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Francis Bacon’s

Formula of Interpretation

by Mather Walker, Summer 2010

In 1623 Bacon published two books - his De Augmentis, and his Shakespeare First Folio. The survey of the divisions of human knowledge in the Augmentis was a more detailed version of his 1605 Advancement of Learning, but where The Advancement of Learning was only divided into two books, the Augmentis was divided into nine books. This was odd. A comparison of the books shows no reason why the added details could not have been included in the original two books. On the other hand, a reason surfaces when the Augmentis is compared with the first play in the First Folio – The Tempest. It is an exact parallel to the Augmentis. It is divided into nine parts, and it depicts in great detail, in allegory, the divisions of human knowledge described in the Augmentis (see, The Secret of the Shakespeare Plays). The Tempest is a compendium of the First Folio. But what is truly incredible, is that at the same time as The Tempest incorporates its astounding multiplicity of levels of meaning capitulating the entire First Folio; painting a comprehensive canvas delineating all the divisions of human knowledge; there is also present, running all the way through these divisions of human knowledge, a depiction of the successive levels of the operation of Bacon’s Art For Discovering New Arts and Sciences as it inquires into the ultimate nature of all human knowledge.

In his 1607 Thoughts and Conclusions Francis Bacon described his amazement that no one had ever conceived the idea before of inventing an Art For Discovering New Arts and Sciences. In his 1620 Novum Organum he demonstrated part of this Art by showing how, through the use of four tables of instances (Presence, Absence, Variance, and Exclusion), it was possible to derive a “First Vintage” of the essential law that makes heat different from all other particulars in nature. But Bacon kept another part of his art secret. He called this “The Formula of Interpretation”, and in his 1603 Of The Interpretation of Nature he said:

“Not but I know that it is an old trick of impostors to keep a few of their follies back from the public which are indeed no better than those they put forward but in this case it is no imposture at all, but a sober foresight, which tells me that the Formula itself of Interpretation, and the discoveries made by the same, will thrive better if committed to the charge of some fit and selected minds, and kept private.

Bacon demonstrated both parts of his “Art” in The Tempest. The Novum Organum part runs from the beginning of The Tempest through the end of speech 128; and the process begins again with Formula of Interpretation, which runs from the beginning of speech 129 through the end of The Tempest. In my Bacon 101-4 article I gave a detailed description of the Novum Organum process that ends at speech 128. That the process begins again at the 129th speech in The Tempest is clearly indicated by the acrostic spelled out with the first letters of this speech. NOVATUS, Latin for it begins again, is spelled out with the beginning letters of this speech, and "it begins again" is repeated in the text of the speech. Since I described in detail the Novum Organum portion of Bacon’s Art for Discovering New Arts in my Bacon 101-4 article I will not repeat that part here.

While, on the one hand, Bacon stated his intention of keeping his “Formula of Interpretation secret, on the other hand he indicated it would be revealed after a certain period of time. In that strange compilation of metaphor, allegory, and allusion, the Rosicrucian Fama Fraternitatis, published in 1614 in Cassel, he even indicates, in veiled fashion, the exact period of time. This document described, how long after the death of their founder, Christian Rosencreutz, the brethren of the fraternity found a door to a hidden vault in his house. On this door was written in large letters, “POST 120 ANNOS PATEBO”, that is, ‘after 120 years I will be opened’, or ‘after 120 years I will be revealed’. When they entered the vault the brethren saw a brass plate on which was written:

Hoc universi compendium unius mihi sepulchrum feci
(This compenium of the universe I made in my lifetime to be my tomb)

They found a chest containing chiefly, “wonderful artificial songs”, and after they moved the altar aside they found the perfectly preserved body of Christian Rosencreutz holding a book in his hands. At the end of this book were these words:

“He constructed a microcosm corresponding in all motions to the macrocosm and finally drew up this compendium of things past, present, and to come.”

