Rudolf Steiner and Francis Bacon






Keith Francis



Part II






The history of Arabian philosophy repeated itself fairly accurately in Spain, most of which had been under Muslim control since the Moorish invasion of 711 AD, but the tensions between liberal, speculative philosophy and orthodox theology seem to have been even more acute. Schools and libraries established in Andalusia by al-Hakim II, and great crowds in mosques, listening to lectures on science, literature, law and religion, were dispersed by subsequent rulers. Books were ritually cursed and burned. It was not until the twelfth century that there appeared on Spanish soil the final and most influential school of Arabian philosophy, and its greatest exemplar, Averroes (1126-1198).

            Averroes aimed at expounding the real thought of Aristotle, whose philosophy he regarded as the culmination of human intellectual activity, a position in harmony with that of Rudolf Steiner.[1] He thought that a clear exposition of the genuine article would help to free philosophy from the bad reputation it had acquired among conservative theologians, publishing, among other works, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in response to Al- Ghazali. He thought that the style and content of education should be adjusted in accordance with the capacities of those receiving it. Most people can cope only with knowledge in the imaginative, pictorial form given in the Koran. Those who are able to follow a train of thought and to reach probable conclusions can receive instruction based on the Koran and theology, while those who seek truth in its rational essence, through strict logical demonstration, can use the material of the Koran for logical penetration. Philosophy is not dangerous to belief as long as it is kept from those who do not understand. These ideas were condemned by the Muslim theologians and later contributed to the mistaken belief that Averroes adhered to the “double truth” theory. Averroes, however, was simply following a principle which runs through teaching of almost every kind, whether esoteric or exoteric, namely that it is unwise to give people knowledge which they are not equipped to handle.

            Averroes takes up the idea that God creates all things by knowing them, since by knowing himself he knows all that is possible. However, since God and his thought are eternal and unchanging the world must be eternally created. Averroes insists that it is nonsense to speak of a time before creation. The depiction of creation as an event in time is simply the best that popular theology can do for people whose thinking is pictorial rather than philosophical. He regards cause and effect as empirical realities, with the proviso that everything is under the hand of God. As far as the European theologians were concerned, the most controversial feature of the philosophy of Averroes was his treatment of the problem of individuality and personal immortality.

            Averroes finds that Aristotle uses the word intellect in a number of different ways. The passive intellect Aristotle considers mortal. The active intellect is a universal, eternal intelligence existing independently of individual human minds. The active intellect impresses forms or concepts on the potential intellect. The potential intellect, which contains only forms imprinted by the active intellect, cannot be personal. Like the active intellect, the potential intellect must be one and eternal. We can therefore ask, with Thomas Aquinas, how it comes about that different people think different thoughts and have different ideas and opinions. Averroes, however, in his commentary on the De Anima, has already made this objection himself. “If what was understood by me and by you were one in every way, it would be the case that when I understood something, you too would understand the same thing; and there would be many other impossible consequences.” He tries to solve the problem by introducing the concept of acquired intellect, the intellect created by the interaction of the active intellect and the individual’s life of sense-experience and imaginative pictures. Does this acquired intellect survive death? It seems that Averroes must answer this question in the negative, since he agrees with Aristotle that the process of generation implies the inevitability of corruption and that, since it is only through matter that individuals can arise within a species, there can be no such thing as an individual disembodied soul. But Averroes clearly embraces the Muslim belief in human immortality and, perhaps by cooking the philosophical books a little, manages to come down on both sides of the fence while explicitly maintaining that truth cannot contradict truth and that philosophy and revelation must be in accord.[2]

