Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Deep verst in books and shallow in himself..."

... a Faustian bargainer?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Reflections toward the close of a final semester at Korea University turn me to Milton and Newton on the gathering of knowledge ... and the danger of Faustian pacts.

John Milton (1608-1674), in his late work Paradise Regained, has Christ reply to Satan's tempting, Faustian offer of the knowledge that books offer:
... However many books
Wise men have said are wearisom; who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior
(And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek) [ 325 ]
Uncertain and unsettl'd still remains,
Deep verst in books and shallow in himself,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys,
And trifles for choice matters, worth a spunge;
As Children gathering pibles on the shore. (PR
Christ resists the proffered Faustian bargain, possibly because he had no need of what it offered, but the offer is a tempting one for us despite his reply.

Consider the singular case of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). As an old man, Newton was asked what he thought of his achievements, to which he replied:
I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
We have this from Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), Memoirs of Newton (1855) Vol. 2, Chapter 27, which I don't have before me, but I assume that Brewster is citing a letter.

Newton had perhaps been reading Milton, but did he then place himself among those fallen prey to the temptation of knowledge?

Yet, a child is such a figure of innocence, hardly Faustian, and Newton -- not usually known as a humble man -- frames his words with humility in admitting ignorance of the great ocean of truth that stretched out unexplored before his childlike eyes.

All the while, however, he was secretly working on alchemical researches -- like Johann Georg Faust himself -- and calculating the end of the world based on his investigations of the biblical works of Daniel and the Apocalypse of John.

Perhaps he believed, but did not say, that had already launched himself onto that enormous ocean of Faustian knowledge...

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