The Catholic University of America

"Knowledge is Not Power, and Other Paradoxes"
Phi Eta Sigma Induction Ceremony Comments of
Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.,
Professor of Government
Georgetown University
Oct. 28, 2005

Father Schall delivered the following address to the new members of the CUA Chapter of Phi Eta Sigma; it will be published online in "The New Pantagruel."

"The soul is given to man in the place of all the forms, so that in a certain sense man might be all things."
- Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's De Anima, 3, 8, lect. 13.

"Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est - for knowledge itself is power."
- Francis Bacon, Meditationes Sacrae, 1597.


Last year for Christmas, a student from Miami gave me a Peanuts' calendar containing the daily cartoons from 1994. The five-part sequence for September 15 begins with Lucy standing in right field oblivious of things about her, especially, as is her wont, of the game that Charlie Brown is pitching and trying vainly to win. Suddenly, we see that a fly ball drops out of the sky and "bonks" on Lucy's baseball-capped head. Annoyed, she charges to the mound where Charlie stands ready to field her complaints. "Hey, Manager," she yells at him, "I'm not sure I want to play right field anymore." In a daze, she, notoriously poor outfielder that she is, continues in explanation, "I was standing out there and something hit me on the head...." With some ironic sympathy, Charlie replies, "I wonder what it could have been?" Lucy turns back to right field, "Who knows?" she answers, "We live in a strange world, don't we?" And to this Charlie quickly adds, "with a lot of strange people."

Lucy, of course, is pictured as someone who does not know what object is likely to fall out of the sky in right field. She does not anticipate that it is the fly ball that she is out there to catch. She is clueless. She thinks that the "strange objects" flitting about the skies might be anything but baseballs. Charlie is more sober. He is sure the problem is not with strange objects falling out of the skies, but rather with the stranger people, like Lucy, who cannot be bothered to catch simple fly balls landing on their heads.

But if the world is in fact full of strange objects and even stranger people, as it no doubt is, what is that to us? If we are normal, our instincts are to find out just what objects do fall into right field. And when they do fall, we know that we are supposed to catch them. The cartoon is amusing because Lucy does not know or care what is the primary task of a fielder while she is standing in right field. She is aware of everything but the game. Her lack of interest and competence, naturally, drives Charlie Brown, the hapless manager, crazy. He cannot understand either such disinterest or such incompetence, especially as he suspects, in Lucy's case, that both are deliberate. There is only one thing worse than not knowing, and that is choosing not to know.

In order to catch a fly ball in right field, we have to be looking for it. We cannot be standing there with our heads down staring at the grass. We cannot catch a ball if we do not know it is falling on our head. Even worse, we cannot catch it if we do not know that this catching is why we are there in the first place. To be sure, we may not catch it even if we see it falling in front of us. We may mis-judge it, or overrun it, or trip over our feet. But simply knowing that the ball is being hit to right field where we are positioned does not, by itself, enable us to catch the ball. We still have use our knowledge. We must choose to go and actually catch it. We have to coordinate our eyes, our hands, our mind, and our legs. Our knowledge has to get out of our heads into action.

In his commentary on Aristotle's treatise On the Soul, Aquinas tells us that our souls are "powers" or "faculties" to know. But we do not know until something comes before us, till something alerts us. If we had some form already in our souls, Aquinas implies, we would just know that form, not everything else. But we seem to be made to know everything else. Our knowledge of one thing does not seem to prevent us from knowing something else. Indeed, our knowledge of one thing seems to incite us to seek to know something else, yes, everything else. Our minds are that power by which all things not ourselves can become ours. We are changed, not the things we know. We are more of what we are when we know what is not ourselves. The thing we know simply remains what it is.


On Friday, July 1, 1763, Boswell recalls hearing Oliver Goldsmith remark, with some paradox, that "knowledge was not desirable on its own account, for it often was a source of unhappiness." Samuel Johnson overhead this dubious comment. "Why, Sir," he protested, "that knowledge may in some cases produce unhappiness, I allow. But, upon the whole, knowledge, per se, is certainly an object which every man would wish to attain, although, perhaps, he may not take the trouble necessary for attaining it."[1] Bad news can make us unhappy. We may not take the trouble to know something we can easily know. Still, knowledge, per se, is something we all wish to attain. We want simply to know and to know of what we know that it is true. We are made to know. This is what we do and seek to do.

Aristotle remarks in the Ethics, in talking about pleasure and pain, that there are some things that we would want to have even if they were associated with pain. As examples of this desire, he instances seeing and hearing. Normally we should and do experience a proper pleasure in the very acts of seeing and hearing, and of thinking for that matter. The fact is that we should still want these powers even if they had no pleasure connected to them or even if they brought us pain. No one chooses to blind himself over a headache. We might indeed wonder why there is not only seeing as a capacity and as an activity, but also a delight in seeing. They seem to go together, but we can distinguish them. The delight accompanies the seeing, not the seeing the delight.

Most of us have heard the famous dictum that "knowledge is power." What I want to suggest is the opposite proposition, namely, that "knowledge is not power." "What," we might ask, "is the difference or the point of the difference?" Does it make any difference? The latter proposition, I contend, that knowledge is not power comes first and defines any view about the relation of knowledge and power.

St. Thomas teaches us that to understand something, we need to distinguish one thing from another so that we are talking about the same thing, using and understanding the same words We need to say that this thing is not that thing, if it is not that thing. To philosophize is to distinguish; it is accurately to identify what we are talking about.

The Latin word potestas can be translated as "power." It means a capacity, a capability. We may or may not see something if we have eyes, which give us the capacity or power to see. But if we are beings formed without eyes, we have no capacity to see. This understanding seems obvious enough. The Baconian expression "knowledge is power," can thus simply refer to the fact that we have a capacity to know what is not ourselves, and through that capacity to know ourselves also.

Aristotle remarks that thought as such does not initiate action. We can have an understanding of the most complicated machinery in the world, but nothing as such will flow from it until we build the machine and actually use it for what it is for. A man does not have the capacity to fly at 600 miles an hour unless he is at the controls of an airplane, which makes such travel possible.

In itself, this understanding of capacity is nothing more than Aristotle's explanation of craft or art, that is, the right reason of things to be made. Our ideas get out of our minds if, and only if, we have bodies and hands whereby our ideas are embedded in things for a purpose coming from our minds. Artistic or craft truth asks whether what was made conforms with the idea the artist intended to make. The craftsman's knowledge explains and governs the shape of things made.

This craft meaning of "capacity" or "potestas" follows from the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge. The purpose of theoretical intellect is simply to know, to know the truth of things for no other reason than to know it. Theoretical knowledge does not look at doing anything with it until the will directs the knowledge into a practical capacity or direction. The world is such that man can put the stamp of his mind on things for his purpose. Indeed, this seems to be one of the things that explains why the world exists.

Another, less happy meaning of "knowledge is power" is based on an epistemological skepticism. No order exists in things that can be discovered by our minds either because our minds cannot know them or because there is nothing to be known. All that can happen is to project out onto things what we want. The only intellect in the universe is man's practical intellect. All that we know is the constructs of our own minds. In this sense, knowledge is literally "power," for that is all that there is. With the world evaporated of any theoretical order, what is left is whatever manages to take control. It has no check other than itself.


In one of his books on Thomas Aquinas, Josef Pieper spoke of teaching. In the theory that "knowledge is power" in a world bereft of its own order, there is no latent reason to prefer one power to another provided both arise from the human artistic or political mind projected in the world. But the very notion of "teaching" contains within itself the idea that multiple minds can come to the same truth, a truth that none of them, properly, constitutes but discovers. This dependence on a law outside of itself is obviously true in the case of the crafts - if we do not build a dam properly, it will break under a pressure that it ought to withstand. The fact that we can build things that do not work calls our attention to those that do work.

"Being taught is something else again from being carried away, and something else again from being dominated by another's intellect," Pieper observed. "Being taught means to perceive that what the teacher has said is true and valid, and to perceive why this is so.... Teaching implies proceeding from the existing position and disposition of the hearer.... The teacher ... must proceed from what is valid in the opinions of the hearer to the fuller and purer truth as he, the teacher, understands it."[2] The knowledge of the teacher is not "power." What the student learns is not the result of "power."

Knowledge, in the sense of actually knowing something, does not first have the connotation of domination over something. Rather it is something closer to "gift" or beholdenness. The first thing we want to know about something is not what we can do with it, or how we can use it, but simply what it is. Cicero, in his famous essay "On Old Age," observed that "the reason why the immortal gods implanted souls in human beings was to provide the earth with guardians who should reflect their contemplation of the divine order in the orderly discipline of their own lives."[3]

We do live in a strange world with strange people. The soul is given to man so that he might be all things. Upon the whole, knowledge is something, per se, that every man would like to attain. Knowledge is not power. Knowledge is knowledge, and we are to delight in it.


1Boswell's Life of Johnson (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), I, 278-79..

2Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 32-33.

3Cicero, "On Old Age," in Selected Works, edited by Michael Grant (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), VIII, 244.