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DE INTERPRETATIONE NATURE PROMIUM.
THE paper that bears this title was first published by Gruter. He printed it among the Impetus Philosophici (concerning which see Preface to Part II. p. 3.) where it stands by itself, unconnected with the neighbouring pieces. Hence I conclude that it was one of the loose papers.
Its date may be partly inferred from the contents. speaks of himself in it as a man no longer young', yet not old2; and as one who having been a candidate (apparently without success) for office in the state, had at length resolved to abandon that pursuit and betake himself entirely to this work. All this suits very well with his position in the summer of 1603, when he desired "to meddle as little as he could in the King's causes" and "put his ambition wholly upon his pen;" at which time also he was engaged on a work concerning the "Invention of Sciences," which he had digested into two parts, whereof one was entitled Interpretatio Naturæ. And since this Proœmium was evidently intended to stand as a general introduction to some great work bearing that title, we cannot be far wrong, I think, in placing it next to the Advancement of Learn ing and in connexion with the pieces which follow.
All that is of general application in it was afterwards digested into the first book of the Novum Organum. But it retains a peculiar interest for us on account of the passage in which he explains the plans and purposes of his life, and the estimate he had formed of his own character and abilities;-a passage which was replaced in the days of his greatness by a simple De nobis ipsis silemus. It is the only piece of autobiography in which
1 cum ætas jam consisteret.
2 hominem non senem.
* ab istis cogitationibus me prorsus alienavi et in hoc opus ex priore decreto me
he ever indulged, and deserves on several accounts to be carefully considered.
When a man's life and character have any interest for posterity, it is always good to have his own account of them; for no one can tell so well what objects he proposed to himself, and how he set about to accomplish them; without a knowledge of which it must always be impossible to form a true judgment of his career. We have here Bacon's own account, written when he was between 40 and 50, of the plan upon which his life had been laid out. And if we accept it as sincere, if we believe that such were indeed the objects which he mainly aimed at, and such the motives which mainly guided him, the course which he actually followed in the various conjunctures of his life will present few difficulties; but will be found (after reasonable allowance made for human accidents without, and human infirmities within) very natural and consistent from first to last,-in fact a very remarkable example of constancy to an original design. He began by conceiving that a wiser method of studying nature would give man the key to all her secrets, and therewith the mastery of all her powers. If so, what boon so great could a man bestow upon his fellow-men? But the work would be long and arduous, and the event remote; and in the mean time he was not to neglect the immediate and peculiar services which as an Englishman he owed to his country and as a Protestant to his religion. He set out with the intention of doing what he could towards the discharge of all three obligations, and planned his course accordingly. With regard to the two last however, he found as life wore away that the means and opportunities which he had hoped for did not present themselves; and fearing that all would fail together if he lost more time in waiting for them, he resolved to fall back upon the first as an enterprise which depended for success upon himself alone.
So his case stood when he drew up this paper. Afterwards, though new exigencies of state gave him an opening for service and drew him again into business and politics, he did not cease to devote his leisure to the prosecution of his main object; and as soon as his fall restored to him the entire command of his time, he again made it his sole occupation.
So far therefore, his actual course was quite consistent with his first design; and it is even probable that this very constancy
was in some degree answerable for the great error and misfortune of his life. That an absorbing interest in one thing should induce negligence of others not less important, is an accident only too natural and familiar; and if he did not allow the Novum Organum to interfere with his attention to the causes which came before him in Chancery, it did probably prevent him from attending as carefully as he should and otherwise would have done to the proceedings of his servants and the state of his accounts.
Had his main design been successful, the story of his life would have stood simply thus, and called for no further speculation. But there is one thing (though his popular reputation as the father of modern science has prevented it from being remarked) which still remains to be explained; and which is in fact very difficult to reconcile with the opinion almost universally entertained with regard to his philosophical genius. How is it that abilities like his, applying themselves to a practical object for so many years together with such eager interest and laborious industry, met with so little success? I assume of course (what indeed cannot be reasonably doubted) that he was no mere talker or trifler, but a true workman, with genuine zeal and faith in his work. How is it then that he did not succeed, if not in accomplishing, yet in putting in a way to be accomplished, or in persuading somebody to think capable of accomplishment, some part at least of the work which he had so much at heart? If the end was unattainable, how is it that he did not find that out? If he had mistaken the way, how is it that he did not himself discover the error as he proceeded? If he failed from not well understanding the use of some of the necessary implements, why did he not apply himself to learn the use of them, or seek help from those who did understand it? He may have neglected mechanics and mathematics in his youth because he did not then know their importance; but he could hardly have proceeded far in the attempt to weigh and measure and analyse the secret forces of nature, without finding the want, long before it was too late to commence the study of them. For although, as taught at Cambridge in those days, they did not perhaps promise much help; yet in the hands of the leading scientific men of Europe they had become an instrument of too much value to have long escaped the notice of a diligent enquirer into the true condition of knowledge.
