Increase of Knowledge Attended with Sorrow
Ecclesiastes 1:18
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow.

I. KNOWLEDGE IS THE PARENT OF SORROW FROM ITS VERY NATURE, as being the instrument and means by which the afflicting quality of the object is conveyed to the mind; for as nothing delights, so nothing troubles till it is known. The merchant is not troubled as soon as his ship is cast away, but as soon as he hears it is. The affairs and objects that we converse with have most of them a fitness to afflict and disturb the mind. And as the colours lie dormant, and strike not the eye, till the light actuates them into a visibility, so those afflictive qualities never exert their sting, nor affect the mind, till knowledge displays them, and slides them into the apprehension. It is the empty vessel that makes the merry sound. It is the philosopher that is pensive, that looks downwards in the posture of the mourner. It is the open eye that weeps. affirms that there was never a great scholar in the world but had in his temper a dash and mixture of melancholy; and if melancholy be the temper of knowledge, we know that it is also the complexion of sorrow, the scene of mourning and affliction. We are first taught our knowledge with the rod, and with the severities of discipline. We get it with some smart, but improve it with more. The world is full of objects of sorrow, and knowledge enlarges our capacities to take them in. I might now, from the nature of knowledge, pass to the properties of it, and show its uncertainty, its poorness, and utter inability to contribute anything to the solid enjoyments of life. But before I enter upon this, there may be a question started, whether or no there be indeed any such thing as true knowledge in the world? for there want not reasons that seem to insinuate that there is none.

1. As first: because knowledge, if true, is upon that score certain and infallible; but the certainty of the knowledge cannot be greater than the certainty of the faculty, or medium, by which it is acquired: now, all knowledge is conveyed through sense, and sense is subject to fallacy, to err, and to be imposed upon.

2. Knowledge is properly the apprehension of a thing by its cause; but the causes of things are not certainly known: this by most is confessed.

3. To know a thing is to apprehend it as really it is, but we apprehend things only as they appear; so that all our knowledge may properly be defined the apprehension of appearances. And though I will not say that these arguments prove that there is no such thing as knowledge, yet thus much, at least, they seem to prove, that we cannot be assured that there is any such thing. But you will reply that this overthrows the hypothesis of the text, which supposes and takes for granted that there is such a thing as knowledge. I answer, it does not: for the arguments proceed against knowledge, strictly and accurately so taken; but the text speaks of it in a popular way, of that which the world commonly calls and esteems knowledge. And that this is but a poor, worthless thing, and of no efficacy to advance the real concerns of human happiness, might be made most evident. For, first, it is certain that knowledge does not either constitute or alter the condition of things, but only transcribe and represent the face of nature as it finds it; and therefore is but a low ignoble thing, and differs as much from nature itself, as he that only reports great things from him that does them. What is it to me whether the will has a power to determine itself, or is determined by objects from without? when it is certain that those here that hold a different opinion, yet continue in the same course and way of action. Or am I anyways advantaged, whether the soul wills, understands, and performs the rest of its actions, by faculties distinct from itself, or immediately by its own substance? Is it of any moment whether the soul of man comes into the world with carnal notions, or whether it comes bare, and receives all from the after reports of sense? What am I benefited whether the sun moves about the earth, or whether the sun is the centre of the world, and the earth is indeed a planet, and wheels about that? Whether it be one or the other, I see no change in the course of nature. Who in the world finds any change in his affairs whether there be little vacuities and empty spaces in the air; or whether there is no space but what is filled and taken up with body? I could reckon up a hundred more such problems as these, about an inquiry into which men are so laborious, and in a supposed resolution of which they so much boast; which shows that that which passes with the world for knowledge is but a slight trivial thing; and that men's being so eager and industrious in the quest of it is like sweeping the house, raising the dust, and keeping a great do only to find pins.

II. KNOWLEDGE IS THE CAUSE OF SORROW, IN RESPECT OF THE LABORIOUS AND TROUBLESOME ACQUISITION OF IT. For is there any labour comparable to that of the brain? any toil like a continual digging in the mines of knowledge? any pursuit so dubious and difficult as that of truth? any attempt so sublime as to give a reason of things? The soldier, it is confessed, converses with dangers, and locks death in the face; but then he bleeds with honour, he grows pale gloriously, and dies with the same heat and fervour that gives life to others. But he does not, like the scholar, kill himself in cold blood; sit up and watch when there is no enemy; and, like a silly fly, buzz about his own candle till he has consumed himself. Then again; the husbandman, who has the toil of sewing end reaping, he has his reward in his very labour; and the same corn that employs, also fills his hand. He who labours in the field indeed wearies, but then he also helps and preserves his body. But study, it is a weariness without exercise, a laborious sitting still, that racks the inward, and destroys the outward man of the body; and, like a stronger blast of lightning, not only melts the sword, but also consumes the scabbard. Nature allows men a great freedom, and never gave an appetite hub to be an instrument of enjoyment; nor made a desire, but in order to the pleasure of its satisfaction. But he that will increase knowledge, must be content not to enjoy; and not only to cut off the extravagancies of luxury, but also to deny the lawful demands of convenience, to forswear delight, and look upon pleasure as his mortal enemy. He must be willing to be weak, sickly, and consumptive; even to forget when he is hungry, and to digest nothing but what he reads. He must read much, and perhaps meet with little; turn over much trash for one grain of truth; study antiquity till he feels the effects of it. We may take a view of all those callings to which learning is necessary, and we shall find that labour and misery attends them all. And first for the study of physic: do not many lose their own health while they are learning to restore it to others? Then for the law: are not many called to the grave, while they are preparing for a call to the bar?


1. The first effect of the increase of knowledge is an increase of the desire of knowledge. It is the covetousness of the understanding, the dropsy of the soul, that drinks itself athirst, and grows hungry with surfeit and satisfaction. Now, an endless desire does of necessity vex and torment the person that has it. For misery and vexation is properly nothing else but an eager appetite not satisfied. In fine, happiness is fruition; but there is no fruition where there is a constant desire. For enjoyment swallows up desire, and that which fulfils the expectation also ends it. The bottomless appetite of knowledge will not be satisfied, and then we know that sorrow is the certain result and inseparable companion of dissatisfaction.

2. The second unhappy effect of knowledge is that it rewards its followers with the miseries of poverty, and clothes them with rags. Reading of books consumes the body, and buying of them the estate. The mind of man is a narrow thing, and cannot master several employments. A scholar without a patron is insignificant: he must have something to lean upon: he is like an unhappy cause, always depending. As for instance, he that follows chemistry must have riches to throw away upon the study of it; whatever he gets by it, those furnaces must be fed with gold. In short, I will not say that the study of knowledge always finds men poor, but sure it is that it is seldom or never but it leaves them so.

3. The third fatal effect of knowledge is that it makes the person who has it the butt of envy, the mark of obloquy and contention. How are Galileo and Copernicus persecuted, and Descartes worried by almost every pen! And now, if this be our lot, what remains for us to determine upon? Is there no way to get out of this unhappy dilemma, but that we must needs either dash upon the sorrows of knowledge, or the baseness of ignorance? Why yes, there is a fair escape left us; for God has not placed mankind under a necessity either of sin or misery. And therefore, as to the matter in hand, it is only to continue our labour, but to alter the scene of it; and to make Him, that is the great Author, also the subject of our knowledge.

(R. South, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

WEB: For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

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