Rudolf Steiner and Francis Bacon





Keith Francis







            This essay, which is adapted from several sections of my Bacon, Goethe, Steiner,[1] is intended serve several purposes. One is to give the reader some insight into the life, works and influence of a man who has been blamed for many of the worst features of modern technological society. Another is to bring this exoteric history together with the knowledge of Francis Bacon’s destiny given to us by Rudolf Steiner; and a third is to expose not only the benefits of linking esoteric and exoteric sources but also the difficulties that can arise in the process.

Steiner’s fundamental spiritual research on human evolution and karma makes sense of the past and the present in ways that no other philosophy or methodology of history that I have encountered can match, and his worldview has given me a home base from which to explore and understand my own experience; but bearing in mind the difficulties and perils of spiritual research, as Steiner described them, we can’t simply assume that what he gave was the whole of the truth and entirely free from misperceptions. As Owen Barfield put it, Steiner didn’t want to be believed, he wanted to be understood; and as he said himself, what is given out of esoteric sources must make sense in relation to exoteric knowledge.

Some of my friends in the Anthroposophical Society, of which I have been a member for forty-five years, believe that everything that Steiner told us was the result of spiritual research.[2] Some go further and consider that everything Steiner said is beyond criticism. Some even maintain that if they found a single thing in Steiner’s work that was demonstrably incorrect it would undermine their belief in the authenticity of his whole mission. Having worked for many years with his lectures and writings, particularly on science, music, education and evolution I can’t accept any of these views. I see evidence that he was not completely free from the influence of the state of knowledge and the prevailing opinions of his time and place. As cultivators of inner freedom, anthroposophists are supposed to know that it is not a good idea to accept something as true simply because someone said so, even if that someone is Rudolf Steiner. If we accept him as a true and trustworthy guide it can only be because our own perceptions and good sense tell us to.




Steiner regarded Bacon’s scientific method as hopelessly impractical, a position with which I and many other writers concur, and which is reflected in the fact that the erstwhile Lord Chancellor’s proposals for a scientifically based community have never been put into practice. Like many nineteenth and early twentieth century writers, but for somewhat different reasons, Steiner considered that Bacon was largely responsible for the evils of our largely materialistic society. Most of the people who lay down the law about Bacon and his influence seem to be quite unfamiliar with his actual writings, and this ignorance leaves them wonderfully free to speculate. On a deeper level, however, we have the knowledge that Steiner gave us about the karma of Francis Bacon, according to which he constituted the beachhead through which spirits of materialism who had worked in mediaeval Arabian society entered the stream of Western European scientific and cultural evolution, greatly to its detriment. Steiner’s view of the whole period from classical Greece to Renaissance Europe sheds an indispensable light on the complex political, religious and philosophical movements of the period, but I cannot altogether keep company with him in his judgements of some of the characters in this history, Averroes and Bacon in particular.

I find that Bacon’s Christian desire to improve the lot of his fellow human beings, both spiritually and materially, was sincere, that he was unconscious of the way in which he was being used, and that the spirits of materialism worked through him in such a way as to make his actual earthly achievements irrelevant or, even more subversively, to distort them for their own ends. Bacon believed that if the study of nature were freed from preconceived ideas, based on the systematic observation of phenomena and undertaken as a co-operative endeavor, it would reveal the hand of God and provide great benefits for God’s people. Unfortunately, the method he proposed emphasized human frailty to the point of eliminating individual insight, and we had to wait for Goethe to put us on the right track to a new relationship to nature.

Unlike most students of anthroposophy, I was familiar with Bacon’s scientific writings before I encountered Steiner’s references to them. My comparisons of Bacon’s actual words with the thoughts and intentions that Steiner attributes to him are attempts to make sense of a situation in which I began to wonder whether Steiner had actually read the Novum Organum and the New Atlantis. I found the work very unpleasant and readers may well have the same reaction. But, to the best of my knowledge, the general question raised by these particular instances has not been given serious attention, partly because very few people are aware that it exists and partly because if it does it’s much more comfortable to ignore it. I have often tried to persuade my fellow anthroposophists that if you really want to understand Steiner’s often extremely brief references to important historical figures it’s a good idea to do some exoteric homework, but I don’t seem to have had much impact. Not that Steiner was brief about Bacon; if he had been, I might have had less cause for concern.

