Of the limits and ends of knowledge

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Valerius Terminus: of the interpretation of Nature by Francis Bacon
Of the Limits and End of Knowledge


Chapter 1: Of the Limits and End of Knowledge[edit]

In the divine nature both religion and philosophy hath acknowledged goodness in perfection, science or providence comprehending all things, and absolute sovereignty or kingdom. In aspiring to the throne of power the angels transgressed and fell, in presuming to come within the oracle of knowledge man transgressed and fell; but in pursuit towards the similitude of God’s goodness or love (which is one thing, for love is nothing else but goodness put in motion or applied) neither man or spirit ever hath transgressed, or shall transgress. The angel of light that was, when he presumed before his fall, said within himself, I WILL ASCEND AND BE LIKE UNTO THE HIGHEST; not God, but the highest. To be like to God in goodness, was no part of his emulation; knowledge, being in creation an angel of light, was not the want which did most solicit him; only because he was a minister he aimed at a supremacy; therefore his climbing or ascension was turned into a throwing down or precipitation.

Man on the other side, when he was tempted before he fell, had offered unto him this suggestion, THAT HE SHOULD BE LIKE UNTO GOD. But how? Not simply, but in this part, KNOWING GOOD AND EVIL. For being in his creation invested with sovereignty of all inferior creatures, he was not needy of power or dominion; but again, being a spirit newly inclosed in a body of earth, he was fittest to be allured with appetite of light and liberty of knowledge; therefore this approaching and intruding into God’s secrets and mysteries was rewarded with a further removing and estranging from God’s presence. But as to the goodness of God, there is no danger in contending or advancing towards a similitude thereof, as that which is open and propounded to our imitation. For that voice (whereof the heathen and all other errors of religion have ever confessed that it sounds not like man), LOVE YOUR ENEMIES; BE YOU LIKE UNTO YOUR HEAVENLY FATHER, THAT SUFFERETH HIS RAIN TO FALL BOTH UPON THE JUST AND THE UNJUST, doth well declare, that we can in that point commit no excess; so again we find it often repeated in the old law, BE YOU HOLY AS I AM HOLY; and what is holiness else but goodness, as we consider it separate and guarded from all mixture and all access of evil? Wherefore seeing that knowledge is of the number of those things which are to be accepted of with caution and distinction; being now to open a fountain, such as it is not easy to discern where the issues and streams thereof will take and fall; I thought it good and necessary in the first place to make a strong and sound head or bank to rule and guide the course of the waters; by setting down this position or firmament, namely, THAT ALL KNOWLEDGE IS TO BE LIMITED BY RELIGION, AND TO BE REFERRED TO USE AND ACTION.
For if any man shall think by view and inquiry into these sensible and material things, to attain to any light for the revealing of the nature or will of God, he shall dangerously abuse himself. It is true that the contemplation of the creatures of God hath for end (as to the natures of the creatures themselves) knowledge, but as to the nature of God, no knowledge, but wonder; which is nothing else but contemplation broken off; or losing itself. Nay further, as it was aptly said by one of Plato’s school THE SENSE OF MAN RESEMBLES THE SUN, WHICH OPENETH AND REVEALETH THE TERRESTRIAL GLOBE, BUT OBSCURETH AND CONCEALETH THE CELESTIAL; so doth the sense discover natural things, but darken and shut up divine. And this appeareth sufficiently in that there is no proceeding in invention of knowledge but by similitude; and God is only self-like, having nothing in common with any creature, otherwise than as in shadow and trope. Therefore attend his will as himself openeth it, and give unto faith that which unto faith belongeth; for more worthy it is to believe than to think or know, considering that in knowledge (as we now are capable of it) the mind suffereth from inferior natures; but in all belief it suffereth from a spirit which it holdeth superior and more authorised than itself.
