Scientia potentia est
The phrase "scientia potentia est" (or "scientia est potentia"[p] or also "scientia potestas est") is a Latin aphorism often claimed to mean organized "knowledge is power". It is commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, although there is no known occurrence of this precise phrase in Bacon's English or Latin writings. However, the expression "ipsa scientia potestas est" ('knowledge itself is power') occurs in Bacon's Meditationes Sacrae (1597). The exact phrase "scientia potentia est" was written for the first time in the 1668 version of the work Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, who was secretary to Bacon as a young man.
The related phrase "sapientia est potentia" is often translated as "wisdom is power".
Origins and parallels
A proverb in practically the same wording is first found in Hebrew, in the Biblical Book of Proverbs (24:5): גֶּבֶר-חָכָם בַּעוֹז; וְאִישׁ-דַּעַת, מְאַמֶּץ-כֹּחַ. This was translated in the latin Vulgata as "vir sapiens et fortis est et vir doctus robustus et validus" and in the King James Version, the first English official edition, as "A wise man is strong, a man of knowledge increaseth strength".
A later account of the concept is found in the Shahnameh by the Persian poet Ferdowsi (940–1020 CE) who wrote: "Capable is he who is wise" (in Persian: توانا بود هر که دانا بود). This hemistich is translated to English as "knowledge is power" or "One who has wisdom is powerful".
The first known reference of the exact phrase appeared in the Latin edition of Leviathan (1668; the English version had been published in 1651). This passage from Part 1 ("De Homine"), Chapter X ("De Potentia, Dignitate et Honore") occurs in a list of various attributes of man which constitute power; in this list, "sciences" or "the sciences" are given a minor position:
Scientia potentia est, sed parva; quia scientia egregia rara est, nec proinde apparens nisi paucissimis, et in paucis rebus. Scientiae enim ea natura est, ut esse intelligi non possit, nisi ab illis qui sunt scientia praediti
In the English version this passage reads as thus:
The sciences are small powers; because not eminent, and therefore, not acknowledged in any man; nor are at all, but in a few, and in them, but of a few things. For science is of that nature, as none can understand it to be, but such as in a good measure have attained it.
On a later work, De Corpore (1655), also written in Latin, Hobbes expanded the same idea:
The end or scope of philosophy is, that we may make use to our benefit of effects formerly seen ... for the commodity of human life ... The end of knowledge is power ... lastly, the scope of all speculation is the performing of some action, or thing to be done.
In Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the social contract tradition (1988), Hampton indicates that this quote is 'after Bacon' and in a footnote, that 'Hobbes was Bacon's secretary as a young man and had philosophical discussions with him (Aubrey 1898, 331).
The closest expression in Bacon's works is, perhaps, the expression "scientia potestas est", found in his Meditationes Sacrae (1597), which is perhaps better translated as "knowledge is His power", because the context of the sentence refers to the qualities of God and is imbedded in a discussion of heresies that deny the power of God: Dei quam potestatis; vel putius ejus partis potestatis Dei, (nam et ipsa scientia potestas est) qua scit, quam ejus qua raovet et agit; ut praesciat quaedam otoise, quae non praedestinet et praordinet.
The English translation of this section includes the following:
- "This canon is the mother of all canons against heresies. The cause of error is twofold : ignorance of the will of God, and ignorance or superficial consideration of the power of God. The will of God is more revealed through the Scriptures… his power more through his creatures… So is the plenitude of God’s power to be asserted, as not to involve any imputation upon his will. So is the goodness of his will to be asserted, as not to imply any derogation of his power.
- "… Atheism and Theomachy rebels and mutinies against the power of God ; not trusting to his word, which reveals his will, because it does not believe in his power,to whom all things are possible… But of the heresies which deny the power of God, there are, besides simple atheism, three degrees…
- "The third degree is of those who limit and restrain the former opinion to human actions only, which partake of sin: which actions they suppose to depend substantively and without any chain of causes upon the inward will and choice of man; and who give a wider range to the knowledge of God than to his power; or rather to that part of God’s power (for knowledge itself is power) whereby he knows, than to that whereby he works and acts ; suffering him to fore know some things as an unconcerned looker on, which he does not predestine and preordain : a notion not unlike the figment which Epicurus introduced into the philosophy of Democritus, to get rid of fate and make room for fortune; namely the sidelong motion of the Atom; which has ever by the wiser sort been accounted a very empty device." (pp. 94–95; Works of Bacon, Vol XIV, Boston; Brown and Taggard, 1861)
Interpretation of the notion of power meant by Bacon must therefore take into account his distinction between the power of knowing and the power of working and acting, the opposite of what is assumed when the maxim is taken out of context. Indeed, the quotation has become a cliche.
In another place, Bacon wrote, "Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay Old Age, included in the collection Society and Solitude (1870):
Skill to do comes of doing; knowledge comes by eyes always open, and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power.