My own feeling is that there may well be a solution to be found in the nature of philosophy. Aristotle’s description of the intellects and their relation to the individual was, to say the least, ambiguous. By the time of Averroes, it had been interpreted and applied in a number of different ways, and the same could be said about almost any topic treated by the philosophers. Al-Farabi, following Aristotle, had said that philosophy was the highest activity of the human mind, yielding truth through strict demonstration and insight. Yet philosophers of all centuries and races have quarreled with one another incessantly. When St. Thomas Aquinas attacks Averroes, the immediate object of the attack seems to be inconsistency rather than untruth. False conclusions may be contested simply because in the light of an over-riding principle their falsity is apparent, but the disputation is still likely to proceed by way of charges of incorrect reasoning or misquotation of authorities. The geography of the wire-drawn reasoning upon which so much of the philosophy of the Middle Ages is built is more like that of an old eastern city, with its nests of little streets, lanes and alleys, some of them blind, than that of a wide plain crossed by a great highway leading from a pleasant suburbia of observation and insight to the austere uplands of truth. In the old town it is easy to get lost, to arrive at one’s destination without knowing exactly how one got there or to arrive at some unexpected but even more desirable location. It usually helps if one knows where one is trying to go. The philosophical process is always subject to the necessity of choice, the possibility of error and the influence of a desired or anticipated conclusion, and any philosopher who was not carried away by the perception of his own perspicacity must have been aware of it. Revelation is in no better case; that which is revealed may be partial, imperfectly seen or subject to interpretation. It may also proceed from powers inimical to the true path of human evolution. Perhaps the only way forward is to examine how we reach our own convictions. When I say that I believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit I am not reporting the result of ratiocination or privileged revelation; I am speaking of an inner conviction which may have been sparked by a moment of illumination and strengthened by contemplation, but which gradually attains a mysterious level of sureness beyond the reach of philosophy. “The real grandeur of Averroes is seen in his resolute prosecution of the standpoint of science in matters of this world, and in his recognition that religion is not a branch of knowledge to be reduced to propositions and systems of dogma, but a personal and inward power, an individual truth which stands distinct from, but not contradictory to, the universalities of scientific law.”[3]




The four great centuries of Arabian philosophy took place at a time when the cosmic intelligence was descending into the minds of human beings and when the divine thoughts which had had their place in the objects of sense perception had moved a step closer. The theologians and philosophers who tried to make some sense of the relations of mind, soul, intellect, form and the physical world were like marksmen shooting at a moving target. Steiner’s perception is that the general tendency of Arabian thought was to retard the acceptance of the gift or burden of individual thinking. He relates this specifically to an event in the spiritual world, in which the individualities previously incarnated as Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Harun al-Rashid and his counselor came together. The amalgam of Christianity and Aristotelianism, which was to incarnate in Western Europe largely through the work of Aquinas, was under the care of Aristotle and Alexander, but Harun al-Rashid and his counselor could not embrace it. Their perception of the human condition looked back to the period before the descent of the cosmic intelligence and the development of individuality, placing them in the service of spiritual powers who opposed the Michaelic impulse in human evolution. In their subsequent incarnations as Francis Bacon and Amos Comenius[4], the stream of Arabian thought found a new outlet. It is clear, however, that although the Arabian philosophers were influenced by backward-looking spirits, their struggles with the intractable problems of the individuality and immortality of the human soul were genuine and deeply felt. They wanted to deal with these problems in a way that made individuality and immortality part of the solution but were unable to do so in a philosophically convincing way. It’s worth noting, too, that both Aquinas and Steiner seem to have been unaware of the thoughts on the subject expressed by Averroes in his commentary on the De Anima and in his treatise On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy[5].



Aquinas and Averroes


One of the most striking manifestations of the change of consciousness was the scholastic movement, which began in the late eleventh century and reached its zenith in the thirteenth, during the lifetime of Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274). Like Averroes, Aquinas tried to make a synthesis of reason and faith, a philosophy of earthly things being possible and desirable, but accounting for only a part of human experience.


            “Man is, according to Thomas Aquinas, rooted with his soul life in the reality of the world, but this soul life cannot know the reality in its full extent through itself alone. Man could not know how his own being stands in the course of the world if the spirit being did not deign to reveal to him what must remain concealed from a knowledge relying on its own power alone.”

            (Rudolf Steiner, The Riddles of Philosophy, p.56)



            Aquinas drew a line between philosophy, which proceeds through the working of natural reason, and theology, which takes divine revelation as its starting point, but his line is permeable. Since both faith and reason come from God it is not possible that they should in any way contradict each other. It is therefore legitimate to use the methods of philosophy in the development of a theological system, as Aquinas did in producing his powerful and influential synthesis of Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy. Theology depends on divine revelation for much of its substance, but the existence of God can be proved through natural reason.

