Francis Bacon on the acceleration of time

This is a discussion of the notion of acceleration of time in different natural processes, as occurring in Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, Century IV, experiments [301-354].

Keywords: acceleration of time: of liquors, of putrefaction, of growth, of stature, vivification, spirits.

Among the inter magnalia naturae which Bacon discusses in his works, the acceleration of time is one of the most important, for Bacon places it next to the creation of matter in divine miracles (introduction to century IV). The Verulam presents a twofold motivation for pursuing the acceleration of time in nature: “it is a spur to nature” and “of good use”. From the first observation one can infer that Bacon seems to do nothing than to present a process which takes place inside the boundaries of nature and which normally would develop in a larger period of time. Here is a presentation of some of Bacon’s most important examples of acceleration of time: acceleration of liquor’s clarification, of maturation, of putrefaction, of birth and of growth and stature.

1. Acceleration of liquors’ clarification.

Bacon talks about different types of accelerations and starts with discussing at some length the acceleration of liquors’ clarification. Here is, in a word, the strategy for achieving this task: “to know the means of accelerating clarification, we must first know the causes of clarification” [301]. And among the causes listed, the first one can be called mechanical (weight, motion, activity, percolation, etc): the separation between grosser and finer parts of the liquor; the second cause is the settlement of equal equilibrium between tangible and pneumatic and the third cause is the refining of the spirit itself.

After Bacon lists the causes, he moves to proposing some trails, which can be classified under three categories of experiments, as follows:

▪ instances of separation: [305], [307], [308], – percolation [311]

▪ instances of equilibrium: [309], [310]

▪ instances of the refining of the spirit [306], [309], [310]


2. Acceleration of maturation [312].

Bacon talks of several types of accelerations of maturation: of drinks, fruits, impostures and ulcers, metals; he also mentions that the one on “impostures and ulcers” will be tackled throughout the section “experiments medicinal”, but this has never appeared among Sylva’s entries.

a) maturation of drinks takes place by the congregation of spirits together and so it looks similar with clarification of liquors: “is effected partly by the same means that clarification is…” [312]. Examples of maturation of drinks are seen in must, wine and vinegar [313]. It is worth to note here that Bacon is plain here that spirits are endowed with motions, as the following examples suggest: “enforcing the motion of the spirit” [314]… “enforce the spirits by some mixtures” [314]. As in general for Bacon, the spirit seems to be here a more fundamental concept as motion. The question that opens up is what is the relationship between spirit and motion and the readers of this post are invited to express their opinion on this issue, too.

b) maturation of fruits is done by “calling forth of the spirits of the body outward…”, by digestion of the grosser parts – by heat, motion, attraction, putrefaction. Putrefaction therefore starts with maturation [317].

During his talk of maturation, Bacon also makes an interesting remark on the possibility to perform transmutations on bodies: “But we, when we shall come to handle the version and transmutation of bodies, and the experiments concerning metals and minerals, will lay open the true ways and passages of nature, which may lead to this great effect” [326]. One important question to ask here is: are those transmutations done within the boundaries of nature or not? Later on in the same entry, Bacon seems to be saying yes to the first option and contrasts it with the alchemist interpretation: “The sixth is, that you give time enough for the work; not to prolong hopes (as the alchemists do), but indeed to give nature a convenient space to work in”.


3. (Inducing and) Acceleration of putrefaction.

Putrefaction precedes generation, both being taken as the true boundaries of nature “or the guides to life and death” (introduction before [329]). Putrefaction is defined as being caused by a motion “confused and inordinate”, while on the contrary, vivification appears when the motion “has a certain order” [344].


4. Experiment solitary touching the acceleration of birth.

Bacon gives here two causes for the acceleration of birth: the rapid development of the embryo and the expulsion of it from the mother [353]. He altogether rejects the old thesis that this acceleration might suffer decisively from astral influences.


5. Experiment solitary touching the accelerating of growth and stature (of children) [354]

Bacon lists here three causes for speeding up growth and stature.

  1. Plenty of nourishment
  2. Nature of nourishment
  3. Exciting natural heat

The first one is not always recommended for it can be hurtful for the child. The second warns us not to feed the children with over-dry nourishment for this impedes growth. And finally, cold nourishment should be avoided in childhood for generally “heat [and not cold] is requisite for growth”, though a mature man should be more open to cold for it helps with condensing and preserving the spirit.




Vegetable Philosophy – Three Different Stages in the Mid-Seventeenth Century Hartlib Circle

According to the Hartlib Circle members’ interest for vegetable philosophy, I have been able to identify three different approaches associated with three different stages.

The first stage (the period until 1650) is dominated by the figure of Gabriel Plattes. [1] He is the first member of the Hartlib Circle expressing his vision upon vegetable philosophy and husbandry regarded as projects of ameliorating the material of Creation (soil, plants, human beings). Inspired from Bacon’s natural philosophy and sharing the general ideas animating the Circle, he considers amelioration a process of experimentation and technological improvement of the material of Creation. Plattes reformulates the view on husbandry, promoting a new type of ‘integrated science’ able to cultivate the land and the human soul as well. Apart from other tracts on husbandry published before,[2] Plattes used the alchemical tradition but committed the application of chemistry to a moral end. He developed his own experimental view on vegetable philosophy, placing at the very core of amelioration the idea of technological advancement (a project based on transmutation experiments and cyclical chemical change). Plattes’ contribution rests in providing a number of ‘technologies of amelioration’ for the material of Creation (soil, plants, human beings), technologies of salvation compatible with both economic advancement and religious salvation.

