Rudolf Steiner and Francis Bacon

By

 

 

Keith Francis

 

 

Part III

 

 

(xiii)

 

“Words, Words, Words”

 

Before continuing with Steiner’s assessment of Bacon’s activities it would be as well to call to mind once again the greater picture. We live in a world in which, at one time, idea and object, thought and perception, were united. By the will of divine beings, the realm of thought became detached from the realm of sense perception and gradually came closer to the human being. By the end of the fourteenth century this process was complete and people felt that their thoughts were their own. This coincided with the end of the great period of Scholasticism, in which people had tried to work out the relations between sense perception, thinking and the divine, and in which nominalism had largely triumphed over realism. The drift into materialism became an instrument in the divine plan for humanity. Our task is to stop those powers opposed to this plan from binding us permanently to the material world and preventing our re-ascent to the spirit.

In spiritual science, as in orthodox science, we have learnt to expect contradictions. As Emerson remarked, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” Unfortunately, the Sage of Concord forgot to tell us how to identify foolishness, so we must rely on our own resources in deciding whether consistency is desirable in any particular case. As mere mortals we rightly condemn the use of foul means to arrive at fair ends, although ideal behavior is much easier to formulate than to emulate. If, in the spiritual world, things seem to be different it is because of our almost ineradicable habit of seeing things in terms of only one incarnation. It seems quite right and understandable that in our individual lives we have to go through very bad times to achieve some sort of redemption: in the larger context we can preserve our sanity only by seeing the undeserved agonies and extinctions suffered by whole groups or even nations and races as belonging to a great cycle in which origins and consequences work over successive incarnations. This does not mean that we condone evil acts of persecution, murder and genocide. We know that we must do everything in our power to prevent them and that in so doing we may alter the course of karma for the persecutors as well as for the victims. But we also have some consolation in the knowledge that when the intentions of the good spirits are subverted by the activities of those who have their own ideas about the evolution of the human race, the evils which result can be turned to good, even though the process may take centuries or millennia. So the plunge into materialism “that from a certain point of view, must be resisted, nevertheless can make its appearance in the world in accordance with the rightful cosmic plan.”

Here in full is the paragraph from which this last quotation from Steiner’s Riddles of Philosophy is taken:

And learning to see through these idols is to provide the salvation of human knowledge – this was inaugurated by Bacon of Verulam. The idols must be understood, their idol-like character, their character of unreality, must be recognised, so that we can at last turn our attention towards reality. But if all these species of idols are removed, nothing remains but the five senses… Only that which the hands can grasp and the eyes can see is to be accepted as real — only what can be investigated in the chemical laboratory, in the experiments of the physicist, in the clinic. The important book [the Novum Organum] which gave Bacon of Verulam's doctrine of the idols to the fifth post-Atlantean epoch inaugurated this way of looking at the world; it is the classic source. And such a book shows us how the very thing that, from a certain point of view, must be resisted, nevertheless can make its appearance in the world in accordance with the rightful cosmic plan. The fifth post-Atlantean epoch had to develop materialism. Therefore the programme for materialism had to be introduced from out of the spiritual world. And the first stage of the programme of materialism is contained in the doctrine of the idols, which did away with the old Aristotelian doctrine that words refer to categories which have real significance.”

 

It seems to me that, like Bacon, Steiner is sometimes too wholesale. Bacon’s behavior is like that of the British Government when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease is discovered. Some of the cows have the disease so the whole herd has to be destroyed. Steiner’s position is like that of someone who sees that the whole herd is being destroyed and concludes that the Government officials must have thought that all the cows were infected. As far as the cows and, perhaps, the further history of agriculture, are concerned, the result is the same. But the mindsets and motivations of the officials have been misunderstood.