            As possibly the greatest of all those who tried to solve these age-old problems, Aquinas would have appeared in this story in any case, but there is a particular reason for him to make his presence felt at this point.

            Averroes had done his best to establish the harmony of religion and philosophy but it is doubtful whether he found his solution completely satisfactory and it is clear that no one else did, not even those who were considered to be his followers. Believing that neither the active nor the potential intellect was specific to the individual human being, he had tried to reach an understanding of human individuality in terms of an acquired intellect. Aquinas seems to have been unaware that Averroes, in spite of his philosophical difficulties, had rejected both the unicity theory, according to which what appears to be individual thinking is really the operation of a universal intelligence, and the double truth theory, but even if he had known these things he almost certainly would still have tried to show that Averroes’ interpretation of the ambiguous passages in the De Anima was incorrect. The human mind, according to Aquinas’s Aristotelian approach, depends on sense experience for all its natural knowledge; the individual intellect functions actively to gather elements of universality from sense perceptions and to impress the idea on the intellect in its passive mode. If Averroes had interpreted Aristotle correctly he would not have required such an elaborate and philosophically dubious analysis to save the clear perception that understanding is a function of the individual human being. The fact that at one time it had not been lay buried under centuries of philosophical sediment.

            The Age of Authority has long since been transformed into the Age of Individuality and it is hard for us at the beginning of the twenty-first century to see how embracing the correct solution of such an abstract philosophical problem might be essential for salvation. The fact is, however, that it was not abstract at the time and the anxieties of the Christian Fathers about doctrinal rectitude were such that suspicions of adherence to the unicity theory, or worse, to the double-truth theory, were apt to result in penances, heresy trials and excommunications. Orthodoxy, as embodied by conservative religious government, was unable to tolerate the free operation of human intelligence and insight. That this intolerance was partly in the interest of preserving the concept of human individuality adds a nice touch of irony to an act of repression. I have brought out these connections not only because Francis Bacon’s vision of scientific progress is linked, as I shall show, to the problematical concept of the unicity of the intellect and to the interactions of philosophy and theology, but also because these philosophico-theological thorns have been active in the flesh of everyone who has ever tried to make a continuum of earthly experience and spiritual insight.




Realism and Nominalism


One question that occupied the Scholastics was how to understand the objects of perception, now that the divine thoughts that were once as intimately wedded to them as their colors and shapes seem to have passed into a philosophical limbo.

            “This uncertainty runs through the teachings of the Scholastics… The Realists, with Thomas Aquinas and his circle at their head, still felt the old connection between Thought and Thing… they looked on Thoughts as actual realities, existing in the Things. The Thoughts of a man they viewed as a real something flowing from the Things into his soul. The Nominalists felt strongly that the soul makes her own thoughts… [that] thoughts were only the names men made for things….

“Even though thoughts had fallen from his domain and into that of men, [the Realists] yet wanted as thinkers to go on serving Michael as Prince of Intelligence in the cosmos. The Nominalists, in the unconscious parts of their souls, completed the falling away from Michael. They regarded not Michael, but man as the owner of the thoughts.”[6]

Some of us still follow Plato in the belief that the categories revealed by our senses are the projections of divine archetypes objectively existent in the spiritual world, although we are not able actually to perceive them. Others perceive groups of clearly related objects to which we give convenient names.[7] Between these extremes there several intermediate views. Aristotle experienced the universal not as a thing in itself but as immanent in individuals and still independent of the enquiring mind. The great scholastics of the thirteenth century, including Aquinas and John Duns Scotus (c.1265-c.1308) adhered to Aristotle’s moderate realism, thus aligning themselves with Avicenna and Averroes. William of Ockham (c.1285-1347) thought that we can extract all the juice we need from our sense impressions by using our powers of observation and organization and that in supposing the independent existence of Universals we are needlessly multiplying entities, a practice already frowned upon by Aristotle.

