Concerning Idols

This is a paper written for my Sociology 101 class after reading Francis Bacon’s essay The Four Idols. Bacon was a philosopher from the 16th century who became frustrated with the science of his day: namely how deduction was no longer contributing to anything new or interesting. My paper is a summary and conclusion concerning the idols which he proposed are blinding us from seeing the truth.

 The Four Idols

An idol is that which inhibits the ability to see clearly. Our idols distort our vision so that we cannot see clearly into and from the world. In his essay, The Four Idols, Francis Bacon says that idols “have most effect in disturbing the clearness of understanding”. At the end of the essay, Bacon likens the cleansing of oneself of idols for the purpose of seeing the things of the earth to the innocence of a child by which men may see the kingdom of heaven.

Idols of the Tribe

Bacon says that, “The idols of the tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things.” To rid ourselves of the idols of the tribe we must realize the errancy of our sense perceptions of the world. The senses of the mind are “according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe.” When our own sense experience shapes our understanding, we are prone to worship the idol of the tribe. A personal example of the idol of the tribe is my love of lemon. According to my senses, lemon makes everything better – lemon pepper, lemon juice, lemon slices, it is always an improvement on flavor. This tendency of mine to add lemon to any substance is noted by my family, and they get wary whenever I approach pots of food or gallons of tea with good intentions.

 Idols of the Cave

In the absence of the idols of the cave, “understanding may be rendered at once penetrating and comprehensive.” Yet the tendency is for a man to become obsessed with a few laws or properties of the universe and elevate those to the highest degree. Bacon criticizes the school of Leucippus and Democritus as being too busy with particles to give due diligence to the structure. Still he accuses other schools of being “so lost in admiration of the structure that they do not penetrate to the simplicity of nature.” The hope is that instead of eradicating those things and areas which we are biased towards, we can study them in turns – this way our understanding will be more complete. In my own experience, I have noticed that when handed a guitar I almost always tend towards the key of E. I find that the notes and chords there make the most sense to me. They sound the best. They are the best.

Idols of the Marketplace

Bacon terms the idols of the marketplace as “the most troublesome of all: idols which have crept into the understanding through the alliances of words and names.” We must realize that our language is not completely accurate in its attempts to explain. Bacon divides the idols of the marketplace into two kinds, the first being “names of things that do not exist.” There are things which remain unnamed for lack of observation or are ill-defined and based upon faulty theories and suppositions. The second kind is that which “springs out of a faulty and unskillful abstraction.” Bacon gives the example of the word “humid” which, depending on the circumstances and the speaker, could mean any number of different things. Different senses of the word infer different meanings – thus an idol which obstructs understanding. An example which I’ve noticed in my circles is the way we refer to the agendas of politicians. It isn’t uncommon to hear a candidate touted as good on education and healthcare. And it always leaves me wondering what it means to be good on something. It could mean the politician used to be a teacher and now wants better salaries for teachers, achieved by raising the budget for schools. Or maybe it means he or she recognizes wasteful spending within the system and wants to tighten the budget.

Idols of the Theatre

The idols of the theatre obscure our understanding by way of conventions. These have to do with the society we’re born into, the beliefs we’re brought up in, and the ideologies we buy into. The idols of the theatre beset us when we no longer bother to question or investigate established lines of logic. In the absence of the idols of the theatre, perhaps every generation would put on trial the accepted theories, beliefs, and customs that rule the day. Bacon says of these idols, “[They] are not innate, nor do they steal into the understanding secretly, but are plainly impressed and received int the mind from the play-books of philosophical systems and the perverted rules of demonstration.” We witness the idols of the theatre in the education of children. Whether a child grows up believing in the theory of evolution or the account written in Genesis will depend on the beliefs held by those who raise him.


One way to think of bias is that which we naturally tend towards. Our biases are often fundamental players in our erection of idols; yet they don’t have to be – the two things, bias and idol, are not twins. There is no question as to whether our idols cloud our vision and pervade our judgement. But the problem of idols is not our certain demise. Perhaps the cure to the problem of idols lies with the community. We need each other; to review our papers, critique our experiments, challenge our belief systems, run against our political candidates, to praise us for our faithfulness, and call us on our treachery. Almost nothing profitable is done in a vacuum. Often our biases stem from our love. And our love, of fields of study, of laws of nature, of worlds within the kingdom of men, is what enables us to be productive to society. But when bias turns to idol, we are no longer fit to look into any kingdom, that of heaven or of earth.

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