The words, ‘this compendium’ in the book implies that the compendium of the universe, and of things past, present, and to come, was the book in Rosencreutz’s hands. That book is the First Folio. The Fama Fraternitatis contains a great deal of evidence showing its author was Francis Bacon (See my article Francis Bacon and the Secret of the Rosicrucian Rose). There is also a great deal of evidence that Bacon authored the First Folio. The First Folio is not only a compendium of the universe, but it is designed to exhibit past, present, just as stated in Rosencreutz’s book, and as shown in each play in the First Folio. A major feature of the First Folio also (especially The Tempest) is its wonderful artificial songs.

In 1734 (exactly 120 years after the publication of the Fama Fraternitatis) a work of Bacon’s was published in Stephens’ Letters and Remains titled Valerius Terminus of the Interpretation of Nature. Robert Leslie Ellis and James Spedding were both at a lost to understand Bacon’s reason for this particular title. Actually it should have been obvious to them. Valerius was the name of the Valeria, perhaps the most distinguished dynasty of Rome, and Valerius Terminus indicated a distinguished termination to the search for knowledge exactly as Bacon described his Formula of Interpretation when referring to the futile efforts of his predecessors in this same work:

“Lastly that they had no knowledge of the formulary of Interpretation, the work whereof is to abridge experience and make things as certainly found out by Axiom in short time, as by infinite experience in ages.”

In his Thoughts and Conclusions Bacon used the phrase Ladder of the Intellect to describe the process followed by his ‘Formula of Interpretation’:

“Further the material collected should be sorted into orderly tables, so that the understanding may work upon it and thus accomplish its appropriate task. After the particulars have been arranged in tables, there should be no immediate hurry to press on with the collection of new facts, although collecting facts is a useful things and is the equivalent of what might b called ‘literate experience.” For the time has now come to ascend to generalizations. The understanding is endowed by nature with an evil impulse to jump from particulars to the highest axioms (what are called First Principles). This impulse must be held in check; but generalizations lying close to the facts may first be made, then generalizations of a middle sort, and progress thus achieved up the successive rungs of a genuine Ladder of the Intellect.”

The Formula of Interpretation is described in Chapter 11 of the Valerius Terminus. Bacon calls the steps of his ‘Formula’ directions, and describes two conditions as mandatory to produce the desired effect: certainty and liberty - the direction must be true and the direction must not be limited to some particular means. Moreover, he cautions that each direction must be more original, i.e. each successive generalization must be at a step higher up the Ladder of the Intellect. The following is a graphic depiction of the process described in the Valerius Terminus. This is followed by the description given by Bacon that applies to each rung of the ladder:

- 1 -

“Let the effect to be produced be Whiteness; let the first direction be that if air and water be intermingled or broken in small portions together, whiteness will ensue, as in snow, in the breaking of the waves of the sea and rivers, and the like. This direction is certain, but very particular and restrained, being tied but to air and water.”

- 2 -

Let the second direction be, that if air be mingled as before with any transparent body, such nevertheless as is uncoloured and more grossly transparent than air itself, that then etc. as glass or crystal, being beaten to fine powder, by the interposition of the air becometh white; the white of an egg being clear of itself, receiving air by agitation becometh white, receiving air by concoction becometh white; here you are freed from water, and advanced to a clear body, and still tied to air.


- 3 -

Let the third direction exclude or remove the restraint of an uncoloured body, as in amber, sapphires, etc. which beaten to fine powder become white; in wine and beer, which brought to froth become white.


- 4 -

Let the fourth direction exclude the restraint of a body more grossly transparent than air, as in flame, being a body compounded between air and a finer substance than air; which flame if it were not for the smoke, which is the third substance that incorporateth itself and dyeth the flame, would be more perfect white. In all these four directions air still beareth a part.


- 5 -

Let the fifth direction then be, that if any bodies, both transparent but in an unequal degree, be mingled as before, whiteness will follow; as oil and water beaten to an ointment, though by settling the air which gathereth in the agitation be evaporate, yet remaineth white; and the powder of glass or crystal put into water, whereby the air giveth place, yet remaineth white, though not so perfect. Now are you freed from air, but still you are tied to transparent bodies.


- 6 -

The sixth direction is that the mixture of all bodies or parts of bodies, which are unequal equally, in a simple proportion, represent whiteness.