My concern is not so much about Steiner, however, as about the tendency to fundamentalism that one finds in anthroposophical circles and the counter-tendency to make anthroposophy part of a general wash of easy spirituality, the main purpose of which is to make the participant feel good. Anthroposophy is a discipline based on Steiner’s bedrock observations about the nature and evolution of the human being, and we go wrong if we pride ourselves on our superior knowledge and behave as though every difference of opinion can be settled with a brief quotation from the Herr Doktor. Such behavior sometimes used to be greeted with a sarcastic “Da ha da ha ga” (“Der Herr Doktor hat gesagt”). I’m aware that sarcasm is naughty and to be discouraged, but sometimes you need to get people’s attention. It ought to be possible to question the accuracy of a statement by Steiner without having the feeling that you may be ostracized or excommunicated.





Francis Bacon - Biographical Sketch


            Bacon was born in London in 1561 into a wealthy, well educated and well-connected family. His father was Lord Keeper of the Seal, and his mother, a student of Greek, Latin, French and Italian, took a great deal of responsibility for the early education of her children, Anthony and Francis. It seems clear that her puritan leanings and the emphasis on work, public service and political and religious life that Bacon experienced in his home had a great deal to do with his later development.

In 1573, when Anthony and Francis entered Trinity College, Cambridge, the rediscovery of the ancient Greek and Latin authors had radically changed the way in which the medieval curriculum was taught. Plato’s complete works had been translated for the first time and Aristotle was available in fuller, more accurate form. The ancients were not accepted uncritically, however, and according to Bacon’s secretary and first biographer, Dr. William Rawley, “he fell into the dislike of the philosophy of Aristotle; not for the worthlessness of the author, to whom he would ever ascribe all high attributes, but for the unfruitfulness of the way.”

Bacon was sent to Paris as an assistant to the ambassador to France and he was still there in 1579 when his father died. As the second son of a second marriage he was left with practically no resources, so he returned to England and took his law degree at Gray’s Inn in 1582. Twenty years old and enjoying the Queen’s favor, he was already a Member of Parliament and he remained so for thirty-six years. His legal career had flourished and he seemed to be heading for high office, but in 1593 his outspoken opposition to a new tax levy landed him in Queen Elizabeth’s doghouse. By 1596 she had relented sufficiently to make him her Extraordinary Counsel and in this capacity he had to play a major part in the prosecution of the Earl of Essex, whose long-drawn-out fall from grace ended in execution after a botched coup attempt.

            After James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, a knighthood and a sequence of increasingly important political appointments led, in 1618, to Bacon’s being made Lord Chancellor. In 1621, however, at the time of his greatest success and influence, he was arrested and charged with bribery. After pleading guilty he was fined heavily and sent to prison in the Tower of London. The fine was later waived and he spent only four days in the Tower, but he was never again allowed to hold any political office. In mitigation it must be said that in accepting gifts from two petitioners Bacon was merely following the common practice of the day and that, in any case, he had found against the two suppliants. Yet he accepted the blame and disgrace without making any excuse and admitted that he ought to have known and done better.

            Bacon had always been a prolific writer on matters of state, law, history, religion, philosophy, science and the general conduct of life. In a well-known letter of 1592 to Lord Burghley he expressed his wish to reform the current state of learning, purging it on the one hand, of “frivolous disputations, confutations and verbosities”, and on the other, of “blind experiments and auricular traditions and impostures”, and “bringing in industrious observations, grounded conclusions and profitable inventions and discoveries…”

            These remarks foreshadow Bacon’s long struggle to rescue philosophy and science[3] from the decadence into which they had fallen since the heyday of the scholastics. One of the fruits of his labors in this direction was The Advancement of Learning, published 1605, in which he powerfully defended the importance of learning in all aspects of life, pointed out deficiencies in the current state of knowledge and made suggestions for its improvement. From 1621 onwards his enforced retirement meant that he was able to devote all his time to working on the project that had occupied him for many years – the renewal of learning and the design of a community whose object would be the discovery and use of scientific knowledge to improve the human condition. Bacon’s scientific curiosity led to his death in 1626. Being interested in the preservative properties of ice he stopped his carriage on a snowy day in order to buy a chicken from an old woman, thereby catching a cold from which pneumonia developed. 

In spite of his immense struggles and his great capacity for hard work, his scientific project remained unfinished. That he regretted having devoted so much time and energy to political and legal causes when he might have been giving himself to contemplation and philosophy is implicit in the prayer, never published, that he wrote near the end of his life.


