The Reading Room
Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning
It may seem strange to those this side of the Enlightenment that “the advancement of learning” should need any defense. If anything, we today are plagued with fears of misunderstanding rapidly advancing science, or of standing on the “wrong side of history” whose alleged progressive march seems constant. Perhaps one of the worst things of which one can be accused today, if one hopes to be taken seriously, is of being outdated, irrelevant, archaic, or positively Medieval.
But the proverbial water in which we swim, where the progress of the arts and sciences and the proliferation of knowledge gained through them is treated as a default, owes its temperature and its composition to defenders of that progress against its early critics. Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning (1605) is an example of such a defense. It has been called the first serious work of philosophy in the English language, and its expanded, latinized counterpart De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623) eventually formed the first part of Bacon’s ambitious Instauratio Magna, or “The Great Instauration.” For its comments on the advancement of learning applied to the theological, on what nature communicates about God and his will, Anne Haight records that Bacon’s essay was, in its various forms, banned by the Spanish Inquisition and placed on the Roman Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The work takes the form of a defense against critics, a call to action, and a systematization of domains of knowledge to be explored in future scientific endeavors. The work of explaining how practically to advance learning would be left to Bacon’s Novum Organum, which lays out Bacon’s empirical method.
Bacon begins The Advancement of Learning by addressing himself to the King of England with much flattery regarding his motives and intentions in advocating for this advancement. He praises King James I, commissioner of the Authorized Version of the English Bible, as a man of great learning with a lively thirst for knowledge. Like Machiavelli in his dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de Medici, Bacon says that it is customary for someone who approaches royalty to bring with them a gift fitting to their person. Bacon says he has fit his gift to the actual character of the King: his love of education and learning. In order to succeed in his advocacy for the advancement of learning, Bacon must undertake first to defend learning against its detractors who oppose its advancement for various reasons theological, philosophical, and political.
The first set of detractors to whom Bacon responds are religious, who suppose that great learning and study incline people to irreligiosity or atheism. Bacon points specifically to two passages of scripture that are often used to oppose the advancement of knowledge. The first is from the book of Ecclesiastes, where Solomon says that “There is no end to the making of books and much reading is weariness to the flesh.” Similarly, Bacon cites St. Paul, who warns his readers not to be taken captive by “vain philosophy and deceit.”
Bacon sets out here to correct what he says is a misunderstanding of these passages and the prevalent Christian teaching on the advancement of knowledge as he understands it. He tells the King that Solomon and St. Paul are setting out three bounds and limitations on human knowledge, and no more: the first is “that we do not so place our felicity in knowledge as we forget our mortality. The second, that we make application of our knowledge to give ourselves repose and contentment, and not distaste or repining. The third, that we do not assume by contemplation of nature to attain to the mysteries of God.” Beyond these hard boundaries, Bacon argues, scripture contains no fixed limits on the advancement of man’s knowledge.
Bacon also rebuts the claim that too much study will necessarily make a man an atheist. Bacon argues (though how sincerely we might question) that the world is made by God, set in motion by his hand. The world, he says, is “the book of God’s works,” while the Bible is the book of his word. How could someone ever become an atheist by studying the content of God’s works, he asks? This answer suffices for his religious critics; he then proceeds to rebut critics whose concerns are both political and moral in similar fashion and with similarly powerful argument.
Before ending Book One of his essay, Bacon takes time to address specific errors that tend to impede the progress of knowledge among those who themselves undertake study. Among these, Bacon suggests that people have a tendency to lean too heavily on the wisdom of the past and suppose that the good ideas must have won the day, that the bad ideas have been dispensed with already. Embracing this error, Bacon says, stunts the project of inquiry before it begins: you are predisposed to accept what is taken as truth, negatively disposed to any ideas outside of that received truth, and in fact are liable to actively oppose attempts to seek out innovative ideas and explanations for natural phenomena.
“But the greatest error of all the rest,” Bacon tells is, “is the mistaking or misplacing the last or furtherest end of knowledge.” In other words, those who pursue knowledge too often misidentify, forget, or “misplace” the true end of scientific inquiry as Bacon understands it. People often pursue learning for selfish motives, out of a desire to win arguments, to entertain themselves, to satisfy a natural curiosity, or (most often, Bacon says) to pursue “lucre and profession.”
Because of these selfish distractions, men pursue knowledge “seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason, to the benefit and use of men.” That is, in their pursuit of knowledge for their own advantage, these learned people forget that knowledge of the created world is to be pursued “for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” For Bacon’s purposes, these are nearly synonymous. True advancement of learning is principally useful to make mankind’s “estate” here on earth better, through providing useful arts and contrivances that heal, nourish, and improve upon his natural abilities. The imaginative limits of these advancements, or the lack thereof, are seen in Bacon’s The New Atlantis, and the appended list of the “Wonders of Nature” that men can use to slow aging, create new species, and make more effective medicines (and poisons).
So, Bacon argues, “But as both heaven and earth do conspire and contribute to the uses and benefit of man, so the end ought to be, from both philosophies to separate and reject vain speculations and whatsoever is empty and void, and to preserve and argument whatever is solid and fruitful.” That is, in both theology and science, what is useful to man must be preserved, whatever bogs down in idle and useless speculation must be purged in order for learning to be advanced. It is small wonder, then, that those who believe in, teach, and practice things Bacon would have considered empty and void vain speculations would find this work controversial and provocative.