In Endgame I provided a general description of Bacon’s Discovery process in The Tempest based on a reading of the allegory that culminates at the ultimate form of all human knowledge at the end of the play. Knowledge of his Formula of Interpretation allows following more exactly Bacon’s process in the present article, but to avoid repeating information already given I refer the reader to Endgame to be read in connection with this present article.

Bacon realized something scientists and philosophers have only glimpsed very rarely. Our consciousness is the canvas of our cosmos. All we know, all that we can know, exists within us. We only perceive our own perceptions. Thus in his De Augmentis Bacon prefaced his study of human knowledge by noting that, “The justest division of human learning is that derived from the three different faculties of the soul the seat of learning: history being relative to memory, poetry to the imagination, and philosophy to reason.” And a little further on in the same book he added, “The faculties of the soul are well known; viz., the understanding, reason, imagination, memory, appetite, will, and all those wherein logic and ethics are concerned.”

Prospero is the understanding; his daughter, Miranda, is the reasoning faculty; his servant, Ariel, is the imagination; and his slave, Caliban, is memory. King Alonzo is the faculty of will. The will has two divisions: affirming and denying. Affirming is divided into cognitive (Gonzalo) and willing (Adrian/Francisco). Denying is divided into cognitive (Antonio) and willing (Sebastian). Ferdinand, the son of Alonzo is the moving faculty – the source of all action. Caliban is the physical man. He has the mental faculty of memory and the physical appetites; the intellective appetite (Stephano); and the sensitive appetite (Trinculo).

Will is Human Power; understanding is Human Knowledge; the moving faculty is Human Action. When functioning properly the understanding takes the data received from the outside by the senses, evaluates the data, and, based on this evaluation, guides the will so it directs the moving faculty to take the appropriate action based on the rational analysis of the data received. The will should be subject to the understanding, but in The Tempest Human Power (Alonzo) has usurped Human Knowledge (Prospero), and banished it. Without control by the understanding, the passions are aroused by what is pleasurable or what is painful; not by what is true or false, good or bad, and direct action accordingly. The ascent up the Ladder of the Intellect to the ultimate nature of human knowledge depicts the understanding (Prospero) regaining control over the faculties of the will and over the physical faculties before the ultimate ‘form’ of all human knowledge is perceived.
In his 1972 “FULL CIRCLE Shakespeare and Moral Development” Alan Hobson noted, “The Tempest reads almost like an experiment of the Baconian kind - let us see what happens if…),” Stephen Orgel in his “New Uses of Adversity: Tragic Experience in The Tempest” noted situations in The Tempest, are “…presented almost as a scientific experiment.” It is heartening to find some sparks of insight in the vast, dark night, of orthodox Shakespeare scholarship, so before they are lost lets take these insights and run with them. Not only does the ascent of the “Formula of Interpretation” up the “Ladder of the Intellect” in The Tempest depict a series of experiments, this is an aspect of the ‘Shakespeare’ works that has never been disclosed before. It discloses the secret schematic at the very core of The Tempest, and a similar secret schematic is at the core of the other plays in the Folio:

- 1 -

We know exactly where the process of the Formula of Interpretation begins because Bacon tells us at speech 129 with his NOVATUS (it begins again) acrostic that is repeated in the passage.

S Some God O' the island, sitting on a bank,
V VVeeping againe the King my Fathers wracke,
T This Musick crept by me upon the waters,
A Allaying both their fury, and my passion
V VVith it's sweet ayre: thence I have follow'd it
O Or it hath drawn me rather; but 'tis gone.
N No, it begins againe.

It is easy also to follow the depiction at this first rung of the Ladder of the Formula of Interpretation. We are shown Ferdinand (action), and Ariel (imagination). Ferdinand weeps because he fears his father was drowned in the shipwreck. Ariel’s song to him seemingly confirms his fears:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
These are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

But Alonzo did not drown. What’s going on here? Why does Ariel lie to Ferdinand?

We do not have to look far for the answer. What is depicted is Ariel, the imagination, without control of the understanding. The imagination lies to us all the time. Ferdinand lets his imagination run wild because he fears his father has drowned. Thus at the lowest rung of the Formula of Interpretation Bacon demonstrates the fallibility of imagination alone in the role of the quest for the ultimate nature of knowledge. But at the end of Act 1 – Scene 2 we see the beginning of the necessary correction. Ferdinand is shown as entering under the control of Prospero and Miranda.