And now, when I thought most of peace and honour, Thine hand is heavy upon me, and hath humbled me according to Thy former loving kindness; keeping me still in Thy school, not as an alien, but as a child. Just are Thy judgments upon me for my sins, which are more in number than the sands of the sea, but have no proportion to Thy mercies; or what are the sands of the sea? Earth, heavens, and all these, are nothing to Thy mercies! I confess before Thee, that I am debtor to Thee, for the precious talent of Thy gifts and graces, which I have neither put into a napkin, not put out as I ought, to exchangers, where it might have made best profit; but misspent it in things for which I was least fit; so I may truly say, my soul hath been a stranger in the house of her pilgrimage. Be merciful unto me, O Lord, for my Saviour's sake; and receive me into Thy bosom, or guide me in Thy way.






            Bacon’s attitude towards his work is summed up in this passage from the Preface to The Great Instauration.[4]


“Lastly, I would like to address one general admonition to all – that they reflect on the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it neither for intellectual satisfaction, nor for contention, nor for superiority to others, nor for profit, fame or power, or any of these baser things; but that they direct and bring it to perfection in charity, for the benefit and use of life. For the angels fell through desire for power; men through desire for knowledge. But of love and charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever run into danger thereby.”


The most profoundly religious among us are apt to try to make bargains with the Almighty; we want to take Jesus Christ into our lives, but at the same time we want a nice house, two cars, a swimming pool, a home theater system and a corner office. “Give me chastity and continence, but not just now”, as St. Augustine said.[5] Bacon enjoyed political power and gracious living, and may not always have been scrupulous in his efforts to attain them, but any serious reading of his essays and, in particular, his Confession of Faith, leaves no doubt about the depth and sincerity of his Christian beliefs. Even his flaming enthusiasm for scientific reform was held in check by his conviction that science came second to religion in the whole scheme of things. Whatever the delights and material rewards of scientific work might be, his reforms were to be made in charity to his fellow human beings and in the hope of gaining some insight into God’s intentions for mankind.    

            Bacon believed that the grievous conditions under which most human beings lived, labored, suffered and died were the result of the Fall. Among the items in his Confession of Faith, written about 1603, we find:           

That God created Man in his own image, in a reasonable soul, in innocency, in free will, and in sovereignty: That he gave him a law and commandment, which was in his power to keep, but he kept it not …

            That upon the fall of Man, death and vanity entered by the justice of God, and the image of God in man was defaced, and heaven and earth which were made for man’s use were subdued to corruption by his fall[6];

            That Jesus the Lord became in the flesh a sacrificer and sacrifice for sin… A pattern of all righteousness; a preacher of the Word which himself was… A cornerstone to remove the separation between Jew and Gentile… A Lord of Nature in his miracles; a conqueror of death and the power of darkness in his resurrection…


Bacon thought that it might be possible for true religion and scientific advancement to mitigate the effects of the Fall, but, as the following passage from The Great Instauration shows, he was mindful of the tendency for science to be at odds with religion.


            “At the outset of my work I most humbly and fervently pray to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, that, remembering the sorrows of mankind and the pilgrimage of  this our life, in which we toil through few and evil days, they will vouchsafe through my hands to endow the human family with new mercies. And this I also humbly ask, that things human may not run counter to things divine, and that from the opening of the paths of the sense-world and the increase of natural light there will arise no unbelief or darkness in our minds towards the divine mysteries, but rather that the understanding thereby being purified and purged of fancies and vanity, yet nonetheless obedient and wholly submissive to the divine oracles, we may give to faith that which is faith’s. Lastly that with knowledge rid of the poison instilled by the serpent, whereby the human mind becomes swollen and puffed up, we may not be wise above measure and sobriety, but may seek the truth in Christian love.”


Bacon thought that it might be possible for true religion and scientific advancement to mitigate the effects of the Fall, but insisted that the desire for knowledge be kept within the bounds of Christian obedience.


            “That men confine the sense within the limits of duty in respect of things divine: for the sense is like the sun, which reveals the face of the earth, but conceals the face of heaven… And that in flying from this evil they fall not into the opposite error, which they will surely do if they think that the investigation of nature is in any way forbidden. For it was not that pure and uncorrupted natural knowledge whereby Adam gave names to the creatures according to their kind, which brought about the fall. It was the ambitious and proud desire of moral knowledge to judge of good and evil, to the end that man might revolt from God and give laws to himself…”


            At the end of the Novum Organum he makes a plain statement of what he hopes his work will achieve for humanity.


            For man by the Fall fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be to some degree repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences. For the curse did not make creation entirely and for ever a rebel; but in virtue of that ordinance, ‘in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread’, by every kind of effort (certainly not by disputations and idle magical ceremonies), it [rebellious creation] will at length in some measure be subdued to providing man with his bread, that is, to the uses of human life.

