The vanity of arts and sciences by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Knight ...
Agrippa von Nettesheim, Heinrich Cornelius, 1486?-1535.


Of the Sciences in General.

IT is an old Opinion, and the con∣curring and unanimous judgment almost of all Philosophers, where∣by they uphold, that every Sci∣ence addeth so much of a sublime Nature to Man himself, accor∣ding to the Capacity and Worth of every Person, a many times enables them to Translate themselves beyond the Li∣mits of Humanity, even to the Celestial Seats of the Blessed. From hence have proceeded those various and innumerable Encomiums of the Sciences, whereby eve∣ry one hath endeavour'd, in accurate, as well as long Orations, to prefer, and as it were to extol beyond the Heavens themselves, those Arts and Mysteries, where∣in, Page  2 with continual Labour, he hath exercised the strength and vigour of his Ingenuity or Invention. But I, perswa∣ded by reasons of another nature, do verily believe, that there is nothing more pernicious, nothing more de∣structive to the well-being of Men, or to the Salvation of our Souls, than the Arts and Sciences themselves. And therefore quite contrary to what has been hitherto practized, my Opinion is, That these Arts and Scien∣ces are so far from being to be extoll'd with such high applauses and Panegyricks, that they are rather for the most part to be disprais'd and vilifi'd: And that in∣deed there is none which does not merit just cause of Reproof and Censure; nor any one which of it self de∣serves any praise or commendation, unless what it may borrow from the Ingenuity and Virtue of the first possessor. However, I would have you take this Opi∣nion of mine in that modest Construction, which may imagine, that I neither go about to reprehend those who are of a contrary judgment; or that I intend to ar∣rogate any thing singly singular to my elf, above others: Therefore I shall entreat you to suspend your Censure of me, differing in this one thing from all others; so long as you find me laying an auspicious Foundation of proof, not upon Vulgar Arguments drawn from the Superficies and out-side of things, but upon the most firm reasons deduc'd from the most hidden bow∣els of secret Knowledge; and this not in the sharp stile of Demosthenes or Chrysippus, which may not so well beseem a Professor of Christianity, but would ra∣ther shew me to be a vain pursuer of flattery and osten∣tation, while I endeavour to varnish my Speech with the Fucus's of Eloquence. For to speak Properly, not Rhetorically, to intend the truth of the Matter, not the ornament of Language, is the du•• of one Professing Sacred Literature. For the seat of Truth is not in the Tongue, but in the Heart. Neither is it of importance, Page  3 what Language we use in the Relation of Truth, seeing that falshood only wants Eloquence, and the trap∣pings of Words, whereby to insinuate into the minds of Men; but the language of Truth, as Euripides wri∣teth, is plain and simple; not seeking the graces of Art, or painted Flourishes. Therefore if this great Work of ours, undertaken without any Flowers of Eloquence (which in the series of our Discourse we have not so much flighted as condemned) do prove offensive to your more delicate ears; we entreat you to bear it with the same patience, as once one of the Roman Emperours made use of, when he stood still with his whole Army to hear the tittle-tattle of an imperti∣nent Woman: and with the same humour that King Archelaus was wont to hear Persons that were Hoarse, and of an unpleasant Utterance; that thereby after∣wards he might take the more delight in the pleasing sounds of Eloquent Rhetoricians, and Tuneful Voices. Remember that saying of Theophrastus,

That the most Illiterate were able to speak in the presence of the most Elegant Persons, while they spake nothing but Truth and Reason.