- 2 -

Ascending to the second rung we are shown the King (Alonzo) and his party in conjunction with Caliban and his allies. Human power (the will) is not joined with human understanding (Prospero), and reason (Miranda) at this point, but with the physical man alone (Caliban), the faculty of memory, accompanied by the appetites, Stephano and Trinculo. The physical man observes the world and remembers what is observed, but cannot exercise the faculty of understanding and reason to what it observes. Human will and the physical faculties are depicted in their perception of the world (the island).


Their response mirrors their natures – affirming and denying. Adrian (affirming) says though the island seems to be desert yet the air breathes upon it most sweetly. Sebastian (denying) says as if it had lungs, and rotten ones. Antonio (denying) says, or as ‘twere perfumed by a fen. Gonzalo (affirming) says here is everything advantageous to life. Antonio (denying) says True, save means to live. In his Preface to The Great Instauration Bacon noted:

“…the mind when it receives impressions of objects through the sense, cannot be trusted to report them truly, but in forming its notions mixes up its own nature with the nature of things.”

This is exactly what this experiment shows. Without the guidance of the human understanding, and of the human reason, when individuals are exposed to the world, instead of an objective perception, what they perceive is merely a reflection of their own natures.

- 3 -

The third rung of the inquiry into the ultimate nature of human knowledge shows the necessity of gathering a history of instances (which apply to the particular inquiry) from the facts of nature. We see Ferdinand carrying out the task he has been assigned of gathering logs. This task symbolizes gathering a natural history to serve as a basis for the inquiry. However, Ferdinand (action) has not been united with Miranda (reason). Miranda offers to aid Ferdinand, saying, “I should do it with much more ease.” But Ferdinand refuses her assistance. We are shown the need of a union of reason with activity to facilitate carrying out the task. At the same time we are shown the rebellion of the physical man (Caliban and the appetites) who is always opposed to the mental man (Prospero).

- 4 -

In Act III – Scene 3 – (rung 4) we see the king’s party wandering as if lost in a maze when suddenly there is solemn and strange music and Prospero appears on top invisible to the members of the king’s party. This depiction is similar to a stage direction by Ben Jonson in his mask HYMENAEI:

“Here out of a Microcosme, or Globe (figuring Man)”, and a little later he has “Hereat, REASON, seated in the top of the Globe (in the braine, or highest part of Man)”

But instead of reason, the highest part of man is understanding (Prospero), the father of reason. The meaning of the depiction of Prospero at the top is twofold: it shows Prospero now in ascendancy over the member of the king’s party; and it shows Prospero is the highest part of man.

Prospero has enhanced the ‘lost’ state of the king’s party and further weakened them by tormenting them with hunger, fear and grief, before tempting them with the illusion of food. In order to bring them into a state where he regains the control over them (the proper office of the understanding over the will) he must effect a radical change to their basic natures. For a remedy to human nature, Bacon said:

"Neither is the ancient rule amiss, to bend nature, as a wand, to a contrary extreme, whereby to set it right."

This is exactly what we are shown. At rung 2 of the Formula of Interpretation we saw their perceptions mirroring their natures – affirming and denying. Adrian said though the island seems to be desert yet the air breathes upon it most sweetly. Sebastian says as if it had lungs, and rotten ones. Antonio says, or as ‘twere perfumed by a fen. Gonzalo says here is everything advantageous to life. Antonio says, “…true, save means to live”, Etc.

Now, at the point where there is the strange music with Prospero invisible at the top and several strange Shapes bringing in a banquet, and dancing about it with gentle actions of salutations and invitation to the king before they depart, we see the natures of Sebastian, Antonio, and Gonzalo bent to a contrary extreme. Sebastian and Antonio actually begin to vie with each other for the greatest affirming and it is now Gonzalo who denies:

Sebastian. Now I will believe
That there are unicorns’ that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix’ thone: one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.

Antonio. I’ll believe both;
And what does else want credit, come to me,
And I’ll be sworn ‘tis true: travelers ne’er did lie.
Thou fools at home condemn ‘em.

