The 3 Diseases in Learningby Francis Bacon
1 Errors and vanities have intervened in the studies of the learned.
My goal is not to justify the errors, but by a censure and separation of the errors to make a justification of that which is good and sound, and to deliver that from the aspersion of the other.
We see that it is the manner of men to scandalise and deprave that which retaineth the state and virtue, by taking advantage upon that which is corrupt and degenerate, as the heathens in the primitive Church used to blemish and taint the Christians with the faults and corruptions of heretics.
Nevertheless, I have no meaning at this time to make any exact animadversion of the errors and impediments in matters of learning, which are more secret and remote from vulgar opinion, but only to speak unto such as do fall under or near unto a popular observation.
2 There are therefore chiefly 3 vanities in studies.
For those things we do esteem vain which are either false or frivolous, those which either have no truth or no use; and those persons we esteem vain which are either credulous or curious; and curiosity is either in matter or words: so that in reason as well as in experience there fall out to be these three distempers (as I may term them) of learning—the first, fantastical learning; the second, contentious learning; and the last, delicate learning; vain imaginations, vain altercations, and vain affectations; and with the last I will begin.
Martin Luther, conducted, no doubt, by a higher Providence, but in discourse of reason, finding what a province he had undertaken against the Bishop of Rome and the degenerate traditions of the Church, and finding his own solitude, being in nowise aided by the opinions of his own time, was enforced to awake all antiquity, and to call former times to his succours to make a party against the present time.
So that the ancient authors, both in divinity and in humanity, which had long time slept in libraries, began generally to be read and revolved. This, by consequence, did draw on a necessity of a more exquisite travail in the languages original, wherein those authors did write, for the better understanding of those authors, and the better advantage of pressing and applying their words.
And thereof grew, again, a delight in their manner of style and phrase, and an admiration of that kind of writing, which was much furthered and precipitated by the enmity and opposition that the propounders of those primitive but seeming new opinions had against the schoolmen, who were generally of the contrary part, and whose writings were altogether in a differing style and form; taking liberty to coin and frame new terms of art to express their own sense, and to avoid circuit of speech, without regard to the pureness, pleasantness, and (as I may call it) lawfulness of the phrase or word.
The great labour then was with the people (of whom the Pharisees were wont to say, Execrabilis ista turba, quæ non novit legem), for the winning and persuading of them.
There grew of necessity in chief price and request eloquence and variety of discourse, as the fittest and forciblest access into the capacity of the vulgar sort; so that these four causes concurring—the admiration of ancient authors, the hate of the schoolmen, the exact study of languages, and the efficacy of preaching—did bring in an affectionate study of eloquence and copy of speech, which then began to flourish.
This grew speedily to an excess.
For men began to hunt more after words than matter—more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment.
Then grew the flowing and watery vein of Osorius, the Portugal bishop, to be in price. Then did Sturmius spend such infinite and curious pains upon Cicero the Orator and Hermogenes the Rhetorician, besides his own books of Periods and Imitation, and the like.
Then did Car of Cambridge and Ascham with their lectures and writings almost deify Cicero and Demosthenes, and allure all young men that were studious unto that delicate and polished kind of learning. Then did Erasmus take occasion to make the scoffing echo, Decem annos consuumpsi in legendo Cicerone; and the echo answered in Greek, One, Asine. Then grew the learning of the schoolmen to be utterly despised as barbarous. In sum, the whole inclination and bent of those times was rather towards copy than weight.
3 The first distemper of learning is when men study words and not matter.
How is it possible but this should have an operation to discredit learning, even with vulgar capacities, when they see learned men’s works like the first letter of a patent or limited book, which though it hath large flourishes, yet it is but a letter?
It seems to me that Pygmalion’s frenzy is a good emblem or portraiture of this vanity; for words are but the images of matter, and except they have life of reason and invention, to fall in love with them is all one as to fall in love with a picture.
4 But yet notwithstanding it is a thing not hastily to be condemned, to clothe and adorn the obscurity even of philosophy itself with sensible and plausible elocution.
For hereof we have great examples in Xenophon, Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, and of Plato also in some degree; and hereof likewise there is great use, for surely, to the severe inquisition of truth and the deep progress into philosophy, it is some hindrance because it is too early satisfactory to the mind of man, and quencheth the desire of further search before we come to a just period.
But then if a man be to have any use of such knowledge in civil occasions, of conference, counsel, persuasion, discourse, or the like, then shall he find it prepared to his hands in those authors which write in that manner.
But the excess of this is so justly contemptible, that as Hercules, when he saw the image of Adonis, Venus’ minion, in a temple, said in disdain, Nil sacri es; so there is none of Hercules’ followers in learning—that is, the more severe and laborious sort of inquirers into truth—but will despise those delicacies and affectations, as indeed capable of no divineness.
