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- Valerius Terminus: of the Interpretation of Nature - 1/10 -


Valerius Terminus: of the Interpretation of Nature

by Francis Bacon

Preface by Robert Leslie Ellis

The following fragments of a great work on the Interpretation of Nature were first published in Stephens's Letters and Remains [1734]. They consist partly of detached passages, and partly of an epitome of twelve chapters of the first book of the proposed work. The detached passages contain the first, sixth, and eighth chapters, and portions of the fourth, fifth, seventh, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and sixteenth. The epitome contains an account of the contents of all the chapters from the twelfth to the twenty-sixth inclusive, omitting the twentieth, twentythird, and twenty-fourth. Thus the sixteenth chapter is mentioned both in the epitome and among the detached passages, and we are thus enabled to see that the two portions of the following tract belong to the same work, as it appears from both that the sixteenth chapter was to treat of the doctrine of idola.

It is impossible to ascertain the motive which determined Bacon to give to the supposed author the name of Valerius Terminus, or to his commentator, of whose annotations we have no remains, that of Hermes Stella. It may be conjectured that by the name Terminus he intended to intimate that the new philosophy would put an end to the wandering of mankind in search of truth, that it would be the TERMINUS AD QUEM in which when it was once attained the mind would finally acquiesce.

Again, the obscurity of the text was to be in some measure removed by the annotations of Stella; not however wholly, for Bacon in the epitome of the eighteenth chapter commends the manner of publishing knowledge "whereby it shall not be to the capacity nor taste of all, but shall as it were single and adopt his reader." Stella was therefore to throw a kind of starlight on the subject, enough to prevent the student's losing his way, but not much more.

However this may be, the tract is undoubtedly obscure, partly from the style in which it is written, and partly from its being only a fragment. It is at the same time full of interest, inasmuch as it is the earliest type of the INSTAURATIO...

Note to Preface by James Spedding:

The manuscript from which Robert Stephens printed these fragments was found among some loose papers placed in his hands by the Earl of Oxford, and is now in the British Museum; Harl. manuscripts 6462. It is a thin paper volume of the quarto size, written in the hand of one of Bacon's servants, with corrections, erasures, and interlineations in his own.

The chapters of which it consists are both imperfect in themselves (all but three),--some breaking off abruptly, others being little more than tables of contents,--and imperfect in their connexion with each other; so much so as to suggest the idea of a number of separate papers loosely put together. But it was not so (and the fact is important) that the volume itself was actually made up. However they came together, they are here fairly and consecutively copied out. Though it be a collection of fragments therefore, it is such a collection as Bacon thought worthy not only of being preserved, but of being transcribed into a volume; and a particular account of it will not be out of place.

The contents of the manuscript before Bacon touched it may be thus described.

1. A titlepage, on which is written "VALERIUS TERMINUS of the Interpretation of Nature, with the annotations of HERMES STELLA."

2. "Chapter I. Of the limits and end of knowledge;" with a running title, "Of the Interpretation of Nature."

3. "The chapter immediately following the Inventory; being the 11th in order."

4. "A part of the 9th chapter, immediately precedent to the Inventory, and inducing the same."

5. "The Inventory, or an enumeration and view of inventions already discovered and in use, together with a note of the wants and the nature of the supplies; being the 10th chapter, and this a fragment only of the same."

6. Part of a chapter, not numbered, "Of the internal and profound errors and superstitions in the nature of the mind, and of the four sorts of Idols or fictions which offer themselves to the understanding in the inquisition of knowledge."

7. "Of the impediments of knowledge; being the third chapter, the preface only of it."

8. "Of the impediments which have been in the times and in diversion of wits; being the fourth chapter."

9. "Of the impediments of knowledge for want of a true succession of wits, and that hitherto the length of one man's life hath been the greatest measure of knowledge; being the fifth chapter."

10. "That the pretended succession of wits hath been evil placed, forasmuch as after variety of sects and opinions the most popular and not the truest prevaileth and weareth out the rest; being the sixth chapter."

11. "Of the impediments of knowledge in handling it by parts, and in slipping off particular sciences from the root and stock of universal knowledge; being the seventh chapter."

