1605 Bacon on Learning

I found Francis Bacon’s book, The Advancement of Learning, on Gutenberg and took a look. I like what he has to say about the nature of knowledge and learning. There is a link to the whole book at the bottom. Below are some of the quotes I like in an order I like.

The Glass Cave

The mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.

Plato's_allegory_of_the_caveLet us consider again the false appearances imposed upon us by every man’s own individual nature and custom in that feigned supposition that Plato maketh of the cave; for certainly if a child were continued in a grot or cave under the earth until maturity of age, and came suddenly abroad, he would have strange and absurd imaginations.

So, in like manner, although our persons live in the view of heaven, yet our spirits are included in the caves of our own complexions and customs, which minister unto us infinite errors and vain opinions if they be not recalled to examination. But hereof we have given many examples in one of the errors, or peccant humours, which we ran briefly over in our first book.

Ascending a Little Higher

The ancient opinion that man was microcosmus—an abstract or model of the world—hath been fantastically strained by Paracelsus and the alchemists, as if there were to be found in man’s body certain correspondences and parallels, which should have respect to all varieties of things, as stars, planets, minerals, which are extant in the great world.  But thus much is evidently true, that of all substances which nature hath produced, man’s body is the most extremely compounded.

For we see herbs and plants are nourished by earth and water; beasts for the most part by herbs and fruits; man by the flesh of beasts, birds, fishes, herbs, grains, fruits, water, and the manifold alterations, dressings, and preparations of these several bodies before they come to be his food and aliment.

Add hereunto that beasts have a more simple order of life, and less change of affections to work upon their bodies, whereas man in his mansion, sleep, exercise, passions, hath infinite variations: and it cannot be denied but that the body of man of all other things is of the most compounded mass.  The soul, on the other side, is the simplest of substances. So that it is no marvel though the soul so placed enjoy no rest, if that principle be true.

This variable composition of man’s body hath made it as an instrument easy to distemper; and, therefore, the poets did well to conjoin music and medicine in Apollo, because the office of medicine is but to tune this curious harp of man’s body and to reduce it to harmony.

So, then, the subject being so variable hath made the art by consequent more conjectural; and the art being conjectural hath made so much the more place to be left for imposture.

For almost all other arts and sciences are judged by acts or masterpieces, as I may term them, and not by the successes and events. The lawyer is judged by the virtue of his pleading, and not by the issue of the cause; this master in this ship is judged by the directing his course aright, and not by the fortune of the voyage; but the physician, and perhaps this politique, hath no particular acts demonstrative of his ability, but is judged most by the event, which is ever but as it is taken: for who can tell, if a patient die or recover, or if a state be preserved or ruined, whether it be art or accident?

And therefore many times the impostor is prized, and the man of virtue taxed. Nay, we see [the] weakness and credulity of men is such, as they will often refer a mountebank or witch before a learned physician.

Philosophy is the Handmaid of Religion

There is a kind of culture of the mind that seemeth yet more accurate and elaborate than the rest, and is built upon this ground; that the minds of all men are at some times in a state more perfect, and at other times in a state more depraved.  The purpose, therefore, of this practice is to fix and cherish the good hours of the mind, and to obliterate and take forth the evil.

The fixing of the good hath been practised by two means, vows or constant resolutions, and observances or exercises; which are not to be regarded so much in themselves, as because they keep the mind in continual obedience.

The obliteration of the evil hath been practised by two means, some kind of redemption or expiation of that which is past, and an inception or account de novo for the time to come.  But this part seemeth sacred and religious, and justly; for all good moral philosophy (as was said) is but a handmaid to religion.


Let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledges be accepted rather for lines and veins than for sections and separations; and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved. For the contrary hereof hath made particular sciences to become barren, shallow, and erroneous, while they have not been nourished and maintained from the common fountain.

So we see Cicero, the orator, complained of Socrates and his school, that he was the first that separated philosophy and rhetoric; whereupon rhetoric became an empty and verbal art.  So we may see that the opinion of Copernicus, touching the rotation of the earth, which astronomy itself cannot correct, because it is not repugnant to any of the phenomena, yet natural philosophy may correct.  So we see also that the science of medicine if it be destituted and forsaken by natural philosophy, it is not much better than an empirical practice.