            (Novum Organum, Book 2, Aphorism 52)







The Scientific Context


Bacon was deeply dissatisfied with the state of science as he found it. The natural histories recorded and taken seriously by his predecessors and contemporaries and the manner of reaching supposedly scientific conclusions, caused him deep distress.

            In the Novum Organum (Aphorism 25) he remarks, “The axioms[7] now in use have been derived from a meagre and narrow experience and from a few particulars of most common occurrence; and these axioms, having been framed, for the most part, so as just to fit them, it is no wonder they do not lead to fresh particulars; and if they chance to come up against an instance not previously known or noticed, the axiom is rescued by some frivolous distinction, whereas the more correct course would be for the axiom itself to be corrected.

          In their excellent modern translation of the Novum Organum[8], Peter Urbach and John Gibson note that “generalization from particular instances… was a standard part of the logic of [Bacon’s] day. Thomas Wilson, in his influential textbook of logic, The Rule of Reason, conteining the art of logique, set forth in Englishe (1551) provides a typical example: ‘Rhenyshe wine heateth, Malmesey heateth, Frenchewine heateth, neither is there any wyne that doth the contrary: Ergo all wine heateth.’” This is an example of what Bacon means by ordinary induction; it helps us to understand the almost monastic severity with which he prescribed the processes of valid induction.

He also comments on the excessive credulity with which all kinds of fabulous tales are received;

“So in natural history, we see there hath not been that choice and judgement used as ought to have been; as may appear in the writings of Plinius, Cardanus, Albertus, and divers of the Arabians; being fraught with much fabulous matter, a great part not only untried but notoriously untrue, to the great derogation of the credit of natural philosophy… Wherein the great wisdom and integrity of Aristotle is worthy to be observed; that he made so diligent and exquisite a history of living creatures…”[9]

The uncritical acceptance of unattested anecdotes, if not of “old wives’ fables”, is a phenomenon still to be noted, especially among those who have what might be termed a spiritual agenda.




The Great Instauration – Bacon’s Proposals


In 1620, Bacon published most of what we know about his method in his Instauratio Magna (The Great Instauration). The work was intended to consist of six sections but the 1620 publication included only a dedication to King James, an outline of the projected contents of the whole work, the Novum Organum, which consists of a preface and two books of aphorisms, and an introduction to the Natural and Experimental History.

The Novum Organum, although unfinished, gives a concrete idea of the strictly inductive science that Bacon contemplated, and the Natural History appeared posthumously in the form of the Sylva Sylvarum, also unfinished. Bacon referred to the Novum Organum as “the chiefest of his works” and explained its premature publication as a precaution against his advancing years. He acknowledged that to complete the final section of the Great Instauration, to which the first five sections were supposed to be “subservient and ministrant”, was a task “both above my strength and beyond my hopes.” He believed that the task of bringing the New Philosophy to full fruition was beyond the powers of a single individual. It could come about only when those aspects of life connected with the three human capacities that he recognized – memory (past and present), imagination (philosophy and the arts) and reason (the community of scientists) – worked together.




            The source of the one thing that everyone “knows” about Francis Bacon is the third aphorism of Book I of the Novum Organum.

“Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. We can only command nature by obeying her, and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.” (Book I, Aphorism 3)

The usual thoughtless quotation, “Knowledge is power”, is generally given in complete ignorance of the kind of power that Bacon was talking about, as if it implied power of a political, economic or social nature. It’s therefore necessary to emphasize that Bacon is referring to the ability to understand natural processes and use them to produce desired results: We can only command nature by obeying her. Its worth noting that on the only occasion when Bacon explicitly stated that knowledge is power (Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est.) he was talking about God’s knowledge and power and providing an echo of philosophical and theological discussions that had taken place centuries earlier. [10]

We learn more from the following aphorisms:

            ... At the beginning and for some time, I look only for light-bearing experiments, not fruit-bearing ones, following, as I have often said, the example of the divine creation, when on the first day, God made the light only, and devoted a whole day to that alone, without introducing any material work in that time. If, therefore, anyone should think that such things are of no use, he should consider whether he also thinks light to be of no use… (Aphorism 121)

            …. The ideas of the divine mind… are the creator’s true stamp upon created things, printed and defined on matter by true and precise lines. In this respect, therefore, truth and utility are the very things themselves;[11] so works themselves are of greater value as pledges of truth than as comforts in life. (Aphorism 124)

            Bacon has been accused of placing utility ahead of understanding, but plainly he was not after an easy conquest and a quick profit. It takes time to develop an understanding of the natural world, and once it is obtained, this understanding, validated by operation, brings us into contact with the workings of the divine mind. Contemplation of systematically obtained observations leads to understanding; understanding leads to operation; successful operation certifies the validity of the understanding. The poverty of the human mind in comparison with the richness of nature is to be balanced by the systematic examination of a wealth of observations. Power over nature, in this context, means the ability to produce desired effects in physical objects.

