Plate 19 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

The Baconian Instauration


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 lanClick Here for a Larger Viewd 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 increase."

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.

Bruce Janacek
North Central College, Illinois

Suggested Reading

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.