The parts of human learning have reference to the three parts of man’s understanding, which is the seat of learning: history to his memory, poesy to his imagination, and philosophy to his reason. Divine learning receiveth the same distribution; for, the spirit of man is the same, though the revelation of oracle and sense be diverse. So as theology consisteth also of history of the Church; of parables, which is divine poesy; and of holy doctrine or precept. For as for that part which seemeth supernumerary, which is prophecy, it is but divine history, which hath that prerogative over human, as the narration may be before the fact as well as after.

The knowledge of man is as the waters, some descending from above, and some springing from beneath: the one informed by the light of nature, the other inspired by divine revelation. The light of nature consisteth in the notions of the mind and the reports of the senses; for as for knowledge which man receiveth by teaching, it is cumulative and not original, as in a water that besides his own spring-head is fed with other springs and streams. So then, according to these two differing illuminations or originals, knowledge is first of all divided into divinity and philosophy.

Judgment by Syllogism

For the nature of man doth extremely covet to have somewhat in his understanding fixed and unmovable, and as a rest and support of the mind.

And, therefore, as Aristotle endeavoureth to prove, that in all motion there is some point quiescent; and as he elegantly expoundeth the ancient fable of Atlas (that stood fixed, and bare up the heaven from falling) to be meant of the poles or axle-tree of heaven, whereupon the conversion is accomplished, so assuredly men have a desire to have an Atlas or axle-tree within to keep them from fluctuation, which is like to a perpetual peril of falling.

Therefore men did hasten to set down some principles about which the variety of their disputatious might turn.


So, then, this art of judgment is but the reduction of propositions to principles in a middle term.  The principles to be agreed by all and exempted from argument; the middle term to be elected at the liberty of every man’s invention; the reduction to be of two kinds, direct and inverted: the one when the proposition is reduced to the principle, which they term a probation ostensive; the other, when the contradictory of the proposition is reduced to the contradictory of the principle, which is that which they call per incommodum, or pressing an absurdity; the number of middle terms to be as the proposition standeth degrees more or less removed from the principle.

As the doctrine of syllogisms comprehendeth the rules of judgment upon that which is invented, so the doctrine of method containeth the rules of judgment upon that which is to be delivered; for judgment precedeth delivery, as it followeth invention.


Neither is the method or the nature of the tradition material only to the use of knowledge, but likewise to the progression of knowledge: for since the labour and life of one man cannot attain to perfection of knowledge, the wisdom of the tradition is that which inspireth the felicity of continuance and proceeding. And therefore the most real diversity of method is of method referred to use, and method referred to progression: whereof the one may be termed magistral, and the other of probation.


All knowledge is either delivered by teachers, or attained by men’s proper endeavours: and therefore as the principal part of tradition of knowledge concerneth chiefly writing of books, so the relative part thereof concerneth reading of books; whereunto appertain incidently these considerations. The first is concerning the true correction and edition of authors; wherein nevertheless rash diligence hath done great prejudice. For these critics have often presumed that that which they understand not is false set down: as the priest that, where he found it written of St. Paul Demissus est per sportam (let down by a basket), mended his book, and made it Demissus est per portam (Let down by the gate); because sporta was a hard word, and out of his reading: and surely their errors, though they be not so palpable and ridiculous, yet are of the same kind.

And therefore, as it hath been wisely noted, the most corrected copies are commonly the least correct.

The State and Philosophy

Alexander was bred and taught under Aristotle, the great philosopher, who dedicated divers of his books of philosophy unto him; he was attended with Callisthenes and divers other learned persons, that followed him in camp, throughout his journeys and conquests.

What price and estimation he had learning in doth notably appear in these three particulars: first, in the envy he used to express that he bare towards Achilles, in this, that he had so good a trumpet of his praises as Homer’s verses;

'The_School_of_Athens'_by_Raffaello_Sanzio_da_Urbinosecondly, in the judgment or solution he gave touching that precious cabinet of Darius, which was found among his jewels (whereof question was made what thing was worthy to be put into it, and he gave his opinion for Homer’s works); thirdly, in his letter to Aristotle, after he had set forth his books of nature, wherein he expostulateth with him for publishing the secrets or mysteries of philosophy; and gave him to understand that himself esteemed it more to excel other men in learning and knowledge than in power and empire. And what use he had of learning doth appear, or rather shine, in all his speeches and answers, being full of science and use of science, and that in all variety.

