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Francis Bacon on the Scholastic Philosophy

Modern Catholics have embraced the idea that the modern philosophy of Francis Bacon, the father of the Scientific Method, can be reconciled with Catholicism. This, however, can only be true when one first accepts Bacon’s call to reject Church authority and Scholastic philosophy.

“This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the [Scholastics], who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books.”

Francis Bacon
On the Advancement of Learning

Note one important criticism of the Scholastics, which is most irrational: “small variety of reading”. Bacon does not demonstrate the falsehood of the few works the Scholastics spent their time reading (for he could not do so), but raised the criticism that they simply didn’t read a sufficient number of sources.

Would these be superior sources?

Would broader reader provide sources superior to the Scholastics’ normal reading of Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers, Aristotle, etc.?

Is this not the same argument we find raised against devoute Catholics today?

“What, will you limit yourself to your Bible, Missal, Breviary, Catechism and Summa, etc.? Have you ever read Spinoza? Hume? Nietzsche? Marx? Darwin?”

Actually, yes, I do give almost all of my attention to a small number of important works. I don’t study much more than this.

“See, you’re ignorant! There’s no variety in your reading.”

This is sophistry. Variety can be used as a criticism forever, whether a man read 7 books or 700 books–“of the making of books there is no end.” The argument for variety, if granted, can be used forever.

Catholics fall for it.

3 Comments

  1. Franciscus X. Romærus Franciscus X. Romærus March 21, 2024

    Thank you so much for your dedication and your work Prof. William.
    I’ve followed your honest work for about three years now. You ‘ve helped me to avoid making mistakes or going to routes where there is error.

    Please, excuse my bad english. I can understand it but it is still difficult for me to write it properly. I write to you from Mexico, so my first lenguage is spanish.

    Since my baptism in 1998 I was catholic, but because the lack of my formation I became an atheist. You, are one of the teachers —along with Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Chesterton— who bring me back to theism, christianism and, finally, to catholicism back again where I know I belong.

    This is the first time I comment in anything you post here. But I feelt the necessity to thanking you for the work you have done and still doing: helped me a lot and I know does the same for others aswell.

    Thank you, Prof. William.

    God bless!

    • William C. Michael, O.P. William C. Michael, O.P. Post author | March 21, 2024

      Thanks for commenting. Please stay in touch and feel free to share your thoughts on any posts.
      God bless,
      William Michael

  2. Emmanuel Simon Emmanuel Simon March 27, 2024

    Thanks for posting. I cannot help but contrast Bacon’s criticism of the Scholastics for having a small variety of reading, and Seneca’s advice in his second moral letter to only read from the few “master authors.” This contrast is enough to show that an educational model like the “Great Books” is not philosophically neutral in its own presuppositions or assumptions. Given its canon, advocates of “The Great Books” must assume, prior to any study of Seneca’s moral letter, that a wide variety of reading is better than studying from the few master authors. In assuming this, advocates are prejudiced to side with Bacon (and his criticism of the Scholastics,) rather than Seneca and the Scholastic Tradition.

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