From Natural History to Natural Magic: Francis Bacon’s “Sylva sylvarum” – PhD dissertation

My dissertation “From Natural History to Natural Magic: Francis Bacon’s Sylva sylvarum,” draws attention to a posthumously published and neglected book by Francis Bacon, Sylva sylvarum or a Natural History in Ten Centuries. Because of its title, this work has generally been taken as belonging to the genre of natural history. This dissertation shows that Sylva mixes elements of natural history with those of physics, mechanics, metaphysics and 1466315_10200784446793912_901050667_nnatural magic. Moreover, Sylva sylvarum has often been regarded as an imperfect natural history, because it looked like an amalgam of observations, experiments and theoretical considerations on very different topics. Arguing once more against the prevalent view, this thesis tries to show that this work reflects Bacon’s model of how nature can and should be manipulated by the naturalist.
According to Bacon, the reform of the natural sciences must start with collecting natural histories, that is, with collecting facts about nature, through observing and experimenting. Natural philosophy has the task to theorize upon these histories in order to arrive at the principles behind the unity of nature. Physics – the first science of natural philosophy – begins to theorize upon them so as to discover the hidden processes of nature, which lie behind the visible phenomena. As for metaphysics – the second speculative discipline – it seeks a higher degree of abstraction. Mechanics and magic, the two operative sciences, in turn, apply the knowledge thus obtained and modify natural bodies, mechanics using the knowledge of physics and magic that of metaphysics. Physics investigates the hidden structures of bodies, from the viewpoint of their material and efficient causes. Metaphysics studies the formal causes of these schematisms, which are also called “forms.” As this dissertation proves, Bacon’s science works through a continuous interplay between theory formation and its verification in practice. This means that while speculative philosophy is composed by provisional rules and axioms, there are also different types of experiments, functioning at different levels of knowledge. It also means that magic can be performed before metaphysics has been completed, by testing its provisional axioms.
Chapter one offers an overview of the existing scholarship on Bacon’s natural philosophy. The aim of this chapter is to understand the status quaestionis and to show where further research is needed. The analysis of Sylva’s contents starting in chapter 2 shows that some of the negative judgements that have led to its general neglect are not warranted. Sure enough, its use of the vernacular, its lack of order, and the dispersion of its subject matters over many disciplines are certainly puzzling. This thesis argues that there is a methodological purpose behind these puzzles. Bacon used the vernacular and his method of presentation as a way of selecting his readers, in the sense that he aimed to reach those who could discern the unity behind the apparent diversity of nature reflected in separate experiments, and who could connect the instances presented in Sylva both with each other and with the theory and experiments provided in Bacon’s other works. While this viewpoint does not yield a possible secret order of the experiments, it does connect the lack of order with Bacon’s method for the transmission of knowledge.
By means of a comparison with the Latin natural histories that Bacon had published during his lifetime, we find in Sylva falls only in a small part under the definition of a natural history: we find descriptions of facts, interventionist experiments, advice for further experimentation, pieces of theoretical considerations, axioms, medical receipts, and instances of natural divination or spiritual magic. All these instances are also found in the Latin natural histories, under their proper designations and they rise Sylva at the level of those histories he “kept for himself” and wrote for the Instauratio magna.
Chapter three focuses on a specific group of experiments, namely those used in the production of knowledge. It proposes a classification of these experiments into six classes. The accent is put on the last three classes of experiments, which are are proper “experiments of light.” The first of them studies the changes a body undergoes during a process. These experiments not only provide the basis for further experimentation, but they can be tabulated, just like the famous experiments reported in the Novum organum or in the Historia densi et rari. Because some of these changes cannot be observed directly by the experimenter, and the only way in which they can be made observable is with the help of specially designed instruments, another type of experiments is needed. They are particularly important, as they provide insight into what is happening at the level of the hidden activity of matter. The last class of experiments, finally, uses simplified models and then transfers the knowledge obtained to modify more complex classes of objects. In order for this transfer to be done, very strong metaphysical assumptions are needed. Bacon bases this transfer upon his matter theory, considering that there exists a fundamental set of entities and of activities that are everywhere the same.
