Mastering the Appetites of Matter. Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum

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    • Pages: 149 to 167
    • ISBN: 978-90-481-3685-8
    • ISSN: 0929-6425
    • DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-3686-5_8
    • Creation date: 04-01-2011
    • Last update: 25-02-2015



    Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum (published posthumously in 1627) occupies a paradoxical place in the history of seventeenth-century medicine and natural philosophy. It is the work where Bacon expounded, at his clearest and best, in vernacular and not in Latin, his views on the material appetites of nature, and did so not by writing in the abstract, but by describing and performing experiments aimed at disclosing the appetitive nature of matter. However, such an original model of experimental investigations on the appetites of matter was abandoned by the great majority of Bacon’s followers, especially those associated with the Royal Society, replaced with the more reassuring project to mechanise the natural forms and passions of matter. By doing so, man was restored as the proper subject of knowledge and appetite, whereas nature was left with its status of lifeless object of dispassionate study. This paper explores the theoretical and experimental strategies deployed by Bacon to investigate the appetites of matter. It will become apparent that a characteristic hermeneutical circle underlies Bacon’s natural philosophy, a circle that, depending on the chosen point of view, could be regarded at the time as either virtuous or vicious. On the one hand, Bacon was convinced that man’s self-knowledge rested on the knowledge that nature has of itself, since nature is first and foremost appetite and man’s essence is rooted in appetite. On the other hand, he was also convinced that knowledge of nature was based on knowledge of the self, since the best accounts concerning the nature of the appetites were to be found in the works of poets and historians (rather than in Renaissance systematisers of natural magic and natural philosophy). This is what Bacon meant by ‘georgics of the mind’: the understanding of the material appetites of nature cannot be separated from an ethical and political consideration of the mechanisms mediating knowledge and appetite in human societies.