The tendency among anthroposophists automatically to regard the realists as the good guys and the nominalists as the bad is not helpful to the understanding. There was a very good reason, as Steiner says, for the latter point of view to emerge. Furthermore, being a realist was no guarantee of supporting the great synthesis of revelation and reason accomplished by Aquinas. Duns Scotus was one of the first to undermine the harmony of faith and reason, a central point in the doctrine of St. Thomas, and, incidentally, of Averroes. It is necessary to recognize that the philosophical and theological traumas that human beings had to deal with in the Middle Ages were not merely the result of people being good or bad, perceptive or opaque to the needs of human evolution. No doubt some were good and sensitive, some were bad and dense and many were simply confused, but the underlying truth is that the problems that they had to deal with were cosmic in scale and none of the proposed solutions really worked – not even that of Aquinas.

Steiner tells us, in the Letters to Members, that the Realists “still felt the old connection between Thought and Thing… they looked on Thoughts as actual realities, existing in the Things.” But two years previously he had explained how the old connection had been severed by the action of the Exousiai. Does this mean that the realists were wrong? It would be hard, in any case, to deny that the nominalists had caught hold of a portion of the truth. And, to add another ingredient to the pot, we have Bacon’s assertion that “The ideas of the divine mind… are the creator’s true stamp on created things, printed and defined on matter by true and precise lines.”

The one thing that matters for us, however, is that the Exousiai set the ball rolling down the descent into nominalism in order to give human beings the chance, under the guidance of Michael, to transform their power of individual thought into an instrument that would enable them to choose freely to reunite their destinies with those of their old mentors in the spiritual world – to descend, take up the burden of thought and return with it in freedom to the world of its origin.

I have gone into the matter in some detail because Steiner regards Francis Bacon’s philosophy as the epitome of Nominalism and this is something that requires careful examination.




            One characteristic that Bacon did not share with the Arabians and the scholastics was reverence for Aristotle. His contempt for the thought processes of the scholastics was exacerbated by their absorption of Aristotle’s philosophy into the corpus of religious orthodoxy, which put a considerable damper on subsequent experimentation and discovery. He likened the decay of knowledge to the putrefaction of natural substances, since it brings forth “subtile, idle, unwholesome, and (as I may term them) vermiculate questions…. This type of degenerate learning did chiefly reign among the schoolmen [scholastics]; who having sharp and strong wits and an abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading; but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle, their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges; and knowing little history, either of nature or time; did out of no great quantity of [subject] matter, and infinite agitation of wit, spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon [subject] matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but if it worketh upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit.”[8] While Bacon’s accurate perception of much that had passed as Scholasticism since the time of Aquinas, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham can have left little room for an appreciation of its original impulse, it is very doubtful whether even an unobscured view would have gained his approval. As far as his position with regard to Nominalism is concerned, we have Steiner’s comments:

            “With [Bacon], Nominalism has become such a thoroughgoing and avowed philosophy that he says: ‘We must sweep away man’s false belief in a reality which is, in point of fact, nothing but a name. Reality presents itself to us only when we look out on the world of the senses. The senses alone provide us with realities, the realities of empirical knowledge.’ …For him the spiritual world has evaporated into something which can never well up from the inner life of man with any scientific certainty or security.”

Realism and nominalism are mentioned not at all in The Advancement of Learning and only once in the Novum Organum, where Bacon remarks that the notions of the pre-Socratic philosophers “have all of them some taste of the natural philosopher — some savor of the nature of things, and experience, and bodies; whereas in the physics of Aristotle you hear hardly anything but the words of logic, which in his metaphysics also, under a more imposing name, and evidently more as a realist than a nominalist, he has handled over again.” Realism, indeed, was not Bacon’s target. It was the whole scholastic movement and its decadent aftermath that offended his sense of rightness. The problem of living amid the literary detritus of spent world-views is that what is real, valid and still fruitful becomes extremely elusive. The whole tangled mass of sixteenth century learning, if I may change the metaphor, had become a jungle too thick either to be penetrated or to be cultivated, and this is what Bacon wanted to sweep away. The remarks attributed by Rudolf Steiner to Francis Bacon in the foregoing quotation are not Bacon’s own words, but represent Steiner’s perception of his frame of mind and intentions. Bacon’s scientific method may have flowed vigorously into the nominalist stream, but his view of the world, in which he states very clearly that divine thoughts are present in the objects of nature, was closer to that of the traditional realists. He hoped that his elaborate system of scientific research would actually draw these ideas from nature into the human mind, thereby revealing to some extent God’s purposes, and he thought that by these means he might establish “forever a true and lawful marriage between the empirical and the rational faculty [i.e. between the sense world and the thought world], the unkind and ill-starred divorce of which has thrown into confusion all the affairs of the human family.”[9] The decision of divine powers to allow the separation of thought from thing certainly did throw “into confusion all the affairs of the human family.” The notion that this monumental transition might be reversed by the kind of inductive leg-work described in the Novum Organum may strike some people as funny, but we must remember that Bacon was under the impression that what he was trying to reverse was the result of human frailty, not cosmic evolution. Bacon’s proposals for achieving this may seem trivial in relation to the big evolutionary picture, but, believing that God’s thoughts were present in the objects of perception, he was under no illusion about the quantity, quality and intensity of the work needed to enable us to catch a glimpse of them.





