Francis Bacon,
Aphorisms from the Novum Organum

Basil Montague, ed. and trans.
The Works, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Parry & MacMillan, 1854)
Vol. 3: 345-371

The following is excerpted from the Hanover College Historical Texts site. For the full text, click here



1. MAN, as the minister and interpreter of nature, does and understands as much as his observations on the order of nature, either with regard to things or the mind, permit him, and neither knows nor is capable of more.

2. The unassisted hand, and the understanding left to itself, possess but little power. Effects are produced by the means of instruments and helps, which the understanding requires no less than the hand. And as instruments either promote or regulate the motion of the hand, so those that are applied to the mind prompt or protect the understanding.

3. Knowledge and human power are synonymous, since the ignorance of the cause frustrates the effect. For nature is only subdued by submission, and that which in contemplative philosophy corresponds with the cause, in practical science becomes the rule.

4. Man, whilst operating, can only apply or withdraw natural bodies; nature, internally, performs the rest.

5. Those who become practically versed in nature, are the mechanic, the mathematician, the physician, the alchymist, and the magician; but all (as matters now stand) with faint efforts and meagre success.

6. It would be madness, and inconsistency, to suppose that things which have never yet been performed, can be performed without employing some hitherto untried means.

7. The creations of the mind and hand appear very numerous, if we judge by books and manufactures : but all that variety consists of an excessive refinement, and of deductions from a few well known matters; not of a number of axioms.

8. Even the effects already discovered are due to chance and experiment, rather than to the sciences. For our present sciences are nothing more than peculiar arrangements of matters already discovered, and not methods for discovery, or plans for new operations.

9. The sole cause and root of almost every defect in the sciences is this; that whilst we falsely admire and extol the powers of the human mind, we do not search for its real helps.

10. The subtilty of nature is far beyond that of sense or of the understanding: so that the specious meditations, speculations, and theories of mankind, are but a kind of insanity, only there is no one to stand by and observe it.


19. There are and can exist but two ways of investigating and discovering truth. The one hurries on rapidly from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms; and from them as principles and their supposed indisputable truth derives and discovers the intermediate axioms. This is the way now in use. The other constructs its axioms from the senses and particulars, by ascending continually and gradually, till it finally arrives at the most general axioms, which is the true but unattempted way.


31. It is in vain to expect any great progress in the sciences by the superinducing or engrafting new matters upon old. An instauration must be made from the very foundations, if we do not wish to revolve forever in a circle, making only some slight and contemptible progress.


38. The idols and false notions which have already preoccupied the human understanding, and are deeply rooted in it, not only to beset man's minds, that they become difficult of access, but, even when access is obtained, will again meet and trouble us in the instauration of the sciences, unless mankind, when forewarned, guard themselves with all possible care against them.

39. Four species of idols beset the human mind: to which (for distinction's sake) we have assigned names: calling the first idols of the tribe; the second idols of the den; the third idols of the market; the fourth idols of the theatre.

40. The formation of notions and axioms on the foundation of true induction, is the only fitting remedy, by which we can ward off and expel these idols. It is, however, of great service to point them out. For the doctrine of idols bears the same relation to the interpretation of nature, as that of confutation of sophisms does to common logic.

41. The idols of the tribe are inherent in human nature, and the very tribe or race of man. For man's sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things. On the contrary, all the perceptions, both of the senses and the mind, bear reference to man, and not to the universe, and the human mind resembles those uneven mirrors, which impart their own properties to different objects, from which rays are emitted, and distort and disfigure them.

42. The idols of the den are those of each individual. For everybody (in addition to the errors common to the race of man) has his own individual den or cavern, which intercepts and corrupts the light of nature; either from his own peculiar and singular disposition, or from his education and intercourse with others, or from his reading, and the authority acquired by those whom he reverences and admires, or from the different impressions produced on the mind, as it happens to be preoccupied and predisposed, or equable and tranquil, and the like: so that the spirit of man (according to its several dispositions) is variable, confused, and as it were actuated by chance; and Heraclitus said well that men search for knowledge in lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.

43. There are also idols formed by the reciprocal intercourse and society of man with man, which we call idols of the market, from the commerce and association of men with each other. For men converse by means of language; but words are formed at the will of the generality; and there arises from a bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the mind. Nor can the definitions and explanations, with which learned men are wont to guard and protect themselves in some instances, afford a complete remedy: words still manifestly force the understanding, throw every thing into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and innumerable controversies and fallacies.

44. Lastly, there are idols which have crept into men's minds from the various dogmas of peculiar systems of philosophy, and also from the perverted rules of demonstration, and these we denominate idols of the theatre. For we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictitious and theatrical worlds.


94. We will next give a most potent reason for hope deduced from the errors of the past, and the ways still unattempted. For well was an ill governed state thus reproved, "That which is worst with regard to the past, should appear most consolatory for the future. For if you had done all that your duty commanded, and your affairs proceeded no better, you could not even hope for their improvement; but since their present unhappy situation is not owing to the force of circumstances, but to your own errors, you have reason to hope, that by banishing or correcting the latter, you can produce a great change for the better in the former." So, if men had, during the many years that have elapsed, adhered to the right way of discovering and cultivating the sciences without being able to advance, it would be assuredly bold and presumptuous to imagine it possible to improve; but if they have mistaken the way and wasted their labour on improper objects, it follows that the difficulty does not arise from things themselves, which are not in our power, but from the human understanding, its practice and application, which is susceptible of remedy and correction. Our best plan, therefore, is to expose these errors. For, in proportion as they impeded the past, so do they afford reason to hope for the future. And although we have touched upon them above, yet we think it right to give a brief, bare, and simple enumeration of them in this place.

95. Those who have treated of the sciences have been either empirics or dogmatical. The former like ants only heap up and use their store, the latter like spiders spin out their own webs. The bee, a mean between both, extracts matter from the flowers of the garden and the field, but works and fashions it by its own efforts. The true labour of philosophy resembles hers, for it neither relies entirely or principally on the powers of the mind, nor yet lays up in the memory, the matter afforded by the experiments of natural history or mechanics in its raw state, but changes and works it in the understanding. We have good reason, therefore, to derive hope from a closer and purer alliance of these faculties, (the experimental and rational) than has yet been attempted.

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