Chapter 2b

The Idols of the Tribe


45 The nature of human understanding easily supposes a greater degree of order and equality in things than it really finds.

Many things in nature are sui generis and most irregular.

  • Yet we invent parallels and conjugates and relatives, where there are none.

Hence the fiction that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles.

  • This rejects entirely spiral and serpentine lines (except as explanatory terms)*.

Translator’s Note: Kepler had already demonstrated his 3 great laws on the elliptical path of the planets. But neither Bacon nor Descartes seems to have known or assented to his discoveries. Bacon deemed the startling astronomical announcements of his time to be mere theoretical solutions, not so perfect as those advanced by antiquity, but still deserving a praise for their ingenuity. Bacon believed a hundred such systems might exist. Some explanations might be true. Yet they might differ according to the preconceived notions which their framers had. He even thought to be acclaimed by future generations for his astronomical ingenuity of spiral labyrinths and serpentine lines which are written in his Miscellany MSS.—Ed.

Hence also the element[23] of fire is introduced with its peculiar orbit,[13] to keep square with those other three which are objects of our senses.

The relative rarity of the elements (as they are called) is arbitrarily made to vary in tenfold progression, with many other dreams of the like nature.[14] Nor is this folly confined to theories, but it is to be met with even in simple notions.

46 The human understanding, when any proposition has been once laid down (either from general admission and belief, or from the pleasure it affords), forces everything else to add fresh support and confirmation; and although most cogent and abundant instances may exist to the contrary, yet either does not observe or despises them, or gets rid of and rejects them by some distinction, with violent and injurious prejudice, rather than sacrifice the authority of its first conclusions.

It was well answered by him[15] who was[24] shown in a temple the votive tablets suspended by such as had escaped the peril of shipwreck, and was pressed as to whether he would then recognize the power of the gods, by an inquiry, But where are the portraits of those who have perished in spite of their vows?

All superstition is much the same, whether it be that of astrology, dreams, omens, retributive judgment, or the like. The deluded believers observe events which are fulfilled, but ignore the events which do not come true, though the latter are much more common.

But this evil insinuates itself still more craftily in philosophy and the sciences, in which a settled maxim vitiates and governs every other circumstance, though the latter be much more worthy of confidence.

Besides, even in the absence of that eagerness and want of thought (which we have mentioned), it is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than negatives, whereas it ought duly and regularly to be impartial; nay, in establishing any true axiom the negative instance is the most powerful.

47 The human understanding is most excited by that which strikes and enters the mind at once and suddenly, and by which the imagination is immediately filled and inflated.

It then begins almost imperceptibly to conceive and suppose that everything is similar to the few objects which have taken possession of the mind, while it is very slow and unfit for the transition to the remote and heterogeneous instances by which axioms are tried as by fire, unless the office be imposed upon it by severe regulations and a powerful authority.

48 The human understanding is active and cannot halt or rest. It still presses forward even without a purpose.

This prevents us from conceiving any end or external[25] boundary of the world.

  • This makes us think that there must be something beyond.

Nor can we imagine how eternity has flowed on down to the present day, since the usually received distinction of an infinity, a parte ante and a parte post,[16] cannot hold good; for it would thence follow that one infinity is greater than another, and also that infinity is wasting away and tending to an end.

There is the same difficulty in considering the infinite divisibility of lines, arising from the weakness of our minds, which weakness interferes to still greater disadvantage with the discovery of causes;

for although the greatest generalities in nature must be positive, just as they are found, and in fact not causable, yet the human understanding, incapable of resting, seeks for something more intelligible.

Thus, however, while aiming at further progress, it falls back to what is actually less advanced, namely, final causes; for they are clearly more allied to man’s own nature, than the system of the universe, and from this source they have wonderfully corrupted philosophy. But he would be an unskilful and shallow philosopher who should seek for causes in the greatest generalities,[26] and not be anxious to discover them in subordinate objects.

49 The human understanding resembles not a dry light, but admits a tincture of the will[17] and passions, which generate their own system accordingly; for man always believes more readily that which he prefers.

He, therefore, rejects difficulties for want of patience in investigation; sobriety, because it limits his hope; the depths of nature, from superstition; the light of experiment, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should appear to be occupied with common and varying objects; paradoxes, from a fear of the opinion of the vulgar; in short, his feelings imbue and corrupt his understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways.

50 The greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding, by far, comes from the dulness, incompetence, and errors of the senses.

Whatever strikes the senses preponderates over everything, however superior, which does not immediately strike them.

Hence contemplation mostly ceases with sight. No regard is paid to invisible objects.

The entire operation, therefore, of spirits inclosed in tangible bodies[18] is concealed, and escapes us.

All that more delicate change of formation in the parts of coarser substances (vulgarly[27] called alteration, but in fact a change of position in the smallest particles) is equally unknown; and yet, unless the two matters we have mentioned be explored and brought to light, no great effect can be produced in nature.

Again, the very nature of common air, and all bodies of less density (of which there are many) is almost unknown; for the senses are weak and erring, nor can instruments be of great use in extending their sphere or acuteness—all the better interpretations of nature are worked out by instances, and fit and apt experiments, where the senses only judge of the experiment, the experiment of nature and the thing itself.

51 The human understanding is, by its own nature:

  • prone to abstraction
  • supposes that which is fluctuating to be fixed.

But it is better to dissect than abstract nature. This was was the method used by the school of Democritus[19]. They made greater progress in penetrating nature than the rest.

It is best to consider matter, its conformation, and the changes of that conformation, its own action,[20] and the law of this action or motion.

Forms are a mere fiction of the human mind, unless you will call the laws of action by that name.[21]

52 Such are the idols of the tribe. These arise either from:

  • the uniformity of the constitution of man’s spirit, or
  • its prejudices, or
  • its limited faculties or restless agitation, or
  • from the interference of the passions, or
  • the incompetence of the senses, or
  • the mode of their impressions.


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