Doubts and difficulties


            When I submitted a proposal for my book to an anthroposophical publisher I was told that a book about Francis Bacon would be too specialized to be of interest to the “average anthroposophist.” Since it seemed pointless to continue the correspondence I never asked him to characterize this standardized seeker of spiritual truth, but it did seem to me that since Steiner had spoken so frequently and so urgently about Bacon it would be a great pity if real, individual anthroposophists, rather than “average” ones, remained ignorant, not only of what the former Lord Chancellor had said but also about what Steiner said about him. There is, of course, no need for anyone to remain ignorant on either front; Bacon’s works are all readily available and clear statements of Steiner’s views can be found in The Riddles of Philosophy, The Riddles of Humanity and the Karma lectures. It doesn’t take much digging, however, to discover that the almost universal propensity to rely on second, third and fourth hand reporting, rather than reading the original texts is a serious obstacle. Anyone who takes the trouble to read Steiner will find that his picture of Bacon is both wider and deeper, in some ways more sympathetic and in others more radically critical than the standard European view of His Lordship as the inaugurator of All that is Bad in modern technological society. At the same time, any one who also reads Bacon’s own words may well come up with some serious questions about Steiner’s analysis. Here, from the Riddles of Philosophy is Steiner’s description of Bacon’s scientific method.

“Bacon of Verulam demands that the investigation of world phenomena should begin with unbiased observation. One should then try to separate the essential from the nonessential in a phenomenon in order to arrive at a conception of whatever lies at the bottom of a thing or event. He is of the opinion that up to his time the fundamental thoughts, which were to explain the world phenomena, had been conceived first, and only thereafter were the description of the individual things and events arranged to fit these thoughts. He presupposed that the thoughts had not been taken out of the things themselves. Bacon wanted to combat this (deductive) method with his (inductive) method. The concepts are to be formed in direct contact with the things.”

So far this is fair enough. Bacon really did say, if we put things in modern terms, that the old philosophers, Aristotle in particular, had made up their theories and then arranged the facts to fit them. Bacon believed, however, that this was not because there were no thoughts in the things, but because the old methods were incapable of finding them. Steiner continues:

“One sees, so Bacon reasons, how an object is consumed by fire; one observes how a second object behaves with relation to fire and then observes the same process with many objects. In this fashion one arrives eventually at a conception of how things behave with respect to fire. The fact that the investigation in former times had not proceeded in this way had, according to Bacon's opinion, caused human conception to be dominated by so many idols instead of the true ideas about the things.”

Two points arise here: one is that Steiner gives only a vague notion of the first stage of Bacon’s method, from which the reader could get no real idea of the Chancellor’s thinking. It is also not a trivial matter that Steiner thinks that Bacon’s sample of his method is about fire, whereas it was actually about heat, which is a very different matter. The other point is that Bacon gives several reasons for the emergence of idols and does not single out the failure to use his scientific method.

