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Letters from an Ancient Mind

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 known.

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

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