Durant 1926: The Advancement of Learning (Francis Bacon)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter III, Section 4 (Part 1) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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IV.1 The Advancement of Learning

To produce works, one must have knowledge. “Nature cannot be commanded except by being obeyed.” Let us learn the laws of nature, and we shall be her masters, as we are now, in ignorance, her thralls; science is the road to utopia. But in what condition this road is—tortuous, unlit, turning back upon itself, lost in useless by-paths, and leading not to light but to chaos. Let us then begin by making a survey of the state of the sciences, and marking out for them their proper and distinctive fields; let us “seat the sciences each in its proper place”; examine their defects, their needs, and their possibilities; indicate the new problems that await their light; and in general “open and stir the earth a little about the roots” of them.

Let us “seat the sciences each in its proper place”.

This is the task which Bacon set himself in The Advancement of Learning. “It is my intention,” he writes, like a king entering his realm, “to make the circuit of knowledge, noticing what parts lie waste and uncultivated, and abandoned by the industry of man; with a view to engage, by a faithful mapping out of the deserted tracts, the energies of public and private persons in their improvement.” He would be the royal surveyor of the weed-grown soil, making straight the road, and dividing the fields among the laborers. It was a plan audacious to the edge of immodesty; but Bacon was still young enough (forty-two is young in a philosopher) to plan great voyages. “I have taken all knowledge to be my province,” he had written to Burghley in 1592; not meaning that he would make himself a premature edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but implying merely that his work would bring him into every field, as the critic and coordinator of every science in the task of social reconstruction. The very magnitude of his purpose gives a stately magnificence to his style, and brings him at times to the height of English prose. 

Bacon implied that his work would bring him into every field, as the critic and coordinator of every science in the task of social reconstruction. 

So he ranges over the vast battle-ground in which human research struggles with natural hindrance and human ignorance; and in every field he sheds illumination. He attaches great importance to physiology and medicine; he exalts the latter as regulating “a musical instrument of much and exquisite workmanship easily put out of tune.” But he objects to the lax empiricism of contemporary doctors, and their facile tendency to treat all ailments with the same prescription—usually physic. “Our physicians are like bishops, that have the keys of binding and loosing, but no more.” They rely too much on mere haphazard, uncoordinated individual experience; let them experiment more widely, let them illuminate human with comparative anatomy, let them dissect and if necessary vivisect; and above all, let them construct an easily accessible and intelligible record of experiments and results. Bacon believes that the medical profession should be permitted to ease and quicken death (euthanasy) where the end would be otherwise only delayed for a few days and at the cost of great pain; but he urges the physicians to give more study to the art of prolonging life. “This is a new part” of medicine, “and deficient, though the most noble of all; for if it may be supplied, medicine will not then be wholly versed in sordid cures, nor physicians be honored only for necessity, but as dispensers of the greatest earthly happiness that could well be conferred on mortals.” One can hear some sour Schopenhauerian protesting, at this point, against the assumption that longer life would be a boon, and urging, on the contrary, that the speed with which some physicians put an end to our ill-nesses is a consummation devoutly to be praised. But Bacon, worried and married and harassed though he was, never doubted that life was a very fine thing after all. 

Bacon attached great importance to physiology and medicine.

In psychology he is almost a “behaviorist”: he demands a strict study of cause and effect in human action, and wishes to eliminate the word chance from the vocabulary of science. “Chance is the name of a thing that does not exist.” And “what chance is in the universe, so will is in man.” Here is a world of meaning, and a challenge of war, all in a little line: the Scholastic doctrine of free will is pushed aside as beneath discussion; and the universal assumption of a “will” distinct from the “intellect” is discarded. These are leads which Bacon does not follow up; it is not the only case in which he puts a book into a phrase and then passes blithely on. 

Bacon pushed aside the Scholastic doctrine of free will; and discarded the universal assumption of a “will” distinct from the “intellect”.

Again in a few words, Bacon invents a new science—social psychology. “Philosophers should diligently inquire into the powers and energy of custom, exercise, habit, education, example, imitation, emulation, company, friendship, praise, reproof, exhortation, reputation, laws, books, studies etc.; for these are the things that reign in men’s morals; by these agents the mind is formed and subdued.” So closely has this outline been followed by the new science that it reads almost like a table of contents for the works of Tarde, Le Bon, Ross, Wallas, and Durkheim. 

Bacon invented the science of social psychology.

Nothing is beneath science, nor above it. Sorceries, dreams, predictions, telepathic communications, “psychical phenomena” in general must be subjected to scientific examination; “for it is not known in what cases, and how far, effects attributed to superstition participate of natural causes.” Despite his strong naturalistic bent he feels the fascination of these problems; nothing human is alien to him. Who knows what unsuspected truth, what new science, indeed, may grow out of these investigations, as chemistry budded out from alchemy? “Alchemy may be compared to the man who told his sons he had left them gold buried somewhere in his vineyard; where they, by digging, found no gold, but by turning up the mould about the roots of the vines, procured a plentiful vintage. So the search and endeavors to make gold have brought many useful inventions and instructive experiments to light.”