           

In Aphorism 60 Bacon specifically objects to two kinds of idols “imposed by words on the understanding”; those which are the names of things which do not exist, and those which are “the names of things which exist, but yet confused and ill-defined, and hastily and irregularly derived from realities.” These idols have their origins in” lack of observation”, “fantastic suppositions” and “false and idle theories”, such things as Rudolf Steiner complains about rather frequently in other contexts. Steiner inveighed against a general lack of “unprejudiced observation”, and felt “compelled to reject as impossible every theory of nature which, in principle, extends beyond the domain of the perceived world, and to seek in the sense-world the sole object of consideration for natural science.”[1] His distress at the tendencies of philosophy and physiology led to a somewhat intemperate dismissal: “Those whose capacity for conceiving ideas has not been corrupted by Descartes, Locke, Kant and the modern physiologists will never comprehend how light, color, sound and heat can be considered only subjective states within the human organism and yet an objective world of processes outside this organism can be affirmed.”[2] In tone and, to some extent, in content, Steiner sounds remarkably like Bacon in these remarks. The tone is that of someone who inherits a confused system based on faulty principles and feels that whole regions of discourse must be rejected and replaced with a new approach. My conviction is that Steiner was right and that his new approach has shown itself to be true and fruitful and to lead to the possibility of passing from physical nature into divine nature. I also believe that Bacon was right in much of his diagnosis and that a lot of what he said still applies today. His proposals, however, in spite of being the results of an enormous quantity of observation and thinking and not being entirely free from basic principles, amounted to cutting off the branch he was sitting on. (That’s for people who are tired of the baby and the bathwater.)

            Once again it is necessary to distinguish between an attack on words in themselves and an attack on the way in which words, “being commonly framed and applied according to the capacity of the vulgar” are used. Our language is littered with the corpses of words, such as “contemporary” and “fortuitous”, that we can no longer use because of the capacity not only of the vulgar, whoever they may be, but also of schoolteachers, college professors, television personalities, politicians and anthroposophists to misuse them. Most of these acts of degradation happen through ignorance but some are politically motivated. Legislation that increases pollution can be made palatable by calling it a “Fresh Air” act. There is nothing new about these processes; they are among the things that Bacon complained about and they weren’t new in his time either. What Steiner regards as an attack on words, a fatal blow to the experience of language as a divine gift, may be thought of more accurately as a response to the degradation that had already taken place.

 

 

(xiv)

 

Karma Revisited

 

In Chapter 6 of the fourth volume of Karmic Relationships, Steiner says the following:

“I have already spoken of Lord Bacon of Verulam as the reincarnated Haroun al Raschid. We know how intense and determining an influence Bacon's con­ceptions had on the whole succeeding evolution of the spiritual life, notably in its finer impulses and movements. Now the remarkable thing is this, that in Lord Bacon himself something took place which we may describe as a morbid elimination of old spirituality. For such spirituality he had after all possessed when he was Haroun al Raschid.

“And thus we see, proceeding from the impulse of Lord Bacon, a whole world of daemonic beings. The world was literally filled supersensibly and sensibly with daemonic beings.

 

            When Steiner says, “We know”, I am not always sure whether he means, “I know…”, “We in the anthroposophical movement know…”, or “Everyone knows.” We should remember that not everyone knows “how intense and determining an influence Bacon's con­ceptions had on the whole succeeding evolution of the spiritual life, notably in its finer impulses and movements”, and that many would strongly disagree.

I’d like to introduce here, on the question of what everyone knows, some remarks from Paolo Rossi’s article, Bacon’s Idea of Science, in The Cambridge Companion to Bacon.[3]

By the middle of the nineteenth century [Bacon’s] insistence on an experimentally based, gradualistic science was taken for granted, but the detailed approach that he described was derided or ignored. As far as the twentieth century is concerned, “Two different, negative appraisals centered on Bacon’s philosophy.” According to one, Bacon was a champion of “what science has never been and will never be: a kind of knowledge obtained by observation, a process of accumulation of data, an illusory attempt to free the human mind from theories and presuppositions”. According to the other, “Bacon was precisely the opposite – the symbol of what science has been up until now and should no longer be: the impious will to dominate nature and tyrannize mankind… it is the scientific and technological enthusiasm of the Lord Chancellor that leads to materialism, the mercantilization of culture, to modern industrial society, which is the realm of alienation and conformism, of the standardization and destruction of all human values. According to the [Anglo-American] philosophers of our century who extolled scientific knowledge against the nonsensical propositions of metaphysicians, Bacon has nothing to do with science. According to the continental philosophers… Bacon is the very essence of science…. Once again, Bacon was reduced to a symbol. The ‘plumb and the weight’ of the texts was avoided…. Bacon’s precise distinction between ‘experiments of light’ and ‘experiments of fruit’ was disregarded. So, too, were ignored the many pages Bacon wrote against the utilitarian desire of immediate results and the foolish habit of abandoning the natural course of scientific enquiry and turning aside, like Atalanta, after profit and commodity… Perhaps Francis Bacon was right; it is impossible to eradicate all the idols from men’s minds. Among the idols we have so far been unable to eradicate are undoubtedly the following: the propensity not to read the original texts; the tendency to reduce the philosophies of the past to some seemingly brilliant slogans; the construction on the basis of these of mythical philosophical portraits”

