« PreviousContinue »
HIS WRITINGS, AND HIS PHILOSOPHY.
BACON has himself said, that, although some books may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others, that should be only in the less important arguments and the meaner sort of books; " else," he adds, "distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things." This is in his essay entitled 'Of Studies;' and undoubtedly the works of a great writer can only be properly studied in their original form.
But abridgements, compendiums, analyses, even of the works of the greatest writers, may still serve important purposes. If properly executed, even the student of the original works may find them of use both as guides and as remembrancers. A good compendium should be at least the best index and synopsis. The more extensive the original book, or books, the more is such a compendious analysis wanted, not to supersede or be a substitute for the original, but to accompany it as an introduction and instrument of ready reference. It is like a map of a country through which one has travelled, or is about to travel; or rather it is like what is called the keymap prefixed to a voluminous atlas, by which all the other maps are brought together into one view, and their consultation facilitated.
To the generality of readers, again, a comprehensive survey in small compass of an extensive and various mass of writings is calculated to be more than such a mere convenient table of contents or ground-plan. In the same Essay Bacon has said, "Some books are to be tasted,
others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." This must be understood, from the title and whole strain of the essay, to be addressed to students-to the comparatively few a large portion of whose time is occupied with books. If the illustrious author had been treating of the subject of reading in general, with the "great faculty," as he has himself called it, which he possessed in so eminent a degree, of contracting his view as well as of dilating and dispersing it, of making his mental eye a microscope to discern the parts of whatever he investigated as well as a telescope to take in the whole, he would not have omitted to remark also, that the same book is often to be read in one way by one man and in another way by another. We cannot have a better example than his own writings. In their entire form they fill many volumes; they have been collected in three or four large folios, in five quartos, in a dozen or more octavos. Let the student of literature or philosophy, we say again, by all means read and inwardly digest every page of them; but it would be the height of pedantry to recommend that anything like that should be done by all readers. Even if the entire body of Bacon's works could be produced at so small a cost as to be within the reach of all readers, the time to peruse them would be wanting. Nor, even if such of them as are not in English were to be all translated (which they have not yet been), would they be found to be all, or nearly all, of universal interest. Another remark that Bacon himself would not have failed to make if he had been examining the question of reading books in its whole extent, and on all sides, is, that, with few exceptions, all books lose something of their first importance, at least for the world at large, with the lapse of time. Works of science, or positive knowledge, especially, are always to some extent superseded, at least for their main or primary purpose, by the growth or extension of that very branch of knowledge
which they may have been the first to set before the eyes of men, as the torch may be dimmed and made useless by the greater light it has itself served to kindle. Much of what Bacon has left us is interesting now only as having either been or seemed to be of importance at the time when it was first published; that is to say, only as an evidence of the state of knowledge in those days. Much is the same thing that we have elsewhere in another form, or is the rudimentary conception of what is more fully brought out elsewhere. To the student of the history of science, or of the progress of thought and discovery in the mind of Bacon, all these indications are curious and precious; he will scrutinize them all anxiously, and will even wish that they were more numerous. But it is the results of such scrutiny principally that the ordinary reader wants; at most a few specimens of the repetitions and variations and exploded errors will be enough for him. Is nobody to be thought entitled to know anything about Bacon and his philosophy-about which everybody has heard so much-who cannot or will not make himself master of every line that Bacon has written? Here, as in all other cases, there is one kind of knowledge which the professed student of the particular subject in question requires, and quite another kind which suffices for the general reader-who may be considered as a mere looker on at the operation which the other is carrying on. It is right that such an observer should have understanding enough of the matter to comprehend what he sees done; it is not at all necessary that he should be able to do it. Even if the highest education were to be universally diffused, still some must have their attention more especially directed to one department of knowledge, some to another; and therefore in every department there must still be the few thoroughly instructed, and the many to whom the subject is known only in its outlines and general principles.
Such a knowledge of what is called the Baconian philosophy we hope to present our readers with the materials for acquiring in these volumes. Our plan, of producing for the most part Bacon's own words, will have at