The Advancement of Learning

A recent article in the LRB quotes from the following passage in Francis Bacon, setting out his programme for what we might call the sciences (“natural philosophy”) and the humanities:

But the greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge. For men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a terrace for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate. But this is that which will indeed dignify and exalt knowledge, if contemplation and action may be more nearly and straitly conjoined and united together than they have been: a conjunction like unto that of the two highest planets, Saturn, the planet of rest and contemplation; and Jupiter, the planet of civil society and action, howbeit, I do not mean, when I speak of use and action, that end before-mentioned of the applying of knowledge to lucre and profession; for I am not ignorant how much that diverteth and interrupteth the prosecution and advancement of knowledge, like unto the golden ball thrown before Atalanta, which, while she goeth aside and stoopeth to take up, the race is hindered,

“Declinat cursus, aurumque volubile tollit.” {1}

Neither is my meaning, as was spoken of Socrates, to call philosophy down from heaven to converse upon the earth–that is, to leave natural philosophy aside, and to apply knowledge only to manners and policy. But as both heaven and earth do conspire and contribute to the use and benefit of man, so the end ought to be, from both philosophies to separate and reject vain speculations, and whatsoever is empty and void, and to preserve and augment whatsoever is solid and fruitful; that knowledge may not be as a courtesan, for pleasure and vanity only, or as a bond-woman, to acquire and gain to her master’s use; but as a spouse, for generation, fruit, and comfort.

Advancement of Learning, I.V.11

Bacon makes good reading for us these days. The pursuit of knowledge that is merely useful, and self-satisfied or vacuous speculation, are its Scylla and Charybdis. Knowledge should keep its feet on the ground while aspiring to broaden the horizons of the human condition. Do my leaden metaphors — or Bacon’s golden prose — describe a coherent ideal? Perhaps we should conduct the pursuit of knowledge in the attempt to make it so. Bacon strongly influenced the Enlightenment (particularly in Germany) and the affinity is plain. The whole of I.V is full of salutary warnings most of which obtain just as much as ever today.

{1} The English explains the quotation fully. “cursus” is a poetic plural (I had to scan the line to understand its grammar). It is Ovid Metamorphoses X, 667: http://www.latein-pagina.de/ovid/ovid_m10.htm#11

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