Sparknotes Bacon Essays Summary

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The Great Renewal

The New Organon forms part of the great renewal, or Instauratio magna, an ambitious practical and theoretical project to overhaul and reform the way in which man investigates nature. Bacon divides his project into six parts: one) a summary of current knowledge, two) the New Organon itself, which sets out the method to be followed and seeks to prepare the mind for investigation, three) a complete natural history, that will provide the foundations for this investigation, four) examples of the kind of investigation Bacon's method would produce, five) specific practical discoveries that he has made, which serve as a kind of interest payment before the "capital" sum of the complete theory is known, six) the real philosophy, completely explained. Bacon doubts his own ability to complete the project, particularly the last section; he calls for royal patronage to help realize the project. As he imagines it, however, the Great Renewal will reform both epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) and practice. It will alter the way we think about truth in nature, and how we try to uncover that truth.


Induction is a different method of logic, and a new way of investigating truth. Bacon does not exactly claim to have invented it himself, but does stress its neglect in previous centuries. Unlike the syllogism, which was the dominant logical form after Aristotle, induction begins with natural phenomena and works through a series of intermediate steps to arrive at general axioms or statements about nature. Bacon argues that his method improves upon the syllogism because it begins with concrete things and natures, rather than with words, which can be ambiguous. Also, induction refrains from producing general statements immediately, which serve to confirm impressions already held.

Induction is very different from the modern "scientific" method of testing hypotheses (or guesses) through experiments, but it represents an important development in scientific method. It is important to remember that Bacon himself did not necessarily consider his work to be "science," but rather natural philosophy. Seeing induction only as an inferior version of modern methods is a mistake. Nevertheless, scholars have criticized Bacon's method on several grounds. Mary Hesse argues that Bacon underestimates the importance of hypotheses, and that his method depends on there being a finite number of things with finite natures to be investigated. One could also argue against his assumption that a complete knowledge of nature is necessary for induction to take place; modern scientists and philosophers are far less confident about the possibility for total knowledge.


Experiments form a key part of the New Organon. They are used to investigate nature, and to show how things perform in an unknown situation. This represents a major difference between Bacon and earlier scientific thinkers, who generally used experiments (or thought-experiments) to confirm a previously-held theory. For Bacon, this is a ridiculous notion. Theories can only come from practical experiments and experience of nature. The second book of the New Organon details many experiments performed by Bacon and his assistants, and describes the use of scientific instruments such as the microscope. Lisa Jardine links Bacon to contemporary experimenters such as Gilbert and William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, and sees him as a predecessor of scientists like Boyle and Hooke. Bacon's emphasis on experiments was perhaps fatal; one account of his death claims that it resulted from catching cold after stuffing a chicken with snow to investigate freezing.

The Attack on Aristotle

The importance of Aristotle in medieval and early modern intellectual life cannot be underestimated. His works on a wide range of subjects formed the staple of university curricula, and numerous authors approached natural philosophy through his theories. Bacon attempted to end this dominance; he viewed Aristotle as fundamentally wrong-headed, and criticized Aristotle's theories from their logical foundations upwards. He argued that Aristotle needlessly complicated nature by his "dialectics" and distinctions; Aristotelian terminology was more concerned with defending a position in a subtle way than with discovering the truth. Bacon replaced Aristotle's syllogism with induction in his epistemology, and cited Aristotle's work as an example of the Idols of the theater that obstruct rational inquiry. Bacon was by no means the first anti-Aristotelian author—Paracelsus, Ramus, Telesio and Galileo opposed him on various grounds—but he is among the most strident anti-Aristotelians.

More main ideas from The New Organon

Francis Bacon had many accomplishments. He was a scientist, a philosopher, and a politician, and he was adept, too, at taking bribes; for this he had been imprisoned. It is, however, as a literary man that he is perhaps best remembered, a writer so competent with the pen that for decades there have been some persons willing to argue that Bacon wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

The essay form is rare in the modern age, although there are some faint signs of its revival. As Bacon used it, the essay is a carefully fashioned statement, both informative and expressive, by which a person comments on life and manners, on nature and its puzzles. The essay is not designed to win people to a particular cause or to communicate factual matter better put in scientific treatises. Perhaps that is one reason why it is not so popular in an age in which the truth of claims and their practical importance are always questioned.

The Essays first appeared, ten in number, in 1597. They were immediately popular because they were brief, lively, humane, and well-written. Perhaps they were effective in contrast to the rambling, florid prose written by most writers of the time. A considerable part of their charm lay in their civilized tone. In these essays, Bacon reveals himself as an inquisitive but also an appreciative man with wit enough to interest others. The first edition contained the following essays: “Of Studies,” “Of Discourse,” “Of Ceremonies and Respects,” “Of Followers and Friends,” “Of Suitors,” “Of Expense,” “Of Regiment of Health,” “Of Honour and Reputation,” “Of Faction,” and “Of Negociating.”

By 1612, the number of essays had been increased to thirty-eight, the earlier ones having been revised or rewritten. By the last edition, in 1625, the number was fifty-eight. Comparison of the earlier essays with those written later shows not only a critical mind at work but also a man made sadder and wiser, or at least different, by changes in fortune.

The essays concern themselves with such universal concepts as truth, death, love, goodness, friendship, fortune, and praise. They cover such controversial matters as religion, atheism, “the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” custom and education, and usury, and they consider such intriguing matters as envy, cunning, innovations, suspicion, ambition, praise, vainglory, and the vicissitudes of things.

The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, as they are called in the heading of the first essay, begins with an essay on truth entitled “Of Truth.” The title formula is always the same, simply a naming of the matter to be discussed, as, for example, “Of Death,” “Of Unity in Religion,” “Of Adversity,” “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.” One expects a sermon, and one is pleasantly surprised. Bacon uses his theme as a point of departure for a discussion of the charms of lying, trying to fathom the love of lying for its own sake. “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure,” he writes. This pleasure is ill-founded, however; it rests on error resulting from depraved judgment. Bacon reverses himself grandly: “ . . . truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.”

When it comes to death, Bacon begins by admitting that tales of death increase humanity’s natural fear of it, but he reminds the reader that death is not always painful. By references to Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, Vespasian, and others, Bacon shows that, even...

(The entire section is 1535 words.)


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