The knowledge of man is as the waters, some descending from above, and some springing from beneath: the one informed by the light of nature, the other inspired by divine revelation. The light of nature consisteth in the notions of the mind and the reports of the senses; for as for knowledge which man receiveth by teaching, it is cumulative and not original, as in a water that besides his own spring-head is fed with other springs and streams. So then, according to these two differing illuminations or originals, knowledge is first of all divided into divinity and philosophy.

Fraternities and Brotherhood

As the proficience of learning consisteth much in the orders and institutions of universities in the same states and kingdoms, so it would be yet more advanced, if there were more intelligence mutual between the universities of Europe than now there is.

We see there be many orders and foundations, which though they be divided under several sovereignties and territories, yet they take themselves to have a kind of contract, fraternity, and correspondence one with the other, insomuch as they have provincials and generals. And surely as nature createth brotherhood in families, and arts mechanical contract brotherhoods in communalties, and the anointment of God superinduceth a brotherhood in kings and bishops, so in like manner there cannot but be a fraternity in learning and illumination, relating to that paternity which is attributed to God, who is called the Father of illuminations or lights.

There hath not been, or very rarely been, any public designation of writers or inquirers concerning such parts of knowledge as may appear not to have been already sufficiently laboured or undertaken; unto which point it is an inducement to enter into a view and examination what parts of learning have been prosecuted, and what omitted. For the opinion of plenty is amongst the causes of want, and the great quantity of books maketh a show rather of superfluity than lack; which surcharge nevertheless is not to be remedied by making no more books, but by making more good books, which, as the serpent of Moses, might devour the serpents of the enchanters.

The Arts and Sciences

First, therefore, amongst so many great foundations of colleges in Europe, I find strange that they are all dedicated to professions, and none left free to arts and sciences at large.

For if men judge that learning should be referred to action, they judge well; but in this they fall into the error described in the ancient fable, in which the other parts of the body did suppose the stomach had been idle, because it neither performed the office of motion, as the limbs do, nor of sense, as the head doth; but yet notwithstanding it is the stomach that digesteth and distributeth to all the rest.

So if any man think philosophy and universality to be idle studies, he doth not consider that all professions are from thence served and supplied. And this I take to be a great cause that hath hindered the progression of learning, because these fundamental knowledges have been studied but in passage.

arts and scienceFor if you will have a tree bear more fruit than it hath used to do, it is not anything you can do to the boughs, but it is the stirring of the earth and putting new mould about thee roots that must work it. Neither is it to be forgotten, that this dedicating of foundations and dotations to professory learning hath not only had a malign aspect and influence upon the growth of sciences, but hath also been prejudicial to states, and governments.

For hence it proceedeth that princes find a solitude in regard of able men to serve them in causes of estate, because there is no education collegiate which is free, where such as were so disposed might give themselves in histories, modern languages, books of policy and civil discourse, and other the like enablements unto service of estate.

And because founders of colleges do plant, and founders of lectures do water, it followeth well in order to speak of the defect which is in public lectures; namely, in the smallness, and meanness of the salary or reward which in most places is assigned unto them, whether they be lectures of arts, or of professions. For it is necessary to the progression of sciences that readers be of the most able and sufficient men; as those which are ordained for generating and propagating of sciences, and not for transitory use.

Church, State, and Professors

I think good to deliver [learning] from the discredits and disgraces which it hath received, all from ignorance, but ignorance severally disguised; appearing sometimes in the zeal and jealousy of divines, sometimes in the severity and arrogancy of politics, and sometimes in the errors and imperfections of learned men themselves.

For the honest and just bounds of observation by one person upon another extend no further but to understand him sufficiently, whereby not to give him offence, or whereby to be able to give him faithful counsel, or whereby to stand upon reasonable guard and caution in respect of a man’s self. But to be speculative into another man to the end to know how to work him, or wind him, or govern him, proceedeth from a heart that is double and cloven, and not entire and ingenuous; which as in friendship it is want of integrity, so towards princes or superiors is want of duty.