The easiest way of grasping Bacon’s method and understanding why it was already obsolescent at the time of its birth, is to study the example that he gave; the investigation of “the form of heat.” Familiarity with his report will be useful when we come to Rudolf Steiner’s remarks about it.




Bacon gave the most succinct and colorful description of his method in Aphorism 123 of Book I of the Novum Organum:

I may say of myself that which someone said in jest: “It cannot be that we should think alike, when one drinks water and the other wine.” Now other men, in both ancient and modern times, have in scientific matters drunk a primitive liquor which, like water, wells up spontaneously from their understanding or is drawn up by logic, as if by wheels from a well. Whereas I toast mankind in a liquor strained from countless grapes, from grapes ripe and fully seasoned, collected in clusters, gathered and then squeezed in the press, and finally purified and clarified in the vat. And therefore it is no wonder that they and I do not think alike.

            The picture of one his tables of instances as a bunch of grapes is much more appetizing than the reality. “First”, he says (Book II, Aphorism 10), “we must prepare a natural and experimental history, sufficient and good; and this is the foundation of all, for we are not to imagine or suppose, but to discover, what nature does or may be made to do. Secondly… we must form tables and arrangements of instances, in such a method and order that the understanding may be able to deal with them.” However “The understanding, if left to itself… is incompetent to form axioms unless it be directed and guarded. Thirdly, therefore, we must use true and legitimate induction, which is the very key of interpretation.”

Starting in Aphorism 11, he uses “the investigation of the form of heat” as his example. The first step is to create a list of Instances Agreeing in the Nature of Heat, a muster, as he says, “of all known instances that agree in the same nature, though in substances the most unlike.” He produces a list of 27 instances, which he calls the Table of Essence and Presence, in which warmth is produced, ranging from the effects of sunrays to the spontaneous combustion of damp vegetation. Opposed to this (Aphorism XII) is the Table of Deviation, in which he gives examples of circumstances apparently similar to those in his first list but in which warmth is not produced. The rays of the moon, the stars and comets are not warm to the touch and rotting wood does not produce heat. Next he presents us with a Table of Degrees or Comparison in Heat, containing “instances in which the nature under inquiry exists to a greater or lesser degree.” “No nature”, he says, “can be taken to be the true form, unless it always decreases when the nature decreases and always increases when the nature increases.” Among the forty-one instances he gives is the observation that the heat from the heavenly bodies depends on their perpendicularity, their proximity and their conjunction with stars. Before going on to show us how to use the tables he laments their inadequacy and gives a stern warning about the word form. He emphasizes that he is not talking about lions, eagles, roses or gold, but about the “laws and determinations of absolute actuality which govern and constitute any simple nature.” Now the process of induction can begin. As Bacon has remarked in Aphorism 15, “To God, truly, the Giver and Architect of Forms, and it may be to the angels and higher intelligences, it belongs to have an affirmative knowledge of forms immediately, and from the first contemplation. But this assuredly is more than man can do, to whom it is granted at first to proceed only by negatives, and to end at last in affirmatives after exclusion has been exhausted.”

“Any contradictory instance overthrows a conjecture as to the form.” We may for instance have been inclined to accept light and brightness as manifestations of the form of heat, but we must reject them since heat often occurs without brightness, as in the case of boiling water, and brightness without heat, as in the case of moonbeams. Bacon is not satisfied that these exclusions are sufficient to lead to a definitive statement of the form of heat, but he feels that the questing intelligence needs a little encouragement, so he produces what he calls the Indulgence of the Understanding or, returning to grapes, the First Vintage. This goes on for several pages before arriving at a statement of “the form or true definition of heat” and the equivalent statement of operation:

If in any natural body you can excite a dilating or expanding motion, and can so repress this motion and turn it back upon itself that the dilation shall not proceed equably, but have its way in one part and be counteracted in another, you will undoubtedly generate heat.