The appraisal of Bacon that Steiner gives in The Riddles of Philosophy starts with what Rossi calls the “Anglo-American view” and passes into a much more subtle version of the European one, which is taken further in the Karma Lectures. The European view is demonstrably incorrect, but its persistence, well into the second half of the twentieth century, shows the enormous durability of such ideas once they have become part of the group consciousness.

 Readers who recoil in horror at the suggestion that anything that Steiner said came from that source are asked to remember that a great initiate is still a human being and that we are all heirs of Adam’s fall. For all his greatness, Steiner is no more beyond criticism than Aristotle and Aquinas. The emotional power of what we might call the standard nineteenth century European model of Francis Bacon is illustrated by the experience of Loren Eiseley.

In 1961, the four hundredth anniversary of Bacon’s birth, Eiseley, who, besides holding the Chair in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, had recently been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, gave several addresses on Bacon’s life and scientific work. “I rapidly discovered”, he writes in the preface to The Man Who Saw Through Time[4], “that I had unwittingly assumed the role of attorney for the defense against sometimes extremely self-righteous public prosecutors who had been unduly influenced by Macauley’s[5] intemperate and acerbic treatment of Bacon in the nineteenth century, writings upon which many later treatments of Bacon were modeled. I found myself embroiled, in fact, in sufficient controversy to make me wonder whether it was I who was threatened with the Tower, and whether Parliament was in full cry upon my own derelictions.” Having been amazed at the fury of the reactions stirred up by his efforts to “do honor to a great scholar and seer”, Eiseley found that by the time he revised his papers for reprinting in 1972 much of what he had said had been accepted and scholars who had actually studied Bacon’s work had noted the successive vulgarizations of it by the puritans and the Victorians.  Eiseley quotes the historian Margery Purver to the effect that “the Victorian image of Francis Bacon, distorted and inconsequential, continues to dominate historians.” It did not dominate Loren Eiseley but some aspects of it seem to have been uncritically accepted by Rudolf Steiner. It is worth noting, too, that changes in the way in which scholars perceived Bacon and his work took place at a time when reactions against the technological society had reached a new level of intensity, so they were plainly not caused by a mere whim of fashion.

To agree that the exoteric historical record does not support the contention that Bacon was responsible for the “whole succeeding evolution of the spiritual life” is not, however, to dismiss Steiner’s esoteric judgements. While it is important to get the historical record right in order to avoid red herrings and simply because it is always better to get something right, it is possible that in relation to the whole karmic picture his actual deeds on earth were not of any great moment, and that the spiritual powers, the daemons of materialism, would have used the individuality incarnated as Francis Bacon no matter what he did. It is as if the cosmic powers who wish to bind humanity to matter looked at Bacon’s work as a whole and said, “Aha! If we suppress all the soul elements and religious insights that come from the human and generous side of this man’s character and keep only the elements from which human feeling has been rigorously excluded, we shall be able to promote a kind of science which will soon exclude perception not only of the spirit, but also of the soul, and which may eventually cast doubt on the existence of consciousness.” So Bacon’s profound religious convictions and his clear and repeated warnings against the perversion of the scientific methods that he proposed have disappeared from human consciousness.

 

*

 

What, however, of the “morbid elimination of spirituality”? The elimination of old spirituality was part of an evolutionary process that had been going on among healthy people for centuries. In what sense was it morbid in the case of Francis Bacon? It will be helpful to examine for a moment the spiritual and religious context into which he was born.

            In much of Europe the sixteenth century was a period of religious and political turmoil, and nowhere was the situation more chaotic than in England. Henry VIII (1492-1553), his desperate desire to provide a male heir, his divorce, his six wives, “Bloody” Mary, “Good Queen Bess”, “Merrie England”, and the image of Anne Boleyn walking the Bloody Tower (“with ’er ’ead tucked underneath ’er arm”[6]) became part of English folklore, but the frightful tale of political intrigue, plots, rebellions and executions is largely unknown.

