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Francis Bacon on the Dark Side of Curiosity


Beware of the vanity that lurks behind knowledge, says this very wise man.

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

Few people have been bestowed the gift of clarity and eloquent thought like Francis Bacon. Additionally, among his thousands of pages and different studies on the nature of man, he examined subjects which have otherwise proven to be hard to grasp and verbalize. Among these are friendship, beauty, intelligence and in this case, curiosity.

While curiosity has been pivotal for science, artistic inspiration and an essential part of the human brain, it can also be an agent of insanity and vanity (and we all know this well). Bacon emitted unequivocal claims on how to maintain a healthy relation with science and knowledge, one that will never be harmful. In this extract from the Advancement of Learning, Bacon explores the harmful side of curiosity, which he considers to be the vanity obtained by seeking knowledge for the wrong reasons:

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.

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