The Novum Organum
was Francis Bacon's philosophical treatise to reform the methods
and the search for knowledge. Bacon completed it in 1620, as one
part of a much larger incomplete philosophical enterprise that he
titled Instauratio Magna (or The Great Instauration).
The frontispiece of the Novum Organum helps to illuminate
Bacon's larger enterprise.
In the engraved frontispiece,
two ships head inland, one about to land
and the other further out. It struggles to cross rough seas to make
landfall safely in the harbor that is flanked by two columns that
rest on peninsulas of solid rock. A few flowers sprout from the
rock, while fish jump out of the sea and a porpoise at the front
of the ship spouts water into the air. Below all this activity is
the Latin Vulgate inscription, "Multi pertransibunt & augebitur
scientia" ("Many shall go to and fro and knowledge shall
increase.") This passage, from Daniel 12:4, reads in its entirety,
"But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and seal the book until
the time of the end. Many shall go to and fro and knowledge shall
That Bacon drew a
passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the book of Daniel,
is significant. Daniel is the apocalyptic text of the Hebrew Scriptures,
and Bacon's vision of a reformed natural philosophy was deeply apocalyptic.
He called his enterprise an "instauration," a term which
appears in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles to characterize sacred and public
projects of restoration. Bacon believed that contemporary knowledge
needed to be constructed on firmer ground and that the means to
achieve this was to restore more precise methods of gaining knowledge,
methods that had been common once but had since fallen from use.
His instauration would thus restore what had been lost. The inscription
from Daniel suggests that the columns hearkened back not so much
to the classical world but rather referred to a restoration of Solomon's
Temple. Bacon referred to Solomon often throughout his work but
rarely by name, instead simply calling him "the divine philosopher."
For Bacon, Solomon
personified the perfect balance of wisdom and faith. Toward the
end of his life, Bacon wrote a utopian treatise, The New Atlantis
(1627). Bacon set his vision of a society founded upon wisdom and
devotion, a society that valued rigorous method in its search for
knowledge, in the fictional city of Bensalem. One of the focal points
of Bensalem was "Solomon's Temple," the temple devoted
to the arts and sciences. The sacred scriptures for Bensalem were
exactly the same as those familiar to Bacon's readers with one exception:
Bensalem had received Solomon's Natural Philosophy, a book
Solomon had written (we are told) but that had been lost to the
known Christian world. Bacon's perfect world was one in which rulers
were guided by divine, providential wisdom.
However, Bacon's instauration
was not to be just a philosophical or religious endeavor, it was
also to be a public one, demanding complete attention from the state
and its citizens. He spoke of the "commerce between the mind
of man and the nature of things" which are represented in the
frontispiece by the stream of ships arriving safely after long and
difficult journeys. Bacon's instauration entailed great expense
and risk. Only the state could afford to explore, collect, protect,
and examine the knowledge that would accrue as its citizens went
"to and fro" in their search for new knowledge.
North Central College, Illinois
Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum; With
Other Parts of The Great Instauration. Translated and edited
by Peter Urbach and John Gibson. Chicago: Open Court, 1994.
Perez-Ramos, Antonio. Francis Bacon's
Idea of Science and the Maker's Knowledge Tradition. Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1988.
Whitney, Charles. Francis Bacon and
Modernity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Zagorin, Perez. Francis Bacon.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.