Strange Fire at the altar of the Lord:

Francis Bacon on Human Nature

The Review of Politics  



Heidi Studer

Associate Professor of Political Science,

University of Alberta



Francis Bacon's pronouncement that "Man is the Center of the World," the final cause of all nature, seems to unleash us from all guidance and restraint, providing no grounds for judging any human action to be better or worse than any other. The political implications of such a position-combined with Bacon's efforts to advance technological power-are enormous. There would be little support for natural rights or any other kind of "right" except what is based on force. This famous promoter of scientific power, however, was neither oblivious to the danger, nor politically irresponsible, in his assessment of man's position in the cosmos, and his counsel seems closer to classical political philosophy than is normally acknowledged. This essay provides an examination of and detailed commentary on Bacon's argument, as presented in "Prometheus, or the State of Man." It reveals that Bacon expects us to deal with the problem in terms of properly ranking humans themselves, discarding the notion that all humans are equal. In light of such a ranking we may come to recognize natural standards for evaluating humans and their actions.

Understanding human nature and man's relationship to the rest of the world has never been more urgent than now with our awesome capacity in genetic technology. Although every technological advance has increased mankind's power over the rest of the world-from the spear which allowed us to kill safely out of claw's reach, through building a dam in China that will flood an area the size of several European countries combined, to artificial hearts and dividing atoms-our newest power allows us to manipulate the very nuts and bolts of life itself. The problems this power presents are at the very heart of political philosophy.

One question of the first importance is whether we can determine which uses of this power are good or noble or just, and which are not. Given our established capacity to manipulate nature and now to shape the life-world as we wish, we must look with new urgency for standards of proper use of our technical power, and (at the least) at whether there are any rationally defensible limits to our actions apart from whatever may be set by human will or political efficacy. If there is any possibility that nature herself prescribes answers-as is currently the case with respect to the standards of good health-we should be as eager to discover these as we are to develop new means of promoting health.

Given the magnitude of man's power, it is little wonder if humans think of themselves as the lords of nature, with dominion over all. We can act as though the world exists solely for our use and pleasure. Even though we recognize that the purpose of the donkey's heart is to pump blood through the donkey, we are free to believe that the donkey's purpose is to be our beast of burden.(1) But whether we are correct in believing it is another question entirely: while it is clear that we can objectively evaluate a heart based on its fulfilling its natural purpose, assessing claims about the purpose of a species involves a higher order understanding of nature.

Francis Bacon, one of the pioneer promoters of technological advancement, addresses this issue in its most challenging terms in a chapter entitled "Prometheus, or the State of Man," in his book, Of the Wisdom of the Ancients. Here he presents for our consideration the view that we are the species at the end of the telos-chain, the final link of the food-chain or utility-chain of beings comprised by Nature: that man is the final cause of the universe. We are invited to consider whether we might be the band that holds all the broomstraws together,(2) the only species without a natural telos, the supreme being guided only by convention, political efficacy, the mightiest will, or by religious beliefs. Bacon offers to guide us in explaining this proposition.

Bacon takes us through the next stage of the question as well: regardless of whether we are the telos of other species and parts of nature, we must ask whether human nature itself provides guidance for how humans ought to live. As noted, this inquiry is now more urgent-and perplexing-than ever, given our rapidly advancing genetic technologies. For we could presumably reprogram our DNA in light of any of countless opinions of what would make for a "better" human being, including those of fashionable intellectuals or guests of the Jerry Springer Show. Which aspects or features or faculties of human nature, if any, can provide guidance to humans about how they ought to act? It is hard to derive principles of justice and goodness from the "facts" of our having 46 chromosomes, opposable thumbs, or being featherless bipeds. Nothing that simply defines the species in such manner can possibly do the job. And while, as concerns our physical being, the purpose or function of a part of the body can reveal rational and objective standards for good and bad treatment of the part (from thick smoke being bad for lungs, and dietary calcium being good for bones, to healthy lungs and bones being good for living), we must also ask whether there is something comparable at the level of the human being as such, beyond that which all life-forms share: preservation of life and propagation of the species. Here too, Bacon does not ignore the problem, but rather addresses it in a manner especially useful to us, perched as we are on the edge of the genetic revolution. Although until now there has been no proven case of either a cloned or a genetically recombined human embryo being brought to full-term, we must recognize that we are faced with the Socratic question all over again: what is the best life for a human being-now incomparably complicated by the prior question: what is a human being? Bacon's chapter provides us with some of the major pieces to the puzzle about what life for a human being is truly worth living, by taking us on a voyage through three currently vital parts of the question of human nature: (1) which aspect of our being might provide guidance for our lives: our coming into being, or our end, what ought to be our relationship to the rest of nature, and (3) how can we reasonably rank some human lives as better than others.

The twenty-sixth chapter of Bacon's book is entitled "Prometheus, or the State of Man." In this text, which seems heartily optimistic as it inspires us to apply ourselves methodically and relentlessly to the advancement of science, Bacon addresses the question of man's position in the cosmos. As those who have reflected on the conquest of nature are ominously aware, the question of what ends are to guide man's conquest of nature looms large. Bacon's pronouncement that man is the telos, or final cause, of all of nature puts man in a frightening position of power. What is to guide his use of his power, if he is the ultimate goal of the universe? Why could he not simply destroy things for momentary pleasures? Guiding our thinking through the labyrinthine problem of determining standards for human life and human choices is the deeper point of this chapter. It elaborates Bacon's views on man's place in nature, and the enormously important question of the ends for which our conquest of nature should be undertaken.(3)

This essay, the longest chapter in the book(4), is divided by Bacon into three parts, consisting of a total of thirteen sections. The first part, of six sections, is described as "the state of man, and matters of arts and intellectual things." The central of the thirteen sections makes up the entirety of the second part which Bacon calls "matters of religion." The third part, composed of the final six sections, is about "morals and conditions of human life." According to Bacon, "this fable carries in it many true and weighty contemplations, both on the surface and underneath, some long ago observed, others never touched at all."(5)

The State of Man, and Matters of Arts and Intellectual Things

We are told in this fable that man's position is providently at the center of the world. He is the final cause, the being for the sake of which everything else exists. Yet, as Bacon notes, he is not thereby automatically an effective ruler of his domain. The difference between man's first existence (his origins) and his subsequent development is crucial. There is a marked distinction between man and other animals in the genesis of the species. Yet the creation of man is not the whole story, and does not provide all the answers; the account of his further development is at least as important for understanding humans, and is emphatically of most political importance.(6) Prior to the arts, man was helpless, even though his psychological and physical make-up included the elements necessary to promote the arts, such as the ability to reason. In addition, the promotion of the arts did not yield only good. In fact, problems arose immediately upon man's possession of technology. With the arts come "luxuries which kindle pleasures and lusts,"(7) sources of "infinite evils" to "kingdoms and republics." And with the civil arts comes religion which "is immediately polluted by hypocrisy."(8) A brief mental survey of the number of human deaths caused by humans using weapons in the Twentieth Century, and the pretexts under which these deaths occurred, might lend support to the view that Bacon was hardly exaggerating.


The first sentence of this fable is "The ancients hand down that man was the work of Prometheus and made from clay, except for the particles which Prometheus mixed into the mass from diverse animals."(9) Bacon finds this so significant for explaining man's condition that he devotes several pages of his exposition to interpreting this beginning sentence.(10) This section fits the designation of the first part, "the state of man."

