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The Four Idols
of Francis Bacon

&

The New Instrument of Knowledge

by Manly P. Hall

In the Novum Organum (the new instrumentality for the acquisition of knowledge) Francis Bacon classified the intellectual fallacies of his time under four headings which he called idols. He distinguished them as idols of the Tribe, idols of the Cave, idols of the Marketplace and idols of the Theater.

An idol is an image, in this case held in the mind, which receives veneration but is without substance in itself. Bacon did not regard idols as symbols, but rather as fixations. In this respect he anticipated modern psychology.

 

Idols of the Tribe are deceptive beliefs inherent in the mind of man, and therefore belonging to the whole of the human race. They are abstractions in error arising from common tendencies to exaggeration, distortion, and disproportion. Thus men gazing at the stars perceive the order of the world, but are not content merely to contemplate or record that which is seen. They extend their opinions, investing the starry heavens with innumerable imaginary qualities. In a short time these imaginings gain dignity and are mingled with the facts until the compounds become inseparable. This may explain Bacon's epitaph which is said to be a summary of his whole method. It reads, "Let all compounds be dissolved."

 

Idols of the Cave are those which arise within the mind of the individual. This mind is symbolically a cavern. The thoughts of the individual roam about in this dark cave and are variously modified by temperament, education, habit, environment, and accident. Thus an individual who dedicates his mind to some particular branch of learning becomes possessed by his own peculiar interest, and interprets all other learning according to the colors of his own devotion. The chemist sees chemistry in all things, and the courtier ever present at the rituals of the court unduly emphasizes the significance of kings and princes.

(The title page of Bacon's New Atlantis (London 1626) is ornamented with a curious design or printer's device. The winged figure of Father Time is shown lifting a female figure from a dark cave. This represents truth resurrected from the cavern of the intellect.)

 

Idols of the Marketplace are errors arising from the false significance bestowed upon words, and in this classification Bacon anticipated the modern science of semantics. According to him it is the popular belief that men form their thoughts into words in order to communicate their opinions to others, but often words arise as substitutes for thoughts and men think they have won an argument because they have out talked their opponents. The constant impact of words variously used without attention to their true meaning only in turn condition the understanding and breed fallacies. Words often betray their own purpose, obscuring the very thoughts they are designed to express.

 

 

Idols of the Theater are those which are due to sophistry and false learning. These idols are built up in the field of theology, philosophy, and science, and because they are defended by learned groups are accepted without question by the masses. When false philosophies have been cultivated and have attained a wide sphere of dominion in the world of the intellect they are no longer questioned. False superstructures are raised on false foundations, and in the end systems barren of merit parade their grandeur on the stage of the world.

 

A careful reading of the Novum Organum will show. Bacon used the theater with its curtain and its properties as a symbol of the world stage. It might even be profitable to examine the Shakespearean plays with this viewpoint in mind.

 

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After summarizing the faults which distinguish the learning of his time, Bacon offered his solution. To him true knowledge was the knowledge of causes. He defined physics as the science of variable causes, and metaphysics as the science of fixed causes. By this definition alone his position in the Platonic descent is clearly revealed. Had he chosen Aristotle as his mentor the definition would have been reversed.

 

It was Bacon's intention to gather into one monumental work his program for the renewal of the sciences. This he called Instauratio Magna (the encyclopedia of all knowledge), but unfortunately the project was never completed. He left enough, however, so that other men could perfect the work.

 

The philosophy of Francis Bacon reflects not only the genius of his own mind but the experiences which result from full and distinguished living. The very diversity of his achievements contributed to the unity of his thinking. He realized the importance of a balanced viewpoint, and he built his patterns by combining the idealism of Plato with the practical method of Aristotle. From Plato he derived a breadth of vision, and from Aristotle a depth of penetration. Like Socrates, he was an exponent of utility, and like Diogenes a sworn enemy of sophistry. Knowledge was not to be acquired merely for its own sake, which is learning, but for its use, which is intelligence. The principal end of philosophy is to improve the state of man; the merit of all learning is to be determined by its measure of usefulness.

 

Bacon believed that the first step was to make a comprehensive survey of that which is known, as distinguished from that which is believed. This attitude he seems to have borrowed from Paracelsus and shared with Descartes. Knowledge may be gathered from the past through tradition. It may be accumulated and augmented by observation, but it must be proved and established by experimentation. No theory is important until it has been proved by method. Thus Bacon set up the machinery of control which has since become almost the fetish of science.

 

Upon the solid foundation of the known, trained minds can build toward universal knowing, which is the end of the work. Knowledge alone can preserve and perfect human life. In spite of his scientific approach, Bacon in no way discounted the spiritual content in the world. Knowledge might arise from inspiration and the internal illumination of the consciousness, but this illumination is not knowledge until, through experimentation, the truth is physically established.


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