Modern “subject clearing” carries out what Bacon calls scientific examination. No subject is off limits for subject clearing.

Still another science grows to form in Book VIII: the science of success in life. Not yet having fallen from power, Bacon offers some preliminary hints on how to rise in the world. The first requisite is knowledge: of ourselves and of others. Gnothe Seauton is but half; know thyself is valuable chiefly as a means of knowing others. We must diligently 

inform ourselves of the particular persons we have to deal with—their tempers, desires, views, customs, habits; the assistances, helps and assurances whereon they principally rely, and whence they received their power; their defects and weaknesses, whereat they chiefly lie open and are accessible; their friends, factions, patrons, dependents, enemies, enviers, rivals; their times and manners of access. … But the surest key for unlocking the minds of others turns upon searching and sifting either their tempers and natures, or their ends and designs; and the more weak and simple are best judged by their temper, but the more prudent and close by their designs. … But the shortest way to this whole inquiry rests upon three particulars; viz.—l. In procuring numerous friendships. … 2. In observing a prudent mean and moderation between freedom of discourse and silence. … But above all, nothing conduces more to the well-representing of a man’s self, and securing his own right, than not to disarm one’s self by too much sweetness and good-nature, which exposes a man to injuries and reproaches; but rather … at times to dart out some sparks of a free and generous mind, that have no less of the sting than the honey.

The first requisite is knowledge: of ourselves and of others. Gnothe Seauton is but half; know thyself is valuable chiefly as a means of knowing others. 

Friends are for Bacon chiefly a means to power; he, shares with Machiavelli a point of view which one is at first inclined to attribute to the Renaissance, till one thinks of the fine and uncalculating friendships of Michelangelo and Cavalieri, Montaigne and La Boetie, Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet. Perhaps this very practical assessment of friendship helps to explain Bacon’s fall from power, as similar views help to explain Napoleon’s; for a man’s friends will seldom practice a higher philosophy in their relations with him than that which he professes in his treatment of them. Bacon goes on to quote Bias, one of the Seven Wise Men of ancient Greece: “Love your friend as if he were to become your enemy, and your enemy as if he were to become your friend.” Do not betray even to your friend too much of your real purposes and thoughts; in conversation, ask questions oftener than you express opinions; and when you speak, offer data and information rather than beliefs and judgments. Manifest pride is a help to advancement; and “ostentation is a fault in ethics rather than in politics.”  Here again one is reminded of Napoleon; Bacon, like the little Corsican, was a simple man enough within his walls, but outside them he affected a ceremony and display which he thought indispensable to public repute. 

Friends are for Bacon chiefly a means to power. Bacon was a simple man enough within his walls, but outside them he affected a ceremony and display which he thought indispensable to public repute. 

So Bacon runs from field to field, pouring the seed of his thought into every science. At the end of his survey he comes to the conclusion that science by itself is not enough: there must be a force and discipline outside the sciences to coordinate them and point them to a goal. “There is another great and powerful cause why the sciences have made but little progress, which is this. It is not possible to run a course aright when the goal itself has not been rightly placed.” What science needs is philosophy—the analysis of scientific method, and the coordination of scientific purposes and results; without this, any science must be superficial. “For as no perfect view of a country can be taken from a flat; so it is impossible to discover the remote and deep parts of any science by standing upon the level of the same science, or without ascending to a higher.” He condemns the habit of looking at isolated facts out of their context, without considering the unity of nature; as if, he says, one should carry a small candle about the corners of a room radiant with a central light.

At the end of his survey Bacon comes to the conclusion that science by itself is not enough: there must be a force and discipline outside the sciences to coordinate them and point them to a goal. That force comes from the context of unity of nature.

Philosophy, rather than science, is in the long run Bacon’s love; it is only philosophy which can give even to a life of turmoil and grief the stately peace that comes of understanding. “Learning conquers or mitigates the fear of death and adverse fortune.” He quotes Virgil’s great lines: 

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
Quique metus omnes, et inexorabile fatum,
Subjecit pedibus, strepitumque Acherontis avari—

“happy the man who has learned the causes of things, and has put under his feet all fears, and inexorable fate, and the noisy strife of the hell of greed.” It is perhaps the best fruit of philosophy that through it we unlearn the lesson of endless acquisition which an industrial environment so insistently repeats. “Philosophy directs us first to seek the goods of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied, or not much wanted.” A bit of wisdom is a joy forever. 

It is only philosophy which can give even to a life of turmoil and grief the stately peace that comes of understanding. 