The significance of the account of man's creation, of the coming into being of the species Homo sapiens, is clearly the first and most obvious problem for all humans: not only for the religious but also for anthropologists and other scientists, as well as for the curious of all professions. Bacon begins with the question of man's creation and his connection to providence. It would be little wonder if what Bacon said were true:

Prometheus clearly and expressly signifies providence: and in the universe of things, the one thing selected by the ancients and attributed to Providence as its own work, was the fabrication and constitution of man.

Indeed, it would not be surprising if the ancients singled out the creation of man as the special work of providence, for it is clear that men care primarily about how providence deals with man, but, actually, what Bacon says is simply not true of the ancients. In fact, they spoke of providence toward much besides man-consider, for example, Socrates' remarks to Aristodemus on how providential it is that the nose in animals is built at the other end of the digestive tract from the excreting section!(11) Bacon was not only aware of this, but his treatment of the issue of providence strikingly parallels Xenophon's treatment in his Memorabilia.

The real reason for man's existence being attributed to providence is twofold, Bacon says. The creation of man was held to be providence's work by the ancients not only because one cannot derive high from low but also, because truly, man is the final cause. To look at the first first, it is that the "nature of man includes mind and intellect, which is the seat of providence, and to derive mind and reason from brute and irrational principles would be harsh and incredible..."(12)

Bacon invokes our wonder at the great mystery of the creation or evolution of species, and in particular of our species, the only one which seems to be self-conscious. It is hard to see how thought evolved out of brute beginnings, especially if we were made, not in the image of God, but out of left-over scraps of animals and chunks of mud, in Bacon's fabulous terms, or of fortuitously lucky genetic mutations that happened to find an evolutionary niche waiting to be occupied, in more scientific terms. And yet, to the best of our knowledge, it seems that man emerged much this way. Therefore it is quite normal to search for or even to posit some special significance to that first use of human reason, whether it be a divine hand, or some other awe-inspiring moment.(13)

Many questions would be solved if man were somehow specially made, or in a unique position in the cosmos, and this is what most ancient and modern accounts of providence recognize. Virtually all religions must explain the creation of man, and his relationship to God and nature. This larger context of providence demanded by man causes Bacon to discuss the doctrine of man as the final cause, "insomuch that all things seem to be going about man's business and not their own."(14) Placing man at the center of the world makes the world seem bearable and less harsh, but it also gives rational man a tremendous responsibility in his use of the rest of creation.(15) If there is no end to the universe but us, why cannot we use things in whatever way we please? The account makes it appear that nature is waiting there for us to use her and tame her. After all, Bacon says, there "is nothing from which [man] does not derive use and fruit."

Despite our doubts about the utility of mosquitos, colds, and tornados, we should at least initially take this claim seriously, if only to understand what Bacon means. First, why would anyone say there is nothing from which we do not or cannot derive use and fruit? What use are we to make of mosquitos and hail besides expending wonder at their existence?

Second, a closer look at Bacon's examples shows that the use and fruit we derive from the rest of creation hardly indicates that to be their purpose. Which is what would be entailed if man were the final cause of all things. Three of the four examples rely on man's discovery of nature, not nature's own workings, and all four point to a problem with man being the final cause, and with the notion that things really go about man's business instead of their own. Yet, the four, in ascending order, do allow for man's control of nature. Bacon's choice of examples is remarkably instructive and worth careful scrutiny:

The conversions and Periods of the Stars make for distinctions of times and distributions of the Zones of the World; and Meteors [or the weather of the middle sky] for presaging storms; and winds for sailing and then for Mills and Machines; and Plants and Animals of all classes are made to furnish Man with homes and hiding places, or for clothing, or for food, or for Medicine, or for lightening labours, or finally for delight and solace; so that all things utterly seem to lead not to their own affairs, but to Man's.

First, he says, the course of the stars serves to distinguish the seasons and the zones of the world: these distinctions are useful for agriculture, geography, and navigation. But one can hardly say the planets and stars move for the sake of man's sense of time and place. Rather, it is astronomy-man's study and observation and recognition of the regularities of the stars-that makes them useful. The stars seem to be clearly "above" man's influence; what we see here is the utility of astronomy, not of stars.

The second proof of man's being the final cause, Bacon says, is that the appearances of the middle sky help forecast weather and storms. The forecasting of weather, however, depends upon both observation and a concern for weather. Here again, the weather is not there for man; he is not in a position to order snow and rain when he needs it. It is man's knowledge and ability to recognize patterns and therefore to predict the weather which is of use. The weather and storms are not what is useful, the forewarning of meteorologists is, but there is a much more direct effect on man than in the former example of the stars.

Third, winds (which are also a part of weather) help to sail ships and then to work mills and engines. Bacon points to a two-stage utility of these for man. The first is much more obvious: the wind simply moves things. The discovery of basic sailing is easier to imagine than the use of wind to grind corn in mills. The winds Bacon refers to here are different from rain and snow and weather in general, precisely because of man's ability to harness them. Our advantage lies not in controlling the wind itself, however, but in controlling how part of the wind's force is spent. This takes considerably more effort than noticing seasonal regularities.

The first three examples, therefore, rely on man's discoveryfrom simple observation, moving more and more toward active technical participation by man-to be useful. Providence is a rather difficult taskmaster,(16) and clearly man requires arts and science to take advantage of her.

The fourth example, or set of proofs that all nature works in our service, involves yet another problem, beyond the fact that man has to do all the difficult work in order to use the other parts of nature to his advantage. "Plants and Animals of all classes are made to furnish Man with homes and hiding places, or for clothing, or for food, or for Medicine, or for lightening labours, or finally for delight and solace." These are not "above" man, and they differ in other ways as well from the first three. It is true that skins should not require tanning to be used as tents and covers, if they were simply designed for man's dwelling and shelter, but there is another problem with plants and animals being designed for our use that becomes clear with the central example of food. Food is not only for man. Animals eat plants and animals, too, and some animals eat men. And as the allusion to Xenophon's Socrates above reminds us, even plants can kill men. In "Pan," where "all nature was a hunt," we saw clearly that animals hunted their own ends, not man's.

Bacon cannot be saying that a tree's final cause really is to become planks for a picket fence, else we should wonder why some wood is so full of knotholes. The point seems to be that if man can use these things he may.(17) Man should therefore develop the opinion about nature that if it does not seem to be working to his advantage, he is not looking at it correctly. This is after all central to the notion of providence as God's mysterious will. If something seems useless, it is because we do not understand; it is not because something is working at cross purposes to us. The remainder of the first section of this fable affirms this is the correct interpretation, for Bacon turns now to show that indeed man is very needy and must learn to believe that he deserves to acquire more.

Before moving on, however, we should note that Bacon has not limited nature's purpose to satisfying only man's basic necessities. Bacon includes the "lightening of labor" (domestication of beasts), and "delight and solace," to indicate that sheer survival of the species is not the only natural limit on man's use of art for the conquest of nature. Bacon explicitly denies the view of those ecologists who believe the solution to man's position in the eco-system is that only whatever is strictly necessary for man's survival can be said to be sanctioned by nature. Bacon clearly points to much more use of the rest of nature than that. And by so doing, Bacon makes the task of finding standards for mankind's use of the rest of nature both more compelling and more difficult. He tackles the extreme case.

