Bacon’s Magic

Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science

by Paolo Rossi, Translated from the Italian by Sacha Rabinovitch
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 280 pp., £2-2-0

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon; drawing by David Levine

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…

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