• Refashioning Fable through the Baconian Essay: De sapientia veterum and Mythologies of the Early Modern Natural Philosopher

    Christopher Crosbie (see profile)
    Renaissance / Early Modern Studies
    Bacon, Francis, 1561-1626, Mythology, Classical, Natural history--Philosophy
    Item Type:
    Book chapter
    Francis Bacon, Myth and literature, natural philosophy, Early modern literature, scientific revolution
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    Shortly after publishing the first edition of his Essays in 1597, Francis Bacon drafted De sapientia veterum, a series of unpublished essays designed to re-read classical mythology as indicative of political and scientific truths. An early, if partial, expression of Bacon’s project to facilitate mastery over the natural order, De sapientia has confounded critics. Why, after all, would an author so consistently wary of the mystifications of imprecise language take great pains to explicate “the pliant stuff [of] fable?” While critics have tended to perceive De sapientia as a brief aberration amid Bacon’s larger oeuvre, this essay proposes a new solution by differentiating between Bacon’s disdain for the prescriptive fable and his acceptance of, even praise for, the descriptive one. Bacon distrusts myths as a priori explanations of natural phenomena but tellingly lauds those which illustrate, often in engaging ways, genuine knowledge of the natural world first gleaned by empirical means. Through the particularly well-suited vehicle of the early modern essay – at once episodic yet cohesive, imaginative yet didactic – Bacon harnesses the fable’s power to allure without, as the essayist understands it, transmitting its detrimental, distorting effects on the mind. In doing so, Bacon’s early essays help generate, as it were, a mythology of their own: namely, that of the radical reformer of natural philosophy as one who breaks from convention and yet nonetheless retains connection to an ancient, but previously lost, precedent for free inquiry.
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    7 months ago


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