My dear young friend,
Thank you very much for your new style in letters. I must admit that your
thinking machine produces fine penmanship, and the larger letters are most
pleasant to my aging eyes. As my honored father put it, “It is no disgrace to
grow old. But it is not particularly convenient either.”
You greatly esteem the learning of your time. Indeed, from your description,
it is of great concern to you that you acquire some specific type of this
learning, so that you may be well thought of by your friends. No doubt some of
this is necessary. But would you permit an old man four questions about your
learning? By which you might distinguish knowledge from truth?
First, is it profitable for the soul? My knowledge of things agricultural is
most necessary for the feeding of my belly. One must know the seasons and the
times. But on the day this will all turn to nothing. So therefore it is of
little profit eternally. But if I take the fruits of my labors and share them
with the poor, I will hear, “Well done,” from my Master. One is knowledge;
the other, truth.
Next, does it tend towards peace or faction? Those of great learning in our
time take much pleasure in what is termed learned debate. If one did not know
the language, one would think two children were squabbling over a toy. If the
learning divides people, then it is knowledge. If it brings them together in
peace, it is truth.
Third, does it tend to mastery of self, or of others? Many seek that which
will make them rich. Thus they can purchase slaves and hire workmen. A good
slave learns flattery at a tender age, my friend. One who seeks such knowledge
will see no reason to master himself. One who seeks to master himself will see
no reason to seek such knowledge.
Finally, does it encourage pride or humility? It distresses me greatly to
hear that you think pride a great virtue; it is not. It is the deadliest of
sins, for it is the sin of Satan himself. I think it is for this reason that God
allows those under the care of our leeches to die; otherwise their great
learning would make them insufferably pompous. See now that you call those of
great learning “doctor.” Do they have the corrective of dead patients? If
not, then what keeps their pride from growing? Is it not the case that those
with the greatest knowledge are those who are most proud? But truth encourages
humility – if only because in knowing so much one sees how much is yet to be
Knowledge is not truth. It is not even a good substitute. Consider well what
you strive for, as you may get it.
Yours in truth,
Isaac the alchemist