In the year of Our Lord 1509, when Henry took the throne, the Roman Catholic Church in England was spiritually decadent, exceedingly wealthy and responsible for a large annual contribution to the financial well-being of the Church in Rome. As a young man Henry was a devout Catholic and received the title “Defender of the Faith” (Fidei Defensor) as a reward for writing The Defence of the Seven Sacraments (1521) in opposition to Martin Luther’s refusal to acknowledge any sacraments other than baptism and the Eucharist. Luther’s ideas had, however, gained a foothold in England and became part of the mixture of incompatibles from which Henry strong-armed the Church of England into existence.

            Henry’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, whom he had married in 1509, was a potent factor in the process of withdrawal from Rome. By the mid-1520’s his unfulfilled desire for a male heir, coupled with the attractions of Anne Boleyn, who had recently become a maid of honor to the Queen, led to his unsuccessful application to Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his first marriage. Having thus been rebuffed, Henry summoned Parliament in 1529 to deal with the matter, only to find himself thwarted again when the English ecclesiastical authorities concluded that Parliament could not empower their archbishop to defy the Pope.

            Using every political and legal weapon at his disposal, Henry bullied Parliament and the clergy into submission. By 1531 he had obtained recognition as “the sole Protector and Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England” and as having spiritual jurisdiction over the church. A series of Acts of Parliament, dictated by the king, stripped the church of its authority to make laws of any kind, outlawed all ecclesiastical appeals and financial contributions to the Roman church, and declared that “this realm of England is an Empire… governed by one Supreme Head and King unto whom… all people… be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.” Just to make sure there was no misunderstanding the Act of Supremacy of 1534 proclaimed that Henry was the “Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England.”

            By this time, Henry, having secured the cooperation of his new Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, had married Anne in Westminster Abbey (after a honeymoon in France) and Anne had produced the future Queen Elizabeth I three months after the wedding. The Pope’s response was to excommunicate the King and the Archbishop from the Roman Church.

            If all of these goings-on seem to be of a sordidly worldly nature we must not forget that there were currents of deeply religious feeling that affected the course of events, even in the heart of Henry himself. Impulses for reform had already been apparent in the work of the theologian John Wycliffe (1330-1384), philosophically an extreme realist, whose teaching on universals and determinism underlay his view of the Eucharist and the nature of the church. English village life was strongly coupled to the church calendar and its seasons and festivals, so that when Henry’s reforms, carried out largely by his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell[7], reached the stage of abolishing Feast Days and discouraging pilgrimages, there was tremendous resentment. Cromwell’s efforts to consolidate England’s independence from Rome included the dissolution of the monasteries, abbeys and priories. These actions, often accompanied by senseless iconoclasm and wanton destruction, led to uprisings in many parts of the country, fueled both by strong religious feeling on the part of many Roman Catholics and by economic hardships among those who depended on these institutions for their livelihood.  When Henry realized what was going on he issued a proclamation forbidding free discussion of doctrinal matters, reaffirming many Roman Catholic beliefs and practices, and, contrary to Cromwell’s wishes, restricting the reading of the Bible to men and women of noble birth. “The Word of God” Henry remarked, “is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same.”          With the split from Rome complete and the succession secure in the person of the future Edward VI, the heir provided by Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, the king appeared to be ready to leave his realm in the hands of a conservative regency council. This plan was undermined by Edward Seymour, Jane’s brother, who became Lord Protector in 1547 on the accession his nine-year-old nephew. The attack on “popish” practices now became much more virulent; all images, stained glass windows, shrines, roods, vestments, bells and plate were to be destroyed or sold. Priestly celibacy was no longer required, chantries were abolished and masses for the dead were prohibited. By 1550 Cranmer had produced the English Book of Common Prayer and wooden tables had replaced the customary stone altars. The idea that a priest is divinely ordained to speak to God on behalf of the congregation received a further blow in the shape of an ordinal providing for Protestant pastors rather than Catholic priests and in 1552 a revised prayer book radically altered the shape of the service. Opposition to these changes was effective enough to cause the removal of Seymour as Lord Protector, and when Edward VI died in July of 1553 the unpopularity of the protestant movement enabled Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor, to take the throne herself. Many churches celebrated this event by bringing out their concealed plate, images and vestments and digging up their stone altars.