            Having tasted this sample of Bacon’s grape juice you may be inclined to wonder what all the fuss is about and to question whether His Lordship has discovered something in keeping with his grandiose plans for the betterment of mankind and insight into God’s purposes: so please remember that this was only his preliminary illustration of what he had in mind and that he never got as far as explaining his method in full. I am not saying that Bacon was wrong. The activity of pumping up a bicycle tire fits his description quite well and certainly generates heat in the barrel of the pump. But the knowledge generated by his method does not come out in the kind of form that would have been useful to post-renaissance science.

In this connection two things immediately come to mind, the first being that Bacon’s work is completely devoid of mathematics. There is an element of historical irony here. At exactly the same time as Bacon was making such a long-drawn-out fuss about the ancient methods of enquiry, the Dutchman Willabrod Snell (1591-1626) was in the process of discovering the laws of refraction. This he did without recourse to lengthy tables of instances, exclusions and so on but by working with light rays and using his geometrical insight. Meanwhile, Kepler had given exact mathematical expression to the laws of planetary motion and would have had them much more easily – and the laws of refraction too – if he had been proficient in trigonometry; and Galileo had laid the foundations for Newtonian dynamics. Within half a century of Bacon’s death a whole generation of physicists appeared, including Huygens, Hooke, Boyle and Newton, who discovered mathematically expressed laws of optics, heat, mechanics and gravitation by methods that had little or nothing to do with anything in the Novum Organum.

The second observation is that although he admired Democritus and often spoke about particles, he seems to have had very little interest in atoms and no conception of them as explanatory or predictive tools. In Bacon’s view philosophy concerned itself far too much with the very big and the very little – “the first principles of things and the highest generalities of nature; whereas utility and the means of working result entirely from things intermediate. Hence it is that men cease not from abstracting nature until they come to potential and uninformed matter, nor from dissecting nature till they reach the atom; things which, even if true, can do little for the welfare of mankind.” It’s not without interest and relevance to note that Bacon’s strictures apply to the two components of physical science that are least comprehensible to most people today – the theory of relativity and the quantum theory. The “things intermediate”, which we find in our living rooms and garages obey ordinary, old-fashioned physical laws. It is only when we get involved with things far beyond the range of normal sense perception that the rot sets in.

Now if you take these two characteristics together – Bacon’s lack of interest in both mathematics and atoms – and imagine them applied to the theoretical physics and chemistry of the past three centuries, you will find that there is very little left. Bacon wanted to know what was going on inside the objects he studied that made them behave the way they did, and if he had lived another few hundred years he might have realized that atoms and great generalizations were far more useful than he had expected. He had complained that the older philosophies were “barren of works”; exactly the same charge can be leveled against his own system, whereas mathematical, atomic science has been extraordinarily prolific.




Bacon’s way of finding the form of heat sounds as gentle as Goethean science and might easily be thought to resemble Goethe’s quest for an ur-phenomenon. It is as well to remember, therefore, that the Chancellor’s science was to be not only of Nature free and untrammelled… but much more of nature constrained and vexed”[12] Fallen nature had escaped from human dominion and needed some rough treatment to bring her back into line. This was not a task for an individual scientist-artist, such as Goethe, but for a hierarchical scientific institution. Bacon’s method suggests a large-scale fishing expedition rather than a steady progression and casts considerable doubt on the need for the genius or great individual. His scientist was “a man of peaceful and serene air, save that his face had become habituated to an expression of pity, [who] took his seat, not on a platform or pulpit, but on a level with the rest….”[13] “The perfection of the sciences is to be looked for not from the swiftness or ability of one inquirer, but from a succession” of them.[14] The scientific institution was to be hierarchical, insofar as the different services of artisans, writers and those skilled in inductive reasoning would be required, but the nature of the whole endeavor was such that strokes of individual genius would not be needed and might indeed be undesirable. Bacon acknowledged the need for highly talented individuals, but the system was designed to be independent of individual gifts and to feature the “leveling of wits.” The “rude mechanicals” might seem intellectually inferior to the “inductors”, but it would be a common duty to banish from consciousness anything remotely resembling an intuitive idea or an a priori principle.


When we ask whether the method described in the Novum Organum is likely under any circumstances to generate a true and useful science, the answer is a resounding “No”. The fact that in spite of all the talk of Baconian institutions the method was never put into operation is a strong indication of its futility. If you want a view of the world you have to have a place to stand, something that Bacon had found in his religion but was at pains not to provide in his scientific method. We can admire Bacon for his pertinacity and probity in dealing with his data and it is this last aspect that has become so important in modern science. Every lead must be pursued and every contrary instance means the abandonment or modification of a theory. It is not clear, however, that Bacon was entirely responsible for these precepts, which, in any case have not always been obeyed. Kepler did not need Bacon to tell him that a discrepancy of a few minutes of arc meant the abandonment of a cherished system. In view of all that has been said here, it may seem hard to understand how Bacon has merited the expenditure of so much breath, ink and effort. This is where we have to take the plunge and try to explain why Rudolf Steiner attached so much importance to him.