Thus much of the first disease or distemper of learning.
5 The second which followeth is in nature worse than the former: for as substance of matter is better than beauty of words, so contrariwise vain matter is worse than vain words: wherein it seemeth the reprehension of St. Paul was not only proper for those times, but prophetical for the times following; and not only respective to divinity, but extensive to all knowledge:
He assigned 2 badges of suspected and falsified science:
- the one, the novelty and strangeness of terms
- the other, the strictness of positions, which of necessity doth induce oppositions, and so questions and altercations.
Many solid substances in nature putrefy and corrupt into worms.
- Likewise, good and sound knowledge putrefies and dissolves into a number of subtle, idle, unwholesome, and vermiculate questions.
- These have a kind of quickness and life of spirit, but no soundness of matter or goodness of quality.
This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the schoolmen. They had:
- sharp and strong wits
- abundance of leisure
- small variety of reading.
But their wits were shut in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle, their dictator), just as their persons were shut in the cells of monasteries and colleges.
- know little history, either of nature or time
- produced a little of matter and infinite agitation of wit, giving us those laborious webs of learning in their books
The wit and mind of man works on matter as the contemplation of the creatures of God.
- If done this way, it works according to the stuff and is limited thereby.
But if it works on itself, then it is endless, as the spider works his web
- It brings forth cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no use or substance.
6 This same unprofitable subtility or curiosity is of 2 sorts either:
- In the subject itself that they handle, when it is a fruitless speculation or controversy (whereof there are no small number both in divinity and philosophy), or
- In the manner or method of handling of a knowledge, which amongst them was this—upon every particular position or assertion to frame objections, and to those objections, solutions; which solutions were for the most part not confutations, but distinctions: whereas indeed the strength of all sciences is, as the strength of the old man’s faggot, in the bond.
For the harmony of a science, supporting each part the other, is and ought to be the true and brief confutation and suppression of all the smaller sort of objections.
But, on the other side, if you take out every axiom, as the sticks of the faggot, one by one, you may quarrel with them and bend them and break them at your pleasure: so that, as was said of Seneca, Verborum minutiis rerum frangit pondera, so a man may truly say of the schoolmen, Quæstionum minutiis scientiarum frangunt soliditatem.
For were it not better for a man in fair room to set up one great light, or branching candlestick of lights, than to go about with a small watch-candle into every corner?
Such is their method, that rests not so much upon evidence of truth proved by arguments, authorities, similitudes, examples, as upon particular confutations and solutions of every scruple, cavillation, and objection; breeding for the most part one question as fast as it solveth another; even as in the former resemblance, when you carry the light into one corner, you darken the rest; so that the fable and fiction of Scylla seemeth to be a lively image of this kind of philosophy or knowledge; which was transformed into a comely virgin for the upper parts; but then Candida succinctam latrantibus inguina monstris: so the generalities of the schoolmen are for a while good and proportionable; but then when you descend into their distinctions and decisions, instead of a fruitful womb for the use and benefit of man’s life, they end in monstrous altercations and barking questions.
So as it is not possible but this quality of knowledge must fall under popular contempt, the people being apt to contemn truths upon occasion of controversies and altercations, and to think they are all out of their way which never meet; and when they see such digladiation about subtleties, and matters of no use or moment, they easily fall upon that judgment of Dionysius of Syracusa, Verba ista sunt senum otiosorum.
7 Notwithstanding, certain it is that if those schoolmen to their great thirst of truth and unwearied travail of wit had joined variety and universality of reading and contemplation, they had proved excellent lights, to the great advancement of all learning and knowledge.
But as they are, they are great undertakers and fierce with dark keeping. But as in the inquiry of the divine truth, their pride inclined to leave the oracle of God’s word, and to vanish in the mixture of their own inventions.
In the inquisition of nature, they ever left the oracle of God’s works, and adored the deceiving and deformed images which the unequal mirror of their own minds, or a few received authors or principles, did represent unto them.
8 The 3rd vice or disease of learning which concerns deceit or untruth, it is of all the rest the foulest; as that which doth destroy the essential form of knowledge, which is nothing but a representation of truth: for the truth of being and the truth of knowing are one, differing no more than the direct beam and the beam reflected.
This vice branched itself into 2 sorts:
- Delight in deceiving, as imposture
- Aptness to be deceived, as credulity
Although they appear to be of a diverse nature, the one seeming to proceed of cunning and the other of simplicity, yet certainly they do for the most part concur: for, as the verse noteth—
“Percontatorem fugito, nam garrulus idem est,”
an inquisitive man is a prattler; so upon the like reason a credulous man is a deceiver: as we see it in fame, that he that will easily believe rumours will as easily augment rumours and add somewhat to them of his own; which Tacitus wisely noteth, when he saith, Fingunt simul creduntque: so great an affinity hath fiction and belief.