Government suffers, precisely like science, for lack of philosophy. Philosophy bears to science the same relationship which statesmanship bears to politics: movement guided by total knowledge and perspective, as against aimless and individual seeking. Just as the pursuit of knowledge becomes scholasticism when divorced from the actual needs of men and life, so the pursuit of politics becomes a destructive bedlam when divorced from science and philosophy. “It is wrong to trust the natural body to empirics, who commonly have a few receipts whereon they rely, but who know neither the cause of the disease, nor the constitution of patients, nor the danger of accidents, nor the true methods of cure. And so it must needs be dangerous to have the civil body of states managed by empirical statesmen, unless well mixed with others who are grounded in learning. … Though he might be thought partial to his profession who said, ‘States would then be happy, when either kings were philosophers or philosophers kings,’ yet so much is verified by experience, that the best times have happened under wise and: learned princes.” And he reminds. us of the great emperors who ruled Rome after Domitian and before Commodus. 

Government suffers, precisely like science, for lack of philosophy. Philosophy bears to science the same relationship which statesmanship bears to politics: movement guided by total knowledge and perspective, as against aimless and individual seeking. 

So Bacon, like Plato and us all, exalted his hobby, and offered it as the salvation of man. But he recognized, much more clearly than Plato (and the distinction announces the modern age), the necessity of specialist science, and of soldiers and armies of specialist research. No one mind, not even Bacon’s, could cover the whole field, though he should look from Olympus’ top itself. He knew he needed help, and keenly felt his loneliness in the mountain-air of his unaided enterprise. “What comrades have you in your work?” he asks a friend. “As for me, I am in the completest solitude.” He dreams of scientists coordinated in specialization by constant communion and cooperation, and by some great organization holding them together to a goal. “Consider what may be expected from men abounding in leisure, and from association of labors, and from successions of ages; the rather because it is not a way over which only one man can pass at a time (as is the case with that of reasoning), but within which the labors and industries of men (especially as regards the collecting of experience) may with the best effort be collected and distributed, and then combined. For then only will men begin to know their strength when, instead of great numbers doing all the same things, one shall take charge of one thing, and another of another.” Science, which is the organization of knowledge, must itself be organized. 

Bacon dreams of scientists coordinated in specialization by constant communion and cooperation, and by some great organization holding them together to a goal. Science, which is the organization of knowledge, must itself be organized. 

And this organization must be international; let it pass freely aver the frontiers, and it may make Europe intellectually one. “The next want I discover is the little sympathy and correspondence which exists between colleges and universities, as well throughout Europe as in the same state and kingdom.” Let all these universities allot subjects and problems among themselves, and cooperate both in research and in publication. So organized and correlated, the universities might be deemed worthy of such royal support as would make them what they shall be in Utopia—centers of impartial learning ruling the world. Bacon notes “the mean salaries apportioned to public lectureships, whether in the sciences or the arts”; and he feels that this will continue till governments take aver the great tasks of education. “The wisdom of the ancientest and best times always complained that states were too busy with laws, and too remiss in point of education.” His great dream is the socialization of science for the conquest of nature and the enlargement of the power of man. 

The universities shall be centers of impartial learning ruling the world. Bacon’s great dream is the socialization of science for the conquest of nature and the enlargement of the power of man.

And so he appeals to James I, showering upon him the flattery which, he knew his Royal Highness loved to sip. James was a scholar as well as a monarch, prouder of his pen than of his sceptre or his sward; something might be expected of so literary and erudite a king. Bacon tells James that the plans he has sketched are “indeed opera basilica,”—kingly tasks—“towards which the endeavors of one man can be but as an image on a cross-road, which points out the way but cannot tread it.” Certainly these royal undertakings will involve expense; but “as the secretaries and spies of princes and states bring in bills for intelligence, so you must allow the spies and intelligencers of nature to bring in their bills if you would not be ignorant of many things worthy to be known. And if Alexander placed so large a treasure at Aristotle’s command for the support of hunters, fowlers, fishers, and the like, in much more need do they stand of this beneficence who unfold the labyrinths of nature.” With such royal aid the Great Reconstruction can be completed in a few years; without it the task will require generations. 

Bacon tells James that the plans he has sketched are kingly tasks—“towards which the endeavors of one man can be but as an image on a cross-road, which points out the way but cannot tread it.”

What is refreshingly new in Bacon is the magnificent assurance with which he predicts the conquest of nature by man: “I stake all on the victory of art over nature in the race.” That which men have done is “but an earnest of the things they shall do.” But why this great hope? Had not men been seeking truth, and exploring the paths of science, these two thousand years? Why should one hope now for such great success where so long a time had given so modest a result?—Yes, Bacon answers; but what if the methods men have used have ‘been wrong and useless? What if the road has been lost, and research has gone into by-paths ending in the air? We need a ruthless revolution in our methods of research and thought, in our system of science and logic; we need a new Organon, better than Aristotle’s, fit for this larger world. 

What is refreshingly new in Bacon is the magnificent assurance with which he predicts the conquest of nature by man. We need a ruthless revolution in our methods of research and thought.

And so Bacon offers us his supreme book The New Organon.

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