Bacon – a Longer View


One of Steiner’s great accomplishments is to make history tolerable, if not exactly comforting. Without his insights into the evolution of human consciousness and the karmic processes that carry human souls from one incarnation to another, the rise and fall of empires and civilizations and the senseless cruelties and obliterations can only make us feel, most painfully, what a beautiful place the earth would be if the human being had never existed. To explain that if this had been the case the earth would not exist, would take us much too far afield. What is needed here is the understanding that the position that Bacon found himself in, as a man of the Renaissance, was the result of a long-drawn-out process of evolution which had started in the days of the earliest Greek philosophers and had given spirits inimical to the true course of human evolution the opportunity to battle for control of the human race. Steiner describes how human beings passed from a state in which their thoughts, perceptions and deeds were inseparable from those of the spiritual beings who cared for human evolution, to one in which there was an increasing desire and ability to think and act individually, to abandon old stories and authorities and to traverse new seas and new realms of thought.

The ancient Greeks, as Rudolf Steiner tells us, were conscious of the spiritual beings who had stewardship of the workings of nature:

 “If an ancient Greek had wanted to account for the origin of his thoughts through knowledge of the Mysteries, he would have had to say the following: I turn my spiritual sight up toward those beings who, through the science of the mysteries, have been revealed to me as the beings of form [Exousiai]. They are the bearers of cosmic intelligence; they are the bearers of cosmic thoughts. They let thoughts stream through all the world events, and they bestow these human thoughts upon the soul so that it can experience them consciously.”[15] 

Exousiai is another name for the Powers, the fourth hierarchy above the human being.

Steiner describes how, in a process centered in the fourth century AD and reaching completion in the fourteenth, the Exousiai gave up their rulership of the cosmic intelligence to the Archai – the Principalities – one step closer to the human being. At the same time the Exousiai maintained their stewardship of the whole world of sense impressions – colors, forms and sounds. The ancient Greek had perceived the angelic thought-forms streaming from natural objects. The objects of everyday experience were physical, certainly, but not merely physical. Thoughts were not merely about the objects of perception but were perceived as belonging to and inherent in those objects.

Now thinking would come to be an inner experience, while sense perceptions would still be felt as something external. So the ancient unity of thought and perception was broken and the seeds of nominalism were sown. This change was initiated from the realm of the hierarchies, under the leadership of the Archangel Michael, but not all of these higher beings welcomed it and some sought to hold it back. This conflict in the spiritual world is reflected in the struggle for understanding that took place on earth, where the evolution towards individualism, the separation between thought and perception and the loss of direct vision into the spiritual world caused an ongoing crisis in philosophy and chronic skirmishing between philosophers and theologians.





Arabian Philosophy


            Rudolf Steiner attaches great importance to the connection between Bacon and the court of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, where Harun al-Rashid reigned from 786 until 809 AD. Harun al-Rashid was a patron of the arts and learning and was, according to Steiner, the bearer of the individuality who later incarnated as Francis Bacon, thereby making Western Europe accessible to a renewed stream of Arabian thought.

            One constant characteristic of Arabian philosophy is devotion to Aristotle, whose principal works were first translated into Arabic in the reign of the son of Harun al-Rashid, al-Ma‘mun (813-833). The dualities of faith and reason, religion and philosophy, and realism and nominalism, with their bitter conflicts and uneasy truces, pervaded Arabian and European thinking alike. What is perhaps the most awkward question, the one with the most far-reaching consequences and the one most intimately connected with spiritual history, can be put in a deceptively simple way: do we form our own thoughts or are they the imprints of an impersonal (or super-personal) cosmic intelligence? Arabian philosophers tried to solve this problem in their own fashion, and it turns out, perhaps unexpectedly, that a great deal of the trouble was caused by Aristotle.

The Arabian philosophers were, as far as I know, unaware of the activities of the hierarchies, and the problem that they encountered was crystallized in a few passages in Aristotle’s De Anima, of which I quote one.