Gonzalo. Whether this be
Or be not, I’ll not swear.

When they attempt to partake of the banquet it is ‘snatched’ from them by Ariel in the form of a harpy before they can eat. The myth of the harpies supplies the meaning of this scene. Phineus was a king of Arcadia who by the enticement of his second wife put out the eyes of his sons, which he had by his first wife. But by the just vengeance of the gods he was also made blind, and the foul ravenous birds called harpies snatched away the meat prepared for him before he could eat. The king’s party is blind without the guidance of the understanding.

Having regained control over the functions represented by the King’s party Prospero next puts them under a tight reign – we learn later that they were imprisoned in the line grove that weather-fended his cell.

- 5 -

Prospero (understanding) has regained control over the will, and now unites Ferdinand (action) and Miranda (reason). But at this point he has not established control over the physical man and his appetites. The problem caused by this shortcoming is next exhibited. Prospero exhibits to Ferdinand (action) and Miranda (reason) the most celebrated knowledge of the ancients - the central mystery drama at Eleusis where the minds of the initiates joined with the minds of the gods (or goddesses) enabled them to receive an influx of knowledge directly from these higher beings. The identity of this masque with the central drama of those Mysteries is clearly indicated by having Iris, the initial goddess Prospero invokes, summon Ceres. Various allusions in The Tempest equate Prospero with Zeus. In the account of the origin of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the Homeric Hymn (the official account of the Eleusinian tradition) Zeus has Iris summon Ceres.


The greatest minds of antiquity were initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. They all considered this the highest and most sacred of revelations, and they all spoke of the experience with the greatest reverence. But Bacon denigrates the experience. Prospero, while directing Ariel to summon his subordinate spirits to produce the vision, refers to them as Ariel’s, “meaner fellows”, and, “the rabble”, and he refers to the vision they produce as a, ‘vanity of my Art.’

We see the reason immediately afterwards. Prospero, strangely disturbed, says:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

What the initiates saw, and revered, at Eleusis was only illusion. This is a confirmation of what has been shown throughout the play. The events on the island have been a continual alternation between sleeping and waking, and sleeping while waking. The distinction between the two have eventually became blurred, leaving a continual dream like quality, and continual illusion. We must remember that the island represents our world.

Rung 5 is an experiment with Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda in consort with Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo. These three now enter with a plan to kill Prospero and usurp ruler ship of the island. But Prospero has foreseen their attempt at assassination and has had glistering apparel, that he calls trumpery (showy, but worthless), set out to detract them from their purpose of assassinating him. Although this trumpery does not take in Caliban; Stephano and Trinculo are deceived by it. That is, the appetites are deceived by any appearance that appeals to them. This shows that what allowed the great drama at Eleusis to deceive the initiates was the appetite for the appeal of appearance. In order to rectify the appetites, Prospero has them hunted about by the hounds that represent the particular appetites that seduced them. Only when these appetites are exhausted can the proper control over the physical part of man be asserted.

- 6 -

The understanding (Prospero) is now in control of the other faculties. Physical man is excluded from this final denouncement because it pertains solely to the mind. Prospero displays to the King’s party the ultimate revelation yielded by the Journey of Discovery in the play: the "form" of all knowledge. What do we see? The First Folio tells us Prospero ‘discovers’ Ferdinand and Miranda playing at chess. When Prospero displays the lovers (his daughter Miranda, and Ferdinand) playing chess at the end of the play the king ceases to be his enemy - Prospero captures the king. This allusion to a chess game expands the chess game from the play of Miranda and Ferdinand at the end of the play to the larger perspective where the entire play is a chess game. Prospero, exponent of white magic, and the characters allied with him, are the white pieces on the board, while his enemy, King Alonzo, and the characters allied with him, are the black pieces on the board. The speech of the lovers is a significant element of the revelation:

Miranda. Sweet lord, you play me false Ferdinand. No, my dearest love, I would not for the world. Miranda. Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, And I would call it fair play.

Ferdinand and Miranda are human activity and human reason playing on the game board of human experience. The whole world of human experience is depicted as having no basis in reality, it is only a construct of the human mind and the human consciousness - like a game of chess. Like a game of chess the whole world of human experience exists only ad placitum. In The Advancement of Learning Francis Bacon said:

“But yet it holdeth not in religion alone, but in many knowledges both of greater and smaller nature, namely wherein there are not only posita [*fixed and not subject to argument] but placita [*as you please or open to choice]; for in such there can be no use of absolute reason. We see it familiarly in games of wit, as chess, or the like; the draughts and first laws of the game are positive, but how? Merely ad placitum [by general consent], and not examinable by reason; but then how to direct our play in the game is artificial and rational.”

This is why it was necessary for the purposes of Bacon’s final denouncement that the entire play depicts a chess game. The island in the play represents our world. The whole world of human experience has the same basis in reality as a chess game.
Chess was a microcosm of the European world at the time it was invented. It was the perfect example for Bacon’s purposes. On the game board two kingdoms, complete with King, Queen, Bishops, Knights, Castles or Barons, and foot soldiers, war against each other. The chessboard is a miniature model of the kingdoms that war in the great world. The black and white squares, and the black and white pieces are those Two Principles, the array of opposites that runs throughout the world. The two periods that ended at the point this tableau was unveiled (the twelve year rule of darkness of Sycorax, followed by the twelve year rule of light of Prospero, and the lesser twelve hour period of darkness of night, followed by the twelve hour period of the light of day displays the cycles within cycles that these Two Principles run through in the panorama of the world).
The Lovers play the game. The game depicts war. What we see is the perennial theme in human affairs of love and war. In Bacon’s system of thought Love was the primary force that moves all the pieces on the board. This is the emblem of all nature; the emblem of the primary postulate, of the fount from which flows all motions in Great Nature. In this emblematic depiction we are shown the whole world. Beyond that we are shown the whole universe. The black and white squares on the chessboard, along with the opposing black and white pieces represent the ancient doctrine of The Two Principles that was viewed as omnipresent in the world, and in the universe.

In Hinduism the world is illusion. The soul caught in the illusion of maya is like a sleeping man caught in the illusion of dreams. When he awakens they vanish. Likewise when the soul awakens illusion vanishes. Strange results from Quantum Phyics have demonstrated that the notion basic to our sense of reality of space/time is illusion. They exist only as a construct of our mind. George Berkeley pointed out some 300 or so years ago that the only thing we could really perceive is our own perceptions. Our consciousness is the canvas of our cosmos and whatever we are aware of as existing exists only inside our heads. As Francis Bacon said:

“…the true rule of a perfect inquiry is that nothing can be found in
the material globe which has not its correspondence in the crystalline
globe-the understanding…”

What he says is that everything that seems to exist out there in the material world must exist in the human consciousness otherwise it will not exist ‘out there’. That is, the ultimate ‘form’ of any inquiry is that anything that seems to exist out there must exist in the human mind, and it is only ad placitum.


The schematic shown above is only half of the whole. Bacon’s system worked by firstly a movement up the pyramid of nature to the ‘form’ of the particular, and secondly a movement down from the ‘form’ to the application to works. Hence The Tempest is designed to operate in both directions. It goes from the beginning to the end, but it is also designed to go from the end of the play to the beginning, exactly like a chess game that goes in both directions. Knowledge of Bacon’s Formula of Interpretation opens a window into the entire universe since the 36 plays in the First Folio are a compendium of the universe, and each play in it is designed on the secret schematic of Bacon’s Formula of Interpretation. But even beyond this, is Bacon’s fantastic last work – his Sylva Sylvarum. Bacon’s chaplain, Dr. Rawley, said:

“…he that looketh attentively into the work, shall find that they
have a secret order.”

The 1,000 experiments in this work cover the gamut of the entire universe. The Sylva Sylvarum is an index to the universe. Francis Bacon said that the Sylva Sylvarum was (to speak properly) not a Natural History, but a high kind of natural magic: because it was not only a description of nature, but a breaking of nature into great and strange works. It is a breaking of nature into great and strange works because, with the key of Bacon’s Formula of Interpretation, each experiment in the work provides an entrance into the ladder of the inquiry into the ‘form’ of the particular dealt with in that experiment.



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