Francis Bacon: Myth, Magic and Morals

Tutor: Sophie Weeks

Module type: Special Subject

Module Code: HIS00091H

In recent decades there has been a resurgence of interest in the philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and he continues to be revered and reviled in equal measure. In this module we will be reading Bacon's The Wisdom of the Ancients (1609) alongside other primary and secondary literature. This work comprises Bacon's interpretation of thirty-one classical myths, dealing with everything from Cyclopes and giants to nymphs and grasshoppers. The Wisdom of the Ancients proved extremely popular, going through at least sixty editions by the end of the seventeenth century. Bacon, in his interpretation of the myths, deals with all the major components of his vast project of reform: nature, experiment, magic, ethics, politics, and religion. As such, it is an invaluable resource for getting to grips with Bacon's project as a whole, and has been described by one historian as ‘unquestionably one of the most significant contributions to philosophy in the history of English thought.’ Yet scholars remain divided over the meaning and significance of The Wisdom of the Ancients. Is it an entertaining literary exercise, an engagement with humanist thought, or something far more substantial—namely, the deft concealment of secrets pertaining to nature, politics, and religion?

By reading The Wisdom of the Ancients alongside sections of other Baconian texts such as the New Organon and New Atlantis, this special subject will analyze Bacon's interpretations of the myths and explore their significance in the general context of his ambitious project. What do Proserpina's pomegranate, the shapeshifting sea god Proteus, and Medusa's snake-crowned head have to do with Baconian philosophy? Bacon likened the wisdom of the ancients to ‘grapes ill-trodden: something is squeezed out, but the best parts are left behind and passed over.’ Through a close reading of this text, we will attempt to squeeze out his message. In so doing, we will consider whether Bacon is best characterized as a conventional humanist or a progenitor of modernity.

Seminars are likely to cover the following areas:

    • The Baconian project
    • Reading Bacon
    • Introducing The Wisdom of the Ancients
    • ‘Proteus, or Matter’
    • The ‘Torture’ of nature?
    • From chaos to cosmos: ‘Cupid, or the Atom’ and ‘Coelum, or the Origin of Things’
    • The perils of invention: ‘Daedalus, or The Mechanic’ and ‘Atalanta, or Profit’
    • The quest for immortality: ‘Deucalion, or Restoration’ and ‘Proserpina, or Spirit’
    • The unity of the sciences
    • ‘Sphinx, or Science’
    • ‘Orpheus, or Philosophy’
    • ‘Perseus, or War’
    • Resisting temptation: ‘Dionysus, or Desire’ and ‘The Sirens, or Pleasure’
    • The separation of science and religion: ‘Actaeon and Pentheus, or Curiosity’
    • Technological providence: ‘Prometheus, or the State of Man’
    • The reception of The Wisdom of the Ancients
    • Ancient or modern?


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.