24 March 2018


John Henry. Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Helped Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science, Icon Books, 2017

Knowledge is Power – reissued from 2002 as part of Icon Science’s 25th anniversary series on ‘groundbreaking moments in science history’ – is the perfect introduction to the life, work and legacy of Sir Francis Bacon, written by the ideal person for the job, John Henry being Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at Edinburgh University. His specialism is the relationship between science, magic and religion in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods - something crucial to a proper understanding of Bacon.

Although Bacon (1561-1626) didn’t make any great scientific discovery or come up with a new natural or physical law, he’s nevertheless regarded as the founder of modern science. This, Henry explains, is because he gave science its basic philosophy and guiding principles, setting out what it was for and how it should be done: gathering information about the natural world through systematic experimentation and objective analysis, with the aim of accumulating knowledge that will improve humankind’s lot. Bacon’s self-imposed, lifelong task was to reform natural philosophy, as the precursor to science was known. As Henry sums up, ‘Before Bacon there was no such thing as science in our modern sense of the word. After Bacon, Western Europe was set on a course of discovery and invention that was to result in a civilisation based on the power of science and technology. In a very real sense, therefore, Bacon invented modern science.’

But what will surprise most readers is that, as Henry demonstrates, Bacon’s major inspirations came not from natural philosophy, but from religion and magic.

From his strong religious beliefs, imparted by his Calvinist mother, Bacon drew his convictions that natural philosophy should be for the benefit of all humankind and that it was his Christian duty to help make it so. But more importantly, imbued with the apocalyptic, millenarian thinking that permeated his day, he believed that his reforms would actually help usher in the Second Coming and Day of Judgement. This notion – which seems downright weird today – derived from the then-accepted belief that Adam had had a complete knowledge of the natural world which was lost at the Fall. By recovering that knowledge, Bacon’s programme of reform would effectively reverse the Fall, thereby precipitating God’s Judgement. He made this clear in his writings, calling his programme the ‘Great Instauration’, meaning ‘restoration’, and relating it to apocalyptic Biblical prophecies such as those in the Book of Daniel.

When it comes to Bacon’s methods, as opposed to his motivation, Henry shows that he basically lifted them from the magical tradition of his time, which not only provided him with a major source of inspiration for his reforms but also with a model for what natural philosophy should be: ‘Bacon’s philosophical works show that he knew a great deal of magic, that he was a practitioner of some parts of the magical tradition, particularly alchemy, and that his own philosophy was heavily indebted to magic.’ Indeed, some of his writings paraphrase classic Renaissance occult philosophers such as Giambattista della Porta and Agrippa. (Probably wisely, Henry avoids the word ‘occult’ – he uses it only once, in its original meaning of ‘hidden’ - preferring ‘magical tradition’ or ‘natural magic tradition’.)

Henry places this in the context of the Renaissance revival of magic as a respectable field of enquiry, particularly as a result of the rediscovery of the Hermetic texts, which were believed to embody the wisdom of the most ancient times. He also shows that modern perceptions of the magic of the period as purely irrational and based on supernatural beliefs are wrong: Renaissance natural magic was an entirely rational system for exploring, understanding and utilising the properties of all things in nature.

Bacon drew from magic not only the notion that knowledge should be of practical use but, more significantly, the all-important experimental method. Practitioners of natural magic routinely employed experiment, most obviously in alchemy. Consequently, Henry calls the usual assertion that ‘science’ is simply an updated term for natural philosophy ‘highly misleading’: science was rather the combination of natural philosophy with the magical tradition.

Henry goes on to describe how later generations of science historians played down the influence of magic on Bacon, turning him into a scientist in their own image by selectively using his criticisms of the errors of certain magicians as evidence of his rejection of magic as a whole (as well as using a similar selectivity to ‘prove’ that Bacon was a secret atheist, despite his manifest religiosity).

Similarly, Henry criticises contemporary ‘cultural commentators and feminist historians’ for misrepresenting Bacon as promoting science as a patriarchal, capitalist endeavour that aims to dominate and exploit nature - ‘the anti-hero who embodies everything they despise about what they see as modern scientific attitudes’ – by shamelessly using selective and out-of-context quotations from Bacon’s work and ignoring those that show his true position.

So, as well as informing us about Bacon and the origins of science, the book also tells us much about how history is written, or rather rewritten.

On a personal note, the book made me realise that Lynn Picknett and I were over-harsh on Bacon in our The Forbidden Universe: The Occult Origins of Science and the Search for the Mind of God, in which we depicted him as a careerist who hid his occult leanings for the sake of preferment. In fact, Henry’s reconstruction of the man and his inspirations fits the theme of our book even more neatly.

The final chapters examine why Bacon’s ideas caught on, concluding that it was in many ways a fluke of history: he wrote at the right time. An early reason for interest in his ideas for the reform of natural philosophy was that they chimed with the apocalyptic expectations of his day. More significant for their longevity was, Henry argues, the growing antagonism between the Catholic and various Protestant Churches which, by co-opting different philosophies (Aristotelianism, Platonism, and so on) to justify their dogmas, had brought natural philosophy into disrepute. Bacon offered an objective approach, in which facts are interpreted by scholarly consensus and not an appeal to an ancient authority. It was this that led the Royal Society to embrace Baconianism, as well as attracting the admiration of Voltaire and the French Enlightenment philosophes - and the ‘ultimate endorsement’ of Newton – all of which sealed its success.

John Henry writes in a conversational, accessible style and is adept at explaining complex subjects and ideas simply but without giving any sense of dumbing down. Particularly impressive are his elucidations of aspects of the mindset of Bacon’s time – the ingrained religious thinking and the magical ideas - that are (in large part thanks to the success of his philosophy) completely alien to the modern reader.

Henry doesn’t shy away from discussion of the thornier philosophical questions, such as whether Bacon’s notion of complete objectivity in the gathering and analysis of data, without any preconceptions or bias, is truly workable in the real world (concluding that it isn’t, but that the aspiration to objectivity is what counts).

There’s a glossary and a useful further reading section – but, annoyingly, no index, which is my only negative about the book.

Although written to introduce Bacon to a general audience with no background in the history science (or magic), those with all levels of knowledge and interest, including academics, will learn something from Knowledge is Power, particularly from its placing of magic in its rightful position in Western intellectual history. I certainly did. -- Clive Prince

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