“But since, as in the whole of nature, to something which serves as matter for each kind of thing (and this is potentially all the members of the kind) there is also something else which is the cause and that which produces because it makes them all, the two being related as art to its material, of necessity these differences must be found also in the soul. And to the one intellect, which answers to this description because it becomes all things, corresponds the other intellect because it makes all things, as a sort of disposition such as light does. For in a manner light, too, makes colours which are potential into actual colours. And it is this intellect [i.e. the active intellect] which is separate and unaffected and unmixed, being in substance activity… It is not the case that this intellect sometimes thinks and sometimes does not. When separated it is just that which it is and it is this alone which is immortal and eternal. But we are not mindful because [the active intellect] is not capable of being affected, whilst [the passive intellect] is perishable; and without this there is no thinking.”[16] [My italics]

It may seem clear enough to a student of anthroposophy that Aristotle’s active intellect is the same thing as the cosmic intelligence, but the Muslim and Christian philosophers who acknowledged the pre-eminence of Aristotle and wished to reconcile his work with their religion were not anthroposophists. It seemed to some that the active intellect penetrates the human soul from above but does not become the individual property of the human being. That which is imprinted on the human, passive intellect may be individual, but the passive intellect is perishable, making individual immortality a very dubious business. These questions – Is thinking an individual matter? and Is individual immortality a philosophically tenable idea? – plagued Arabian philosophers from al-Kindi (d. 870 AD) to Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroes (1126-1198), and got them into continuous trouble with the theologians.  The difficulty of following orthodox religious teaching while maintaining philosophical probity became an important issue later on since it led to the charge that some of the Arabian philosophers held the “double-truth” theory, according to which it is possible to accept philosophical and theological truths that contradict each other. The Muslim theologians, as represented by al-Ghazali (1058-1111), reacted strongly against Avicenna and his colleagues, demolishing their systems point by point and ending the active pursuit of philosophy in Baghdad. Al-Ghazali himself, not satisfied with Islamic orthodoxy, turned to Sufism and became the great philosopher of that movement. Like the works of most of the prominent Arabian philosophers, his Intentions of the Philosophers and Incoherence of the Philosophers, first expounding and then criticizing the work of al-Farabi and Avicenna, soon appeared in Western Europe in Latin translation, adding fuel to the European fire.


Part II continues with the struggles of Averroes, the synthesis of Aquinas, the realist/nominalist confrontation and Steiner’s view of Bacon’s philosophy.


[1] This will shortly be available as a bound typescript – more information from the author at [email protected].

[2] An opinion put forward by Ernst Lehrs in Man or Matter

[3] I am using these words in their modern senses. The use of the word “philosophy” to include what we now think of as science died out very gradually and was still occasionally to be encountered in the early twentieth century.

[4] Unless otherwise specified, quotations from the Novum Organum and other Latin works are adapted from the nineteenth century translation by James Spedding et al.

[5] Confessions: VIII, 7. Sometimes quoted as, “Oh God, make me good, but not yet.”

[6] It is worth emphasizing Bacon’s belief that when Adam and Eve fell, the whole of nature fell with them.

[7] Bacon’s use of the word “axiom” is a little confusing. Here he appears to be referring to laws or generalizations derived from observation, whereas traditionally an axiom is a statement of self-evident truth not subject to any kind of proof. To the modern mathematician or logician it simply means a proposition accepted because it is useful, convenient and consistent with other such propositions.

[8] Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, Illinois, 1994

[9] Bacon: The Advancement of Learning

[10] In Meditationes Sacrae (Holy Meditations), 1597. Scientia means “knowledge”, not “science” in its modern sense.

[11] “The term ipsissimus, much used in scholastic terminology, recurs in other passages of the Novum Organum with a precise technical meaning. The translation, ‘truth and utility are the very same things,’ broadly diffused among English and American scholars, is undoubtedly wrong…” Paolo Rossi, in The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. In fairness to James Spedding it must be mentioned that he footnoted his apparently incorrect translation with the comment, “Ipsissimae res: I think this must have been Bacon’s meaning, though not a meaning which the word can properly bear.”

[12] The Great Instauration; Plan of the Work.

[13] Bacon, Redargutio Philosophiarum, tr. Farrington, 1964.

[14] Quoted by Rose-Mary Sargent in The Cambridge Companion.

[15] From a lecture which was part of the 1923 cycle, The Driving Force of Spiritual Powers in World History, Steiner Book Centre, North Vancouver, 1972, and was reprinted in The Inner Nature of Music and the Experience of Tone, Spring Valley, NY, 1983.

[16] Aristotle: De Anima, Tr. R.D.Hicks, ed. Michael Durrant. Routledge, London, 1993.

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