The second stage (1650-1660) is influenced in a great deal by the figure of Gabriel Plattes. All the writers on vegetable philosophy and husbandry (Austen, Blith, Dymock, Child, Beale, Weston and, later, Evelyn)[3] mention Plattes in their works and his contribution to the field. Writers of this stage express strong millenaristic beliefs due to their association with the Hartlib Circle and Samuel Hartlib. They continue the line imposed by Plattes, of technological experimentation and amelioration of the material of Creation but add grafting experiments. In this stage we can spot a shift of attention from alchemical transmutation to gardening, from experiments with minerals and metals to experiments with plants. The Virgilian influence is evident in this stage. We can include in this stage a part of Evelyn’s activity, the one chronologically associated with the Civil War. Due to his aristocratic affiliation, Evelyn experienced social isolation and he imagined different hortulan societies, living in perfect harmony with nature, sharing interest for the study of nature and for exploring the practical and spiritual possibilities of vegetable philosophy.

The third stage (the period after 1660), associated with the beginning of the Royal Society is characterized by amelioration accents only in a small deal.[4] If Evelyn’s Elysium Britanicum (started in the late 1650s) begins with his personal interpretations of the Genesis, the accent embedded in his 1660 works (such as Sylva and Pomona) is more scientific than religious. Austen, for instance, republished his treatise of Fruit-Trees and rededicated it to Royal Society Fellow Robert Boyle (see Austen Treatise, 3rd edition Oxford, 1665; Treatise of Fruit Trees, with the Spiritual Use of and Orchard (1653 – first edition). The first edition had been dedicated to Samuel Hartlib. The Royal Society revealed the so called closely guarded secrets and the spiritual reformed, so much embraced by Hartlib, was downplayed. [5]

[1] Plattes, G., A Discovery of Infinite Treasure, London, 1639.

Plattes, G., A Discovery of Subterraneall Treasure, London, 1639.

[2] Such as Sir Hugh Plat’s Jewell House of Art and Nature, London, 1594. Although he had a deep interest in chemistry, medical chemistry and ways to improve the barren soil, Sir Hugh Plat was more influenced by the alchemical tradition (Paracelsus, John Hester, Bernard Palissy) than the desire to ameliorate the human estate.

[3] Here is a short list including treaties on husbandry and vegetable philosophy issued in the 1650s inside the Hartlib Circle :

Dymock, C., An Invention of Engines of Motion Lately Brought to perfection. … London, 1651;

[Hartlib], S., Dymock, C., An Essay for the Advancement of Husbandry –Learning: or Propositions For the Erecting a College of Husbandry … London, Printed by Henry Hills, 1651.

Hartlib, S., Samuel Hartlib his Legacy: or an Enlargement of the Discourse of Husbandry used in Brabant and Flandres … London, 1651.

Child, R., A Large Letter concerning the Defects and Remedies of English Husbandry written to Samuel Hartlib by Sir Richard Child (part of Samuel Hartlib his Legacy).

Blith, W., The English Improver Improved, The Third Impression, London, 1652.

[Virginia Ferrar, et al.], A Rare and New Discoverie of a Speedy Way, and Easie Means … for the Feeding of Silk-Worms, London, 1652.

Boate, G., Irelands Naturall History. Being a true and ample Description of its Situation, Greatnes, Shape and Nature, London, 1652.

[Hartlib] Cressey Dymock, A Discoverie For Division o Setting out of Land, as to the best Form. … London, Printed for Richard Wodenothe in Leaden-hall-street, 1653.

Austen, R., A Treatise of Fruit-Trees shewing the manner of grafting, setting, pruning, and ordering of them in all respects… with the alimentall, and physical use of fruits. Togeather with the spirituall use of an orchard: held forth in divers similitudes, etc., Oxford, For Tho. Robinson, 1653.

Blith, W.,The English Improver Improved or the Survey of Husbandry Surveyed. … the Third Impression much Augmented, London, 1653.

Plattes, G., The Profitable Intelligencer, Included in Samuel Hartlib his Legacy, 3rd edition 1655 as Mercurius Lætificans.

Austen, R., The Spiritual Use of an Orchard; or Garden of Fruit-Trees. … Oxford, 1657.

Beale, J., Herefordshire Orchards, A Pattern For all England. Written in an Epistolary Address to Samuel Hartlib Esq., London, printed by Roger Daniel, 1657.

Austen, R., Observations upon some part of Sr F. Bacon’s Naturall History, as it concernes fruit-trees, fruits, and flowers, H. Hall for T. Robinson, Oxford, 1658.

Hartlib, S., The Compleat Husbandman: or, A discourse of the whole Art of Husbandry, London, 1659, (reissue of the second edition of Hartlib’s Legacy).

[4] Evelyn, J., Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions … Printers to the Royal Society, and are to be sold at their Shop at the Bell in S. Paul’s Church yard, 1664.

Austen, R., A Treatise of Fruit-Trees…Whereunto is annexed Observations upon Sr F. Bacon’s Natural History…The third impression, revised, with additions, etc., William Hall for Amos Curteyne, 1665.

Austen, R., A dialogue, or familiar discourse, and conference betweene the husbandman, and fruit-trees; in his nurseries, orchards, and gardens, etc., Oxford, printed by Hen. Hall for Thomas Bowman, 167[6].

Dymock, C., The New and Better Art of Agriculture, 1670.

Evelyn, J., Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions London, Printed by Jo. Martyn, Printer to the Royal Society, and are to be sold at their Shop at the Bell in S. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1679.

[5] Di Palma, V., “Drinking Cider in Paradise: Science, Improvement, and the Politics of Fruit Trees” in A. Smyth (ed.), A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in the Seventeenth Century England, Cambridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2004, 161-80, 165.