Knowledge is Power - or is it? The View from Renaissance England

24 October 2015, 12:00 - 13:00

S2, Alison Richard Building

Free and open to all, but booking a place is essential.

This talk discusses how and why Francis Bacon’s aphorism ‘knowledge is power’ gained wider currency and why our acceptance of this idea might be misplaced.

Today, it seems pretty self-evident that knowledge is power – we go to university, or encourage our children to do so, because a good education is thought to lead to a good job, and therefore to social and financial security. This was not, however, always the case.

The phrase ‘knowledge is power’ can be traced to the works of Francis Bacon, an early enthusiast for the scientific method who lived and worked in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Bacon’s belief that learning brings power contrasts starkly with the dominant view of knowledge in the period.

Influenced by the bible, which suggested that Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise was a result of their curiosity, which led them to taste the fruit of knowledge, Renaissance men and women often viewed learning with suspicion, associating it with suffering, vulnerability, and sinful pride.

This short lecture both offers an account of how and why Bacon’s aphorism gained wider currency, and suggests that Bacon’s confidence – and our acceptance of it – might be misplaced. As every schoolchild knows, learning can be exhausting, humiliating, and painful. Knowledge, I conclude, is certainly important – but its value is not necessarily tied to its ability to confer power.

Presented by Dr Elizabeth L. Swann, Crossroads of Knowledge project researcher.

This talk is part of the 2015 Cambridge Festival of Ideas.