I know from personal experience that it is very difficult to say very briefly what someone else has said at great length, but Steiner’s reference to Bacon’s attempt to discover the form of heat raises the unpalatable question of whether he had actually read the original. Steiner goes on to quote Goethe, who, after giving a description of his own rather confused take on Bacon, gives the following assessment:

 “‘If through Verulam's method of dispersion, natural science seemed to be forever broken up into fragments, it was soon brought to unity again by Galileo. He led natural philosophy back into the human being. When he developed the law of the pendulum and of falling bodies from the observation of swinging church lamps, he showed even in his early youth that, for the genius, one case stands for a thousand cases. In science, everything depends on what is called an aperçu, that is, on the ability of becoming aware of what is really fundamental in the world of phenomena. The development of such an awareness is infinitely fruitful.’”

Galileo’s “early youth” took place long before Bacon’s scientific proposals were circulated and his major works got him into so much trouble because they contradicted the Aristotelian world-view favored by the church.[10] Furthermore, Galileo’s pioneering work in the mechanics of moving bodies laid the groundwork for what some have called the Newtonian revolution and therefore contributed to the emergence of our technological society. The chief objection to Bacon raised by Steiner and Goethe, as far as method is concerned, is that he throws the baby out with the bathwater. His effort to eliminate preconceived ideas and hasty generalizations precludes the possibility of the kind of immediate insight (aperçu) to which Goethe refers – not, by the way, that Goethe’s insights were always immediate; some of them took a very long time. Bacon’s chief quarrel with Goethe would have been that he glorifies the practice of making generalizations from single events.

Steiner continues:

 “Bacon does not understand that he is aiming at the same objective that has been reached by Plato and Aristotle, and that he must use different means for the same aim because the means of antiquity can no longer be those of the modern age. He points toward a method that might appear fruitful for the investigation in the field of external nature, but as Goethe shows in the case of Galileo, even in this field something more is necessary than what Bacon demands.”

“The method of Bacon proves completely useless, however, when the soul searches not only for an access to the investigation of individual facts, but also to a world conception. What good is a groping search for isolated phenomena and a derivation of general ideas from them, if these general ideas do not, like strokes of lightning, flash up out of the ground of being in the soul of man, rendering account of their truth through themselves. In antiquity, thought appeared like a perception to the soul. This mode of appearance has been dampened through the brightness of the new ego-consciousness. What can lead to thoughts capable of forming a world conception in the soul must be so formed as if it were the soul’s own invention, and the soul must search for the possibility of justifying the validity of its own creation. Bacon has no feeling for all this.”

To be strictly accurate, Bacon did have a feeling for the soul activity that produces thoughts “as if they were the soul’s own invention”; his feeling was that it had resulted in the stagnant mass of nonsense that he perceived in the science of his time. Once again we must remember that when Francis Bacon appeared on earth, the great period of genuine, spiritually informed scholasticism, with Aquinas at its centre, had long gone. Although he was not conscious of it, Bacon’s program was, in part, a response to the fact that divine guidance was not available as it had been in the ancient world or even, to some extent, in the Middle Ages. This is one reason why faith became such a vital matter in the Reformation, and here it must be noted that Steiner’s picture is limited by his concentration on Bacon’s scientific program and failure to consider its Christian counterpoise. Bacon’s world conception may be bifurcated and deeply flawed but its two branches are inextricably linked and the Christian one, which provided guidance for the general conduct of his life and work, has the ultimate precedence. He had no expectation that his scientific study of nature would be aided by divine revelation, but this did not prevent him from praying for divine help.


“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…


It would be easy, like Stewart C. Easton in And Another Strong Angel[11], to dismiss Bacon’s Christianity as “nominal” or even bogus, but this is something that unprejudiced observation will not allow us to do.







Steiner continues with a consideration of Bacon’s famous doctrine of idols. To this point Bacon has been treated merely as the wrongheaded creator of a hare-brained scheme for the advancement of science, but now we come to the real meat of Steiner’s case against him.


“Words are treated as if they have nothing to do with reality unless they directly refer to properties perceivable by the senses, and nothing else… Mankind had at some time to confront the assertion, ‘There are words in your language that have nothing to do with reality; in past times one thought they had, but this was the result of superstitions and unfounded preconceptions. In truth, it is necessary for you to free yourselves from the content of words, for words refer to idols.’ Thus did Bacon introduce the misunderstanding of speech into our newly-arrived, fifth post-Atlantean epoch. Under the direction of the spiritual world, he began to drive out mankind's old feeling that language can contain the spirit. He referred to all substantial concepts and all universal concepts as idols.”