Wissen ist Macht in Germany
After the first German reunification 1871, "Wissen ist Macht, geographisches Wissen ist Weltmacht" (Knowlede is power, geographical knowledge is world power) was often used in German Geography and the public discussion to support efforts for a German colonial empire after 1880. Julius Perthes e.g. used the motto for his publishing house. However, the installation of geographical research followed popular requests and was not an "political octroi" of the government. Especially Count Bismarck was not much interested in German Colonial adventures, his envoy Gustav Nachtigal started with the first protective areas, but was more interested in ethnological aspects. After the World War I, German geography tried to contribute to efforts to regain a world power. Scholars like Karl Haushofer, a former general and his son Albrecht Haushofer (both in close contact with Rudolf Hess) got worldwide attention with their concept of geopolitics. Associations of German geographers and school teachers welcomed the Machtergreifung and hoped to get further influence in the new regime. The postwar geography was muich more cautious, concepts of political geography and projection of power have not been widerspread schorlarly topics till 1989 in Germany.
Geographical knowledge is however still of importance in Germany. Germans tend to mock about US politians and celebrities comparable lack of interest in the topic. A Sponti (Außerparlamentarische Opposition) version of the slogan is "Wissen ist Macht, nichts wissen, macht auch nichts", a pun about the previous motto along the line "Knowledge is power, but being ignorant doesnt bother anyway." Joschka Fischer und Daniel Cohn-Bendit belong to those Spontis that nevertheless held powerful positions, in Fischers case with not more formal education than a taxi drivers licence.
Though its meaning varies from author to author, the phrase often implies that with knowledge or education, one's potential or abilities in life will certainly increase. Having and sharing knowledge is widely recognised as the basis for improving one's reputation and influence, thus power. This phrase may also be used as a justification for a reluctance to share information when a person believes that withholding knowledge can deliver to that person some form of advantage. Another interpretation is that the only true power is knowledge, as everything (including any achievement) is derived from it.
In popular culture
The Mortal Kombat video game franchise popularised Emerson's version: "There is no knowledge that is not power."
- [p] ^ The phrase "scientia est potentia" is pronounced as skee-En-tee-ah est paw-Ten-tee-ah.
- Biblia Sacra Vulgata, Proverbia
- Holy Bible, King James Version, Proverbs 24:5
- Shahnameh, first poem, couplet 14. e.f. http://shahnameh.net/
- "The Modern Magazine for Persian Weddings, Cuisine, Culture & Community". Persianmirror.com. Retrieved 2012-09-20.
- Thomas Hobbes, Opera philosophica..., Volume III (Leviathan ), p. 69
- Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury..., Volume 3 (Leviathan), p. 75.
- Thomas Hobbes De Corpore, Part I, Chapter I (On Phylosophy). In Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury..., Volume I, p. 7. From the Latin edition: Thomas Hobbes, Opera philosophica..., Volume 1, p. 6
- "Thomas Hobbes Quotes - 14 Science Quotes - Dictionary of Science Quotations and Scientist Quotes". Todayinsci.com. 2012-01-19. Retrieved 2012-09-20.
- Vickers, Brian (1992). "Francis Bacon and the Progress of Knowledge". Journal of the History of Ideas, 53 (3): 495–518. JSTOR 2709891.
- Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Part I, Aphorism III. Boston: Taggard & Thompson, 1863, volume VIII, pp. 67–68.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude, 1892, p. 303
- ALEXANDER U. MARTENS (24.06.97). "Geographie als Weltmacht Klett und Perthes werben für ein "Museum der Erde" in Gotha". Die Welt. Retrieved 29 August 2014. Check date values in:
- Peter Brogiato. ""Wissen ist Macht - Geographisches Wissen ist Weltmacht". Die schulgeographischen Zeitschriften im deutschsprachigen Raum (1880-1945) unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Geographischen Anzeigers. Teil 1: Textband: 656 S., Teil 2: Registerband: 474 S. Trier 1998 (Materialien zur Didaktik der Geographie, Heft 18). Review by Hans Böhm, Erdkunde, 54. Jahrgang, 2000, Heft 4, S. 382-384". Retrieved 29 August 2014.
- Eugene Ehrlich (1993). AMO AMAS AMAT & More. p. 255. Retrieved 2013-06-03.
- Thomas Hobbes, Opera philosophica, quae latine scripsit, omnia in unum corpus nunc primum collecta studio et labore Gulielmi Molesworth, Bart. (London: Bohn, 1839–45).
- Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; Now First Collected and Edited by Sir William Molesworth, Bart. (London: Bohn, 1839–45). 11 vols.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude. Twelve Chapters, Boston, The Riverside Press, 1892.
- Haas, Ernst B. When Knowledge is Power: Three Models of Change in International Organizations. University of California, 1990. ISBN 0-520-06646-4.
- Higdon, Lee. "Knowledge is power." University Business, September 2005.
- "Knowledge is power (But only if you know how to acquire it)." The Economist, May 8, 2003.
- A report on corporate knowledge management.
- Peterson, Ryan. "Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge." Colorado State University Resource Centre for Communications Studies.
- An exploration of what Peterson terms Foucault's "new model of the relations of power and knowledge" that contradicts Bacon.
- Powers, Rod. "Knowledge is power in the military." U.S. Military: The Orderly Room.
- The dictionary definition of scientia potentia est at Wiktionary