Under all ruins is history, as any tourist knows. Indeed the dust that gathers above the ruin of cities may be said to be the cover of the most wonderful of the picture-books of Time, those secret books into which we sometimes peep. We turn no more perhaps than the corner of a single page in our prying, but we catch a glimpse there of things so gorgeous, in the book that we are not meant to see, that it is worth while to travel to far countries, whoever can, to see one of those books, and where the edges are turned up a little to catch sight of those strange winged bulls and mysterious kings and lion-headed gods that were not meant for us. And out of the glimpse one catches from odd corners of those volumes of Time, where old centuries hide, one builds up part by guesses, part by fancy, mixed with but little knowledge, a tale or theory of how men and women lived in unknown ages in the faith of forgotten gods.
– Lord Dunsany
If you’ve ever gone to a rare bookshop, you’ve probably noticed a massive section dedicated to Francis Bacon. If you’re thinking back to your bookshop treks and can’t remember seeing a Bacon section, stop reading this post. Walk, run, or unicycle to your nearest rare bookshop. Enter the shop, tell the proprietor that you want to see his or her Bacons, and lose yourself in the collection for a few hours. Then come back here to finish this post.
I know – that’s not a particularly helpful description. After all, any schmuck can call himself a philosopher, a statesman, or a scientist. We’ve all made a few pretty solid baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. What makes Pork Chop so special?
Cue the next Wikipedia paragraph: “Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. His works argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive and careful observation of events in nature. Most importantly, he argued this could be achieved by use of a skeptical and methodical approach whereby scientists aim to avoid misleading themselves. While his own practical ideas about such a method, the Baconian method, did not have a long lasting influence, the general idea of the importance and possibility of a skeptical methodology makes Bacon the father of scientific method.”
This Little Piggy changed the way we look at the world. He didn’t just do science, he is science. Annnnnnd someone on YouTube was so excited by Bacon’s scientific method that he/she tried to make a trailer(?) to get other people stoked:
So, fine. You win, Bacon. Your scientific method might be a bit more legit than my baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. It is certainly more legit than that horrendous YouTube trailer.
Slva sylvarum, or One of the Books that Clearly Illustrates Why Bacon is Amazing
One of my favourite Bacon books is Sylva sylvarum, or A Natural History in Ten Centuries. This is Bacon at his best. And it’s written in pretty accessible English! Annnnnd, if you want to own one, quite a few copies are available for purchase from antiquarian booksellers. Just throwing that plug out there.
Sylva was first published by William Rawley, Bacon’s personal secretary, in 1627, shortly after Bacon’s death in 1626. Sylva is a collection of writings with chapters like: “Of Meats and Drinks most Nourishing”, “Of Articulation of Sounds”, “Of Winter and Summer Sicknesses”, “Of the Hiccouchs”, and “Of the Glo-worm”. Each chapter is an “experiment”, although it’s not entirely clear what is meant by the word “experiment”, as some of the chapters seem to be just ramblings.
Interestingly, though, one blogger notes that more than half of the “experiments” Bacon writes about have been ripped off from philosophers before him, and “obviously untried by Bacon himself and accepted on dubious testimony.” But let’s give Porker the benefit of the doubt here: he heavily rework a lot of these stolen bits to make them accessible for contemporary readers. He places them in context. He juxtaposes them in new ways. Heck, it sounds more like Bacon was writing a solid undergraduate paper than plagiarizing. He just needs to work on his citation style, that’s all.
In the letter to the reader preceding the text, Rawley explains what Bacon intended the book to do. The letter reads: “Those [other] Natural Histories which are extant, being gathered for delight and use, are full of pleasant Descriptions and Pictures; and affect and seek after Admiration, Rarities, and Secrets. But contrariwise, the scope, which his Lordship intendeth, is to write such a Natural History, as may be fundamental to the erecting and buiding of a true Philosophy: For the illumination of the Understanding; the extracting of Axioms, and the producing of many nobles Works and Effects. For he hopeth by this means, to acquit himself of that, for which he taketh himself in a sort bound, and that is, the advancement of Learning and Sciences.”* In short: all those other Natural Histories are People, while Bacon’s Natural History is Time. This is not Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Rawley implies. This is serious stuff, sans pictures. Oh yeah, and “he, that looketh attentively into them [the experiments], shall finde, that they have a secret order.” What does that even mean, Rawley?! People are still trying to figure it out.
To be clear, at no point does Bacon toss his belief in God. Science and faith, then and today, do not have to be mutually exclusive. Bacon uses a lot of biblical references throughout Sylva to support his points, and the opening engraving of the book even includes (among other obvious biblical references) the oh-so-famous Genesis text: Et vidit Deus lucem quod esset bona (“And God saw the light, that it was good”). 17th-century readers would have dug this.
There seem to be 17 editions of Sylva sylvarum in total, and each edition has a slightly different version of the text. However, all versions (weirdly?) include New Atlantis, which is Bacon’s unfinished utopian novel that some believe to be a commentary on the then-newly-settled America. This text has been subject to some intense analysis, and is still a topic of conversation within Bacon-lovers’ circles today. Collectors who want a first edition of New Atlantis need to get their hands on the first edition of Sylva and flip to the end, where it seems to have been included as a supplement to Bacon’s Natural History.
*All quotations from Sylva sylvarum are taken from this copy, which is a ninth edition from 1970.
So why am I writing about this?
Bacon takes up a lot of space in rare bookshops, but it seems like a lot of people don’t know why. When I was recently at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, I found myself explaining to quite a few attendees why they should care about this guy, and why they should fatten up their collections with his works.
Collectable Bacon books don’t have to be very expensive, since there are a lot of additions and copies to chose from. However, don’t let the affordable price fool you: these are important books, and are valuable both economically and culturally. You will never, ever be wasting money on a Bacon, even if it’s just a $.50 copy of his essays that you pick up at your local university book sale.
So get out there and gobble up some Bacon! He is, after all, a total babe.