology. This again is novel in a book on Bacon’s philosophy, for in works on Bacon as a thinker it has been customary to treat his work on myths as irrelevant, belonging to his literary side and not to his philosophy. Rossi shows how constant and basic to his thought was Bacon’s preoccupation with myth, not only in The Wisdom of the Ancients but in many other works. Developing the tradition which interpreted myths as hidden statements of the truths of natural philosophy, Rossi shows how Bacon invested his own philosophy with mythical forms, perhaps to hide its potentially dangerous anti-Aristotelian bias from his opponents, though, as Rossi subtly argues, the problem is a much more profound one than that of mere concealment. It involves the problem of whether mythical form of statement comes closer to reality than does discursive reasoning. Rossi’s analysis of what appears to be Bacon’s change of opinion about this in different works is extremely interesting. He is, I am sure, right in thinking that it was a central problem for Bacon. Here again a new kind of comparison with Renaissance philosophers would be valuable, for example with Bacon’s use of myths in his arts of memory as memory images which he believes to be in direct contact with cosmic reality. How far does this magical element survive in Bacon’s treatment of myth, and, if modified, in what way is it modified? This again ties up with Bacon’s advocacy of “real characters,” the use of signs having a direct contact with reality, which he regards as one of the basic necessities for the advancement of science. This idea has an obvious connection with magic signs, but, again, Bacon’s treatment of it is detached and rational.
THIS BRINGS US to Bacon’s belief in the importance of the art of memory—a reformed art of memory, not used with pretentiousness and pride (perhaps he was thinking of Bruno’s and Fludd’s magic arts of memory), but humbly, as an instrument of scientific classification and method. Rossi was the first, in the original Italian edition of his book, to draw attention to the importance of the art of memory for Bacon, and to Bacon’s treatment of it as a step in its evolution in the direction of scientific method. Rossi has carried these researches further in his Clavis universalis (1960). It may be that it is on these lines—in the search for a “real” notation, for a universal language using “real characters,” and for a method incorporating Lullism, Ramism, and the art of memory—that Bacon’s greatest importance will be seen to lie in the scholarship of the future, as it traces these strands from the Renaissance to Leibniz. Rossi’s chapters on these themes in his Francesco Bacone were a pioneer effort in this direction. I think that much in these chapters might now be put more clearly.
It is unfortunate that Rossi was not able to use Walter J. Ong’s work on Ramus (published in 1958) and therefore has missed the point of the Ramist method as an art of memory without images. This point is very important for Bacon’s attitude to Ramus; for when it is grasped, it can be seen how non-Ramist Bacon is in his retention of images in his art of memory, and in his search for “real” images or characters to use in scientific method. On the problem of the mental image and changing attitudes to it—an absolutely central one for the history of our civilization—Bacon again stands between two worlds. On the one hand he knows, still at first hand, so to speak, of the Renaissance imaginative magic; on the other, he begins to detach himself from it. When events like these, occurring within the psyche, are better understood, we may come at last to a better understanding of the great turning points in history, such as the modulation of Renaissance into seventeenth century.
I would like to put on record here my own debt to Rossi’s work, which makes everything else on Bacon look pale and insipid, and how glad I am that it is now available in a good English translation.
Bacon in America March 28, 1968