Scientia potentia est
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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 1651 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 (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 
This was translated as:
The sciences, are small power; 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. " (p. 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.
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 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, p.67-68.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and solitude p. 303
- Eugene Ehrlich (1993). AMO AMAS AMAT & More. p. 255. Retrieved 2013-06-03.
- Thome 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.
- An anecdotal argument that in the military, a person with the most rank is not always the one in charge of a given situation, but that the person with the "real power" is the person who knows the regulations.