We see that providence, however understood, does not make things easy for man. In fact, man has to do all the work for everything. Quite literally then, that man's nature admits of mind and intellect is what constitutes the seat of providence, not God. Man must do all the observing and study and harnessing of nature. He must employ craftsmanship in order to derive use from things. And he must learn how to avoid hemlock and savage beasts.

Thus Bacon's very next sentences explain how man is only potentially capable and virtuous.(18)What assists man in taking advantage of the rest of nature is the fact that he is a composite body made up of many different things, so much so that the ancients called him the "little world" (microcosm). The virtues of simple bodies are single; man is compound and this makes him potentially virtuous.(19) The explicit addition of man's potential "virtue" to his potential capability, here, reminds us of the serious problem of seeing man as the center. What can be the standard of virtue, if man is the final cause of the world? The existence of more men? bigger men? Bacon is shockingly silent about a clear danger here-that he has helped to unleash a monster upon nature who might destroy her. Unless there is a way of judging some of man's use of things as being correct, and some incorrect, might will simply be right. Without a judgment about which kinds of utility are appropriate, or what man's ends should be, any end at all would seem to be acceptable. Political might may prevent selection of blond Aryans but it may not.

If man is the highest being in the world, and if there is no natural telos for man himself, then his actions need not be guided by any standard beyond self-preservation; his actions may not be guided by anything higher than political efficacy. There would not be an objective or natural standard for governing man's actions or use of his power beyond survival. He could as well rape nature or fortune or women, as make any other choice. And of course some do. Human laws are not consistent in their ranking of these as offenses, and in any case, being conventional in nature, they are subject to change on political whim. On the other hand, if there were a telos for man that could be discovered, a telos or goal for humans that could be understood, then one could evaluate actions, and have grounds to rank actions depending on how they help to reach this end. If there is a good of man, then the goals of his science or conquest of nature could be judged. Bacon will not abandon us on such an important point; the "state of man," however, is not yet ripe for this problem.


Being composite and mixed is not enough for man. He still is defenseless, naked(20) and wanting in many things.

Nonetheless, man in his origins seems to be a thing defenseless (unarmed) and naked and slow in helping himself, and further he wanted(21) many things.

In his original condition, then, man cannot fulfill himself, despite his being mixed and thus potentially virtuous. He is incomplete, more like a baby than a primitive savage. Bacon's strategy then, is not to peer at a pristine original condition or ideal beginning, or hypothetical state of nature.(22) Instead, politics requires a view of a future goal, one that has man with his arts, defended, clothed and quick to help himself, without many wants.

As we turn to Prometheus's desire to be man's benefactor as well as the founder, we begin to focus on "matters of arts and intellectual things." Man originally has the potential for virtue, having so many components, including mind and intellect in some form. Still, without the arts, it comes to nothing. Arts can benefit man, and Prometheus wanted to be man's benefactor as well as his creator. So he hastened to give man the arts. Art, essentially and allegorically, is fire:

Therefore Prometheus applied himself with all haste to the invention of fire; which in all human necessities and business is the great minister of relief and help; insomuch that if the soul be the form of forms and the hand the instrument of instruments,(23) fire may rightly be called the help of helps and the work of works. For through it the mechanical arts and the sciences themselves are furthered in an infinite variety of ways.

This great praise of fire is not, however, new to Bacon's modern view of technology. Socrates said something strikingly similar to Euthydemus:

And what about the procuring for us also of fire, an ally against cold, an ally against darkness, a coworker in every art and for all things that human beings equip themselves with for their benefit? For, in sum, without fire, human beings equip themselves with nothing worth mentioning of the things useful for life.(24)

Prometheus's desire to be man's benefactor as well as creator reaffirms what Bacon said about Daedalus,(25) that inventions and discoveries aren't automatically beneficial. Merely creating something is not sufficient to make it good: the proper use of it is what benefits man.(26) Like Aristodemus, therefore, we need more than the creation of man to be a sign of providence.(27)

Bacon draws special attention to what follows the gift of fire; it is a "significant part of the fable." Men, instead of being grateful and thanking Prometheus, were indignant and remonstrative. One would expect that such a gift would bring gratitude, but it did not. Ungrateful man betrayed Prometheus's theft of fire. The gods, moreover, are pleased by men's ingratitude(28) and Jupiter, surprisingly, actually rewards it.(29) Bacon asks:

How could approval and reward be given for the crime of ingratitude to the author of their souls (a crime which embraces almost all vices)? Something else must be seen.

At this point morality and ethical judgment first enter Bacon's story. Morality only comes into the picture with the arts. Before that man was really only man in potentia, and virtues could not be attributed to him. Just as it is inappropriate to charge carniverous animals with murder, or blame dogs for incest, virtue and vice do not appropriately refer to man until he is both distinct from and higher than animals. This may be why Bacon did not raise the question of evaluating men's ends before men had become aware of "matters of arts and intellectual things." It is the arts which provide that consciousness and that ability to rank ends, and it is the arts and reason, therefore which will help man to shoulder the responsibility of being the final cause of the world.

It is significant that Bacon should connect our concerns about man being the final cause of the world with the discussion of ingratitude, "a crime which embraces almost all vices," only to launch into a rather extended argument about how a particular kind of ingratitude in man is actually a virtue. In an unusual move,(30) Bacon sets up the situation as a riddle. He asks the question: "how could approval and reward be given for the crime...which embraces almost all vices?" And then he proposes a possible solution. To assess the adequacy of Bacon's solution we should first be clear we understand why he thinks it is a riddle. This requires understanding man's ingratitude toward Prometheus as "embracing almost all vice," and therefore requires consideration of gratitude and ingratitude as virtues and vices of paramount political importance.

Gratitude is especially important in politics insofar as it helps to promote sociability and generosity toward others. Political communities wanting to cultivate and encourage acts of generosity, must express gratitude for them. Men's hatred of ingratitude, and their anger at it, importantly reflect their views of just desert. Gratitude, therefore, is closely tied to the chief political virtue of justice. One might even judge people's sense of justice on the basis of whether they can recognize what they should feel grateful for-it displays a sense of what is fitting. Therefore the public recognition of gratitude and the public disapproval of ingratitude may be as important to the justice of the community as the public approval of just actions, and the condemnation of crimes. When gratitude is expressed for a certain kind of beneficence, that kind of beneficence is encouraged; if one's country is ungrateful for a certain kind of generosity, one might well be deterred from providing that beneficence.

