Brain Pickings

Francis Bacon on the Dark Side of Curiosity and the Vanity of Knowledge

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How to keep one of the greatest human gifts from becoming one of our most cumbersome curses.

“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider,” Francis Bacon famously counseled in his essay “Of Studies.” But while curiosity may have been lauded as a cornerstone of science, raw inspiration for art, a driver of progress, and a hard-wired part of the human psyche, it could also mutate into unhealthy indulgence of human pride.

In fact, the writer, philosopher, and scientific method pioneer had strong opinions on how to keep our relationship with curiosity and knowledge from turning toxic.

In this passage from his 1605 treatise The Advancement of Learning (public library; public domain; free Kindle download), Bacon considers the dark side of curiosity — the vanity of knowledge pursued for the wrong reasons:

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. … 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.

And yet, while the knowledge-fetishism Bacon admonishes against might indeed be lamentable, there’s something to be said for the usefulness of “useless” knowledge that fuels the art of observation and the chance-opportunism at the heart of discovery.

Pair The Advancement of Learning with Bertrand Russell’s indispensable Education and the Good Life.

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