            Mary did her best to repair the schism with Rome, but the Pope, as might be expected, insisted on settling property disputes first, and the reconciliation was delayed until late in 1554 when Cranmer was replaced by Cardinal Pole as Archbishop of Canterbury. Pole’s attempt to rebuild the past and to enliven the future with scripture, education and improved moral standards among the clergy achieved only moderate success and the conciliatory impulse with which the new regime had begun was replaced by a harsh insistence on conformity. Heresy laws, brought back from mediaeval obscurity, were used in the persecution of Protestants, 283 of whom were burnt at the stake. When we remember “Bloody” Mary and the 283 protestant martyrs we are apt to forget that the casualties of her father’s reign far exceeded that number, and that under Elizabeth I “Merrie England” was still the scene of religious chaos and persecution.

            Anxious to provide an heir, Mary took the advice of the Holy Roman Emperor and married his son, Phillip II of Spain. The only offspring of this union was a great deal of trouble for Mary’s successor.[8] Mary’s apparent pregnancy turned out to be the onset of stomach cancer, of which she died in 1558.

            The reign of the protestant Elizabeth I, like that of her half-sister Mary, began in a somewhat relaxed mood but, with the beginning of the Puritan movement, it soon hardened into the pursuit of strict conformity. Destruction of everything deemed “idolatrous” proceeded again at full speed and in 1559 Parliament passed an Act of Supremacy which reinstated ten Acts that Mary had repealed and made Elizabeth “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. In the same year the Act of Uniformity made Sunday attendance at an Anglican church compulsory. Many Catholics went underground, taking their vestments and precious objects of veneration with them, secretly celebrating the Mass and hoping for the wind of change to blow again. It was into this atmosphere of spiritual turmoil that Francis Bacon was born in 1561.

It seems clear that the “elimination of old spirituality” was taking place throughout England in the sixteenth century in a way that could hardly be described as healthy. Whatever remained of ancient wisdom in the practices of the church was being dissipated from within by negligent, self-serving clergy and attacked from without by those who no longer perceived the function of ecclesiastical art and ritual in connecting priest and congregation with the divine world. People who still found strength and solace in the old forms of worship and those who were attracted to the newer anti-Catholic practices were forced equally into Elizabeth’s rigid system. Bacon, growing up close to the Queen’s court and in the Queen’s favor, had no option about toeing the line and helping her with his legal expertise to make sure that no one crossed it; but, being a person of independent mind, he not only published his own views on the nature of Christianity and the responsibilities of the Christian but also took the risk of counseling a greater degree of moderation than Her Majesty favored. In the midst of these apparently endless disputes his philosophical aspirations were already taking shape and the impulse to inaugurate a new scientific endeavor was soon at war with the desire for a high position at court and all the luxuries that would accompany such recognition.

 

*

 

While Bacon was pondering his Great Instauration, science was already undergoing a radical transition in the adoption of the kind of mathematical and quantitative methods which Bacon eschewed. At the same time, efforts to penetrate to the divine world by means of natural and spiritual magic – in other words, genuine alchemy – did not vanish overnight. The mark left on Europe by Paracelsus was indelible and in the seventeenth century van Helmont, Boyle and Newton, among many others, were deeply influenced by his work. Bacon’s natural philosophy was a different matter and the Novum Organum could hardly have been more squarely antithetical to alchemy. His belief that the human mind was too weak an instrument to encompass the subtlety and multiplicity of nature and needed the assistance of a quasi-mechanical system, does not seem to have occurred to anyone else. Was this belief a product of “the morbid elimination” of spirituality, despair over the current state of science or a genuine insight? It seems highly unlikely that any serious alchemist would have entertained the notion – alchemy seems to have been a pursuit for the archetypal loner, not for a cog in a cognitive machine. There was, however, one persistent notion which Bacon shared with the alchemists and with Newton, Goethe and Steiner, and which has been absent from mainstream physical science for a couple of centuries – that his work might eventually lead to the perception of the divine thinking that was inherent in the natural world.

