Knowledge Is Power

The oft-cited phrase “knowledge is power” seems to be from Francis Bacon. One might turn the phrase around — “power is knowledge” — but that does not seem so obvious to us. Nor, if we think about it, is the original quite as innocent as it sounds: The most dangerous thing that can happen to us is to have power backed up by knowledge, but with no limit set on it, either of reason or of will. After all, what can limit power but power? And yet, we still stand within the Socratic background of asserting that it is “better to suffer evil than to do it.” But this latter principle, in practice, lets power get its way. We think of Socrates himself and Christ. Only when we see its results do we go back and wonder about the principle.

The principles of the modern world are “rights,” “values,” “power,” “progress,” “equality,” and “freedom.” Each of these words has its own meaning and history. All presuppose that no nature or natural law, either in the cosmos or in us, can be found. Nothing is “out there” for the human mind to discover. The only mind in the universe is the human mind, and it is but an accident. Since nothing intelligible can be found in nature or in ourselves, we are free. We have no limits. We make ourselves to be whatever we want.

We have rights to do what we want. Our values are how we define ourselves. We are all equal, so that nothing anyone does is better or worse than anything another does. We set up governments with the power needed to enforce our rights. When we apply our knowledge to accomplish our rights and values, we progress to ever higher levels of humanity — that is, to what we want.

Pope Benedict XVI, in The Light of the World, brings up this issue: “The modern era has tried to find its way according to the fundamental concepts of progress and freedom,” he writes (43). But we now see that progress can also be destructive. With the application of the “mathematical world view and experiment,” many great things have happened. We even have begun ourselves to manufacture life.

The pope cites the Baconian principle: “And knowledge is power. That means: if I know, then I can also control. Knowledge brought power, but in such a way that with our own power we can now also destroy the world that we think we have figured out intellectually.” What is the problem? Something is lacking, “the aspect of the good. This is the question: What is the good? Where should knowledge lead power?”


Power, political and otherwise, is itself blind. Though it can be understood, it is not a principle of intelligence. Yet power in itself is a good. Lack of power can be a bad thing also. In itself, it is blind. Hence, it needs intelligence. The powerful politician can always say to the man of wisdom: “Do what I want, or else.” Not all philosophers have died for the truth of their views. Thus, by their action, they implicitly agreed with the politician who enforced what he wanted.

Is knowledge, then, good? Of course it is. The thrust of knowledge is “the good.” If my “good” is whatever I value, however, this latter principle, when universalized, means that no good unites us. Our private goods separate us.

In Aristotle, knowledge was for its own sake, not for power. But we do want to know what is good. Prudence is a knowledge that directs each of our particular acts to that good we chose as our end. But our choice is itself subject to our nature, to what is good. Power is the capacity to pursue what is true and, through it, what is good. Truth is indeed the true human good.

When knowledge finds its justification in enabling power to do whatever it wants, that knowledge is no longer for its own sake. It no longer addresses power in the name of its own purpose, which is not to achieve itself but to achieve what is good.

If our “values” have no substance other than what we freely want, then knowledge becomes a servant of our wants. We set up our order to accomplish what we want. We do not first ask whether what I want is good. We do not ask what is true of our being, what it is in which the good or happiness consists.

We ask, rather, what it is we want. We use our knowledge to acquire it. We are “free” when we have it. We do not ask whether what we have is good, since our “good” consists in getting what we want. Such knowledge is not power, but isolation.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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