The Pursuit of Power
Scientia potens est. Knowledge is power. Francis Bacon’s famous formula — as famous as Cartesius’s cogito ergo sum — sums up what is meant by “Faustian Man” (or Urizenic Man, in William Blake’s case). Power is the desire and end of all knowledge, and thinking is the royal road to that knowledge. Only what grants power has value as knowledge and therefore qualifies as truth. When Bacon was weighing the relative merits of “science” or “magic” for man’s conquest of nature, it was framed in terms of which offered the possibility of the greatest power.
The slogan is unfortunate because it has, over time, become decontextualised. It is not entirely true. Bacon’s aim was actually freedom or emancipation from the caprices of an apparent inconscient and indifferent Nature with its ruthless and merciless laws, limitations, and constraints that seemed to treat human beings like playthings. Bacon saw power not necessarily as desirable and as an end in itself, but as a way of escaping an all-too-natural condition — Nature as Fate; Nature as “the law of the Earth”. No doubt plagues, famine and other natural disasters were foremost in Bacon’s mind.
So, the end of knowledge was not directly power but freedom — the truth that sets free, and sets free from the seemingly pitiless machinery of the natural law. “Knowledge is power” was intended for the noble purpose of transcending the State of Nature. But I don’t think Bacon himself foresaw that the pursuit of power would become an end in itself, and power a value in itself, and, in the process, re-introduce via technology, the same constraints, limits, and pitiless automatism of “the law of the Earth” now in the guise of the technological system — an artificial Nature now almost fully realised as “The Anthropocene”.
The emancipatory zeal of early science seems all but exhausted today, for somewhere along the way it took a perverse turn in which power became an end in itself and began to be turned against man himself, and against the human, as a new form of compulsion and as a new, and perhaps even more insidious, fatalism. Some have suggested that it was the First World War where power turns against man in the form of weapons of mass destruction and as propaganda, although Blake early already saw in the industrial revolution as the “dark Satanic Mill” as power become divorced from its aim of human emancipation from the State of Nature. Despite Blake’s dread of “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”, Blake was an admirer of “sweet science”, both for its emancipatory potential and as the self-consciousness of Nature itself.
Somewhere along the way, a certain cynicism set in, in which “the facts of the matter” become divorced and isolated from “the truth that sets free”. Science, in other words, became ever more reductionistic and itself mechanical as it “progressively” eliminated “subjective values” from its enterprise, falsifying, in effect, it’s own motives — that the truth that sets free was itself a subjective value and a desire, and that becoming ever more conscious of life’s circumstances was itself a value.
“Knowledge is freedom” might have been more to the point instead of “knowledge is power” — at least, perhaps, less open to distortion and abuse for today we find ourselves trapped by the very dilemmas of power we thought we had mastered, only to realise that while we may have had command of power, we really never had mastery of power because we forgot about “the truth that sets free” and exaggerated the “facts of the matter” as the new compulsions of the artificial nature we had created around ourselves.
And it should be quite obvious that the “truth that sets free” and the “facts of the matter” relate to each other as Iain McGilchrist’s Master and Emissary relate to each other. The real “power behind the throne” is this Master, and the Emissary, as the “usurper”, instead of being servant has become a parasite, and even today has some vague inkling that it has become parasitical. It’s usually what is meant by “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or by “playing God” or “Satan is God’s ape”– Buddha’s demon named “Mara”.
Here again, as above so below. Instead of becoming the transcendent self-consciousness of Nature we were intended to be, we have become, instead, parasitical on Nature also, having placed ourselves largely in opposition to Nature. It’s not a matter of a return to a State of Nature, but of assuming our role as this self-consciousness of Nature. Without that understanding, we become merely parasites.