The only explanation which appears to me sufficient to account for the fact is this: Bacon's deficiency lay in the intellect itself. It seems that there was one intellectual faculty in which he was comparatively weak, and that not being himself aware of the extent and importance of the defect, he miscalculated the amount of his own forces. That he was not altogether aware of this deficiency, may be inferred I think from the remarkable passage to which I have alluded in the paper before us, and which it is worth while to examine in detail.
After considering what was the best thing to be done, he proceeds to consider what he was himself best fitted to do. He finds in himself a mind at once discursive enough to seize resemblances, and steady enough to distinguish differences; a mind eager in search, patient of doubt, fond of meditation, slow to assert, ready to reconsider, careful to dispose and set in order; not carried away either by love of novelty or by admiration of antiquity, and hating every kind of imposture; a mind therefore especially framed for the study and pursuit of truth.
Such it seems was Bacon's deliberate, candid, and sober estimate of his own qualities; and (high as it sounds) I conceive it to be, in all respects but one, a just estimate. In the large discursive faculty which detects analogies and resemblances between different and distant things, it would be difficult probably to name his equal. In the moral qualities for which he gives himself credit, he was not less eminent. His senses and powers of observation were lively and exquisite; and his judgment also, where it had to deal with the larger features of things, or with those which being too subtle and fleeting to admit of exact demonstration and analysis, must be studied by the broader light of the imagination and discursive reason, was clear and deep and sound. But it is impossible, I think, to read Mr. Ellis's remarks upon those parts of his works in which he comes in contact with what we call the exact sciences, -mathematics, for instance, and mechanics, and not to feel that in the faculty of distinguishing differences, - the faculty whose office is (as he describes it in the Novum Organum, i. 55.) figere contemplationes, et morari et hærere in omni subtilitate differentiarum,—he was (comparatively at least) deficient. This appears both from the imperfect account of the existing condition of those sciences which he gives in the De Augmentis
Scientiarum; no notice being there taken of some of the most important advances which had been made by the writers immediately preceding him; and from his own experiments and speculations upon subjects which required their help. Though he paid great attention to Astronomy, discussed carefully the methods in which it ought to be studied, constructed for the satisfaction of his own mind an elaborate theory of the heavens, and listened eagerly for the news from the stars brought by Galileo's telescope, he appears to have been utterly ignorant of the discoveries which had just been made by Kepler's calculations. Though he complained in 1623 of the want of compendious methods for facilitating arithmetical computations, especially with regard to the doctrine of Series, and fully recognised the importance of them as an aid to physical enquiries; he does not say a word about Napier's Logarithms, which had been published only nine years before and reprinted more than once in the interval. He complained that no considerable advance had been made in Geometry beyond Euclid, without taking any notice of what had been done by Archimedes and Apollonius.3 He saw the importance of determining accurately the specific gravities of different substances, and himself attempted to form a table of them by a rude process of his own, without knowing of the more scientific though still imperfect methods previously employed by Archimedes, Ghetaldus, and Porta.1 He speaks of the supρnka of Archimedes in a manner which implies that he did not clearly apprehend either the nature of the problem to be solved or the principles upon which the solution depended." In reviewing the progress of Mechanics, he makes no mention either of Archimedes himself, or of Stevinus, Galileo, Guldinus, or Ghetaldus. He makes no allusion to the theory of Equilibrium. He observes that a ball of one pound weight will fall nearly as fast through the air as a ball of two, without alluding to the theory of the acceleration of falling bodies, which had been made known by Galileo more than thirty years before. He proposes an inquiry with regard to the lever,namely, whether in a balance with arms of different length but
See Mr. Ellis's Preface to the Descriptio Globi Intellectualis.
2 See Vol. I. p. 577. note 2.
3 Id. ibid, note 1.
See Preface to the Historia Densi et Rari, Vol. II. p. 233.
5 Id. ibid.
" Id. p. 578. note 1.
See Vol. I. p. 572. note 1.
Id. p. 625. note 2.