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Rare Book of the Month: Francis Bacon, A Thinker’s Thinker

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(The following is a guest blog post written by Elizabeth Gettins, Library of Congress digital library specialist. Every month, the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division will highlight a unique book from its collections, and the Library of Congress blog will take an in-depth look at the historical volume. Make sure to check back again next month!)

Front matter portrait of Francis Bacon. " Sylva Sylvarum," 1683. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Front matter portrait of Francis Bacon. ” Sylva Sylvarum,” 1683. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Rare Book and Special Collections Division’s Book of the Month for August 2015 is “Sylva Sylvarum,” or, “A Natural History in Ten Centuries.” This seminal work is comprised of multiple texts written by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon was an English humanist known as the father of empiricism or the scientific method. Empiricism was a revolutionary idea for its time, which postulated that observing the world through an organized process and without preconceived notion was the way to arrive at truth. This fundamental tenet established the scientific practice of methodology that is still in practice today.

Bacon was an exceedingly well-rounded thinker and a true Renaissance man, making contributions to philosophy, rhetoric, science, politics, law and literature. “Sylva Sylvarum” contains many of his ideas on philosophy and science and was published posthumously in 1683 by William Rawley, who was Bacon’s literary executor.

The first work in “Sylva Sylvarum” is titled “Natural History” and is divided into 10 centuries of thought. In glancing at the listings, one struggles a bit with its font and Old English, although with a little effort the entries can be deciphered. Below is a listing of the line of scientific observation along with a sampling of the types of topics that are explored within these fields.

Frontispiece Illustration from “Sylva Sylvarum”

The listings have been tweaked a bit to make them easier for the modern English reader to understand, but one will likely notice that the works appear somewhat random, oddly organized and perhaps fanciful to the modern mind. Bacon himself commented that they are an “indigestible heap of particulars.”

Century I: “Straining and percolation,” including topics of artificial springs, the secret nature of flame and the power of heat.

Century II: “Music,” including topics on the loudness and softness of sound, equality and inequality of sound and articulation of sounds.

Century III: “Lines of which sounds move,” including topics on reflection of sounds, imitation of sounds, hindering and helping of hearing.

Century IV: “Clarification of liquids as well as the accelerating and maturation of fruits,” including making gold, acceleration of birth and the lasting of flame.

Century V: “Acceleration of germination,” including meliorating or making better fruits, sympathy and antipathy of plants and making herbs and plants medicinal.

Century VI: “Curiosities about fruits and plants,” including producing perfect plants without seed, the seasons of several plants and the lasting of plants.

Century VII: “Similarities and differences between plants and animals,” including the healing of wounds, clearness of the sea and north wind blowing, and of yawning.

Century VIII: “Medicine from nature,” including the glow-worm, sleep and the use of bathing and anointing.

Century IX: “Perceptions in bodies tending to natural divination,” including the causes of appetites in the stomach, flesh edible and inedible and of blows and bruises.

Century X: “Transmission and influx of virtues,” including the emission of spirits in vapor, secret virtues and properties and general sympathy of men’s spirits.

The topics are a curious and interesting look into early scientific thought. They depart quite a bit from today’s ideas and organization. Regardless, Bacon makes important movements toward the critical use of methodology in science and offers this information to others to make further advancements.

An example – his experimental process of observation of a bubble from Chapter I – may strike the reader as quite interesting:

“Bubbles are in the form of a hemisphere; air within, and a little skin of water without: And it seemeth somewhat strange, that the air should rise so swiftly, while it is in the water; and when it cometh to the top, should be staid by so weak a cover, as that of the bubble is.”

However, one may not be able to agree with, or understand, why one would do the following from Chapter VII:

“It hath been noted by the ancients, that it is dangerous to pick one’s ear while he yawneth. The cause is, for that in yawning, the inner parchment of the ear is extended by the drawing in of the spirit and breath; for in yawning and sighing both, the spirit is first strongly drawn in, and then strongly expelled.”

“Natural History” is filled with scientific observation of this sort, and if one has the patience to wade through this dense text, it makes for interesting insight into the mind of Bacon and those who lived in his time.

Title page of “New Atlantis, A Work Unfinished”

The next text within “Sylva Sylvarum” is a utopian novel set in the New World. Bacon advances his thoughts about how discovery and knowledge can lead to all of the finer qualities of mankind’s nature, which, according to Bacon, included generosity, enlightenment, dignity, splendor, piety and public spirit.

Following is a work that involves Bacon’s thoughts on the nature and length of life in regard to all of the variations that he observes, including everything from mankind, animals, plants and minerals. He posits ideas on what can heal or prolong life, such as elements, minerals, food, drink, practices and behaviors, and emotions. He then speculates on the nature of aging, death and of the spirit.

The final text in “Sylva Sylvarum” addresses properties of metals and minerals, including how they react to one another and their various behaviors when introduced to an element.

This particular copy of “Sylva Sylvarum” is from the George Fabyan Collection within the Rare Book and Special Collection Division. The Fabyan Collection includes many early editions of works of 17th-century English literature, as well as seminal works in science. The majority of the items in the collection focus on publications relating to cryptography, which is the science of creating a code within a document that only those with the key can interpret. It should not be surprising to learn that Bacon also made contributions in 1605 towards cryptography with his cipher based on steganography. To learn more on this topic, the Library of Congress offers a number of books in digital format on Baconian ciphers.

Just when one thinks Bacon’s influence couldn’t have been more far-reaching, we can also look to how Thomas Jefferson organized his library, which eventually became an early Library of Congress. Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment, had adopted Bacon’s categorical system known as the “Advancement of Learning,” with major divisional topics that included memory, reason and imagination.

The Library of Congress offers a permanent exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s books organized by Bacon’s system.

In addition, the Rare Book and Special Collection Division offers more information on the Jefferson Collection with a bibliography that includes commentary regarding the Bacon method of organization.

Portrait statue of Francis Bacon along the balustrade in Library of Congress Main Reading Room. Photo by Carol Highsmith, 2007. Prints and Photographs Division.
Portrait statue of Francis Bacon along the balustrade in Library of Congress Main Reading Room. Photo by Carol Highsmith, 2007. Prints and Photographs Division.

Bacon lived to the age of 65, nearly 400 years ago. This relatively short life by today’s standards still has an important and lasting impact on how life is lived in modern society today. He serves as an inspiration to us all to live a life of industry, aiming at enlightenment and advancement for mankind.

Resources at the Library of Congress via the Science, Technology and Business Division

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