As Machiavelli points out, gratitude may be "the principal political virtue," for its recognition led to the choice of rulers, and it was the virtue that founded the idea of justice:

From this arose the knowledge of things honest and good, differing from the pernicious and bad. For, seeing that if one individual hurt his benefactor, hatred and compassion among men came from it, as they blamed the ungrateful and honored those who were grateful, and thought too that those same injuries could be done to them, to escape like evil they were reduced to making laws and ordering punishments for whoever acted against them: hence came the knowledge of justice(31)

Machiavelli's treatment of gratitude here reveals a fundamental similarity to the problem of compassion,(32) for gratitude too is based on the ability to compare similarity and difference. It is thus open to the same difficulties as compassion:(33) it presumes a basic similarity of people's judgment of the high and the low. As Bacon repeatedly shows,(34) however, this cannot be assumed. Xenophon's discussion of gratitude's connection with justice is more akin to Bacon's because of precisely this recognition that men have widely divergent standards of high and low, and of what causes shame and pride. When discussing the education of Persian boys, Xenophon says the boys go to school to learn justice, as ours go to learn reading and writing, and they prefer charges against one another:

And they bring one another to trial also charged with the offence for which people hate one another most but go to law least, namely, that of ingratitude; and if they know that any one is able to return a favor and fails to do so, they punish him also severely. For they think the ungrateful are likely to be most neglectful of their duty toward their gods, their parents, their country, and their friends; for it seems that shamelessness goes hand in hand with ingratitude; and it is that, we know, which leads the way to every moral wrong.(35)

It is this concern with the standards of shamelessness, and the public requirements of gratitude and ingratitude, and not fellow-feeling or identity, that provides the focus for Bacon's defense of the particular form of ingratitude men had for Prometheus: it is appropriate for mankind as a whole to be dissatisfied with man's nature arid condition, for this will assist him in raising the standards, and thus all the ranks of men. A closer look shows that Bacon is not endorsing men's routine ingratitude toward other men.

Instead, the allegory shows that men should accuse their nature and their arts-that kind of ingratitude "proceeds from the best state of mind and yields good," for it prevents men from thinking they are already perfect and have already reached the "summits of things." They "truly and with more modesty of soul" will be "perpetually stimulated to new industry, and new inventions."(36) Men should not be grateful for the inventions they already have, for "opinion of plenty is the chief cause of want." This may be trueone needs to be dissatisfied to seek improvement(37)-but it presents problems for those who believe that public statues and honors for inventors represent Bacon's view of a truly satisfying reward for the best men.(38)

Indeed, Bacon says, it is better to complain like Democritus that all things are hidden from us, that we know nothing, that we discern nothing, that the truth is immersed in deep wells, and that the true and false are joined and twisted together in wonderful modesit is better to complain thus of our knowledge than to recite the things we know like "the faithful schools of Aristotle." To hold the peripatetic portion of Greek wisdom in veneration, and to "denounce all accusations of it as dangerous" is not beneficial for the sciences.(39)

Of course, ingratitude cannot adversely affect Aristotle any longer, for he is dead.(40) Express and visible ingratitude, however (not to mention rewarded ingratitude), definitely can have an impact on those who are hoping for gratitude and renown for their advances in the sciences. If honor is the real goal of scientists, and if gratitude is not shown to generous dead scientists, then the hope for eventual honor and gratitude is an unreasonable hope.(41) Something else must motivate those who will make great advances in the sciences, however much Bacon may rely on "gratitude toward inventors" to motivate those in the lower scientific ranks.(42) Bacon has clearly revealed the problem with honor as the motive of the scientists, and in a few moments, it will be made even more clear to those who think about the problem of honor, pride, and gratitude, for Bacon will actually compare the many scientists-ones who do not think about the big picture-to asses.

At any rate, the gods reward man's ingratitude by giving them the gift of eternal youth. This part of the ancient account, Bacon says, shows that the ancients "did not despair" of getting the "methods and medicines for retarding age and prolonging life." Rather, they were lost by sloth and negligence; they were not denied, or unoffered.(43) The gift jupiter gives, we note, is eternal youth,(44) which would rid most men of much of the impetus to advance science. They would already be divine in a most important sense.

Man put the gift on an ass who, being thirsty, traded it for water. Bacon divides his discussion of this into two sections, (1) placing the gift on the ass, and, (2) trading with the serpent for water. Placing the gift on the slow and tardy ass: "that seems to be experience, a tiling stupid and full of delays, from whose tardy and turtle-like degrees, that ancient complaint about life is short, and art is long was born."(45) But to give the gift to the Dogmatical rather than the Empirical Faculties, is to give them to abstract philosophies, like to winged birds(46) and there is a problem with moving too quickly. The two ways have not yet been properly conjoined. Still, Bacon says, the ass is not wholly bad, for if he is not corrupted by thirst for drink, either for the making of profits or for ostentation,...he would not be a useless carrier of new and augmented divine munificences, (emphasis added)

The experimenters who "would not be useless carriers" are the huge number of folks who comprise the low echelons of science. They are the ones to whom we owe much of the progress that science has indisputably made. But, if they recognize themselves in this description, being compared to asses, it is hard to imagine why they would bother to rise above ostentation and profit, and why they would not become dangerously resentful. Indeed, Bacon's repeated warnings against profit and ostentation make us wonder whether the thirst is only "accidental" or if it is more essential to the motives of the ass-like carriers who make up so many of the ranks of science.

We surely have not solved the problem of these "asses" to this day. To prevent them trading what they carry for a drink of water, our strategy seems to be to give them each only tiny bits of knowledge to carry. By the division of labor and because of specialization it may be that the loss is not great if one of them defects, but a clear danger remains. Some sciences are more comprehensive than others, as architecture comprehends carpentry. If those in the architectonic fields do not handle themselves prudently, other scientists might become envious like Daedalus, or be more likely to pursue profit, like Atalanta, or ostentatious posturing, like Erichthonius. When research centers are run by Atalanta and Erichtonius, it is no wonder that the arts do not arrive victoriously at the end of the racecourse.

"As for the transfer of the gift to the serpent," Bacon suggests this is not an important part of the parable. Nevertheless, he addresses it:

That seems thrown onto the fable almost gratuitously for ornament; unless perhaps it was inserted for the shame of man, who with that fire of theirs, and all those arts cannot transfer to themselves what nature has herself lavished on many other animals.

This attempt to shame man so he does not smugly feel superior to the rest of nature may be intended as a partial qualification to the teaching that man is the telos of all else. Notice, however, that whatever inclines men to feel shame or pride at being beneath or above the beasts, can of course also be used to distinguish higher or lower men.

The final section of the part on the "state of man and intellectual matters" is that Prometheus is reconciled with man. This is a "useful and prudent observation" according to Bacon, but portrays something about men that is not to their credit. Men had a sudden reconciliation with Prometheus after the frustration of their hopes. If a new experiment does not work, men are too ready to go back to the old ways.(47) This, if it happens in the sciences, would seem to exacerbate the problem of the premature search for profits: if men do not get quick results from science, they might abandon it. The demand for quick results will therefore promote both premature profit-taking, and forcing nature to produce works, even impostures. Apparent and specious benefits, after all, might hold the people. If real benefits are not yet available, they may still hope. So, while the gift of eternal youth may not be on the horizon, science's advancement is fuelled by hopes of medical cures. As Bacon points out, and as medical research centers bear out, making the public hope "for medicines to slow aging and to prolong life" is the most successful way to have people support scientific advancement. Premature publication of medical advances or early announcements that we are "on the verge" of a cure might be required to keep men from turning their backs on science. There would then be a need to combine the opposing teachings of "Ericthonius" (imposture) and "Atalanta" (profit). Bacon says in his essay "Of Seditions and Troubles":

the politic and artificial nurturing and entertaining of hopes, and carrying men from hopes to hopes, is one of the best antidotes against the poison of discontentments. And it is a certain sign of wise government ... when it can hold men's hearts by hopes, when it cannot by satisfaction.

The trick may be to induce enough discontent to promote science for the hopes it brings, but not so much discontent to incite rebellions for the hopes they bring. A wise government will manage health care carefully so that people are willing to support more research, but not willing to rebel at perceived cuts in service. Momentarily, Bacon will turn to face the issue of hope in terms of Pandora's box, but he first passes to "matters of religion," one of the test cases for the problem of appearance versus reality.