There be therefore chiefly three vanities in studies, whereby learning hath been most traduced. For those things we do esteem vain which are either false or frivolous, those which either have no truth or no use; and those persons we esteem vain which are either credulous or curious; and curiosity is either in matter or words: so that in reason as well as in experience there fall out to be these three distempers (as I may term them) of learning—the first, fantastical learning; the second, contentious learning; and the last, delicate learning; vain imaginations, vain altercations, and vain affectations.

Here therefore [is] the first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter; It seems to me that Pygmalion’s frenzy is a good emblem or portraiture of this vanity; for words are but the images of matter, and except they have life of reason and invention, to fall in love with them is all one as to fall in love with a picture.

The second which followeth is in nature worse than the former: for as substance of matter is better than beauty of words, so contrariwise vain matter is worse than vain words; This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the schoolmen, who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books.

For the third vice or disease of learning, which concerneth deceit or untruth, it is of all the rest the foulest; as that which doth destroy the essential form of knowledge, which is nothing but a representation of truth: for the truth of being and the truth of knowing are one, differing no more than the direct beam and the beam reflected. This vice therefore brancheth itself into two sorts; delight in deceiving and aptness to be deceived; imposture and credulity; which, although they appear to be of a diverse nature, the one seeming to proceed of cunning and the other of simplicity, yet certainly they do for the most part concur an inquisitive man is a prattler; so upon the like reason a credulous man is a deceiver.

Thus have I gone over these three diseases of learning; besides the which there are some other rather peccant humours than formed diseases, which, nevertheless, are not so secret and intrinsic, but that they fall under a popular observation and traducement, and, therefore, are not to be passed over.

Symptoms of Bad Learning

The first of these is the extreme affecting of two extremities: the one antiquity, the other novelty; wherein it seemeth the children of time do take after the nature and malice of the father. For as he devoureth his children, so one of them seeketh to devour and suppress the other; while antiquity envieth there should be new additions, and novelty cannot be content to add but it must deface.

Another error induced by the former is a distrust that anything should be now to be found out, which the world should have missed and passed over so long time.

Another error, that hath also some affinity with the former, is a conceit that of former opinions or sects after variety and examination the best hath still prevailed and suppressed the rest; so as if a man should begin the labour of a new search, he were but like to light upon somewhat formerly rejected, and by rejection brought into oblivion; as if the multitude, or the wisest for the multitude’s sake, were not ready to give passage rather to that which is popular and superficial than to that which is substantial and profound for the truth is, that time seemeth to be of the nature of a river or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is weighty and solid.

Another error, of a diverse nature from all the former, is the over-early and peremptory reduction of knowledge into arts and methods; from which time commonly sciences receive small or no augmentation.

Another error which doth succeed that which we last mentioned is, that after the distribution of particular arts and sciences, men have abandoned universality, or philosophia prima, which cannot but cease and stop all progression.  For no perfect discovery can be made upon a flat or a level; neither is it possible to discover the more remote and deeper parts of any science if you stand but upon the level of the same science, and ascend not to a higher science.

Another error hath proceeded from too great a reverence, and a kind of adoration of the mind and understanding of man; by means whereof, men have withdrawn themselves too much from the contemplation of nature, and the observations of experience, and have tumbled up and down in their own reason and conceits. Upon these intellectualists, which are notwithstanding commonly taken for the most sublime and divine philosophers, Heraclitus gave a just censure, saying:—“Men sought truth in their own little worlds, and not in the great and common world;” for they disdain to spell, and so by degrees to read in the volume of God’s works; and contrariwise by continual meditation and agitation of wit do urge and, as it were, invocate their own spirits to divine and give oracles unto them, whereby they are deservedly deluded.

Another error that hath some connection with this latter is, that men have used to infect their meditations, opinions, and doctrines with some conceits which they have most admired, or some sciences which they have most applied, and given all things else a tincture according to them, utterly untrue and improper. So hath Plato intermingled his philosophy with theology, and Aristotle with logic; and the second school of Plato, Proclus and the rest, with the mathematics; for these were the arts which had a kind of primogeniture with them severally. So have the alchemists made a philosophy out of a few experiments of the furnace; and Gilbertus our countryman hath made a philosophy out of the observations of a loadstone.