12. "That the end and scope of knowledge hath been generally mistaken, and that men were never well advised what it was they sought" (part of a chapter not numbered).

13. "An abridgment of divers chapters of the first book;" namely, the l2th, 13th, and 14th, (over which is a running title "Of active knowledge;") and (without any running title) the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th], 19th, 21st, 22nd, 25th, and 26th. These abridgments have no headings; and at the end is written, "The end of the Abridgment of the first book of the Interpretation of Nature."

Such was the arrangement of the manuscript as the transcriber left it; which I have thought worth preserving, because I seem to see traces in it of two separate stages in the developement of the work; the order of the chapters as they are transcribed being probably the same in which Bacon wrote them; and the numbers inserted at the end of the headings indicating the order in which, when he placed them in the transcriber's hands, it was his intention to arrange them; and because it proves at any rate that at that time the design of the whole book was clearly laid out in his mind.

There is nothing, unfortunately, to fix the DATE of the transcript, unless it be implied in certain astronomical or astrological symbols written on the blank outside of the volume; in which the figures 1603 occur. This may possibly be the transcriber's note of the time when he finished his work; for which (but for one circumstance which I shall mention presently) I should think the year 1603 is likely a date as any; for we know from a letter of Bacon's, dated 3rd July 1603, that he had at that time resolved "to meddle as little as possible in the King's causes," and to "put his ambition wholly upon his pen;" and we know from the ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING that in 1605 he was engaged upon a work entitled "The Interpretation of Nature:" to which I may add that there is in the Lambeth Library a copy of a letter from Bacon to Lord Kinlosse, dated 25th March, 1603, and written in the same hand as this manuscript.

Bacon's corrections, if I may judge from the character of the handwriting, were inserted a little later; for it is a fact that about the beginning of James's reign his writing underwent a remarkable change, from the hurried Saxon hand full of large sweeping curves and with letters imperfectly formed and connected, which he wrote in Elizabeth's time, to a small, neat, light, and compact one, formed more upon the Italian model which was then coming into fashion; and when these corrections were made it is evident that this new character had become natural to him and easy. It is of course impossible to fix the precise date of such a change,--the more so because his autographs of this period are very scarce,--but whenever it was that he corrected this manuscript, it is evident that he then considered it worthy of careful revision. He has not merely inserted a sentence here and there, altered the numbers of the chapters, and added words to the headings in order to make the description more exact; but he has taken the trouble to add the running title wherever it was wanting, thus writing the words "of the Interpretation of Nature" at full lengths not less than eighteen times over; and upon the blank space of the titlepage he has written out a complete table of contents. In short, if he had been preparing the manuscript for the press or for a fresh transcript, he could not have done it more completely or carefully,--only that he has given no directions for altering the order of the chapters so as to make it correspond with the numbers. And hence I infer that up to the time when he made these corrections, this was the form of the great work on which he was engaged: it was a work concerning the Interpretation of Nature; which was to begin where the NOVUM ORGANUM begins; and of which the first book was to include all the preliminary considerations preparatory to the exposition of the formula.

I place this fragment here in deference to Mr. Ellis's decided opinion that it was written before the ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING. The positive ground indeed which he alleges in support of that conclusion I am obliged to set aside, as founded, I think, upon a misapprehension; and the supposition that no part of it was written later involves a difficulty which I cannot yet get over to my own satisfaction. But that the body of it was written earlier I see no reason to doubt; and if so, this is its proper place.

The particular point on which I venture to disagree with Mr. Ellis I have stated in a note upon his preface to the NOVUM ORGANUM, promising at the same time a fuller explanation of the grounds of my own conclusion, which I will now give.

The question is, whether the "Inventory" in the 10th chapter of VALERIUS TERMINUS was to have exhibited a general survey of the state of knowledge corresponding with that which fills the second book of the ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING. I think not.

It is true indeed that the title of that 10th chapter,--namely, "The Inventory, or an enumeration and view of inventions already discovered and in use, with a note of the wants and the nature of the supplies",--has at first sight a considerable resemblance to the description of the contents of the second book of the ADVANCEMENT OF


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