Actually Bacon did nothing of the sort, as is clear from Aphorism 23 of the Novum Organum.


There is a great difference between the Idols of the human mind and the Ideas of the divine. That is to say, between certain empty dogmas, and the true signatures and marks set upon the works of creation as they are found in nature.


According to Bacon the problem is not the absence of Divine ideas but the presence of human fallibility. He refers not to “all substantial concepts and all universal concepts”, but to “certain empty dogmas”, which have become so fixed in human consciousness that the only remedy is to sweep away the whole infected system, and, like any responsible surgeon, start with a sterile system. It’s hard to imagine that any serious student of Rudolf Steiner would deny the existence of “empty dogmas” – Steiner seemed to think that there were rather a lot of them. Bacon sterilized his system so thoroughly that it was very hard for any form of life to struggle into it, but that’s not what we’re talking about at the moment. It seems to me that in making an appraisal of the man’s life, work and influence, it’s very important to be accurate about what he actually did and said. After that we can discuss the question of whether when he said x he actually meant y. History may be, as Steiner and others have asserted and Bacon strongly suggested, merely a fable convenue, or in Henry Ford’s more picturesque version, “Bunk”, but we actually do know exactly what Bacon said about a whole host of topics and we probably have a clearer picture of the course of his life than we have of the Vietnam War, to mention a notorious example.

Steiner continues with a description of the four kinds of idols mentioned by Bacon.


“Firstly, he said, there are certain words that have simply arisen out of people's need to live together. Men believe that these words designate something real. These words are idols of the clan, of the people, idols of the tribe.”


This refers to Aphorism 41, in which Bacon makes one of his most depressing assessments of human nature and understanding in general.


41. The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.


We may disagree entirely with Bacon, or feel that although there is a grain of truth here the verdict is very one-sided, but we have to admit that the aphorism is not about words but about the perceptions of the individual, and that there is nothing about “the need to live together.” As members of the human race we share a common nature by which each one lives in his or her own “reality distortion field”, to borrow a phrase from my good friend Linda Blanchard. 

Steiner continues with a rather inaccurate account of the content of Aphorism 42:


“Then, once men start to understand the world, they attempt to mix an erroneous spirituality into their way of seeing things. The knowledge mankind obtains arises as though in a cave; but to the extent that he hauls the external world into this cave, man creates words for what he would like to know. These words also refer to something unreal. They are the idols of the cave: idola specis.”


The cave, according to Bacon, is in the mind of the individual, bombarded, as we would say these days, with sense impressions. Like the previous aphorism, this one is not about words.


42. The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.


Steiner continues with the idols described in aphorisms 43 and 44, seriously misrepresenting Bacon’s actual words.


“There are still other kinds of idols — words, that is — that designate non-existent entities. These arise out of the fact that men are not just gathered together into races or peoples by virtue of their blood relationships, but because they also form associations in order to manage one thing and another… Bacon says that other unreal entities, along with the words that express them, have arisen because of this. These unreal entities stem from our living together in the market-place; they are the idols of the market-place: idola fori. Then, there are yet other idols which arise when science creates mere names. Naturally, there are frightfully many of this kind. For if you were to set all our lecture cycles before Bacon, with all they contain about spiritual matters, all the words referring to spiritual things would be idols of this kind. These are the idols that Bacon believes to be the most dangerous, for one feels especially protected by them, believing that they contain real knowledge: these are the idola theatri. This theatre is an inner one where mankind creates a spectacle of concepts for itself. The concepts are no more real than are the characters on the stage of a theatre. All the idols expressed in words are of these four kinds.”


It is essential to realize that in his descriptions of the idols, Bacon is not prescribing anything but commenting on the situation of philosophy as he sees it, a situation which has driven him to the prescription or “modest proposal” of abandoning the current endeavor and replacing it with something that he believes to be new. Furthermore, he is not asserting that all words and all usages are the results of the abuses he describes, but that these abuses are prevalent and make serious scientific discourse difficult or, perhaps, impossible. The problems are not in the words but in the way we treat them. We have gone a-whoring after false Gods and “certain empty dogmas”, and have failed to achieve Bacon’s ideal of perceiving “the true signatures and marks set upon the works of [God’s] creation as they are found in nature.”