It is arguable that Bacon’s soul condition partook of the general morbidity that for several centuries had increasingly afflicted Europeans, deprived of the ancient intercourse with the hierarchies, struggling to find a relation to thinking, individuality and the physical world, and under assault from the spirits of materialism. We are still in the fairly early days of this struggle and while Bacon’s soul may have been a mess, it was probably the kind of mess familiar to most of us if we are given to a little introspection.

In spite of his great accomplishments it seems that Bacon generally had too many irons in the fire and would have done better to have spent less time instructing others and more time putting his own advice into practice. He loved the pomp and circumstance and the cut and thrust of Elizabethan and Jacobean court life. He loved to occupy his powerful mind with legal issues and to write edifying essays filled with good advice. He loved to live as a person of great wealth with carriages, fine clothes and servants galore, most of which he could not afford. But he also loved the philosophical life, the life of contemplation, of one who knew the past intimately and could project his thought into the future, who suffered with all who bore the burden of humanity. And in his old age, after his disgrace, he regretted the choices he had made, writing in an unpublished prayer, part of which I have already quoted:

 

Oh Lord my strength! I have since my youth, met with Thee in all my ways; by Thy fatherly compassions; by Thy comfortable chastisements; by Thy visible providences. As Thy favours have increased upon me, so have Thy corrections. Thus Thou hast always been near me, oh Lord, and ever as my worldly blessings were exalted, so secret darts from Thee have pierced me; that when I have ascended before men, I have descended in humiliation before Thee.

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 was conscious of something amiss in his soul life, one aspect of which he experienced as the failure to fulfill his true mission in life. He seems to have felt that, like the Prodigal Son, he had “spent his substance in riotous living” when he ought to have devoted himself to the family farm – in other words to the cultivation of philosophy and science. Very few people were or are as gifted as Bacon, so that it may be that his sin in misusing his talents was all the greater. It might also be maintained that his hope of locating spirituality in nature by eliminating it from science (to put the matter very crudely) was so wrongheaded as to be explainable only in terms of daemonic influence.


 

 

(xv)

 

Bacon’s System, Arabian Philosophy and the Individual Human Being

          

In Bacon’s system the human intelligence works as a blank page on which nature is to be encouraged to write her own script, just as, in the philosophy of Aristotle,[9] the potential intellect is overwritten by the external and universal active intellect. Aristotle speaks somewhat obscurely of the active, potential and passive intellects and passes on without giving the impression that he has been dealing with a matter of great difficulty or importance. The operation of human intelligence became a matter of great moment for some of the Arabian philosophers because the universality of the active intellect and the mortality of the passive intellect made it very difficult to incorporate human individuality and personal immortality into a consistent philosophical system. Christian philosophers wrestled with similar difficulties and after the great Thomist synthesis had been attacked and its credibility severely damaged, scholastic philosophy drifted into vain imaginings and occupied itself more and more with futile speculation.

Bacon set out to replace these futilities with something new, vital and fruitful, but his system carries with it the imprint of the old unfathomed dilemma insofar as it assigns to nature the role previously thought to have been played by the divine active intellect. Nature, it is true, requires a little more prodding, but the fact remains that if Bacon’s inductive engine had worked exactly as stated in the Novum Organum, all scientific workers would have acquired exactly the same set of thoughts and concepts, and these thoughts and concepts would have come from somewhere outside the individual mind. “What’s wrong with that?” we might say, “If a thing is true it must be the same for everyone.” What’s wrong with it is that it presupposes a mind that is a passive receiver rather than an active participant. The realization among Goethean scientists that true knowledge arises when mind goes out to meet nature, and the barrier between them is dissolved, was a great step forward, paralleled to some extent by the realization among physicists of the 1920’s that the observer is part of the experiment.[10] Bacon’s design for a method that appears to deny the possibility of individual insight is a continuation of the resistance to the development of individual consciousness manifested in the spiritual conference between the individualities of Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Harun el Rashid and the counselor who was to become Amos Comenius in a later incarnation.

The Arabian philosophers, no matter how much they had desired to provide a sound basis for belief in the autonomy and immortality of the individual human soul, had never been able to do so. As a devout Christian, Bacon, too, believed in individual responsibility and in the immortality of the soul, but his scientific system makes each individual merely a cog in a large machine and the community which it envisages falls far short of Steiner’s ideal:

“A healthy social life is found only when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living.”

