Lewis’s Baconian reading of Bacon

In his Novum OrganumFrancis Bacon sought to establish modern natural science on an altogether new, experimental foundation and method of discovery. In doing so, however, Bacon deemed it necessary that science be once and for all freed from any interferences, limits, or distractions coming from the direction of theology. To this end, Bacon found himself reinterpreting Scripture in a way that would marginalize theology’s authority and guidance where the study of the natural world was concerned, and argued that this allegedly modest and humble position was the authentic teaching of the Bible itself. For Bacon, in short, the Bible’s own teaching was (effectively) that the Bible was irrelevant to a proper understanding of the natural world.

It is one of those tasty ironies, accordingly, that C.S. Lewis, in his Miraclesshould be found reading Bacon by means of Bacon’s own, dubious hermeneutic. After arguing for Reason’s distinction from, and even transcendence over, the world of Nature, in his chapter on “Nature and Supernature” Lewis makes the case for Nature’s resulting openness to the transforming agency of Reason. Anticipating an objection, Lewis suggests that the repugnance many moderns (among whom–in another Baconian sleight of hand–Lewis says that he numbers himself) feel toward such a picture of Nature’s vulnerability stems less from reason than it does from a certain emotional or aesthetic preference. As Lewis continues, “I know that the hankering for a universe which is all of a piece, and in which everything is the same sort of thing as everything else–a continuity, a seamless web, a democratic universe–is very deep-seated in the modern heart: in mine, no less than in yours.” Now, this democratic, anti-hierarchical view of reality is precisely one of Bacon’s great legacies to modern thought, as Lewis was well aware. Yet who should Lewis invoke in his effort to topple this modern, Baconian naïveté concerning the uniformity and inalterability of nature?

But have we any real assurance that things are like that? Are we mistaking for an intrinsic probability what is really a human desire for tidiness and harmony? Bacon warned us long ago that “the human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds. And though there be many things which are singular and unmatched, yet it devises for them parallels and conjugates and relatives which do not exist. Hence the fiction that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles” (Novum Organum, I, 45). I think Bacon was right. 

Against the naturalist’s Baconian assumption of an unalterable uniformity of nature, Lewis wryly pits Bacon’s own caution against the human penchant for finding more “order and regularity” than we really have evidence for.

But Lewis’s citation of this particular passage by Bacon in this particular context seems to be more audacious still. More than a mere invocation of something Bacon says in one place in order to undermine what he says in another, Lewis quotes Bacon to support a claim that is almost diametrically opposed to the one Bacon himself is trying to make. The target of Bacon’s remarks, after all, was the premodern and specifically scholastic tendency to anthropomorphize (as he interpreted it) nature by taking purposes or ends–which have their proper home in human thinking and action only–and projecting them onto what Bacon interpreted as an otherwise intrinsically non-teleological or purposeless Nature composed ultimately of nothing more than matter in motion. For its author, therefore, the above quote was originally intended as a statement calculated to relativize human reason, to chasten its confidence in the legitimacy of its own, every-day, common-sense modes of operation, and so to subordinate it to and discipline it under a conception of nature understood to operate according to the very different, even alien principles of materialism and mechanism. In Lewis’s hands, however, Bacon’s quote gets deployed in defense of the absolute character of human reason and the corresponding porosity or permeability of nature in the face of Reason, a relationship, moreover, that will turn out later to be a mere creaturely analogy to Nature’s much more profound, feminine vulnerability to the divine Reason of “Supernature.”

How, finally, might we interpret Lewis’s rather un-Baconian use of Bacon? Ineptitude? Doubtful. Disingenuous? Perhaps, but such a pietistic response, as I’ve already hinted, doesn’t reckon with the arguable duplicity involved in Bacon’s own use of Christian and biblical rhetoric to undermine the influence of the Bible and Christian doctrine on modern natural science. A third option suggests itself: in Lewis’s Miracles we see the premodern, “discarded image” tradition’s revenge on Bacon as it turns against him the very (and otherwise questionable) methods of persuasion by which Bacon and the moderns in general sought to subvert and replace that tradition.