Steiner appears to believe that Bacon’s idols are all words; whereas, according to Bacon, the idols may be mistaken beliefs, observations, systems or philosophies and an essential part of the problem is that these are conveyed in words whose meanings have been corrupted.


43. There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

44. Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak; for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received.


One problem for the anthroposophist coming to Bacon’s list of Idols is that so much of what he says has also been said by Steiner. Thanks to the efforts of Lucifer and Ahriman, aided by our own torpor, we do tend to live in our worlds (caves) of private fantasy. Language has been corrupted. Words are often used like bullets. Much of what is taught and believed in the modern world does consist of fables convenues. The same was true in Bacon’s time; hence his warnings about idols. Science, Steiner says, must rule out anything that extends, in principle, beyond sense perception but he offers us a path that leads forward from the experience of the senses to a new, objective relationship to the world, spiritual and physical. Bacon offered a path that attempted, not quite successfully, to rule out anything before sense perception, and his hope was to restore the old relationship of Eden and God, and find God’s ancient signature in the natural world. But whereas the old paths are closed, Steiner’s is open to anyone who wishes to follow it.


Whether what I have had to say about the inaccuracy of Steiner’s portrayal of Bacon and his earthly deeds will be regarded as problematical is a matter about which I shall not be holding my breath. It may be ignored out of existence, summarily dismissed, refuted point by point or (just possibly) given serious consideration. I should warn the reader, however, that there is quite a lot more. See Part III


[1] “One can observe... in the pre-Socratic thinkers the prelude; in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the culmination; after them a decline and a kind of dissolution of thought life…. Greek thought life has an element that makes it appear “perfect” in the best sense of the word. It is as if the energy of thought in the Greek thinkers had worked out everything that it contains within itself…. Later world conceptions have produced accomplishments through other forces of the soul. Of the later thoughts, as such, it can be shown that with respect to their real thought content they can always be found in some earlier Greek thinker.” (Steiner: Riddles of Philosophy)

[2] As in Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, tr. G. F. Hourani, London, 1961.

[3] Arabian Philosophy by William Wallace and the Rev. G. W. Thatcher, Enc. Brit., 1940. This edition of the Enc. Brit. is full of immensely authoritative and scholarly articles which make no concessions to the casual reader. After reading the article on radioactivity, for example, I was delighted to find that the author’s initials are E. Ru. – Ernest Rutherford himself. A little later I discovered that the article on the conduction of electricity had been written by J. J. Th(omson). and the one on Atomic Physics by N. B. – Niels Bohr. This is like finding an article on Elizabethan drama signed by W. Sh. and one on spiritual science signed by R. St.

[4] John Amos Comenius, 1592-1670, Moravian priest. He advocated the universal systematization of knowledge and education, using the vernacular instead of Latin, and giving opportunities to women.

[5] On the Harmony may have contributed to Averroes’ disgrace and banishment, since one of his offences was that he “sought to reconcile religion and philosophy.” Later it seems to have fallen into deeper and deeper obscurity. It was translated into Hebrew around 1300 but never into Latin or any other language until late in the nineteenth century. It seems certain that Aquinas was unaware of it. There was no satisfactory English translation until Hourani’s appeared in 1961. He notes that although orientalists have shown an interest in the treatise “it cannot be said that much interest in it has yet been felt by the wider public that concerns itself with the problems and history of religion and philosophy.”

[6] Rudolf Steiner, Letters to Members

[7] Problems arising from the naming of categories are still with us. The question of whether a set of objects is itself an object is at the heart of an important logical paradox described by Bertrand Russell.

[8] The Advancement of Learning, Oxford Authors, O. U. P., 1996, p.140.

[9] The Great Instauration, Preface

[10] Galileo has been criticized, in anthroposophical circles, for being so cold-blooded and detached that he could sit there timing a pendulum with a constant pulse when he ought to have been deeply involved in the service – an example of the deplorable modern “observer consciousness.”

[11] Rudolf Steiner Institute, USA, 1979

Part III >>>