A Review of John Henry’s “Knowledge is Power”

As an introduction to Francis Bacon, his life, philosophy and motivation, John Henry‘s Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Inspired Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science is the best that I have read to date. As the sub-title of this slim but pithy volume intimates, Henry describes how Francis Bacon was inspired to create a method of science that would replace Aristotelianism by his interest in “Magic”, his involvement with “the Government” and by his Protestant “Apocalyptic Vision”.

In doing so Henry exposes and explains the misrepresentations of Bacon that have been handed down to us from the age of the Englightenment; that Bacon’s religion was insincere; that he rather tended towards atheism; that in his search for a scientific method he totally rejected magic and alchemy.

Again, in the modern age Bacon has suffered misrepresentation as a would-be exploiter and torturer of nature. Henry clearly explains why these images of Bacon were first spread abroad and is convincing in his refutation of them.

In short, John Henry “gets” Francis Bacon. I rather wish this conveniently compact volume had been available in 1997 when I began writing the essays on Bacon that are presented on this website because Henry has vindicated much of what I had come to believe about Bacon; that his religion was sincere; that his criticisms of magic and alchemy, severe as they were, were not in the end fundamental rejections of those two arts but rather criticisms of the methodologies, the vanities and the “impostures” of their practitioners.

Certainly, in his pursuit of a new methodology Bacon struggled both to accommodate his religion and to clarify his attitude towards magic, alchemy, and the value of fable and of “the wisdom of the ancients”, as a careful, chronological reading of his works reveals. However, Bacon does more than merely pay lip-service to religion and Henry is entirely correct to devote so much attention to the influence of Protestantism upon his thought, particularly the eschatological input of contemporary millenarianism. Bacon’s biblical exegesis plays an important part in his understanding of what both the aims and the procedure of his method (the method of his method, if you like) should be. This is perhaps disquieting news for some historians of science. However, I believe that Bacon was writing with sincerity when he wrote that

the true end of knowledge is the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.

In the fourth chapter of my thesis I mentioned the tension that arose “from Bacon’s allegiance to the moderate Protestantism of … the church of England… and the optimistic quasi-Pelagianism of his scientific enterprise.” I argued that

“These should… be seen as two faces of a single corpus of belief, the one looking towards the heavenly kingdom, the other towards the earthly, the one looking with faith towards eternal glory, the other looking with hope towards the expansion of the human empire and the charitable relief of human misery.”

I am grateful to Henry, however, for showing in one very informative chapter just how the “two faces” of religion and science did form that “single corpus of belief”. Near the beginning
of the ninth chapter Henry writes:

“Bacon’s religious devotion was so strong that it would be surprising if he did not seek a religious justification for his ambition to extend ‘the bounds of Human Empire to the effecting of all things possible’ (The New Atlantis, 1627). It just so happened that Bacon was working at a time when there was a huge revival of millenarianism in England, and he immediately saw himself as engaged upon a millenarian enterprise.”

A famous proclamation of that enterprise can be found on the frontispiece of Bacon’s book “Great Instauration”. At the bottom of the frontispiece a text from Daniel (chapter 12, verse 4) reads

multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia

Bacon saw his works as part of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel that “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased”. The running to and fro of the many is presumed to refer to the recent voyages of exploration and discovery while the increase in knowledge both refers to the new discoveries of recent times – gunpowder, the magnetic compass and the printing press. However, Bacon’s hope is that by formulating a new method of discovery he will help to bring the prophecy to fruition while also performing an act of Christian charity in helping to improve the lot of his fellow men.

Again, I find myself concurring with Henry’s argument, in Chapter 3, that:

“Bacon’s belief that he was ‘born for the service of mankind’ was not merely conceit. Though this might seem like an odd comment if it had been made by virtually anyone else, it is hardly surprising that Bacon should have thought this way about himself.”

Firstly he and his elder brother Anthony were “deliberately raised… to play a part in the high offices of the state” by their father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Keeper of the Seal. Bacon’s lifelong involvement
with affairs of state and with the law can be seen in his belief that the new investigative philosophy would have to be the work of a whole government department, as the description of the organisation of Salomon’s House in New Atlantis makes clear.

Secondly, there was the Calvinist influence of Bacon’s mother, Anne, Lady Nicholas Bacon, daughter of Sir Anthony Cook who had been tutor to Edward VI. If Bacon’s father had trained him up to serve his sovereign, the influence of his mother is discernible in Bacon’s greater vision to serve all mankind and thereby perform his Christian duty (and fulfil the prophecy of Daniel at the same time).

As for Bacon’s attitude to alchemy, I have shown in my essay Magi Imaginationis how Bacon’s early expressions of unmitigated hostility towards the deceptions and impostures of the alchemists (which Vickers takes as conclusive evidence of his fundamental rejection of alchemy) gives way to a more balanced and nuanced assessment in which he seeks to sever the
good and useful from the false and fantastical.

What both alchemy and natural magic had to offer Bacon was their experimentalism. Unlike the book learning of the Aristotelians, magicians and alchemists – the serious ones, that is, such as Paracelsus – looked into the book of nature. In other words, they were empiricists, seeking answers to their quests through direct investigations of nature. Bacon was the first to see that the experimentalism of the alchemists and magicians would be an essential part of any effective new method of science, as Henry makes clear:

What was innovative about Bacon was that he advocated the use of the experimental method of the magician in a reformed natural philosophy”

Henry tends to present Bacon’s opinion of natural magic and alchemy as being rather too rigidly secure and fixed, as if it were not forged in a process of mental struggle over a period of years. This is an inevitable consequence of having to simplify and fit so complex a man of ideas as Bacon into the space of 165 relatively small pages. Nevertheless Henry has provided us with a key whereby we may better understand what motivated Bacon and why, rather than the process by which Bacon struggled to weave a new methodolgy of natural philosophy out of the many strands of his thought and experience. Indeed, it is a testament to Henry’s achievement both as a writer as well as a scholar that he has so with such unstuffy eloquence and clarity as to make this book a delightful and
compelling one to read.

Just as Henry never forgets that Bacon is to be appreciated in the context of the times in which he lived so he is ever mindful that a present-day readership may not be familiar with the language of
Christianity or with the notion that religion and magic can play so vital and central a role in the life of a man or of the nation in which he lives, moves and has his being. He therefore clearly explains how it would have seemed rational to believe in “natural magic” and helpfuly describes the difference between what magic actually meant to people of Bacon’s day as opposed to what we today suppose it to have meant.

It is in these sections where Henry presents the beliefs of Bacon’s time in the context of those times that Henry’s style develops something of a “matey” tone, which is quite enjoyable but thankfully spooned out only in small doses, as in his chatty description of the Paracelsian belief in weapon salve:

“It was an ointment that could cure wounds incurred in battle by applying the ointment to the weapon that caused the wound. That’s right – the ointment was not put on the wound but on
the weapon… This proved to be much more successful than the standard means of treating wounds. No, really, it did…”

You can almost imagine Henry sat at the bar of his local pub with a pint of bitter in his hand. Mind you, if Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Inspired Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science is anything to go by, I should think he would be quite entertaining company.

David Hurley