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rate and original thinking also. What is abstruse and recondite they suppose must be abstruse and recondite wisdom; though, perhaps, it is what, if stated in plain English, they would throw aside as partly trifling truisms, and partly stark folly.
'It is a remark which I have heard highly applauded, that a clear idea is generally a little idea; for there are not a few persons who estimate the depth of thought as an unskilful eye would estimate the depth of water. Muddy water is apt to be supposed to be deeper than it is, because you cannot see to the bottom; very clear water, on the contrary, will always seem less deep than it is, both from the well-known law of refraction, and also because it is so thoroughly penetrated by the sight. Men fancy that an idea must have been always obvious to every one, when they find it so plainly presented to the mind that every one can easily take it in. An explanation that is perfectly clear, satisfactory, and simple, often causes the unreflecting to forget that they had needed any explanation at all. And truths that are, in practice, frequently overlooked, they will deride as 'vapid truisms' if very plainly set forth, and will wonder that any one should think it worth while to notice them.'
Accordingly, if there should be two treatises on some science, one of them twice as long as the other, but containing nothing of much importance that is not to be found in the other (except some positions that are decidedly untenable), but in a style much more diffuse, and less simple and perspicuous, with a tone of lofty pretension, and scornful arrogance, many persons will consider this latter as far the more profound and philosophical work, and the other as containing merely 'beggarly elements,' fit only for the vulgar.
Hence it is that some Writers appear to have much more, and others, much less, originality than they really have. A man who, with a certain amount of ability, has a larger amount of self-conceit, and a still greater craving for admiration, will often acquire a kind of trick of dressing up in a new and striking and paradoxical form, much that has in it little or nothing of real novelty. And if he also throws out dark hints, in a boastful style, of what wonderful matters he could produce' besides, he will commonly pass for a Writer of great originality. Those, again, of an opposite character, wishing more to convey instruction than to excite admiration, will endeavour, and often with success, to connect what is new with what is long established and well-known, so exactly and so neatly, that the suture, as it were, will be imperceptible, and the readers will so easily and clearly understand what is said, that they will fancy they knew it before, and will consider such Authors as sound, indeed, and clear, but quite destitute of originality, and not at all profound.
Each kind of writing has its recommendations. Each will obtain, if there be a considerable amount of ability, some degree of popularity: but of immediate popularity, far the larger share will be obtained by a style of boastful pretension, and apparent originality, because it will be admired by that class of persons who are the more numerous. But the other will strike deeper root, and will produce a more powerful, a more beneficial, and a more lasting impression.
'Now, Bacon is a striking instance of a genius who could think so profoundly, and at the same time so clearly, that an ordinary man understands readily some of his wisest sayings, and, perhaps, thinks them so self-evident as hardly to need mention. But, on re-consideration and repeated meditation, you perceive more and more what extensive and important application one of his maxims will have, and how often it has been overlooked: and on returning to it again and again, fresh views of its importance will continually open on you. One of his sayings will be like some of the heavenly bodies that are visible to the naked eye, but in which you see continually more and more, the better the telescope you apply to them.
'The ' dark sayings,' on the contrary, of some admired writers, may be compared to a fog-bank at sea, which the navigator at first glance takes for a chain of majestic mountains, but which, when approached closely, or when viewed through a good glass, proves to be a mere mass of unsubstantial vapours.'
A large proportion of Bacon's works has been in great measure superseded, chiefly through the influence exerted by those works themselves; for, the more satisfactory and effectual is the refutation of some prevailing errors, and the establishment of some philosophical principles that had been overlooked, the less need is there to resort, for popular use, to the arguments by which this has been effected. They are like the trenches and batteries by which a besieged town has been assailed, and which are abandoned as soon as the capture has been accomplished.
'I have been labouring,' says some writer who had been engaged in a task of this kind (and Bacon might have said the same)—' I have been labouring to render myself useless.' Great part, accordingly, of what were the most important of Bacon's works are now resorted to chiefly as a matter of curious and interesting speculation to the studious few, while the effect of them is practically felt by many who never read, or perhaps even heard of them.