Matters of Religion

"Having thus described the state of man in respect of arts and intellectual matters, the parable passes to religion." This affirms that the earlier discussion of providence was not a matter of religion, which supports our interpretation: for Bacon, providence is a matter of man's intellect and his arts. Every part of this fable (except perhaps putting the gift on an ass and the reconciliation of Prometheus and man) seems to have an obvious connection to theological issues, but Bacon does not so describe them. He is careful in being explicit about which section has to do with religion, and religion is therefore not a chief feature of the state of man, the condition of man, matters of arts and intellectual things, the morals of man, etc. Indeed, the divine seems to surface as one of the effects of man, not as a cause of man.

Bacon addresses only one "matter of religion" in this fable: that immediately upon the introduction of divine worship it was polluted by hypocrisy. Prometheus tried to deceive jupiter with a sacrifice of a fraudulently stuffed bull. Prometheus's deceptive sacrifice outlines the difference between the pious man and the hypocrite: the hypocrite offers dry and bare bones, stuffing the skin so as to make it appear noble and fair. He fills his worship with empty and external rites and ceremonies instead of with affection and zeal for God. These ceremonies overload and inflate the service of religion and are rather ostentation than piety. Hypocrites support these empty ceremonies with claims that God himself chose them, and they find references to such rites and ceremonies in the bible (as we frequently hear that God does not want us "playing god" in connection with genetics.) Bacon closes with a biblical reference that supports his view that such ceremonies are hypocrisy:

For is this such a feast that I chose, that man should afflict his soul one day and bow his head like rushes? (Isaias 58:5).

The ostentation of the hypocrites' sacrifice has the appearance of piety. An omniscient God would not be fooled, but the men around the hypocrite might. To the extent that the appearance of piety yields the fruit, real piety is not necessary. That religion is immediately polluted by hypocrisy indicates both that some people are willing to take their chances on God's watchfulness, and that the political reasons for appearing pious are obvious.(48)

Morals and the Conditions of Human Life

After touching upon the "state of religion" which more precisely is the state of hypocrisy that immediately corrupts all religions, not only the heathen, Bacon says the parable turns to "morals and conditions of human life." They are explicitly discussed separately from divine providence; the focus is rather upon what men can and will do for themselves. The bulk of this part deals with the punishment of Prometheus. First and foremost Bacon understands the morals and conditions of human life to involve the nature of pleasure and lust, and of men's reactions to them. The three sections of the allegory dealing with this are: (1) Jupiter, not fooled by the mock sacrifice, in revenge got Vulcan to make Pandora; (2) she was sent to Prometheus, but he, being cautious and cunning, refused her gift; and (3) she next went to Epimetheus who was not. He opened the jar, and then managed only to trap hope.

Earlier, Bacon had said that with the gift of fire came the arts, including the civil arts and culture and luxury. With luxury came pleasures, lusts, and sensual appetites. Now, Pandora is sent as a punishment for hypocrisy. Bacon neatly finesses a precise causal analysis of these developments, leaving us to infer them from the connections he draws. This treatment or chronology, seems to accord with the transition from the healthy city to the luxurious and the fevered city in Plato's Republic, and with Rousseau's hypothetical history of man's journey out of the state of nature(49) And the pleasures, when they came, were not pure:

And from [pleasure] infinite evils have flowed, for both the souls and the bodies, and the fortunes of men, with penitence when it is too late; not only in the state of individuals, but truly even in kingdoms and republics. For from the same fountain wars and tumults and tyrannies draw their origin.

Lusts existed in the natural world, before man's art,(50) and in "Orpheus, or Philosophy," the master of harmony was able to tame, or outshout, lust for a time, but with the kind of lusts that arise once man's arts come into play, many more, nay, "infinite evils" attend the luxury. Avoiding these evils requires the right kind of soul or character.

Human response to these pleasures reveals two classes of men, according to Bacon.(51) First is the foresightful kind depicted by Prometheus (we might call him the "P-type" personality). The drawback of this class is the punishment that attends foresightfulness-all the cares and worries that keep them from enjoying themselves.(52) The second class is that of Epimetheus (the "E-type" personality). They get into a great deal of trouble for lacking forethought, indulging themselves in pleasures, but their minds are free from worry and they have many empty hopes flying about in them.

Foresight is a necessary but insufficient condition for a good life. Something must be found to keep the anxiety and lacerations from perturbing Prometheus. Is there a way to combine the benefits of the P-type and the E-type? Neither the Epimethean nor the Promethean is choiceworthy simply. But, far from attempting to mix the better elements of each, which is what a first reading seems to suggest, Bacon's explanation makes clear that the Promethean alternative is the one to be chosen and then improved upon. In developing the reasons for the choices, Bacon provides us with a ranking of pleasures and thus, finally, with one of the bases for understanding the good for man. (53) The setting forth of the two models is hardly identical to the famous choice of Hercules,(54) but it does bring it to mind, and Hercules presently appears on the scene with the extra ingredients necessary for Prometheus's soul to be a better goal for mankind. First, however, we must see how Prometheus's punishment fits his character.

The school of Prometheus, on the other hand, the prudent and forethoughtful class of men, do indeed by their caution decline and remove out of their way many evils and misfortunes. But with that good, there is this evil conjoined: they stint themselves of many pleasures- and various comforts of life-and cross their genius [as opposed to indulging it], and what is far worse, they torment themselves with cares and solicitudes and inward fears [not pleasant dreams and empty hopes]. For being bound to the column of necessity they are troubled with innumerable thoughts which prick and gnaw and corrode the liver. ... And if at intervals, as in the night, they obtain some little relaxation and quiet of mind, yet new fears and anxieties return presently with the morning.

Jupiter seized Prometheus, charged him with the theft of fire, the mocked sacrifices, the scorned gift, and the attempted rape of Minerva,(55) and sentenced him to punishment on Caucasus. Bacon blends Jupiter's punishment of Prometheus with his discussion of Prometheus's character, and the punishment turns out to be primarily a punishment of his soul precisely for being of the character that it is. (56) Jupiter intensifies the forethoughtful man's own punishment: his gnawing anxiety, being bound to the column of necessity, vexed with countless thoughts which return each morning afresh. Souls such as Prometheus usually get this treatment.