           

*

 

It has been suggested that after Bacon’s design for a scientific community had all but vanished from human consciousness for a couple of centuries it reappeared in the form of the assembly line, made famous by Henry Ford when he adapted it to the manufacture of automobiles. We must be careful not to assume that Henry Ford was a bad guy. He did, after all, shock his fellow industrialists by paying his workers way above average wages and instituting a profit-sharing scheme which distributed $30 million a year among them. Some of Bacon’s ideas may have foreshadowed the appearance of industrial communities in which workers are treated like indistinguishable, expendable units, but it would be much too simple-minded to hold Bacon personally responsible for the evils of industrial society, against which he uttered some very severe warnings. A stream of thought, as Rudolf Steiner says, develops a life of its own, with its own sequence of incarnations and dormancies. Steiner spoke of the danger of entrapment in the material world and of the aspiration to raise matter to the spirit. As long as we are awake we still have a choice, of which one aspect is the wish to balance the ideal of individuality and the ideal of community. Great numbers of people, as far as their daily lives were concerned, have had no choice, having been trapped in the industrial machine and having endured terrible privations in order to obtain less than the barest necessities of life. Something akin to this has been true throughout history, even before the machine existed, and it is a terrible irony that these sufferings are so often attributed to the man who dedicated a great part of his life’s work to improving the condition, both material and spiritual, of human life.

To be safe, well-fed, housed and able to afford a few luxuries places one in a small minority of the earth’s population. The sacrifice of the majority, in terms of physical misery and death, soul agony and despair, is incalculable, but even out of these abysses of inhumanity some elements of transformation and redemption emerge. There is no image that is more moving and apt than that of the Welsh coal-miners ascending from the black depths of the earth and filling the air with glorious song. The great choral societies and religious and educational movements created in large industrial cities form one side of the picture. The other is the formation, against heavy odds, of Trade Unions, and the emergence of socialism and communism. Out of the frying pan into the fire, one might think, but if the loss of individuality is to be accepted, at least it may be turned to economic advantage. People are, in fact, extraordinarily resilient, and there is no doubt that while the diverse powers of the spiritual world have worked with great individualities like Aristotle, Averroes, Aquinas and Bacon to achieve their purposes for humanity, they have also poured their inspiration, for good or ill, into everyone in the whole mass of mankind who was susceptible to the slightest intimation of the divine.

The concept of Nature as a fallen creature in need of redemption, central to Bacon’s Christian world-view and providing his justification for the rough treatment that he planned for her, is, as far as I know, absent from Goethe’s and Steiner’s scientific writings although it is evident in the latter’s esoteric history. For someone who had grave doubts about the powers of human intelligence Bacon seems to have taken a surprisingly optimistic view of the future: “Only let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest, and let power be given it; the exercise thereof will be governed by sound reason and true religion.” Bacon’s enthusiasm for radical intervention in the processes of nature was greatly magnified by his hopes for the elevation of the human race and the amelioration of all forms of suffering, but his faith in the efficacy of “sound reason and true religion” seems tragically misplaced in the light of four centuries of hindsight. He had no desire for society to be ruled, either secretly or openly, by a scientific community,[11] but what he did not foresee was that many of the scientists and technologists, whatever their own ambitions might be, would become the tools of those who do desire to rule mankind – the religious fanatics and the power-mongers of politics and commerce, who are entirely ignorant of science and, indeed, of anything that might bring peace and harmony into the world. The author of the Instauratio Magna would have been astounded that such consequences should be attributed to the thoughts which he brought into the world, and what is true of Bacon is true also of the Arabian philosophers. Whatever uses the divine powers have found for these individuals, one cannot doubt the sincerity of their efforts to understand and integrate their experiences, and to do so for the good of humanity.

 

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It became more and more difficult and, ultimately, uncongenial for later generations of scientists to bother their heads with the scriptural and moral aspects of Bacon’s thinking. When one considers how little of his actual scientific method is generally known, let alone taken seriously, one wonders again how he could have come to be regarded as such an influential figure. One soon sees, however, that, as Bacon himself might have put it, the question and the answer meet in one. If we strip Bacon’s philosophy of its Christian guardianship and of its insistence on humility, love and charity, and if we remove its elaborate and inconvenient system of checks and balances, there is nothing left but the germ of a soulless experimental science which in the hands of people of good will still has potential for the good, but which offers boundless possibilities to the spirits, or daemons, of materialism. Looking at the individuals who, over the years, have made science what it is today, we see many who have been deeply religious, many who have been moral and humane and many whose honesty and integrity are not to be doubted; but even the works of the most devout have flowed into the rising tide of materialism. Bacon’s hope that the study of God’s works might reveal something of His will and militate against atheism has been replaced by a strong presumption that science will be able to explain away that weird human property previously known as the soul, including its capacity for imagining transcendent being. All this is possible, and happens, in the name of scientific truth and for the good of the people. Whether the spectacle of these goings on is more or less bleak than the picture of what is done by those who use science and scientists in the service of egoism, pride, hate, greed and the lust for power is a question hardly worth debating. People may fall into this morass of sin  through human frailty, but it is noticeable that frailty does not seem to be a characteristic of the commercial and societal systems that arise out of these sins. Sometimes the combination of greed and stupidity results in the collapse of part of the evil empire and the jailing of a few executives, but the strength, dominance and enormity of evil in that empire indicate that vast spiritual energies and impulses are at work and that the intentions of the spirits working in these realms are anything but healthy for humanity.

 

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            One thing still being debated is the modern form of the question of faith and reason. A stream of books with dualistic titles confirms this: Physics and Philosophy; Man or Matter; Science and Mind; Mind or Matter. The struggle is now to maintain some consciousness of the objective existence and nature of the human soul, and through it to keep open the path to the spirit. Having been thrown out of the nest by the spiritual powers we have to learn to fly on our own. It seems much safer and more inviting to stay on the ground and to forget or even to deny the existence of the upper air. Flying requires much more energy than walking or hopping. But we do not wish to let our wings fall into disuse; birds that have done this, we are told, are apt to bury their heads in the sand. In giving this as a picture of a materialist view of life I am not denying that there are many interesting things to be found in the sand. But birds that can still fly know that there is much more to life than sand, or even grass, trees and mountains, and that the view from above makes a lot more sense of what is below.

            It would be meaningless to try to cast any judgement on Francis Bacon. As a man, he honored truth and let it dictate the course of his actions in a way which aroused the contempt of those who place personal relations ahead of honesty. His Christianity may have been tainted with what he brought from previous incarnations, but humanity and compassion were the wellsprings of his efforts to bring salvation and the necessities of human life to his fellow men. The individuality who, in spiritual worlds, could not accept the Michaelic vision of a humanity freely and consciously uniting itself with the spirit became the man who, in his next earthly incarnation, fought against atheism wherever he encountered it. We may be forced to the uncomfortable conclusion that Bacon was one of destiny’s victims, so great is the disparity between the earthly dream and the cosmic reality.



[1] Steiner, Goethe the Scientist, Tr. Olin D. Wannamaker, Anthroposophical Press, New York, 1950, p. 205.

[2] Ibid. p. 254

[3] Ed. Markku Peltonen, CUP 1996: known in our household as “Eggs”

[4] MacMillan, New York, 1972.

[5] Thomas Babbington Macauley (1800-1859) – English historian, M. P. and Secretary of War.

[6] Old music hall song.

[7] No relation to Oliver.

[8] Including the Armada.

[9]  “…the intellect is in a manner potentially all objects of thought, but is actually nothing until it thinks: in the same way as in the case of a tablet which has nothing actually written on it yet the writing exists potentially. This is exactly the case with the intellect.” Aristotle, De Anima.

[10] For recent developments in the idea of individuality of physical experience see Lee Smolin: Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, HMC 2001.

[11] For conflicting interpretations of The New Atlantis see my Bacon, Goethe, Steiner.


© Keith Francis

            Keith Francis was educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, England and at the University of Cambridge. He worked as an engineer at the Bristol Aircraft Company before returning to the Crypt School as a teacher of physics and mathematics. In 1964-65 he studied at the Waldorf Institute of Adelphi University, Garden City, New York and later joined the faculty of the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan, where he remained until his retirement in 1996. Since then he has written several novels, a memoir of his experience as a Waldorf teacher, a somewhat controversial assessment of the work of Francis Bacon and a history of atomic science. He is also the founder and director of the Fifteenth Street Singers, a group attached to the New York City Branch of the Anthroposophical Society. He has been a member of the Anthroposophical Society since 1962.

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