This use of simplified models is analysed at length in chapter four: plants are simplified models of animals and human beings. Many of these experiments are taken from Della Porta’s Magia naturalis and this has incidentally been taken as proofs that the Sylva sylvarum is above all a collection of experiments copied from literary sources. A detailed comparison of the reports on plants in the Sylva and the Magia naturalis shows, however, how critical, original and creative Bacon was in using his sources. The major changes Bacon introduces into Della Porta’s instances are the generalisation according to his matter theory and the addition of explanatory causes also in terms of matter theory. This dissertation also brings into light a new source of Sylva – Hugh Platt’s Floraes Paradise. Platt’s book is in fact Bacon’s second major source for the experiments with plants. In more than one case, Platt’s experimental reports are used to reject Della Porta’s “fantastical” theories. While Della Porta remains the most important source for Bacon, the latter’s willingness to reject certain experiments or theories reported in the Magia naturalis on the basis of Platt’s reports demonstrates that Bacon did not blindly copy his sources, but made a philosophically and experimentally informed choice.
Chapter five continues the comparison between Della Porta’s Magia naturalis and Bacon’s Sylva sylvarum, with an examination of their respective understanding of natural magic and the manipulation of nature. As is shown in this chapter, Bacon took Della Porta’s book to be about physics and mechanics (according to his own definition of these sciences), because they are bound to the knowledge and the modification of individual bodies. Bacon wished to take these experiments further in the service of the construction of a metaphysical theory and a truly magical manipulation of bodies, which required the knowledge and manipulation of “forms.”
The first part of this chapter deals with the redefinition of Bacon’s form of heat as given in the second book of the Novum organum. The form of heat can be influenced and induced on a given body by manipulating the basic appetites of matter. What the natural magician must do is to understand which appetite must be activated to which effect and how this can be achieved, so that in collaboration with the existing forms naturally occurring in a given body, a certain motion will be produced, which will induce the change of a simple nature in that body. Though mechanics and magic may sometimes produce the same changes in the bodies; magic, can, however, go further and create new things. This is possible because magic manipulates more fundamental entities of matter and the changes produced upon a body are greater. It is precisely in this understanding of the natural magician and the type of knowledge and of operations of which he is capable that the difference between Bacon and Della Porta lies. The latter possesses, at least in Bacon’s view, a superficial knowledge of the natural phenomena as well as of the artificial ones he produces. The implications of this difference show up not only in the central concept of magic itself, but also in Bacon’s and Della Porta’s respective understanding of the fundamental processes of nature, such vivification, transmutation or new species, analysed in the second part of the last chapter.
When one connects the features of magic, discussed in this chapter, with the evidence produced in the other chapters, the specific feature of Sylva becomes evident. As mentioned earlier, not all the “experiments” in Sylva are experiments of metaphysics or magic. Many of them remain at the level of descriptions of facts or simple experiments of natural history. Others are experiments of physics and mechanics. They contain explanations in terms of material and efficient causes or else superficial manipulations of bodies. However, a great number of experiments involve areas that for Bacon belong to metaphysics and magic. Sometimes it is necessary to connect different experiments in order to discover the profound knowledge they contain when combined. This intelligence and labour required for this combination was – or so I claim in this dissertation – how Bacon selected the readers by which he wished to be understood. With respect to our classification of experiments, provided in Chapter three, it is in the transit from the experiments studying changes of bodies during a process to those experiments rendering invisible processes visible that the experimenter enters the realm of natural philosophy. Depending on how deep he will delve in the process of his investigations, he can arrive at a provisional knowledge of forms. In the verification of these provisional rules – these axioms become rules once they are put in practice – if they turn out to work, natural magic is performed. An even clearer confirmation of these axioms is to be found when the rule is applied to objects not previously studied, as happens in the transfer from simple models to the complex subjects.
All in all, then, Sylva sylvarum can be read as an instruction booklet which provides models and instructions of how nature has to be investigated and transformed. Bacon saw his project as being far from complete. Still, he believed that science could advance if his investigations were imitated and advanced by others.

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