And now that I may no lon∣ger keep ye in suspence, through what Tracts and By∣ways I have as it were hinted out this Opinion of mine, it is time that I declare unto ye. But first I must ad∣monish ye, That all Sciences are as well evil as good, and that they bring us no other advantage to excel as Deities, more than what the Serpent promis'd of old, when he said, Ye shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil. Let him therefore glory in this Serpent, who boasts himself in knowledge; which we read the He∣resie of the Ophites not a little unbeseemingly to have done, who Worship'd a Serpent among the rest of their Superstitions, as being the Creature that first in∣troduc'd the knowledge of Virtue into Paradise. To this agrees that Platonick Fable which feigns, That one Page  4Theutus being offended with Mankind, was the first rai∣ser of that Devil, call'd the Sciences; not less hurtful than profitable: as Thamus King of Aegypt wisely discourses, writing of the Inventors of Arts & Letters. Hence most Grammarians Expound and Interpret the word Da∣mons, as much as to say Artists. But leaving these Fables to their Poets and Philosophers, suppose there were no other Inventors of Arts than Men themselves, yet were they the Sons of the worst Generation, even the Sons of Cain, of whom it is truly said, The sons of this world are wise than the sons of light in this generation. If men be there∣fore the Inventors of Arts, is it not said, Every man is a Lyer, neither is there one that doth good? But grant on the other side, that there may be some good men; yet follows it not, that the Sciences themselves have any thing of ver∣tue, any thing of truth in them, but what they reap and borrow from the Inventors and possessors thereof: For if they light upon any evil Person, they are hurtful; as a per∣verse Grammarian, an Ostentatious Poet, a lying Histori∣an, a flattering Rhetorician, a litigious Logician, a turbu∣lent Sophister, a loquacions Lullist, a Lotterist Arithme∣tician, a lascivious Musician, a shameless Dancing-master, a boasting Geometrician, a wandring Cosmographer, a pernicious Architect, a Pirat-Navigator, a fallacious Astro∣loger, a wicked Magician, a perfidious Cabalist, a dream∣ing Naturalist, a Wonder-faigning Metaphysician, a mo∣rose Ethic, a treacherous Polititian, a tyrannical Prince, an oppressing Magistrate, a seditious People, a Schismatical Priest, a superstitious Monk, a prodigal Husband, a bar∣gain-breaking Merchant, a pilling Customer, a sloathful Husbandman, a careless Shepherd, an envious Fisherman, a bawling Hunter, a plundering Souldier, an exacting Landlord, a murderous Physician, a poysoning Apotheca∣ry, a glutton-Cook, a deceitful Alchymist, a jugling Law∣yer, a perfidious Notary, a Bribe-taking Judge, and a he∣retical and seducing Divine. So that there is nothing Page  5 more ominous than Art and Knowledge guarded with impiety, seeing that every man becomes a ready Inven∣tor, and learned Author of evil things. If it light upon a person that is not so evil as foolish, there is nothing more insolent or Dogmatical, having besides its own headstrong obstinacie, the authority of Learning, and the weapons of Argument to defend its own fury; which o∣ther fools wanting, are more tame and quietly mad: As Plato saith of the Rhetorician, That the more simple and illiterate he is, the more he will take upon him to declaim; will imitate all things, and think himself not unwor∣thy of any undertaking. So that there is nothing more deadly, than to be as it were rationally mad. But if good and just men be the possessors of Knowledge, then Arts and Sciences may probably become useful to the publick Weal, though they render their possessors nothing more happy. For it is not, as Porphyrius and Iamblicus report, That Happiness consists in the multitude of Arts, or heaps of Words. For should that be true, they that were most loa∣den with Sciences, would be most happy; and those that wanted them, would on the other side be altogether un∣happy; and hence it would come to pass, That Philoso∣phers would be more happy than Divines. For true Bea∣titude consists not in the knowledge of good Things, but in good Life; not in Understanding, but in living Under∣standingly. Neither is it great Learning, but Good Will, that joyns Men to God. Nor do outward Arts avail to Happiness, only as Conditional means, not the Causes of compleating our Happiness, unless assisted with a Life an∣swerable to the nature of those good things we profess. Therefore saith Cicero in his Oration for Archias,
Ex∣perience tells us, That Nature without Learning is more diligent in the pursuit of Praise and Vertue, than Learning without natural Inclination.
It shall not then be needful (as the followers of Averroes contend) so vi∣olently to labour to season our minds with the so long, Page  6 so tedious, so difficult, so unattainable learning of all sorts of Sciences, which Aristtle confesses to be a common felicity, and easie to be attain'd to by labour and diligence; but only to give our selves to what is more easie and common to all, the Contemplation of the most noble Object of all things, God: which com∣mon Act of Contemplation so easie to All men, is not obtain'd by Syllogism and Contemplation, but by Belief and Adoration. Where is then the great feli∣city of enjoying the Sciences? where is the praise and beatitude of the wise Philosophers, that make so much noise in the School, founding with the Encomiums of those Men whose souls perhaps in the mean time are at that instant suffering the Torments of Hell? This St. Au∣stin saw and fear'd, while he exclaims with St. Paul, The unlearned rise, and take heaven by force: while we with all our Knowledg, are cast down into Hell. So that▪ if we may be bold to confess the Truth, That the Tradition of all Sciences are so dangerous and incon∣stant, that it is far safer to be Ignorant, than to know: Adam had never been Ejected out of Paradise, had not the Serpent been his Master to teach him Good and Evil. And St. Paul would have them thrown out of the Church, that would know more than they ought. Socrates, when he had div'd into the Secrets of all sorts of Science, was then by the Oracle adjudged to be the wisest among many, when he had publickly pro∣fessed, That he knew nothing. The knowledge of all Sciences is so difficult, if I may not say impossible, that the age of Man will not suffice to learn the perfection of one Art as it ought to be: Which Ec∣clesiastes seems to intimate, where he saith, Then I beheld the whole Work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is wrought under the Sun; for the which man laboureth to seek it, and cannot find it: yea, and though the wise man think to know it, he cannot find Page  7 it. Nothing can happen more Pestilential to Man, than Knowledge: this is that true Plague that invades all Mankind with so much confusion that subverts all Innocence; subjecting us to so many Clouds of Sin and Error, and at length to Death. This is that that hath extinguish'd the Light of Faith, casting our Souls into profound darkness, which condemning the Truth has mounted Error to a Throne. Therefore in my Opinion, neither is Valentinian the Emperor to be dis∣prais'd, who is reported to be such an open Enemy of Learning; nor is Licinius to be accompted blame∣worthy, who affirm'd Learning to be the Poyson and bane of the Commonwealth. But such is the large freeness, and free largeness of Truth, as can be appre∣hended by no contemplations of Science, by no judg∣ment of Sence how quick soever; by no evident proof, no Syllogistical Demonstration, no humane Discourse of Reason, but only by Faith: which he that is indu∣ed with, Aristotle in his Book of First Resolves, ac∣compts to be in a better Condition, than he that▪ is indued with Knowledge: which Words Philoponus Expounding, saith, is to be better disposed, as more know∣ing by Faith, than by Demonstration, which is done by the cause. Therefore saith Theophrastus in his Book of Supernaturals, As to so far, we may discern by the Cause, taking our beginnings from the Sences; but after we have passed the Extreams, and first Principles, we can go no farther, either because we know not the Cause, or through the defect of our weak understanding. Plato in his Timaeus saith,
That our Abilities will not reach to the Explanation of those things, but commands to believe those that deliver'd them before, though they speak without any necessity of Demonstration.
For the Academick Philosophers were in high esteem, for affirming, That nothing could be Affirmed. There were also the Pyronicks, and many others, who were Page  8 of the same Opinion, That nothing could be affirmed. So that Knowledge hath nothing super-excellent above Belief, especially where the Integrity of the Author directs the freewill of Believing. Hence that Pythago∣rical Answer of He hath said it; And that vulgar Proverb of the Peripateticks, We are to believe every man expert in his Art. Thus we believe the Gram∣marian, as to the signification of Words. The Logi∣cian believes the Parts of Speech, delivered by the Grammarian. The Rhetorician takes for granted his Forms of Argument, from the Logician. The Poet borrows his Measures from the Musician. The Geo∣metrician takes his Proportions from the Arithmetici∣an: And upon both these, the Astrologer pins his sleeve. Supernaturalists use the Conjectures of Natu∣ralists, and every Artist rightly trusts to the Method and Rules of another: For every Science hath certain Prin∣ciples that must be believed, and can be by no means Demonstrated; which if any one deny, those Philoso∣phers will streight cry out, He is not o be Disputed withal, as a denyer of Principles; or else they will deliver him over to the rack of his own experience: as if one should deny Fire to be hot, let him be thrown into the Fire, and then resolve the Question. So that of Philosophers, they are forc'd to become Executi∣oners, compelling men to believe that by force, that they cannot teach by Reason. To a Commonwealth there can be nothing more pernitious than Learning and Science, wherein if some happen to excel the rest, all things are carried by their Determination, as taking up∣on them to be most Knowing; who thereupon laying hold upon the simplicity and unskilfulness of the Mul∣titude, usurp all Authority to themselves; which is oft the occasion of the changing Popular States into Oli∣garchie, which dividing into Factions, is at length easily oppress'd by single Tyranny: which never any man in Page  9 the World was ever known to attain to without Know∣ledge, without Learning, without Literature; only Sylla the Dictator, who an Illiterate person, invaded and obtained the Supream Government: to whose igno∣rance the Commonwealth was yet so far beholding, that it was the occasion that at length of his own accord he quitted his great Command. Furthermore, all Sci∣ences are but the Opinions and Decrees of private Men; as well those that are of use, as those that are prejudicial; as well those that are wholsome, as those that are pestiferous; as well the bad as the good; being never perfect, but both doubtful, full of Error and Contention: and that this is evident, we shall make appear, by taking a survey, and making a par∣ticular inspection into every particular Science.