Introduction II.C:

6. Compelling Nature to Answer

In fact, although Cartesianism was attractive as a philosophy, it was not so good at explaining natural phenomena in detail, and it became apparent that mastery of nature would be difficult through the application of mechanical philosophy as a purely rational discipline.  Therefore Francis Bacon (1561–1626) proposed a methodology of non-magical empiricism, which applied the empirical methods of magical philosophy in a mechanical context.  He hoped to legitimate man's domination of nature by arguing that it was not prohibited by the Bible and that it could be accomplished by lawful (i.e., non-magical, non-demonic) means.  (In contrast, even non-demonic magic was illegitimate because it was too easy: according to Bacon, mastery of nature was to be achieved by the "sweat of our brows," that is, by arduous, incremental experimental investigation.)

Bacon argued that  "nature exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of art then when left to herself."  That is, Nature will not yield to gentle questioning, but must be compelled to answer by ordeals and tortures (like those inflicted on witches!).  His metaphors are certainly not coincidental.  The experimental method will permit the "true sons of knowledge," he said, "to penetrate further," to pass through "the outer courts of nature" and "find a way at length into her inner chamber," allowing men to find the "secrets still locked in Nature's bosom."  The method is sure, and will allow men, not just to exert "gentle guidance over nature's course," but to "conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations."  So also Henry Oldenburg (1615?–77), the first secretary of the Royal Society, announced that its business was to raise "a Masculine Philosophy."  Experimental science will lead men, Bacon said, to "Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave."  Thus would be established the "Dominion of Man over the Universe."

Bacon was not alone in his opinion of man's proper relation to nature.  For example, the alchemist Thomas Vaughan (1622–66) thought that the natural magician would penetrate to the center of Nature, so that she would cry out that he had "almost broken her Seal, and exposed her naked to the World."  The Cartesian turned Neo-Platonist Henry More (1614–87) replied that such a "chaste and discreet Lady" could not be "lewdly prostituted" by "immodest hands."  He taunted, "Thou has not laid Madam Nature so naked as thou supposest, only thou hast, I am afraid, dream't uncleanly, and so hast polluted so many sheets of paper with thy Nocturnal Conundrums..." (Observations, 66).

Robert Boyle (1627–91) had been a Hermetic philosopher and alchemist, who aided Hermetic and Rosicrucian refugees from the continent between 1645 and 1652.  Later he abandoned the magical philosophy and became a pioneer of modern chemistry by applying its experimental method.  After his conversion to mechanical philosophy, he opined, "the veneration, wherewith men are imbued for what they call Nature, has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God" (Boyle, Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature).  With perfect consistency, in his role as Governor of the New England Company, he tried to disabuse the Native Americans of "their ridiculous Notions about the workings of Nature" and the "fond and superstitious practices those Errors engaged them to."  So long, he said, as men "look upon her as such a venerable thing, some make a kind of scruple of conscience to endeavor so to emulate any of her works, as to excel them."

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