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When complaints are made—often not altogether without reason—of the prevailing ignorance of facts on such or such subjects, it will often be found that the parties censured, though possessing less knowledge than is desirable, yet possess more than they know what to do with. Their deficiency in arranging and applying their knowledge, in combining facts, and correctly deducing, and rightly employing, general principles, will be perhaps greater than their ignorance of facts. Now, to attempt remedying this defect by imparting to them additional knowledge,—to confer the advantage of wider experience on those who have not skill in profiting by experience,—is to attempt enlarging the prospect of a short-sighted man by bringing him to the top of a hill. Since he could not, on the plain, see distinctly the objects before him, the wider horizon from the hill-top is utterly lost on him.
In the tale of Sandford and Merton, where the two boys are described as amusing themselves with building a hovel, they lay poles horizontally on the top, and cover them with straw, so as to make a flat roof; of course the rain comes through; and Master Merton proposes then to lay on more straw. But Sandford, the more intelligent boy, remarks, that as long as the roof is flat, the rain must sooner or later soak through; and that the remedy is, to alter the building, and form the roof sloping. Now, the idea of enlightening incorrect reasoners by additional knowledge, is an error analogous to that of the flat roof: of course knowledge is necessary; so is straw to thatch the roof; but no quantity of materials will be a substitute for understanding how to build.
But the unwise and incautious are always prone to rush from an error on one side into an opposite error. And a reaction accordingly took place from the abuse of reasoning, to the undue neglect of it, and from the fault of not sufficiently observing facts, to that of trusting to a mere accumulation of ill-arranged knowledge. It is as if men had formerly spent vain labour in threshing over and over again the same straw, and winnowing the same chaff, and then their successors had resolved to discard those processes altogether, and to bring home and use wheat and weeds, straw, chaff, and grain, just as they grew, and without any preparation at all.1
If Bacon had lived in the present day, I am convinced he would have made his chief complaint against unmethodized inquiry, and careless and illogical reasoning; certainly he would not have complained of Dialectics as corrupting philosophy. To guard now against the evils prevalent in his time, would be to fortify a town against battering-rams instead of against cannon.
(2.) The other remark I would make on Bacon's greater works is, that he does not rank high as a 'Natural-philosopher.' His genius lay another way; not in the direct pursuit of Physical Science, but in discerning and correcting the errors of philosophers, and laying down the principles on which they ought to proceed. According to Horace's illustration, his office was not that of the razor, but the hone, 'acutum reddere quae ferrum valet, exsors ipsa secandi.'
The poet Cowley accordingly has beautifully compared Bacon o Moses,
'Who did upon the very border stand
who had brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and led them through the wilderness, to the entrance into the 'land flowing with milk and honey,' which he was allowed to view from the hill-top, but not himself to enter.
It requires the master-mind of a great general to form the plan of a campaign, and to direct aright the movements of great bodies of troops: but the greatest general may perhaps fall far short of many a private soldier in the use of the musket or the sword.
But Bacon, though far from being without a taste for the pursuits of physical science, had an actual inaptitude for it, as might be shown by many examples. The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, for instance, which had attracted attention before and in his own time, he appears to have rejected or disregarded.
1 Ledum on Political Economy, Led ii.
But one of the most remarkable specimens of his inaptitude for practically carrying out his own principles in matters connected with Physical Science, is his speculation concerning the well-known plant called misselto. He notices the popular belief of his own time, that it is a true plant, propagated by its berries, which are dropped by birds on the boughs of other trees; a fact alluded to in a Latin proverb applicable to those who create future dangers for themselves; for, the ancient Eomans prepared birdlime for catching birds from the misselto thus propagated. Now this account of the plant, which has long since been universally admitted, Bacon rejects as a vulgar error, and insists on it that misselto is not a true plant, but an excrescence from the tree it grows on! Nothing can be conceived more remote from the spirit of the Baconian philosophy than thus to substitute a random conjecture for careful investigation: and that, too, when there actually did exist a prevailing belief, and it was obviously the first step to inquire whether this were or were not well-founded.
The matter itself, indeed, is of little importance; but it indicates, no less than if it were of the greatest, a deficiency in the application of his own principles. For, one who takes deliberate aim at some object, and misses it, is proved to be a bad marksman, whether the object itself be insignificant or not.
But rarely, if ever, do we find any such failures in Bacon's speculations on human character and conduct . It was there that his strength lay; and in that department of philosophy it may safely be said that he had few to equal, and none to excel him.
In several instances I have treated of subjects respecting which erroneous opinions are current; and I have, in other works, sometimes assigned this as a reason for touching on those subjects. Hence, it has been inferred by more than one critic, that I must be at variance with the generality of mankind in most of my opinions; or, at least, must wish to appear so, for the sake of claiming credit for originality. But there seems no good ground for such an inference. A man might, conceivably, agree with the generality on nineteen points out of twenty, and yet might see reason, when publishing is in question, to treat of the one point, and say little or nothing of the nineteen. For it is evidently more important to clear up difficulties, and correct mistakes, than merely to remind men of what they knew before, and prove to them what they already believe. He may be convinced that the sun is brighter than the moon, and that three and two make five, without seeing any need to proclaim to the world his conviction. There is no necessity to write a book to prove that liberty is preferable to slavery, and that intemperance is noxious to health. But when errors are afloat on any important question, and especially when they are plausibly defended, the work of refuting them, and of maintaining truths that have been overlooked, is surely more serviceable to the Public than the inculcation and repetition of what all men admit.
I have inserted in the 'Annotations,' extracts from several works of various authors, including some of my own. If I had, instead of this, merely given references, this would have been to expect every reader either to be perfectly familiar with all the works referred to, or at least to have them at hand, and to take the trouble to look out and peruse each passage. This is what I could not reasonably calculate on. And I had seen lamentable instances of an author's being imperfectly understood, and sometimes grievously misunderstood, by many of his readers who were not so familiar as he had expected them to be, with his previous works, and with others which had been alluded to, but not cited.
Cavillers, however—persons of the description noticed in the 'Annotations' on Essay XLVII.—will be likely to complain of the reprinting of passages from other books. And if the opposite course had been adopted, of merely giving references to them, the same cavillers would probably have complained that the reader of this volume was expected to sit down to the study of it with ten or twelve other volumes on the table before him, and to look out each of the passages referred to. Again, if an author, in making an extract from some work of his own, gives a reference to it, the caviller will represent him as seeking to puff his own productions: if he omit to give the reference, the same caviller will charge him with seeking to pass off as new what had been published before. And again, a reader of this character, if he meet with a statement of something he was already convinced of, will deride it as a truism not worth mentioning; while anything that is new to him he will censure as an extravagant paradox. For 'you must think this, look you, that the worm will do his kind.'1
I chose then, rather to incur the blame of the fault—if it be one—of encumbering the volume with two or three additional sheets, which, to some readers, may be superfluous, than to run the risk of misleading, or needlessly offending, many others, by omitting, and merely referring to, something essential to the argument, which they might not have seen, or might not distinctly remember.
The passages thus selected are, of course, but a few out of many in which the subjects of these Essays have been treated of. I have inserted those that seemed most to the purpose, without expecting that all persons should agree in approving the selections made. But any one who thinks that some passages from other writers contain better illustrations than those here given, has only to edit the Essays himself with such extracts as he prefers.
1 Antony and Cleopatra, Act v.