Sphinx or Science (Francis Bacon)

Published September 21, 2009 · Estimated reading time: 6 minutes · 3 responses so far
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I read this magnificent piece a couple of weeks ago and it left me with a lot to digest, and so I wanted to share it. In a world where scientific theories like evolution still have not found widespread acceptance in the public, it seems that many are still unwilling to face, what Bacon calls in Sphynx or Science, questions on the nature of things and the nature of man. After reading this passage, I was left with a truly deep appreciation for the curiosity of every child, and for every woman and man who has ever dared approach the sphinxes that guard the incognito, and face the riddles of the universe and our humanity.

“Sphynx or Science”
Sir Francis Bacon’s The Wisdom of the Ancients (1619)


phinx, says the story, was a monster combining many shapes in one. She had the face and voice of a virgin, the wings of a bird, the claws of a griffin. She dwelt on the ridge of a mountain near Thebes and infested the roads, lying in ambush for travelers, whom she would suddenly attack and lay hold of; and when she had mastered them, she propounded to them certain dark and perplexing riddles, which she was thought to have obtained from the Muses. And if the wretched captives could not at once solve and interpret the same, as they stood hesitating and confused she cruelly tore them to pieces. Time bringing no abatement of the calamity, the Thebans offered to any man who should expound the Sphinx’s riddles ( for this was the only way to subdue her ) the sovereignty of Thebes as his reward.

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The greatness of the prize induced Œdipus, a man of wisdom and penetration, but lame from wounds in his feet, to accept the condition and make the trial: who presenting himself full of confidence and alacrity before the Sphinx, and being asked what kind of animal it was which was born four-footed, afterwards became two-footed, then three-footed, and at last four-footed again, answered readily that it was man; who at his birth and during his infancy sprawls on all fours, hardly attempting to creep; in a little while walks upright on two feet; in later years leans on a walking stick and so goes as it were on three; and at last in extreme age and decrepitude, his sinews all failing, sinks into a quadruped again, and keeps his bed. This was the right answer and gave him victory; whereupon he slew the Sphinx; whose body was put on the back of an ass and carried about in triumph; while himself was made according to compact King of Thebes.

The fable is an elegant and a wise one, invented apparently in allusion to Science; especially in its application to practical life. Science, being the wonder of the ignorant and unskillful, may be not absurdly called a monster. In figure and aspect it is represented as many-shaped, in allusion to the immense variety of matter with which it deals. It is said to have the face and voice of a woman, in respect of its beauty and facility of utterance. Wings are added because the sciences and the discoveries of science spread and fly abroad in an instant; the communication of knowledge being like that of one candle with another, which lights up at once.
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