But his Essays retain their popularity, as relating chiefly to the concerns of every-day life, and which, as he himself expresses it,'come home to men's business and bosoms.'
'In the Pure and in the Physical Sciences,' says an able writer in the Edinburgh Review,1 'each generation inherit* the conquests made by its predecessors. No mathematician has to redemonstrate the problems of Euclid; no physiologist has to sustain a controversy as to the circulation of the blood; no astronomer is met by a denial of the principle of gravitation. But in the Moral Sciences the ground seems never to be incontestably won; and this is peculiarly the case with respect to the sciences which are subsidiary to the arts of administration and legislation. Opinions prevail, and are acted on. The evils which appear to result from their practical application lead to inquiry. Their erroneousness is proved by philosophers, is acknowledged by the educated Public, and at length is admitted even by statesmen. The policy founded on the refuted error is relaxed, and the evils which it inflicted, so far as they are capable of remedy, are removed or mitigated. After a time, new theorists arise, who are seduced or impelled by some moral or intellectual defect or error to reassert the exploded doctrine. They have become entangled by some logical fallacy, or deceived by some inaccurate or incomplete assumption of facts, or think that they see the means of acquiring reputation, or of promoting their interests, or of gratifying their political or their private resentments, by attacking the altered policy. All popular errors are plausible; indeed, if they were not so, they would not be popular. The plausibility to which the revived doctrine owed its original currency, makes it acceptable to those to whom the subject is new; and even among those to whom it is familiar, probably ninety-nine out of every hundred are accustomed to take their opinions on such matters on trust. They hear with surprise that what they supposed to be settled is questioned, and often avoid the trouble of inquiring by endeavouring to believe that the truth is not to be ascertained. And thus the cause has again to be pleaded, before judges, some of whom are prejudiced, and others will not readily attend to reasoning founded on premises which they think unsusceptible of proof.'
1 See Edinburgh Review, July, i34j. No. 157.
To treat fully of the design and character of Bacon's greater works, and of the mistakes—which are not few or unimportant —that prevail respecting them, would be altogether unsuited to this Work. But it may be worth while to introduce two brief remarks on that subject.
(i.) The prevailing fault among philosophers in Bacon's time and long before, was hasty, careless, and scanty observation, and the want of copious and patient experiment. On supposed facts not carefully ascertained, and often on mere baseless conjecture, they proceeded to reason, often very closely and ingeniously; forgetting that no architectural skill in a superstructure will give it greater firmness than the foundation on which it rests; and thus they of course failed of arriving at true conclusions; for, the most accurate reasoning is of no avail, if you have not well-established facts and principles to start from.
Bacon laboured zealously and powerfully to recall philosophers from the study of fanciful systems, based on crude conjectures, or on imperfect knowledge, to the careful and judicious investigation, or, as he called it, 'interrogation' and 'interpretation of nature;' the collecting and properly arranging of well-ascertained facts. And the maxims which he laid down and enforced for the conduct of philosophical inquiry, are universally admitted to have at least greatly contributed to the vast progress which physical science has been making since his time.
But though Bacon dwelt on the importance of setting out from an accurate knowledge of facts, and on the absurdity of attempting to substitute the reasoning process for an investigation of nature, it would be a great mistake to imagine that he meant to disparage the reasoning process, or to substitute for skill and correctness in that, a mere accumulated knowledge of a multitude of facts. And any one would be far indeed from being a follower of Bacon, who should despise logical accuracy, and trust to what is often called experience; meaning, by that, an extensive but crude and undigested observation. For, as books, though indispensably necessary for a student, are of no use to one who has not learned to read, though he distinctly sees black marks on white paper, so is all experience and acquaintance with facts, unprofitable to one whose mind has not been trained to read rightly the volume of nature, and of human transactions, spread before him.