To conclude, the prejudice hath been infinite that both divine and human knowledge hath received by the intermingling and tempering of the one with the other; as that which hath filled the one full of heresies, and the other full of speculative fictions and vanities. But now there are again which in a contrary extremity to those which give to contemplation an overlarge scope, do offer too great a restraint to natural and lawful knowledge, being unjustly jealous that every reach and depth of knowledge wherewith their conceits have not been acquainted, should be too high an elevation of man’s wit, and a searching and ravelling too far into God’s secrets; an opinion that ariseth either of envy (which is proud weakness and to be censured and not confuted), or else of a deceitful simplicity. For if they mean that the ignorance of a second cause doth make men more devoutly to depend upon the providence of God, as supposing the effects to come immediately from his hand, I demand of them, as Job demanded of his friends, WILL YOU LIE FOR GOD AS MAN WILL FOR MAN TO GRATIFY HIM? But if any man without any sinister humour doth indeed make doubt that this digging further and further into the mine of natural knowledge is a thing without example and uncommended in the Scriptures, or fruitless; let him remember and be instructed; for behold it was not that pure light of natural knowledge, whereby man in paradise was able to give unto every living creature a name according to his propriety, which gave occasion to the fall; but it was an aspiring desire to attain to that part of moral knowledge which defineth of good and evil, whereby to dispute God’s commandments and not to depend upon the revelation of his will, which was the original temptation. And the first holy records, which within those brief memorials of things which passed before the flood entered few things as worthy to be registered but only lineages and propagations, yet nevertheless honour the remembrance of the inventor both of music and works in metal. Moses again (who was the reporter) is said to have been seen in all the Egyptian learning, which nation was early and leading in matter of knowledge. And Salomon the king, as out of a branch of his wisdom extraordinarily petitioned and granted from God, is said to have written a natural history of all that is green from the cedar to the moss, (which is but a rudiment between putrefaction and an herb,) and also of all that liveth and moveth. And if the book of Job be turned over, it will be found to have much aspersion of natural philosophy. Nay, the same Salomon the king affirmeth directly that the glory of God IS TO CONCEAL A THING, BUT THE GLORY OF THE KING IS TO FIND IT OUT, as if according to the innocent play of children the divine Majesty took delight to hide his works, to the end to have them found out; for in naming the king he intendeth man, taking such a condition of man as hath most excellency and greatest commandment of wits and means, alluding also to his own person, being truly one of those clearest burning lamps, whereof himself speaketh in another place, when he saith THE SPIRIT OF MAN IS AS THE LAMB, OF GOD, WHEREWITH HE SEARCHETH ALL INWARDNESS; which nature of the soul the same Salomon holding precious and inestimable, and therein conspiring with the affection of Socrates who scorned the pretended learned men of his time for raising great benefit of their learning (whereas Anaxagoras contrariwise and divers others being born to ample patrimonies decayed them in contemplation), delivereth it in precept yet remaining, BUY THE TRUTH, AND SELL IT NOT; AND SO OF WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE.
And lest any man should retain a scruple as if this thirst of knowledge were rather an humour of the mind than an emptiness or want in nature and an instinct from God, the same author defineth of it fully, saying, GOD HATH MADE EVERY THING IN BEAUTY ACCORDING TO SEASON; ALSO HE HATH SET THE WORLD IN MAN’S HEART, YET CAN HE NOT FIND OUT THE WORK WHICH GOD WORKETH FROM THE BEGINNING TO THE END: declaring not obscurely that God hath framed the mind of man as a glass capable of the image of the universal world, joying to receive the signature thereof as the eye is of light, yea not only satisfied in beholding the variety of things and vicissitude of times, but raised also to find out and discern those ordinances and decrees which throughout all these changes are infallibly observed. And although the highest generality of motion or summary law of nature God should still reserve within his own curtain, yet many and noble are the inferior and secondary operations which are within man’s sounding. This is a thing which I cannot tell whether I may so plainly speak as truly conceive, that as all knowledge appeareth to be a plant of God’s own planting, so it may seem the spreading and flourishing or at least the bearing and fructifying of this plant, by a providence of God, nay not only by a general providence but by a special prophecy, was appointed to this autumn of the world: for to my understanding it is not violent to the letter, and safe now after the event, so to interpret that place in the prophecy of Daniel where speaking of the latter times it is said, MANY SHALL PASS TO AND FRO, AND SCIENCE SHALL BE INCREASED; as if the opening of the world by navigation and commerce and the further discovery of knowledge should meet in one time or age.
But howsoever that be, there are besides the authorities of Scriptures before recited, two reasons of exceeding great weight and force why religion should dearly protect all increase of natural knowledge: the one, because it leadeth to the greater exaltation of the glory of God; for as the Psalms and other Scriptures do often invite us to consider and to magnify the great and wonderful works of God, so if we should rest only in the contemplation of those shews which first offer themselves to our senses, we should do a like injury to the majesty of God, as if we should judge of the store of some excellent jeweler by that only which is set out to the street in his shop. The other reason is, because it is a singular help and a preservative against unbelief and error; for, saith our Saviour, YOU ERR, NOT KNOWING THE SCRIPTURES NOR THE POWER OF GOD; laying before us two books or volumes to study if we will be secured from error; first the Scriptures revealing the will of God, and then the creatures expressing his power; for that latter book will certify us that nothing which the first teacheth shall be thought impossible. And most sure it is, and a true conclusion of experience, that a little natural philosophy inclineth the mind to atheism, but a further proceeding bringeth the mind back to religion.
To conclude then, let no man presume to check the liberality of God’s gifts, who, as was said, HATH SET THE WORLD IN MAN’S HEART. So as whatsoever is not God but parcel of the world, he hath fitted it to the comprehension of man’s mind, if man will open and dilate the powers of his understanding as he may.