There are very few, Bacon says, who manage to get the benefits of both Epimetheus and Prometheus. We now find explicitly, however, that Epimetheus does not really offer positive benefits; he merely lacks some of the cares that prevent Prometheus from being happy. E-type "benefits" are actually more akin to animal comfort, the happiness of the satisfied pig, or the contentment of the herd grazing yonder. The best condition, Bacon says, would be to "retain the commodiousness of providence, [yet] free themselves from the solicitudes and perturbations of evil." And it is impossible to attain this condition without a certain feature represented by Hercules, who came in a cup from the Sun and freed Prometheus:

that is by courage and constancy of soul, which prepares one for all events and is equal to any sort of thing, foresees without fear, enjoys without fastidiousness, and tolerates without impatience. And it is worth noting that this virtue is not innate to Prometheus, but adventitious, and the work of a stranger. For it is nothing which an inborn and natural courage is equal to. But this virtue comes from the ends of the ocean and is accepted and imported from the sun, for it is distinguished by wisdom, like by the sun,(57) and by meditation on the inconstancy and waves of human life, like by sailing on the ocean; which two things Virgil conjoined well:

Happy is he who knows the causes of things, and who subjects fears, inexorable fate, and the din of Acheron's birds, to his foot (58)

What is required for the enjoyment of the best human condition, therefore, is quite like the philosophic virtues described by the ancient philosophers, and even by some of the moderns. According to Bacon a special brand of courage is essential for achieving the best life. It is a courage that has been nurtured by wisdom and by reflection upon chance, and the vicissitudes of things. This courage will free the soul from perturbations, and the happy man will have foresight, wisdom, and courage, "having meditated on the inconstancy and waves of human life." This higher soul, therefore, is the guide for man's decisions about how to live. This man rises above the honor-lover, for "meditating on vicissitudes" clearly reveals the problem of honor.(59)

At last, we have the elements for the solution to the problem of man as the telos of the world: we have the grounds for the ranking of men. A most elegant addition, Bacon says, for the consolation and encouragement of men's minds, is that the mighty hero sailed in a cup. Man's fragility and narrowness is not to be pleaded as an excuse. A small craft like man can bring it.

At this juncture, then, Bacon says he will bring up the fourth crime of Prometheus which he could not have brought up before without spoiling the order of the fable. That crime was the attempted rape of Minerva.(60) To attempt to bring divine wisdom under the dominion of reason and sense will likely yield "an heretical religion and a fabulous philosophy."(61)

The final section of the myth that Bacon treats is the torchraces that were run in honor of Prometheus. This refers to the need to recognize that the sciences will advance furthest if everyone participates as though they were part of a relay team,62 passing on the light from one to the other, instead of trying to complete the race by themselves, and risk extinguishing the flame.(63) As it is now, the first authors of the various sciences are still the highest.

Bacon concludes this fable on the state of man soberly and piously: "Such are the views which I conceive to be shadowed out in this common and oft-sung fable. Underneath, some things have a wonderful correspondence with the mysteries of the Christian faith-the voyage of Hercules especially. ... But I purposely restrain myself from all license of speculation in this kind, lest I bring strange fire to the altar of the Lord."(64)

Having seen the benefits that Herculean virtue can bring to a Promethean character, we still need to see how it applies in human life so that we can finally see how courage must be combined with wisdom, and why "works of wisdom surpass works of courage," as "Orpheus's labors surpass those of Hercules." So far, Hercules' virtue seems the best we have met. Bacon, however, endorses the philosopher, Orpheus.(65)

A full understanding of the issue of man's place in the cosmos, and of Bacon's philosophy, requires a concentrated effort to sort through the ranking of human beings so that judgments can be properly made regarding the ultimate goals of man's use of his knowledge and his power. Enough evidence is provided in the fable of Prometheus to indicate that Bacon did not endorse unguided power. It remains for those most fully aware of the dangers at the brink of the precipice to which Bacon has led us, to avail themselves of the materials and tools Bacon also provided for bridging it.


Needless to say, Bacon's recommendations are not met with many hearty cheers in today's political climate. His argument that we must focus our efforts on properly ranking humans does not receive public acclaim in an age of egalitarian commitments. But perhaps our contemporary assertions of egalitarianism warrant closer scrutiny, especially when facing the prospects of the new power technology has given us vis-a-vis genetics. Bacon may be doing us a service by pointing out that instead of eradicating inegalitarianism, we should be consciously redoubling our efforts to figure out the proper principles for ranking humans and their choices. The following considerations are intended to make it plausible that we could profit from taking Bacon seriously on this very issue.

First, we actually are not egalitarian when it comes to genetics or any other serious choice we face. There are no "low IQ" sperm banks advertized (or at least none that have long waiting lists); amniocentesis tests are carried out almost routinely on older pregnant women (and not because we expect to abort those without Down's syndrome); the positive and negative results of the test for Tay Sachs are not greeted with equal delight (or there would not have been a furor over the erroneous test results submitted by a laboratory in the United States in the spring of 2000). Genetic counseling exists, and its raison d'etre is premised on the ranking of better and worse types of genetic configurations, or clear behavioral choices to be made when one is diagnosed with certain risk factors. We make these rankings all the time, and they extend beyond the clear bounds of physical health. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is attended with behavioral problems, for example, which result in the sufferer behaving inappropriately. His behavior is judged to be inappropriate not simply according to his community's norms; he is diagnosed medically, not popularly. We feel pity for the FAS sufferer, with his inability to behave appropriately, for it was not his fault, it was his mother's (or perhaps someone else's). Yet, faced with this entire string of obviously normative judgments, not once does it cross our minds perhaps to encourage Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, to suggest to mothers who want "unconventional" children that they should perhaps consider drinking heavily during pregnancy. We do make judgments; we rank some human lives (FAS) and choices (drinking during pregnancy). We do not act as though all lives and choices are equal. Yet it is not clear that there has been anything like a systematic attempt to clarify and rationally to justify the elements of such a ranking. We consider some infants' genetic configurations to be worse than others, and it is because we hope for every child to have the highest possibilities open to him: the best life possible for that little human being. While we probably have seen newborns who are so defective that the thought "it would be a blessing if it died" crosses our minds (even if not spoken in the presence of the parents), such Epimethean clarity is offered to us only in the most extreme cases. Not every choice made with the aid of genetic counseling is so straightforward, and it is incomparably less certain that all the choices to abort or not to abort have been equally good: lawsuits of wrongful birth are being reported in the media.

We will be choosing, and as Bacon so vividly points out, we can be evaluated and ranked by how appropriately we choose: can we respect someone who wants to be Epimethean? Choosing solely on the basis of the Epimethean criteria of pleasure and instant gratification, as we all-too-frequently perceive, has little to recommend it in most important spheres of life, and although Epimetheus' hindsight may be 20/20, he chooses the same way the next time. Promethean foresight is more to be commended than Epimethean hindsight.

Second, and more importantly, we run a grave risk if we try to flee the kinds of discrimination, ranking, and evaluation that Bacon suggests we must engage in, especially since we are now in possession of such great technological power. There are two serious problems with lack of discrimination and with our fear of discrimination: (1) we lose sight of the extent to which injustice is caused by being indiscriminate, and (2) we neglect to learn how properly to discriminate, and thus risk basing choices on stupid or superficial criteria. Genetic counselors probably ought to discriminate carefully between Tay Sachs and brown hair as grounds for immediately terminating pregnancy. If we indiscriminately treated either choice as "just as good as the other," we might be consistent egalitarians, but we would have other problems that Promethean types probably will not have to face.

Third, genetic choices are already being made. Various tests are available, even if they are somewhat controversial in some parts of the world. Sex-testing is available in an over-the-counter home-kit, and other kinds of tests are performed routinely in doctors' offices. Companies will shrewdly market DNA tests for whatever can be tested, and who would not rather have pimple-free offspring if that is one of the features that can easily be identified. Surely it will not be hard to market such a test, even if there are hundreds of more important grounds for choice. Egalitarianism about such choices is a feature of the E-type soul, not the P-type soul.

