Chapter 1

The limits and end of knowledge


In the divine nature, both religion and philosophy acknowledges 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 enclosed 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 ye 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 cf the creatures of God hath for end, as to the natures of the creatures themselves, knowledge; out as to the nature of God, no knowledge, butwonder; 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 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 authorized 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 over-large 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 Solomon 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 Solomon the kinga ffirmeth 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 commandments 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 lamp of God, wherewith he searcheth all inwardness;” which nature of the soul the same Solomon, 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 ot 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 limes, 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 shows 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 jeweller, by that only which is set out to the street in his shop. The other reason is, because it is a singular help and 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 sayeth 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, or 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 Solomon 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 unchangeable 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 selfsame 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.”

Of the impediments of knowledge. Being the IVth chapter, the preface only of it.

In some things it is more hard to attempt than to achieve; which falleth out, when the difficulty is not so much in the matter or subject, as it is in the crossness and indisposition of the mind of man to think of any such thing, to will or to resolve it; and therefore Titus Livius in his declamatory digression, wherein he doth depress and extenuate the honour of Alexander’s conquests saith, “Nihil aliud quam bene ausus vana contemnere:” in which sort of things it is the manner of men first to wonder that any such thing should be possible, and after it is found out, to wonder again how the world should miss it so long. Of this nature I take to be the invention and discovery of knowledge, &c.

The impediments which have been in the times, and in diversion of wits. Being the Vth chapter, a small fragment in the beginning of that chapter.

The encounters of the times have been nothing favourable and prosperous for the invention of knowledge, so as it is not only the daintiness of the seed to take, and the ill mixture and unliking of the ground to nourish or raise this plant, but the ill season also of the weather, by which it hath been checked and blasted. Especially in that the seasons have been proper to bring up and set forward other more hasty and indifferent plants, whereby this of knowledge hath been starved and overgrown; for in the descent of times always there hath been somewhat else in reign and reputation, which hath generally aliened and diverted wits and labours from that employment.

For as for the uttermost antiquity, which is like fame that muffles her head, and tells tales, I cannot presume much of it; for I would not willingly imitate, the manner of those that describe maps, which when they come to some far countries, whereof they have no knowledge, set down how there be great wastes and deserts there: so I am not apt to affirm that they knew little, because what they knew is little known to us. But if you will judge of them by the last traces that remain to us, you will conclude, though not so scornfully as Aristotle doth, that saith our ancestors were extreme gross, as those that came newly from being moulded out of the clay, or some earthly substance; yet reasonably and probably thus, that it was with them in matter of knowledge, but as the dawning or break of day. For at that time the world was altogether home-bred, every nation looked little beyond their own confines or territories, and the world had no thorough lights then, as it hath had since by commerce and navigation, whereby there could neither be that contribution of wits one to help another, nor that variety of particulars for the correcting the customary conceits.

And as there could be no great collection of wits of several parts or nations, so neither could there be any succession of wits of several times, where by one might refine the other, in regard they had not history to any purpose. And the manner of their traditions was utterly unfit and unproper for amplification of knowledge. And again, the studies of those times, you shall find, besides wars, incursions and rapines, which were then almost everywhere betwixt states adjoining, the use of leagues and confederacies being not then known, were to populate by multitude of wives and generation, a thing at this day in the waster part of the West Indies principally effected; and to build, sometimes for habitation, towns and cities; sometimes for fame and memory, monuments, pyramids, colosses, and the like. And if there happened to rise up any more civil wits; then would he found and erect some new laws, customs, and usages, such as now of late years, when the world was revolute almost to the like rudeness and obscurity, we see both in our own nation and abroad many examples of, as well in a number of tenures reserved upon men’s lands, as in divers customs of towns and manors, being the devises that such wits wrought upon in such times of deep ignorance, &c.

The impediments of knowledge for want of a true succession of wits, and that hitherto the length of one mail’s life hath been the greatest measure of knowledge. Being the VIth chapter, the whole chapter.

In arts mechanical the first devise cometh shortest, and time addeth and perfecteth. But in sciences of conceit, the first author goeth furthest, and time leeseth and corrupteth. Painting, artillery, sailing, and the like, grossly managed at first, by time accommodate and refined. The philosophies and sciences of Aristotle, Plato, Democritus, Hippocrates, of most vigour at first, by time degenerated and irabased. In the former, many wits and industries contributed in one. In the latter many men s wits spent to deprave the wit of one.

The error is both in the deliverer and in the receiver. He that delivereth knowledge, desireth to deliver it in such form as may be soonest believed, and not as may easiliest be examined. He that receiveth knowledge desireth rather present satisfaction than expectant search, and so rather not to doubt than not to err. Glory maketh the author not lay open his weakness; and sloth maketh the disciple not to know his strength.

Then begin men to aspire to the second prizes, to be a profound interpreter and commenter, to be a sharp champion and defender, to be a methodical compounder and abridger. And this is the unfortunate succession of wits which the world hath yet had, whereby the patrimony of all knowledge goeth not on husbanded or improved, but wasted and decayed. For knowledge is like a water, that will never arise again higher than the level from which it fell. And therefore to go beyond Aristotle by the light of Aristotle, is to think that a borrowed light can increase the original light from whom it is taken. So then, no true succession of wits having been in the world; either we must conclude, that knowledge is but a task for one man’s life, and then vain was the complaint, that “life is short, and art is long:” or else, that the knowledge that now is, is but a shrub; and not that tree which is never dangerous, but where it is to the purpose of knowing good and evil; which desire ever riseth upon an appetite to elect, and not to obey, and so containeth in it a manifest defection.

That the pretended succession nf wits hath been evil placed, for as much as after variety of sects and opinions, the most popular and not the truest prevaileth and weareth out the rest. Being the VIIth chapter, a fragment.

It is sensible to think, that when men enter first into search and inquiry, according to the several rames and compositions of heir understanding, hey light upon differing conceits, and so all opinions and doubts are beaten over; and then men having made a taste of all, wax weary of variety, and so reject the worst, and hold themselves to te best, either some one, if it be eminent: or some two or three, if they be in some equality; vhich afterwards are received and carried on, and the rest extinct.

But truth is contrary; and that time is like a river which carrieth down things which are light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is sad and weighty. For howsoever governments have several forms, sometimes one governing, sometimes few, sometimes the multitude; yet the state of knowledge is ever a democracy, and that prevaileth which is most agreeable to the senses and conceits of people. As for example, there is no great doubt, but he that did put the beginnings of things to be solid, void, and motion to the centre, was in better earnest than he that put matter, form, and shift; or he that put the mind, motion, and matter. For no man shall enter into inquisition of nature, but shall pass by that opinion of Democritus; whereas he shall never come near the other two opinions, but leave them aloof, for the schools and table-talk. Yet those of Aristotle and Plato, because they be both agreeable to popular sense, and the one was uttered with subtilty and the spirit of contradiction, and the other with a style of ornament and majesty, did hold out, and the other gave place, &c.


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