Do myths tell profound truths about the world?
The 17th century English philosopher and Lord Chancellor Sir Francis Bacon thought so. Bacon, who is widely regarded as having first developed a philosophy of experimental science, was a diligent student of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Convinced that the ancient myths concealed deep mysteries, he wrote an entire treatise, “On the Wisdom of the Ancients,” elaborating on the meaning of classical mythology.
One of the myths that held special importance for Bacon was that of Pan, the goat-footed god of hunting and the protector of shepherds. Bacon thought the fable to be “big almost to bursting with the secrets and mysteries of Nature.” Pan, Bacon thought, “represents the universal frame of things, or Nature.”
Particularly intriguing to Bacon was the legend of Pan’s hunt. According to the legend, Pan, while hunting, accidentally discovered the hidden goddess Ceres (the goddess of agriculture) when all the other higher gods failed in their quest after her. Bacon interpreted the myth to mean that “the discovery of things useful to life . . . is not to be looked for from the abstract philosophies, as it were the greater gods, no not though they devote their whole powers to that special end—but only from Pan; that is from sagacious experience and the universal knowledge of nature, which will often by chance, and as it were while engaged in hunting, stumble upon such discoveries.”
To Bacon, Pan’s hunt was a metaphor describing the experimental methodology that he called “learned experience.” As a scientific method, Pan’s hunt proceeds from one experiment to another in the same way a hunter tracks his prey by reading footprints and signs. Bacon called this method “a sagacity and a kind of hunting by scent, rather than a science.” The experimental scientist is a hunter of the secrets of nature whose “sagacity” and vast experience enables him to see things others cannot see. Instead of “groping in the dark,” he patiently reads the minute signs and clues that will lead him to his prey hiding in the dense thicket of experience.
The metaphor of science as a hunt occurs repeatedly in the scientific literature of the early modern period. In the 1520’s, the Neapolitan astrologer Giovanni Abioso urged natural philosophers to turn away from the books of antiquity and “hunt for new secrets of nature.” Giambattista Della Porta, another Neapolitan, used an image of the lynx—the keen-sighted predator—as the emblem for his book on natural magic, thus inspiring the name of the Accademia dei Lincei, one of the earliest scientific academies. Another academy, the short-lived Accademia Cacciatore (Academy of Hunters) founded at Venice in 1596, adopted as its device the symbol of a dog pursuing a hare.
Not surprisingly, images of the hunt turn up frequently in the Renaissance courts. Hunting was the seigniorial sport par excellence. The conception of science as a hunt permeated courtly science. Renaissance princes quested passionately after natural “secrets,” especially those pertaining to alchemy and magic. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Europe’s most famous patron of the occult sciences, was an avid collector of secrets. A Venetian observer at the imperial court reported that Rudolf “delights in hearing secrets about things both natural and artificial, and whoever is able to deal in such matters will always find the ear of the Emperor ready.”
The same fervent interest in secrets consumed Galileo’s patron, Cosimo II d’Medici, whose court at Florence was a magnet for countless experimenters vaunting “secrets.” Galileo, eager to win Cosimo’s patronage, assured the Grand Duke’s secretary that he too had “particular secrets, as useful as they are curious and admirable, . . . in great plenty.”
The advent of the hunt metaphor in the scientific discourse of the early modern period testifies to the emergence of a new conception of the aims and methods of science. Instead of viewing natural philosophy as a sort of hermeneutics, or textual analysis—“natural philosophy without nature,” as the late John Murdoch aptly characterized late-medieval physics—intellectuals of the early modern period tended to think of science as a search for new and unknown facts, or of causes concealed beneath nature’s outer appearances.
This conception of science rested, in turn, upon a redefinition of what constitutes scientific knowledge. Whereas in the medieval scholastic tradition the aim of science was to demonstrate the known, early modern science set its sights on the discovery of new and “curious” phenomena. In the Baconian tradition, facts—nuggets of experience detached from theory—became the object of inquiry. In other words, Baconian science focused attention upon particulars; for these were precisely the clues and signs that would guide investigators to nature’s deepest arcana. As Della Porta wrote, “True things be they ever so small, will give occasion to discover greater things.”
To these contrasting images of science—one as logical demonstration and the other as a hunt—corresponded radically different images of nature. One conceived of nature as a geometrical cosmos, a reality whose essential features could be known by reason. The other viewed nature as a dense forest, an uncharted domain, a labyrinth in which method offered but a thin thread to orient oneself.
According to the epistemology of the hunt, nature’s secrets were hidden beyond the reach of ordinary sense perception; therefore, they had to be sought out by extraordinary means. For example, instruments had to be made that would enable researchers to “look out at and look into” nature, as the motto of the Lincean Academy expressed it. Experiments had to be devised that would enable researchers to penetrate nature’s interior. As Bacon wrote, nature, like the ancient god Proteus, had to be constrained by experiments that forced it out of its natural condition: for “the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art than when they go their own way.”
Finally, new methods of reasoning had to be found to take the place of scholastic logic, which according to Renaissance natural philosophers was incapable of reaching the inner recesses of nature and laying bare its secrets. “Before we can reach the more hidden parts of nature,” Bacon wrote, “it is necessary that a more perfect use and application of the human mind and intellect be introduced.”
The repeated references to the hunt for the “secrets of nature” in the scientific literature of the seventeenth century should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Far from being a mere hackneyed metaphor, the continual appearance of that well-worn phrase indicates a subtle shift in the direction of natural philosophy. The concept of nature’s “secrets”—that is, the idea that the mechanisms of nature were hidden beneath the exterior appearances of things—was the foundation of the so-called “New Philosophy’s” insistence upon getting to the bottom of things through experimentation. The scholastics had been too trusting of their senses, the New Philosophers asserted. Their naive empiricism was responsible for the erroneous belief that nature exhibits her true character on the outside. In reality, the New Philosophers declared, nature’s workings are hidden. The unaided senses do not reveal reliable information about what makes nature tick any more than observing the hands of a clock reveals the clock’s inner mechanism.
The New Philosophy redrew the boundaries of science: It brought the secrets of nature back into the picture. When the aim of science shifted from demonstrations of the known and familiar aspects of nature to a hunt for unknown “secrets of nature,” modern science was born.
Lorraine Daston, “The Factual Sensibility,” Isis 79 (1988), 452-67.
William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science (Princeton, 1994)
Paolo Rossi, Philosophy, Technology and the Arts in the Early Modern Era, trans. S. Attanasio (New York, 1970).