So, while public educational campaigns promoting wearing seat belts or wearing condoms reveal a public commitment to fore-thought over E-type personalities, unless we have the courage to start figuring out the difficult rankings, we may find ourselves "penny wise, pound foolish." But Bacon also cautions us to avoid the pitfalls of the Promethean type, or we could "torment ourselves with fears and anxieties" and fill our lives with "foresight" pains, much as a nervous new mother may worry over the thousands of things that could kill or maim her baby, and begin worrying over choices for college before the child is home from the maternity ward. A Herculean courage may be called for, but it too must be attended by "reflection on the vicissitudes of things," and "come from wisdom, as from the sun," and not indiscriminately from pleasures, or lusts.

Francis Bacon's less-than-welcome lesson is perhaps indeed strange fire to bring to our altars. But if we do not pay attention to discriminating properly, to ranking human choices, indeed, if we do not focus our efforts on this very thing, we will be discriminating anyway, and that is what is truly dangerous-indiscriminate discrimination.


1. Not to mention what we might believe about the telos of mules, still specially bred on mulefarms.

2. Bacon uses this metaphor elsewhere too, most notably in New Organon, I. 82.


3. This fable's position in the book comes after we see the political problems man faces (in the first third of the book, chaps. 1-10) and after the introduction of philosophy, and the role and limits of natural and moral or political philosophy in the second third of the book (chaps. 11-19). In the final third of the book we have moved from wooing nature in "Ericthonius"(20), to conquering nature, including the baser parts of human nature in "Atalanta"(25) to this fable on the state of man, and, at last, the issue of the real ends for which our conquest of nature should be undertaken. The final five chapters work out questions arising from the use of science and philosophy.

4. This, the sixth last chapter is 19 pages in length. The next longest, the parallel sixth chapter, "Pan, or Nature," is 14 pages long. None of the others approaches ten pages in length.


5. We have no assurance that Bacon discloses all of the "true and weighty contemplations" here. Howard B. White, in Peace Among the Willows: The Political Philosophy of Francis Bacon (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968), suggests that Bacon does not: "the enigmatic conclusion to the promethean legend indicates esoteric writing" (p. 110). There are many other such indications of Bacon's reticence in the book.

6. Rousseau also makes a great deal of the difference between the origins, and the foundations, of man's state. Or, as Aristotle made the distinction, "while [the polis comes] into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well" (Politics 1252b29-30, trans. Carnes Lord [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], p. 37).

7. As Aristotle points out (Metaphysics 981b10-25; 982b20-30), with the development of luxury and leisure, philosophy may also arise.

8. Cf. the Prometheus story presented in Plato's Protagoras 320d-322e where religion arrives before the civil arts and justice (322a).


9. The translations of "Prometheus" are mine, from a book in progress, which will be a translation and interpretation of Bacon's Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.

10. As a general rule, Bacon's chapters first offer a brief introductory exposition of an ancient fable, a synopsis carefully extracted from various sources. He then, typically announces the subject of the fable, and then proceeds to an explanation of the wisdom "concealed" in the story. The explanation, which usually runs two to three times the length of the exposition, does not always match the order, content, or point of the synopsis Bacon himself chose to give at the beginning. That is where much of the challenge in interpreting him arises.

11. Xenophon Memorabilia I. iv. 6. Compare the treatment of the providence of the stars and animals in Memorabilia IV. iii.


12. Bacon concludes this thought: "and it follows almost necessarily that the human soul was endued with providence not without the example, intention and authority of the greater providence." (emphasis added) Robert K. Faulkner notes this too; see Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1993), p. 134, for another interpretation of this observation.

13. This has become a staple of popular culture. Consider, for example, the dramatic beginning to the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

14. Notice that Bacon says "all things seem to be going about man's business." In another chapter, "Pan, or Nature," we had heard they were all about their own business, all hunting their own ends. There it seemed each species-telos governed the actions of the members of the species.


15. The best modern explanation and account of teleology I have read is David Lowenthal's "The case for Teleology," Independent Journal of Philosophy 2 (1978). His account both recognizes that the acceptance of teleology is essential for explaining the world, and points to the problem of putting man in the position Bacon says man is put here, as the final cause of the world. Lowenthal refers to this very chapter on Prometheus in his analysis. Another excellent account is that provided by Leon Kass in Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs (New York: The Free Press, 1985), pp. 249-76. Both Lowenthal's and Kass's analyses of teleology are worth comparing to David Bolotin's, in An Approach to Aristotle's Physics (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).


16. See, for example, Machiavelli, The Prince, chap. 25, and Xenophon Memorabilia, IV. iii. 3-9, and I. iv.


17. This is what is so frightening about genetics. Now we can, but only selected local laws stipulate that we may not, so some of us will.

18. Rousseau's turn to metaphysical and moral man from physical man requires him to address the same problem with the "perfectibility" of man (Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, in The First and Second Discourses, ed. Roger D. Masters [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964], pp. 114ff. and note "i," pp. 192-203).


19. Bacon hastens to point out that the alchemists take the "microcosm" too literally and spoil its elegance and distort its meaning (two different things, each of different import).

20. Presumably Bacon means that naked man is vulnerable to the elements, not that he is less beautiful because he is unable to mask imperfections by clothing; but we should not dismiss the possibility that shame instead of vulnerability to the elements is the issue, for Adam and Eve were said to have been naked in the Garden of Eden. Shame might be a vital requirement in man's attempt to fulfill himself.


21. "Want" preserves the ambiguity of indigeo-to need or require, as well as to long for.

22. Compare Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, for each of whom the status of that "state of nature" varies.

23. Bacon quotes from Aristotle De Anima 3. 8. One of the most problematic statements in Aristotle's writings is here used to exemplify an apparently simple statement about furnaces. The question of what precisely Aristotle means by "the soul is the form of forms" is not addressed by Bacon, but it does add speculation to the importance of man as the final cause of things. Bacon uses this same citation in Advancement of Learning, II. xii. 2. Faulkner's memorable comment here is: "Then came the invention of fire, and Bacon covers this replacement of providence with a little Aristotelian smoke" (Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress, pp. 134-35).


24. A strong statement, especially coming as it does, from classical philosophy. Xenophon Memorabilia IV. iii. 7 (trans. and annotated Amy L. Bonnette [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994]).

25. Cf. chapter 19, of Of the Wisdom of the Ancients, "Daedalus, or the Mechanic."

26. Refer to Plato Protagoras 321c, on man's condition, where, for a time man had wisdom, and the arts, yet still lacked justice and civic arts.

27. Piety seems to require a continuing providence-not merely God as the prime mover-and perhaps even a special providence-that he cares about individual souls.

28. There is a theological reason for God's delight at man's ingratitude. The gods, not wanting mankind to try to usurp their power are happy that man might turn his back on the conquest of nature that fire will allow, and instead remain primitively pious. Recall why Adam and Eve lost their position in the Garden of Eden: they dared to gain knowledge of a kind forbidden. Several religions account for our troubles by an original fall from grace, and put us in a position decidedly beneath the gods.

29. Jupiter, throughout Bacon's book, has been displeased with man's ability to use the arts to gain power. He had been angry with Aesculapius for being able to raise a man from the dead, and powerfully lashed out at his skill. Plato, in the context of discussing the need for caution about the relationship between power and wisdom, mentions Prometheus in a letter to Dionysius: "It is natural for wisdom and great power to come together and they are forever pursuing and seeking each other and consorting together. Moreover, these are qualities which people delight in discussing...[several examples] the earliest men also brought together Prometheus and Zeus. And of these [examples] some were-as the poets tell us-at feud with each other, and others were friends; while others again were now friends and now foes, and partly in agreement and partly in disagreement" (Epistles 311b, vol. 9, Plato in Twelve Volumes, trans. R. G. Bury [London: Heinemann, 1971], pp.405-407).


