Francis Bacon’s use of ancient myths in Novum Organum

Francis Bacon

The Novum Organum, fully Novum Organum Scientiarum (‘new instrument of science’), is a philosophical work by Francis Bacon, written in Latin and published in 1620. The title is a reference to Aristotle’s work Organon, which was his treatise on logic and syllogism. In Novum Organum, Bacon details a new system of logic he believes to be superior to the old ways of syllogism. This is now known as the Baconian method.

For Bacon, finding the essence of a thing was a simple process of reduction, and the use of inductive reasoning. In finding the cause of a ‘phenomenal nature’ such as heat, one must list all of the situations where heat is found. Then another list should be drawn up, listing situations that are similar to those of the first list except for the lack of heat. A third table lists situations where heat can vary. The ‘form nature’, or cause, of heat must be that which is common to all instances in the first table, is lacking from all instances of the second table and varies by degree in instances of the third table.

The title page of Novum Organum depicts a galleon passing between the mythical Pillars of Hercules that stand either side of the Strait of Gibraltar, marking the exit from the well-charted waters of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic Ocean. The Pillars, as the boundary of the Mediterranean, have been smashed through by Iberian sailors, opening a new world for exploration. Bacon hopes that empirical investigation will, similarly, smash the old scientific ideas and lead to greater understanding of the world and heavens. This title page was liberally copied from Andrés García de Céspedes’s Regimiento de Navegación, published in 1606.

The Latin tag across the bottom – Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia – is taken from the Old Testament (Daniel 12:4). It means: “Many will travel and knowledge will be increased”.


Bacon’s work was instrumental in the historical development of the scientific method. His technique bears a resemblance to the modern formulation of the scientific method in the sense that it is centered on experimental research. Bacon’s emphasis on the use of artificial experiments to provide additional observances of a phenomenon is one reason that he is often considered “the Father of the Experimental Philosophy” (for example famously by Voltaire). On the other hand, modern scientific method does not follow Bacon’s methods in its details, but more in the spirit of being methodical and experimental, and so his position in this regard can be disputed.

Importantly though, Bacon set the scene for science to develop various methodologies, because he made the case against older Aristotelian approaches to science, arguing that method was needed because of the natural biases and weaknesses of the human mind, including the natural bias it has to seek metaphysical explanations which are not based on real observations.

Novum organum, as suggested by its name, is focused just as much on a rejection of received doctrine as it is on a forward-looking progression. In Bacon’s Idols are found his most critical examination of man-made impediments which mislead the mind’s objective reasoning. They appear in previous works but were never fully fleshed out until their formulation in Novum organum:


“Francis Bacon’s monumental work, Novum Organum, is an attempt to establish a new status for mankind. Using some of the most prominent myths—particularly those dealing with the gods Pan, Dionysius, Perseus, and Prometheus—Bacon hoped to inaugúrate a new era of success and happiness for his fellow man. In Book I of Novum Organum, Bacon involves these gods and their significances, juxtaposing them with man as he might and could be. In this essay, the author examines about twenty of the “Aphorisms” in Bacon’s work, showing the possible impact of the ancient god who is most appropriate for the “Aphorisms” under discussion. This article is clearly a work of utopian proportions, revealing fascinating journeys into the realm of romanticism.”

Wendell P. Maclntyre
University of Prince Edward Island

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4 thoughts on “Francis Bacon’s use of ancient myths in Novum Organum”

    1. Hiya, I didn’t get anything until this one – I’ll reply to that email address you posted here. My message system on wordpress is awful; I can’t access notifications even if I turn off all of my adblockers and anti-tracking settings, so I’ve obviously got some setting wordpress doesn’t like! And I’ve somehow managed to access this comment on my admin page, even though I’m seeing a “Failed to retrieve comment” notification, so hopefully this will get to you somehow!!


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