Another error is an impatience of doubt, and haste to assertion without due and mature suspension of judgment. For the two ways of contemplation are not unlike the two ways of action commonly spoken of by the ancients: the one plain and smooth in the beginning, and in the end impassable; the other rough and troublesome in the entrance, but after a while fair and even. So it is in contemplation: if a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

Another error is in the manner of the tradition and delivery of knowledge, which is for the most part magistral and peremptory, and not ingenuous and faithful; in a sort as may be soonest believed, and not easiest examined.

Other errors there are in the scope that men propound to themselves, whereunto they bend their endeavours; for, whereas the more constant and devote kind of professors of any science ought to propound to themselves to make some additions to their science, they convert their labours to aspire to certain second prizes: as to be a profound interpreter or commentor, to be a sharp champion or defender, to be a methodical compounder or abridger, and so the patrimony of knowledge cometh to be sometimes improved, but seldom augmented.

But the greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge. For men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a terrace for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate. But this is that which will indeed dignify and exalt knowledge, if contemplation and action may be more nearly and straitly conjoined and united together than they have been.   as both heaven and earth do conspire and contribute to the use and benefit of man, so the end ought to be, from both philosophies to separate and reject vain speculations, and whatsoever is empty and void, and to preserve and augment whatsoever is solid and fruitful; that knowledge may not be as a courtesan, for pleasure and vanity only, or as a bond-woman, to acquire and gain to her master’s use; but as a spouse, for generation, fruit, and comfort.

The Commandment

We see the dignity of the commandment is according to the dignity of the commanded; to have commandment over beasts as herdmen have, is a thing contemptible; to have commandment over children as schoolmasters have, is a matter of small honour; to have commandment over galley-slaves is a disparagement rather than an honour. Neither is the commandment of tyrants much better, over people which have put off the generosity of their minds; and, therefore, it was ever holden that honours in free monarchies and commonwealths had a sweetness more than in tyrannies, because the commandment extendeth more over the wills of men, and not only over their deeds and services.

But yet the commandment of knowledge is yet higher than the commandment over the will; for it is a commandment over the reason, belief, and understanding of man, which is the highest part of the mind, and giveth law to the will itself. For there is no power on earth which setteth up a throne or chair of estate in the spirits and souls of men, and in their cogitations, imaginations, opinions, and beliefs, but knowledge and learning. And therefore we see the detestable and extreme pleasure that arch-heretics, and false prophets, and impostors are transported with, when they once find in themselves that they have a superiority in the faith and conscience of men; so great as if they have once tasted of it, it is seldom seen that any torture or persecution can make them relinquish or abandon it.

Our Power

As in all things which are practical we ought to cast up our account, what is in our power, and what not; for the one may be dealt with by way of alteration, but the other by way of application only.

The husbandman cannot command neither the nature of the earth nor the seasons of the weather; no more can the physician the constitution of the patient nor the variety of accidents. So in the culture and cure of the mind of man, two things are without our command: points of Nature, and points of fortune. For to the basis of the one, and the conditions of the other, our work is limited and tied.

But when that we speak of suffering, we do not speak of a dull and neglected suffering, but of a wise and industrious suffering, which draweth and contriveth use and advantage out of that which seemeth adverse and contrary; which is that properly which we call accommodating or applying. Now the wisdom of application resteth principally in the exact and distinct knowledge of the precedent state or disposition, unto which we do apply; for we cannot fit a garment except we first take measure of the body.

Facination and Imagination

Fascination is the power and act of imagination intensive upon other bodies than the body of the imaginant, for of that we spake in the proper place. Wherein the school of Paracelsus, and the disciples of pretended natural magic, have been so intemperate, as they have exalted the power of the imagination to be much one with the power of miracle-working faith.

Others, that draw nearer to probability, calling to their view the secret passages of things, and specially of the contagion that passeth from body to body, do conceive it should likewise be agreeable to nature that there should be some transmissions and operations from spirit to spirit without the mediation of the senses; whence the conceits have grown (now almost made civil) of the mastering spirit, and the force of confidence, and the like.

Incident unto this is the inquiry how to raise and fortify the imagination; for if the imagination fortified have power, then it is material to know how to fortify and exalt it. And herein comes in crookedly and dangerously a palliation of a great part of ceremonial magic.

The Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon

%d bloggers like this: