The Secret Life of an Alchemist:

Francis Bacon's Real Philosophy of Nature


John Henry

University of Edinburgh

Science Studies Unit

(This essay is based from a lecture given to the Francis Bacon Society in August 2006,
Special thanks to John Henry for permission of use on sirbacon)



My title refers to Bacon's REAL philosophy of nature, which I imply was essentially kept secret throughout his life. So, before talking about that I just want to make sure we are all clear about what is usually taken to be Bacon's philosophy of nature the one that he did discuss openly in print, and the one which has earned him his place as one of the most powerful and innovative contributors to the so-called Scientific Revolution. Only when we are clear about his publicly expressed philosophy can we fully appreciate the significance of the fact that he actually harboured a secret philosophy.

So, what was Bacon's public philosophy?

Well, in brief, Bacon is famous in the history of science not because he made any new discoveries or new inventions (which he didn't) but because he developed and promoted a new method of doing science. Rather than focussing on trying to make a specific discovery, or a particular invention, Bacon believed that he could contribute more to the benefit of mankind, if he could show the most efficient way to make such discoveries and inventions. Consequently, he put all his emphasis upon developing a general method or approach for arriving at scientific truths. We can see this in a number of early comments he made, for example:

…above all, if a man could succeed, not in striking out some particular invention, however useful, but in kindling a light in nature a light which should in its very rising touch and illuminate all the border-regions that confine upon the circle of our present knowledge; and so, spreading further and further should presently disclose and bring into sight all that is most hidden and secret in the world that man (I thought) would be the benefactor indeed of the human race the propagator of man's empire over the universe, the champion of liberty, the conqueror and subduer of necessities.

Proemium, Of the Interpretation of Nature, 1603.

Bacon saw this enterprise as even more important than the three great innovations of the Renaissance, the printing press, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass, even though, as he clearly acknowledged, these three had changed the face of the world:

For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in learning, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these changes.

New Organon, I, Aphorism 129.

It is evident, therefore, that Bacon believed his new method of doing natural philosophy (or science) would also change the world, and essentially he was right about that. In brief, the main features of Bacon's new method were experimentalism, an emphasis upon inductive logic, which went hand in hand with experimentalism (and replaced the logic of syllogistic deduction which characterised the method of the prevailing Aristotelian natural philosophy), and an emphasis upon the practical usefulness of knowledge of nature (as opposed to the "ivory tower" contemplative nature of knowledge emphasised in Aristotelianism). These Baconian emphases led to the development of modern science and, eventually to the science-technology complex, and remain crucial aspects of modern science. So, there's no denying that he changed the face of our world.

Bacon himself could not have predicted the science-technology complex which began to emerge after the Industrial Revolution, but what he foresaw was something he called the Great Instauration (or Instauratio magna). He mapped this out in six parts:

1. The Divisions of the Sciences.

2. The New Organon; or, Directions concerning the Interpretation of Nature.

Published in an incomplete form as Novum Organum, in 1620 (Bacon's most important work in natural philosophy).

3. The Phenomena of the Universe; or a Natural and Experimental History for the foundation of Philosophy.

Published in incomplete form in Parasceve ad historiam naturalem et experimentalem (1620), and Historia naturalis et experimentalis (1622). Also found in various unpublished and incomplete works, such as, Sylva Sylvarum (1624 published posthumously in 1626).

4. The Ladder of the Intellect.

5. The Forerunners; or Anticipations of the New Philosophy.

6. The New Philosophy; or, Active Science.

The culmination of the Great Instauration was to be the establishment, the instauration, of this new philosophy, referred to in Part 6. But this culminating point would only be reached, could only be reached, Bacon believed, after completing the other stages, and in particular, stages 2 and 3. And we can see from Bacon's publications that he never succeeded in completing even these stages. But, essentially, what he envisaged was a process of fact-gathering, a massive, collaborative enterprise by many people, to build up what we would now call a comprehensive data base, upon which to build one's conclusions. Stage 2 was concerned with showing precisely how to deal with and analyse the information in the data base to arrive at reliable and certain conclusions.

Although Bacon never managed to complete even one part of his Great Instauration (largely because he never succeeded in persuading King James I of England [he was King James VI of Scotland] to provide him with the army of civil servants he required to gather the data to fulfil Part 3), he was always insistent that we must avoid premature attempts to establish any new philosophy.

Bacon was living at a time when the Aristotelian system of philosophy, which had dominated Western European intellectual life since the thirteenth century, was looking increasingly untenable. The whole aim of the Great Instauration was to find a replacement system of philosophy, capable of replacing the comprehensive system of Aristotle, lock, stock and barrel. But Bacon was all too aware that others had tried to find replacement philosophies, and that all of them were deeply flawed, and therefore unacceptable. Bacon didn't want to make the same mistake, and end up with nothing. This is why he stuck to his plan for the Great Instauration and, refusing to jump to any conclusions, he concentrated on developing his method in the Novum Organum, and on increasing his stock of knowledge by working on his database.

We can see his concern to avoid jumping to what he calls "rash and premature" conclusions in the opening words of his preface to the New Organon, and elsewhere throughout:

Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury. For as they have been successful in inducing belief, so they have been effective in quenching and stopping inquiry; and have done more harm by spoiling and putting an end to other men's efforts than good by their own.

Preface, Novum Organum (1620).

The understanding must not, however, be allowed to jump and fly from particulars to axioms remote and of almost the highest generality (such as the first principles, as they are called, of arts and things), and taking stand upon them as truths that cannot be shaken, proceed to prove and frame the middle axioms by reference to them; which has been the practice hitherto, the understanding being not only carried that way by a natural impulse, but also by the use of syllogistic demonstration trained and inured to it… The understanding must not therefore be supplied with wings, but rather hung with weights, to keep it from leaping and flying. Now this has never yet been done; when it is done, we may entertain better hopes of the sciences.

Novum Organum, I, Aphorism 104.

Still I candidly confess that the natural history which I now have, whether collected from books or from my own investigations, is neither sufficiently copious nor verified with sufficient accuracy to serve the purposes of legitimate interpretation. Accordingly, if there be anyone more apt and better prepared for mechanical pursuits, and sagacious in hunting out works by the mere dealing with experiment, let him by all means use his industry to gather from my history and tables many things by the way, and apply them to the production of works, which may serve as interest until the principal be forthcoming. But for myself, aiming as I do at greater things, I condemn all unseasonable and premature tarrying over such things as these, being (as I often say) like Atalanta's balls. For I do not run off like a child after golden apples, but stake all on the victory of art over nature in the race. Nor do I make haste to mow down the moss or the corn in blade, but wait for the harvest in its due season.

Novum Organum, I, Aphorism 117.

[The reference to Atalanta's balls is to a Greek myth. The beautiful Atalanta was warned by an oracle not to marry, so, being a fast runner she used to challenge suitors to a race and as she caught up with the suitor she stabbed him in the back. Eventually a suitor called Hippomenes hit on the idea of throwing golden balls (or sometimes golden apples) down in her path. Fascinated by their beauty she stopped to pick them up and Hippomenes won the race and her hand in marriage.]

The sixth part of my work for which the rest are but the preparation, will reveal the philosophy which is the product of that legitimate, chaste, and severe mode of enquiry which I have taught and prepared. But to perfect this last part is a thing both above my strength and beyond my expectation. What I have been able to do is to give it, as I hope, a not contemptible start. The destiny of the human race will supply the issue, and that issue will perhaps be such as men in the present state of their fortunes and their understandings cannot easily grasp or measure. For what is at stake is not merely a mental satisfaction but the very reality of men's wellbeing, and all his power of action.

Plan of the Great Instauration, Novum Organum (1620).

In view of all this, it was always assumed that Bacon did not have a system of philosophy of his own devising, but that he was hoping one could be established later, as the culmination of his Great instauration.

We now know, however, thanks largely to the researches of Graham Rees (a professor of English at Queen Mary University of London) that Bacon did have his own philosophy, but that he kept it secret. Although, here and there, he did allude to it in his published writings. Consider, for example, Aphorism 116 in the First Part of the New Organon:

First, then, I must request men not to suppose that after the fashion of ancient Greeks, and of certain moderns, as Telesius, Patricius, Severinus, I wish to found a new sect in philosophy. For this is not what I am about, nor do I think that it matters much to the fortunes of men what abstract notions one may entertain concerning nature and the principles of things. And no doubt many old theories of this kind can be revived and many new ones introduced, just as many theories of the heavens may be supposed which agree well enough with the phenomena and yet differ with each other.

But for my part I do not trouble myself with any such speculative and withal unprofitable matters. My purpose, on the contrary, is to try whether I cannot in very fact lay more firmly the foundations and extend more widely the limits of the power and greatness of man. And although on some special subjects and in an incomplete form I am in possession of results which I take to be far more true and more certain and withal more fruitful than those now received (and these I have collected into the fifth part of my Instauration), yet I have no entire or universal theory to propound. For it does not seem that the time is come for such an attempt. Neither can I hope to live to complete the sixth part of the Instauration (which is destined for the philosophy discovered by the legitimate interpretation of nature), but hold it enough if in the intermediate business I bear myself soberly and profitably, sowing in the meantime for future ages the seeds of a purer truth, and performing my part toward the commencement of the great undertaking.

Novum Organum, I, Aphorism 116.

Now, in the Plan of the Great Instauration Part 5 is designated for "Forerunners; or Anticipations of the New Philosophy", but he also says it is for "his own discoveries". And here, as we can see, he says he has actually collected these into the 5th part of his Great Instauration. In fact, Bacon never did do this, and continued to keep his own discoveries hidden.

So, before we turn to look at this secret philosophy, let's consider why he kept it so secret.

The first thing to say is that, in spite of what he says in Aphorism 116, to be true to his system, he was obliged to keep his own "premature" system secret. If he had published it, it might well have persuaded his readers that the system of nature was now understood, and so Bacon would have "done more harm by spoiling and putting an end to other men's efforts than good by [his] own."

Even so, I can't help thinking that Bacon held out a hope that his own system, although arrived at prematurely, would indeed turn out to be the true natural philosophy, and so could eventually take its place, not in part 5 of the Instauration, but even in Part 6.

But there's more to be said about Bacon's secrecy. Bacon's own system, as we'll see shortly, was essentially an alchemical system based on alchemical precepts, theories, and practices. Now, alchemists have a reputation for being highly secretive, but there's something markedly different about Bacon's secretiveness compared to other alchemists.

Alchemists were certainly secretive about their techniques and procedures, and often about their results vehemently maintained their trade secrets, in other words but they were not usually secretive about the fact that they were alchemists. Contemporaries knew perfectly well who was an alchemist, or claimed to be one, and who was not. In the generations after Bacon's, for example, everyone who knew Robert Boyle would have known he was an alchemist, and Newton's colleagues in Cambridge could hardly have failed to notice that he spent most of his time in pursuit of alchemical secrets.

The remarkable thing about Bacon, however, is that, although he developed an alchemical philosophy, and must, like Newton, have spent considerable amounts of time performing alchemical experiments, there is no trace in the historical record that Bacon used to practice alchemy. It was never remarked upon by his contemporaries, for example, and not mentioned in early biographies nor for that matter in any of the more recent biographies of Bacon. So, here we have someone who was not only secretive about his alchemical procedures and results, but who was also secretive about the very fact that he was an alchemist.

Now, it's possible that Bacon kept this part of his life secret simply to avoid possible scandal if it was known that one of James's chief ministers was dabbling in alchemy. This might, after all, have led to fears that the result might be a catastrophic devaluation of the currency. I believe Bacon hints at this in the New Atlantis (1626) where the Director of Solomon's House, the major scientific research centre on the Utopian island, says:

And this we do also: we have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not; and take all an oath of secrecy for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret; though some of those we do reveal sometime to the State, and some not.

New Atlantis (1626).

Now, if we accept that the Head of this research institute is an imaginative representation of Bacon himself, then here we have Bacon suggesting that there are some discoveries which even he, as a leading minister of the State, would withhold from the State. Some Bacon scholars have tended to see this as an anticipation by Bacon that some technologies are too dangerous to reveal to the state and thinking of Einstein's regret that he urged Roosevelt to build the Atomic bomb but it's much more likely that Bacon had the alchemical dream of converting lead into gold in mind.

Anyway, whatever the reason for Bacon's secrecy, it is truly remarkable that he was able to practice alchemy for many years, performing many experiments, and eventually developing an all-encompassing alchemically-inspired philosophy of nature, without any of his contemporaries ever remarking upon this fact.

But, when I say that Bacon practised alchemy, I don't mean to say that he engaged himself in trying to create gold. In Bacon's day alchemy covered everything that we now think of as chemistry, and the evidence in Bacon's works suggests that he saw alchemy as the best way to reveal the secrets of the universe. So, although Bacon did offer advice on the best way of creating gold, in accordance with his own system of alchemical philosophy, it was clearly not the most important aspect of his alchemical work. Indeed, it is obvious from his writings that Bacon was much more concerned with the other alchemical dream, namely, the manufacture of a universal panacea, an alkahest, capable of curing all disease and prolonging life.

We know that Bacon must have spent many hours doing alchemical experiments because of the scattered references in his writings to experiments he had carried out. These are often given in sufficient detail that it is clear Bacon carried them out himself, and in many cases he simply recounts the experiments in the first person, telling us exactly what he did. Often it is easy to see how these experiments might have related to Bacon's attempts to establish the details of his secret alchemical philosophy. He spent a lot of time, for example, comparing the weights of equal amounts of various substances. Having done this, he then uses the figures he arrived at to establish what volumes of different substances would be equal to a given weight of gold. The volume occupied by an ounce of spirits of wine, he calculates, would be twenty-one times greater than the volume occupied by an ounce of gold.

As we read on it becomes apparent that the purpose of these experiments is to distinguish between two different sorts of matter which Bacon believes to constitute all things. Consider, for example, these extracts from his History of Dense and Rare (1624):

But as for the degree of pneumatic matter's expansion compared with that of tangible matter, though it be a difficult thing to find out, I have still not abandoned any care in its investigation. Now it seemed to me the most certain test would be that if any tangible body (its bulk having been taken and measured before hand) could be altogether turned into a pneumatic one, after which the bulk of the pneumatic would likewise be noted down, so that the multiplication of dimension that had taken place could be clearly demonstrated by comparing the values before and after.

So I took a small glass phial capable of holding about an ounce. Into this I poured about half an ounce of spirit of wine… then I took a very large bladder [and]… I fixed the bladder around the mouth of the phial… then I placed the phial over hot coals in a brazier. Not long after that the breath of the spirit of wine rose up into the bladder and gradually blew it up quite strongly all around. When that had happened I took the glass from the fire… and punctured the top of the bladder with a needle to let the breath out… then I took the bladder off the phial, and with the scales I showed how much of that half ounce of spirit of wine had been lost and turned into a breath.

Historia densi et rari (1624).

To understand what Bacon means by pneumatic matter and tangible matter, we need to look at his secret philosophy.

Now, I'm just going to give a brief and simplified account of this philosophy here but what I hope to get across, in spite of simplifying things, is a sense of why Bacon might have thought that he'd hit upon the true philosophy; the philosophy which might, if enough experimental evidence could be gathered in its favour, be worthy of taking its place in Part 6 of the Great Instauration.

Bacon's secret philosophy took its starting point from a traditional assumption of the alchemists, namely that all material substances derived from the interactions of two fundamental active material principles, mercury and sulphur. Now, this alchemical belief no doubt owed its origins to the fact that both mercury and sulphur are extremely reactive and, because of that, were frequently used as the starting point for many alchemical experiments. What's more, over the ages, these two became representative principles of two opposing kinds of substances. Sulphur represented, and constituted, all oily and inflammable substances, and even fire itself, while mercury represented water, and all watery and non-inflammable substances, and even, through a standard association in the four-element theory, air (air and water seemed to be interchangeable into one another in the hydrologic cycle). Sulphur, similarly, was associated not only with fire but also with earth, the source of subterranean fire as seen in volcanoes. So, just as the four elements were said to be combined in different ways to give rise to every natural thing, and to account for that thing's properties, so mercury and sulphur combined to give rise to all things in the alchemical tradition.

Now, the most successful promoters of this alchemical world view during Bacon's lifetime were the Paracelsians, followers of the Swiss medical and religious reformer, Paracelsus (c. 1493-1541). And Paracelsus, notoriously, had gone so far as to suggest that the whole world system was a giant alchemical experiment, and God was the supreme alchemist. According to Paracelsus and his followers, where it says in the book of Genesis that "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters", this means that God acted as an alchemist, working changes on one of his solutions. And where it said "God divided the light from the darkness", and "God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament", these were again best understood as alchemical separations, in which a previously unknown light substance might be separated out from a dark substance, and so on.

We need to bear in mind here that alchemists were used to deriving their alchemical procedures from pagan books which to us seem to have nothing to do with alchemy. Consider, for example, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, one of the most important alchemical texts. It should be noted that there is no obvious talk here of how to perform alchemical manipulations; we do not see instructions of the kind: "take some mercury and mix it with gold", or "heat mercury and copper together in a retort for an hour, then add sulphur…". There's nothing like this and yet it was assumed that the cryptic comments in the Tablet were meant to be interpreted as alchemical instructions the trick was not just to do the experiment correctly, but to work out what the experiment actually was.


The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus

(translated by Isaac Newton, c. 1680)

1) Tis true without lying, certain & most true.

2) That wch is below is like that wch is above & that wch is above is like yt wch is below to do ye miracles of one only thing.

3) And as all things have been & arose from one by ye mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.

4) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,

5) the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth its nurse.

6) The father of all perfection in ye whole world is here.

7) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.

7a) Seperate thou ye earth from ye fire, ye subtile from the gross sweetly wth great industry.

8) It ascends from ye earth to ye heaven & again it desends to ye earth and receives ye force of things superior & inferior.

9) By this means you shall have ye glory of ye whole world & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.

10) Its force is above all force. ffor it vanquishes every subtile thing & penetrates every solid thing.

11a) So was ye world created.

12) From this are & do come admirable adaptaions whereof ye means (Or process) is here in this.

13) Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of ye philosophy of ye whole world.

14) That wch I have said of ye operation of ye Sun is accomplished & ended.

It was always assumed that alchemical texts spoke in riddles, or in symbols, to protect their secrets from the vulgar, and that only the adept alchemist could understand the hidden instructions. What the Paracelsians did was, quite literally, to make the book of Genesis the most important, and most heavily used alchemical instruction manual. For them, the whole world, and everything in it, was alchemical. This also meant, of course, that while God was the supreme alchemist, the Paracelsian alchemist could lay claim to being the best representative of God on earth. The alchemist, not the priest, was the best mediator between God and man. People often accuse modern scientists of playing God, but the Paracelsian alchemists were doing that long before.

God as the great workmaster and Creator separated first of all Light from Darknesse, and this Aetheriall Heaven, which wee beholde as a fifth Essence, or most pure Spirite, or most simple spirituall body. Then hee divided Waters from Waters; that is to say, the more subtill, Aiery, and Mercuriall liquor, from the more Thick, Clammy, and Oyely, or sulphurous liquor. After that he extracted and brought forth the Sulphur, that is to say, the more grosse Waters, from the drye part, which out of the separation standeth alone like salte, and as yet standeth by it selfe apart.

Joseph Duchesne, The Practise of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke (1605).

Alchemie should have concurrence and antiquitie with Theology, since Moses tels us that the Spirit of God moved upon the water: which was an indigested Chaos or masse created by God, with confused Earth in mixture: yet by his Alchemcial extraction, separation, sublimation, and coniunction, so ordered and conioyned againe, as they are manifestly seene a part and sundered: in Earth, Fyer included, and Ayre, in Water…

Thomas Tymme, A Dialogue Philosophicall (1612).

Now, Bacon was not a Paracelsian far from it, he seemed to despise Paracelsus with a passion (possibly because he saw him as a philosophical rival whose system was more successful than it deserved to be). Whatever the reason, he referred to Paracelsus as "the adopted son of the family of asses", and his system of philosophy was nothing more than a collection of "detestable falsehoods", "specious allures", and "empty delusions". Even so, there are definite similarities between the Paracelsian worldview and Bacon's own secret philosophy, because both of them were based on earlier alchemical traditions. But what seems to have been completely original to Bacon is the distinction which we have already come across, between pneumatic and tangible matter.

Essentially, Bacon divides natural phenomena into two quaternions, or "great tribes" as he sometimes calls them, characterised by mercury or sulphur, and his two kinds of matter, tangible and pneumatic, manifest themselves in different ways in each quaternion. The following table sums up the main categories.

According to Bacon the interior of the Earth is made up of dense, passive, tangible matter, while the rest of the universe is filled with weightless, invisible, active, pneumatic matter. Between these two, there is a boundary zone, extending a few miles below the Earth's surface, and up to the sphere of the Moon, where tangible matter and pneumatic matter are mixed together, and give rise to all earthly phenomena. So, I hope you can see that this closely relates to the alchemical idea that all earthly substances are constituted of a mixture of sulphur and mercury. Bacon's system would have seemed familiar to contemporary alchemists (and therefore supported by their theories, and their experimental results), while at the same time being recognisably different.

The two family groups, or quaternions, are seen as essentially antithetical to one another, but still capable of mixing to give rise to all the different substances we see on Earth. They even give rise, therefore, to intermediate phenomena, as summed up in the following table.

It is worth noting here that the Salt quaternion again seems to echo Paracelsian views, since according to Paracelsus there were three principles at work in nature, mercury, sulphur and salt. It is important to note, however, that for Bacon salt was not a principle in its own right, as it was for Paracelsus, but was merely the result of the interaction of his two principles, mercury and sulphur. In this regard Bacon was adhering to an earlier alchemical tradition, pre-dating Paracelsus, in which there were only two principles, mercury and sulphur.

Anyway, I hope you can see from the tables that Bacon's system allowed him to understand, and offer theories about, inanimate substances, whether they be tangible or intangible; that is to say, whether they are solids, liquids or gasses (so this covers all the things that might be subjected to alchemical manipulation). He can also claim to understand, or at least offer theories about, animate spirits, even though they are intangible or pneumatic; and about the juices of animals and plants, which are tangible but must also contain attached spirits, because only pneumatic matter can bestow life or vitality. And finally, he can also understand, or offer theories about, the workings of the heavens.

Generally speaking, pneumatic matter is perpetually active and, as such, provides a continual driving force at work in the world. In our sublunar world, for example, virtually everything is made of a combination of tangible and pneumatic matter. The pneumatic matter combined with terrestrial matter constitutes what Bacon calls "attached spirits", and these are always struggling to break free of the tangible matter to become pure, unattached or free spirits. It is this perpetual struggle within even seemingly inert bodies which accounts for the activities of those bodies and for all the changes that are continually happening all around us.

In short, Bacon's fundamentally alchemical system has led him to a comprehensive system covering all aspects of the physical world, from inanimate minerals, through plants and animals to the heavens. The system even allows him, for example, to explain why the dream of converting base metal into gold is so difficult. Gold is too heavy and dense for the base metals to be easily converted into it because of the activity of pneumatic matter, rarefaction or spreading out tends to prevail over condensation or compaction, and so alchemical transmutation has to work against the natural trend, compacting lighter metals into denser gold. But this is just one example, Bacon's system is extremely versatile, being able to account in a seemingly plausible way for many everyday phenomena. It is because of this, and its universal scope from the mundane to the astronomical, that Bacon believed that he might have discovered the true system of the world, the true philosophy, which perhaps would in due course be established in Part 6 of the Instauration.

But it wasn't just a question of universal scope after all, there were plenty of new systems of philosophy which had been developed by various of Bacon's contemporaries as replacements for the Aristotelian system. Any new system worth its salt had to be a complete and comprehensive system ;because that is what Aristotelianism offered.

There were plenty of these new sects in philosophy; we saw earlier, for example, that Bacon mentioned those of Telesius, Patricius, and Severinus. There were others, such as those offered by the Rosicrucians, by Tommaso Campanella, and even by Bacon's fellow countryman, William Gilbert.


Renaissance "system builders"

philosophers claiming to have a philosophy of nature capable of replacing Aristotle's lock, stock and barrel

Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588), De rerum natura iuxta propria principia (1586)

Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597), Nova de universis philosophia (1591)

Petrus Severinus (1540-1602), Idea medicinae (1571).

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), De occulta philosophia libri tres (1531).

Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), Philosophia sensibus demonstrata (1591).

Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576), De subtilitate rerum (1550), and De varietate rerum (1559).

William Gilbert (1544-1603), De mundo nostro sublunari philosophia nova (written before 1603, published in 1651 but known to Bacon in manuscript).

To say nothing of Platonists, Stoics, Epicureans, Rosicrucians and Paracelsians…

So, what I want to do now is give you one example of just how well Bacon's system worked. It seems pretty clear to me that the reason Bacon was so committed to his own system of philosophy (in spite of the fact, remember, that it went against his own cautions against jumping to rash and premature conclusions) was that it did work so well in a number of areas. So, let me give you just one example…

Let's take the highly technical area of astronomy. Bear in mind that in Bacon's day this was regarded as a major challenge to natural philosophy as a result of the publication in 1543 of Copernicus's theory that the Earth was in motion around the Sun (whereas, according to Aristotle, the Sun was in motion around a stationary Earth). So, astronomy was at that time a prime site for testing one's theories. Bacon would have been particularly aware of this since England was one of the strongholds of Copernican theory. Of the ten astronomers in Europe who are kown to have believed in Copernican theory before 1600, three of them were English. Bacon would also have been concerned as to how his alchemical system of philosophy might fare when dealing with astronomical matters because one of Paracelsus's most famous works was called the Astronomia magna (1531), and claimed to provide the Paracelsian account of the workings of the heavens.

Now, astronomy had been in crisis even before Copernicus indeed Copernicus came up with the drastic solution of putting the Earth in motion, precisely because astronomy was in crisis and desperate times seemed to him to require desperate measures. But there was another possible way to reform astronomy, which attracted a number of sixteenth-century thinkers, and this was the theory of homocentric spheres.

This Renaissance depiction of the Aristotelian universe, published in 1539, shows a Christianised view of the system, with the abode of God outside the heavenly spheres that feature in astronomy. The important thing to note here, however, is that the system is neatly spherical, with all the astronomical spheres being centred on the Earth.

The Aristotelian world picture is neatly homocentric (with all the heavenly spheres centred upon a single point) but this was very hard to reconcile with actual astronomical observations. Consider the phenomenon of retrograde motion when a planet seems to stop its normal course, and temporarily move back the way it has come.

We now know that this is merely an illusion caused when the Earth overtakes the planet, but how was it explained by those who did not know the Earth was moving? Similar problems were caused by the fact that the planets do not move in perfect circles, as the Greeks supposed, but in ellipses, and do not move with constant speeds, as the Greeks also supposed, but are continually slowing down and accelerating in accordance with gravitational forces.

The solution to all these problems was achieved by the Ancient Greek astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 AD).

Ptolemy used different centres of rotation for the orbit of each planet, and (to explain retrograde motion) even put planets in rotationon epicycles which rotated around the main orbit. Copernicus continued to use epicycles to make observations fit his own theory, even though he knew retrograde motions were merely optical illusions caused as the moving Earth overtook a planet.

To achieve this, however, he had to deviate from homocentricity and to have different planets rotating around different centres, and even to have planets rotating around points which were rotating around other circles. When Copernicus offered his solution to the problems of astronomy, he also used multiple circles and centres. The following schematic representations give a rough idea.

Other Renaissance astronomers, however, decided to try to revive the pre-Ptolemaic homocentric system of the Ancient astronomer, Eudoxus (408-355 BC).

Eudoxus could account for the complex motions of the Moon by supposing it was carried on three connected spheres, each with a different period of rotation, and a different axis of rotation. Similar combinations of spheres were required for each individual planet, so the System as a whole had far more spheres than the ten envisioned in the Aristotleian universe. The important feature, however, was that all the spheres had a single centre of rotation, at the centre of the Earth.

The homocentric system was never as successful as the Ptolemaic at actually tracking, and being able to predict, precise planetary movements, but by having spheres rotating inside other spheres on different axes of rotation, but always with the same centre, Eudoxus was able to account pretty well for complex movements, including the retrograde motion (see diagrams below although most viewers have to take on trust that the Eudoxan system really can produce these movements). Thinkers like Girolamo Fracastoro (1483-1553), and Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588) tried to improve on the ancient homocentric system. They were helped here by the homocentric system which had been developed in the Middle Ages by the Andalusian astronomer, Al-Bitruji, known to the Latin West as Alpetragius (d. 1204).

This diagram shows how the Eudoxan combination of spheres rotating within spheres (with different axes of rotation, but always with the same centre of rotation) can give rise to the loop-the-loop motion characteristic of planetary retrograde motion.

Although the theory of homocentric spheres had never been taken up by astronomers, it attracted renewed attention in the Renaissance as a result of the crisis facing Ptolemaic astronomy. In particular, the system developed by the Andalusian philosopher Al-Bitruji, known to the Latins as Alpetragius, looked promising. In particular it seemed to have one advantage over the Ptolemaic system.

In the Ptolemaic system it was assumed that all the heavenly spheres moved Westward around the Earth once every 24 hours (this was actually due to the motion of the Earth on its axis). Meanwhile, each of the planets was moving about the Earth eastwards at different rates (Saturn, the outermost, taking 30 years to circle the Earth, Mars 2 years, Mercury 88 days, etc.).

Alpetragius suggested that there were only Westward motions the primum mobile (the outermost sphere) and the fixed stars moving right around once every 24 hours, and then each successive heavenly sphere moving more slowly, the further it was from the primum mobile. So, Saturn moved westward every 24 hours just short of a complete circle. The accumulated short-falls each day amounted to what looked like a complete eastward circulation once every thirty years. Similarly for Jupiter, once every twelve years, and Mars once in two years (and so on the Sun one year, Venus 9 months, Mercury just under three months). The slowest mover of all was the Moon, which had a shortfall of about one hour each night, and so took 25 hours to make a complete circuit of the Earth, even though it was travelling a much shorter distance than any of the other planets. So, I hope you can see that Alpetragius's account of planetary movement seemed simpler and much more plausible than the Ptolemaic assumption that everything was moving eastwards at different rates, and on top of that, everything also moved right around the circuit of the heavens once every 24 hours in completely the opposite direction.

Now, one thing Alpetragius never tried to do was to explain why the planets moved successively slower, but for Bacon these successively slower celestial motions were actually a necessary consequence of his alchemical world picture.

In the heavens, the two opposing principles of the two quaternions are represented by ether and sidereal fire. But ether is seen as an attenuated form of air and is at its strongest near the Earth, and becomes successively weaker as it gets further away from the Earth. For fire, it is the other way around: terrestrial fire is surrounded by air, which is associated with water, and as such is an enemy of fire. So terrestrial fire struggles to burn, and needs a constant supply of fuel to keep going. The further fire is from the Earth, the stronger it becomes. So sidereal fire is the pure form of fire and can burn incessantly without any need for fuel. Fire is also the most mobile and active substance and so sidereal fire, being the purest, is in perpetual vigorous motion. At its strongest furthest from the Earth, sidereal fire in the primum mobile and the sphere of fixed stars moves constantly around the Earth once every 24 hours. Because Saturn is closer to Earth, it is surrounded by ether which is slightly more vigorous than at the sphere of fixed stars and so more capable of slowing the motion of the sidereal fire; and so on for the other planets. The Moon moves slowest of all because, as Bacon said, it is only the "first rudiment" of sidereal fire when looked at from the centre, or is the "last sediment" of sidereal fire, when looked at from the primum mobile.

Now, I'm convinced that Bacon became excited about the power and all-purposeful nature of his system, when he noticed that a theory which he had developed out of his work in alchemy, just happened to fit the Alpetragian system of astronomy like a glove. No other alchemical system accomplished this Paracelsus's Astronomia magna managed nothing like this. Although ostensibly about astronomy, this was actually nothing more than a work reiterating the age-old idea of the macrocosm and the microcosm the notion that the human being was a "little world", a miniature model of the whole universe (or vice versa). The closest Paracelsus came to discussing the actual movements of the heavenly bodies was when he recounted some astrological lore in support of the macrocosm-microcosm analogy. This was a far cry from what Bacon achieved with his system.

So, Bacon's system was not merely compatible with Alpetragian astronomical theory, it actually improved on the theory by explaining why the planets slowed successively the nearer they were to the Earth. And, by the way, I think this also helps to explain why Bacon refused to accept Copernicanism, and always maintained that the Earth was stationary. Bacon is often criticised for failing to recognise the truth of Copernicanism, but those critics have all been unaware that Bacon had a secret alchemical philosophy which seemed to offer strong support to a geostatic system of astronomy. So, in rejecting Copernicus Bacon was not simply being obtuse, he was defending a genuinely plausible astronomical alternative (I mean, of course, that it was genuinely plausible in Bacon's day, when the motion of the Earth still seemed an inconceivable proposition to most people).

What's more, Bacon was able to extend these ideas even further. He used the same reasoning to explain the fact that the prevailing winds were nearly always, like the motions of the heavenly spheres, westerly. But the motion of the air was far more feeble than that of the sidereal fire, and so much, much slower. Similarly, the motions of the waters in the oceans, he suggested, had an overall westerly motion, but because of the interference of land masses, the result was not a continual slow circulation around the earth, but the ebb and flow of the tides. The westward motion of Atlantic waters, for example, caused a pile up of water along the eastern seaboard of the Americas. The rebound, due to gravity, was sufficient to overcome the westward motion and sent waters back to cause high tides along the shores of Europe and Africa, which were then countered by the natural western movement; and so the cycle of the tides continued. It is important to note here that Galileo was at this time busy promoting a rival explanation of the tides which depended upon the assumption that the Earth was moving. So, again, Bacon must have seen his theory as a superior account of the tides, which did not require the absurdity of a moving Earth, and which emerged perfectly logically from his alchemical system of the world.

Now, I hope you can see even from this brief outline that there really was a great deal to be said in favour of Bacon's system. I'm familiar with the systems of Telesio, Patrizi, and Severinus, which Bacon mentioned, and with those of Campanella, Gilbert, and the Rosicrucians, and none of them, believe me, have anything like the same scope, and what looks like genuine explanatory power. Small wonder that Bacon thought he was on to something special.

It would hardly have been surprising, therefore, if Bacon had gone public with this system, and published it. I can't help feeling that he must have been sorely tempted. He might even have won many followers, at least initially; perhaps persuading many Paracelsians to convert to Baconians, or winning over those few who had been persuaded by Telesio, or Patrizi, or Gilbert. If he had chosen to try to win converts to his own system of philosophy, however, it wouldn't have lasted. By now, Bacon would simply be remembered alongside Telesio and the others, as another thinker who came up with an ingenious imaginative, but wrong, system of philosophy to replace Aristotelianism.

But clearly Bacon was cleverer than that. Although he continued to work in secret, trying to establish the truth of his system by experiment, and writing numerous works expounding the details of his system, on the winds, on tides, on the differences between animate and inanimate, and between tangible and pneumatic matter, he was evidently never fully satisfied with his own system. When he did go into print with his philosophy, therefore, it was not with this philosophy, but with his philosophy about the correct method to use to establish the true philosophy, whatever it might be.

And this brings us to a final point. Nobody has ever managed to explain how Bacon was able to come up with his highly original methodological programme for the sciences. Why did he recognise the experimental method as the best approach? What led him to try to codify an improved kind of inductive logic? These and other aspects of Bacon's methodology have always seemed the kind of critical refinements that could only occur to a practising scientist, and yet Bacon has always been seen as someone who did not practise science, but showed others how to practise it. So, how could he have known that the methodological principles he expounded were the best ones?

I like to think that it was while he was trying to establish the truth of his alchemical philosophy, that he hit upon the most reliable methods for establishing scientific truths; in other words, his own repeated efforts to establish his alchemical philosophy, and his critical acuity in deciding which of his results were reliable and which perhaps only illusory, led him eventually to see what the best method of science should be. So, in spite of appearances, we could say that it was his own alchemical system of philosophy which (by helping him to see the best methods to use to establish scientific truth), indirectly, secured his place in the history of philosophy.

John Henry

University of Edinburgh

Science Studies Unit

21 Buccleuch Place

Edinburgh EH8 9LN


More details on Bacon's secret alchemical philosophy are provided in the works of Graham Rees. The most detailed coverage is in Rees's editorial comments at the beginning of the volumes he has edited in The Oxford Francis Bacon, namely volumes VI, XI and XIII. For a more accessible treatment see his essay "Bacon's Speculative Philosophy", in Markku Peltonen (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (Cambrdige University Press, 1996).

For a more general account of Bacon's interest in and use of magical traditions see John Henry, Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Inspired Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science (Cambridge: Icon Books, 2002).