But yet evermore it must be remembered that the least part of knowledge passed to man by this so large a charter from God must be subject to that use for which God hath granted it; which is the benefit and relief of the state and society of man; for otherwise all manner of knowledge becometh malign and serpentine, and therefore as carrying the quality of the serpent’s sting and malice it maketh the mind of man to swell; as the Scripture saith excellently, knowledge bloweth up, but charity buildeth up. And again the same author doth notably disavow both power and knowledge such as is not dedicated to goodness or love, for saith he, IF I HAVE ALL FAITH SO AS I COULD REMOVE MOUNTAINS, (there is power active,) IF I RENDER MY BODY TO THE FIRE, (there is power passive,) IF I SPEAK WITH THE TONGUES OF MEN AND ANGELS, (there is knowledge, for language is but the conveyance of knowledge,) ALL WERE NOTHING.
And therefore it is not the pleasure of curiosity, nor the quiet of resolution, nor the raising of the spirit, nor victory of wit, nor faculty of speech, nor lucre of profession, nor ambition of honour or fame, nor inablement for business, that are the true ends of knowledge; some of these being more worthy than other, though all inferior and degenerate: but it is a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power (for whensoever he shall be able to call the creatures by their true names he shall again command them) which he had in his first state of creation. And to speak plainly and clearly, it is a discovery of all operations and possibilities of operations from immortality (if it were possible) to the meanest mechanical practice. And therefore knowledge that tendeth but to satisfaction is but as a courtesan, which is for pleasure and not for fruit or generation. And knowledge that tendeth to profit or profession or glory is but as the golden ball thrown before Atalanta, which while she goeth aside and stoopeth to take up she hindereth the race. And knowledge referred to some particular point of use is but as Harmodius which putteth down one tyrant, and not like Hercules who did perambulate the world to suppress tyrants and giants and monsters in every part. It is true, that in two points the curse is peremptory and not to be removed; the one that vanity must be the end in all human effects, eternity being resumed, though the revolutions and periods may be delayed. The other that the consent of the creature being now turned into reluctation, this power cannot otherwise be exercised and administered but with labour, as well in inventing as in executing; yet nevertheless chiefly that labour and travel which is described by the sweat of the brows more than of the body; that is such travel as is joined with the working and discursion of the spirits in the brain: for as Salomon saith excellently, THE FOOL PUTTETH TO MORE STRENGTH, BUT THE WISE MAN CONSIDERETH WHICH WAY, signifying the election of the mean to be more material than the multiplication of endeavour. It is true also that there is a limitation rather potential than actual, which is when the effect is possible, but the time or place yieldeth not the matter or basis whereupon man should work. But notwithstanding these precincts and bounds, let it be believed, and appeal thereof made to Time, (with renunciation nevertheless to all the vain and abusing promises of Alchemists and Magicians, and such like light, idle, ignorant, credulous, and fantastical wits and sects,) that the new-found world of land was not greater addition to the ancient continent than there remaineth at this day a world of inventions and sciences unknown, having respect to those that are known, with this difference that the ancient regions of knowledge will seem as barbarous compared with the new, as the new regions of people seem barbarous compared to many of the old.
The dignity of this end (of endowment of man’s life with new commodities) appeareth by the estimation that antiquity made of such as guided thereunto. For whereas founders of states, lawgivers, extirpers of tyrants, fathers of the people, were honoured but with the titles of Worthies or Demigods, inventors were ever consecrated amongst the Gods themselves. And if the ordinary ambitions of men lead them to seek the amplification of their own power in their countries, and a better ambition than that hath moved men to seek the amplification of the power of their own countries amongst other nations, better again and more worthy must that aspiring be which seeketh the amplification of the power and kingdom of mankind over the world; the rather because the other two prosecutions are ever culpable of much perturbation and injustice; but this is a work truly divine, which cometh IN AURA LENI without noise or observation.
The access also to this work hath been by that port or passage, which the divine Majesty (who is unchangeabIe in his ways) doth infallibly continue and observe; that is the felicity wherewith he hath blessed an humility of mind, such as rather laboureth to spell and so by degrees to read in the volumes of his creatures, than to solicit and urge and as it were to invocate a man’s own spirit to divine and give oracles unto him. For as in the inquiry of divine truth, the pride of man hath ever inclined to leave the oracles of God’s word and to vanish in the mixture of their own inventions; so in the self-same manner, in inquisition of nature they have ever left the oracles of God’s works, and adored the deceiving and deformed imagery which the unequal mirrors of their own minds have represented unto them. Nay it is a point fit and necessary in the front and beginning of this work without hesitation or reservation to be professed, that it is no less true in this human kingdom of knowledge than in God’s kingdom of heaven, that no man shall enter into it EXCEPT HE BECOME FIRST AS A LITTLE CHILD.