30. Although Bacon announces that all of the ancient fables pose riddles, there are very few interrogative sentences in Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.


31. Machiavelli, Discourses, 1.2 ( trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996], emphasis added).

32. This was met in chapters 14-16 of Of the Wisdom of the Ancients, where, interestingly, "forbidding the commerces of pity" was said to be "the extremity of evil," as ingratitude is here described as the vice comprehending all other vices.

33. See Clifford Orwin's extensive writings on the problem of compassion, for example, "Compassion," The American Scholar 49 (1980): 309-33; and "Machiavelli's Unchristian Charity," American Political Science Review 72 (1978): 1217-28.

34. See, for example, the teaching of the central fable of this book, "Juno's Suitor, or Disgrace."

35. Xenophon Cyropaedia I. 2. 6-7 (trans. Walter Miller [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968], p.15, emphasis added).


36. Timothy Paterson notes that "only an unending stream of fresh inventions and new discoveries can hope to retain the affection of the non-scientific public for Baconian science" ("The Politics of Baconian Science: An Analysis of Bacon's New Atlantis" [Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1982], p. 76.

37. See, for example, Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), pp. 38-43.

38. Cf. New Atlantis, where statues honoring inventors are given such a prominent place in the scientific regime. Robert Faulkner, Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress, seems to argue that this honor is the ultimate motive of scientists and of Bacon himself, e.g., pp. 53-54, 115-16, and 273.

39. See ibid., pp. 135-37, about this attack on the ancients.

40. And Bacon, after all, is not without feelings of gratitude for Aristotle. Momentarily he will concede that the sciences flourished most in their first authors, among whom he names Aristotle.


41. Timothy Paterson noted this too, "The Politics of Baconian Science'" pp. 72-80.

42. For a somewhat different analysis of this section on ingratitude, I include this paragraph by Howard B. White, from his essay, "Bacon's Wisdom of the Ancients," Interpretation I (1970): 107-29: "The fable of Prometheus is, in Bacon's narration and interpretation, the longest one. Mention must be made, however, of the strange virtue of ingratitude. It is said that when Prometheus stole the fire, men were ungrateful, and this ingratitude made them more bounties. Ingratitude is, to Bacon, a virtue in the study of art and nature. Men should be dissatisfied with what they have, ever seeking more. The accusation of art and nature brings science. Remember that this is the same Francis Bacon who held that inventions deserve greater acclaim than the works of kings and statesmen. Moreover, gratitude was the principal political virtue according to Machiavelli, whom Bacon often followed. Yet one can see that, in inventions, or in science generally, gratitude is a virtue, because those who bring benefits to man for the relief of man's estate deserve eternal glory, including, of course, Bacon himself. Ingratitude, however, is also a virtue, because it brings progress to science. Might not the same be true of politics? Bacon must have known that the same ambivalence could exist in political things. Consider the irony in the title, Daughters of the American Revolution. The members are doubtless so grateful to their ancestors that they despise all subsequent revolutions. The true revolutionary is ungrateful. It need hardly be said that such is a dangerous ambivalence" (p. 125).

43. The "ancients," here, must be Greek ancients, for the biblical ancients said the fall was caused by active sin, not sloth and negligence.

44. Jupiter has learned, since "Tithonus," that immortality is insufficient. Youthful health is needed in addition. Bacon does not point to the obvious problems of immortality here, for he (like Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, Part Six) will soon be relying on the politic nurturing of hopes of medical advances to get mass support for science.


45. Hippocrates, Aphorism 1. See also Bacon's The Advancement of Learning, II. vii. 6; De Augmentis Scientiarum, 8:507; Valerius Terminus in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 15 vols. (Boston, 1864), 6:41.

46. Stanley Rosen suggests a similarity between the techniques of Hippocrates and the method of Socrates: "the techniques of medicine, to the extent that they reveal or make known 'what is/ are part of, or the same as, the techniques of philosophy (which is not itself, of course, merely a techne). Thus, in a much commented on passage in the Phaedrus (270b), Socrates cites 'Hippocrates and true reasoning' as joint authorities for the methodological remarks on the study of nature. Whether Plato or Hippocrates was the first to develop the technique of diaeresis, both employ it in their respective attempts to understand man" (Plato's Symposium [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968], pp. 93-94).


47. Cf. Machiavelli, The Prince, chaps. 2 and 3. See also Bacon's discussion of Orpheus's frustration about the necessity of death.


48. John C. Briggs's discussion of Prometheus departs from this account and argues for Bacon's religiosity. Briggs, however, reverses Bacon's actual order of events when he says "Prometheus, however, undergoes his torture in the prayerful spirit of the new learning and eventually gives mankind the warmth and light of fire" (Francis Bacon and the Rhetoric of Nature [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989]).


49. Rousseau, Second Discourse, pp. 155-81; and Plato Republic 370a-374a.

50. Recall "Pan, or Nature."

51. This must be compared with the teaching of the final chapter of the book, on Pleasure where there is a four-fold division among men for responses to pleasures-plebians, Odysseus, Solomon, Orpheus.

52. Cf. Hobbes, Leviathan, chap. 12, where Promethean anxiety is connected with religion, and points to a concern for understanding causation.


53. White suggests that the best result may be the Epicurean philosopher: "The vice stressed in the Promethean fable is perturbation, and, following Lucretius, Bacon sees philosophy as freeing the mind from perturbation" ("Bacon's Wisdom of the Ancients," p. 122). There is also, of course, the possibility that it fits the Platonic philosopher, especially given the essential inclusion of courage. See Leon H. Craig, The War Lover (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), pp, 245-89, and Laurence Lampert, Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study Of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 110-11.

54. One place this choice appears is in Xenophon Memorabilia II. 1.

55. The rape is not discussed now, for, as Bacon announces later, it would "have interrupted the order of the fable."

56. Cf. Plato Republic 443d.


57. Ibid., 508-19 for more on this analogy.

58. Virgil Georgics 2. 490; see also Advancement of Learning, I. viii. 1.

59. Cf., however, Robert Faulkner's argument, Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress, pp. 272-78.


60. See Lampert, Nietzsche and Modern Times, pp. 110-11, and 124-25.

61. In an earlier chapter, much turned on Pentheus' inability to distinguish divine from human light. Bacon uses this exact phrase also in De Augmentis Scientiarum, in Works, 8:479, and New Organon, I. 65.

62. I follow Faulkner in interpreting the race-course here as the career of scientists in modern research establishments, Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress, p. 140.

63. Torchraces are an ancient metaphor for "handing on the light." See, for example, Plato Laws 776b. See also Lucretius De Rerum Natura II. 79: Et quasi cursores vitae lampida tradunt. Cf. "Handing on the lamp," in De Augmentis Scientiarum, VI. 2 in Bacon, Works, 9:124.

64. In his essay "Of Adversity" Bacon does not refrain. Even here, as Howard B. White points out in Peace Among the Willows, pp. 162-63, Bacon makes foresight with courage and wisdom equivalent to the Redemption. The highest human virtues become man's salvation, or his Savior. That is indeed a strange fire.

65. See Of the Wisdom of the Ancients, chaps. 11 and 31.


Copyright University of Notre Dame Spring 2003





















 - Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning