Francis Bacon? Theophilus Gale? David Hume? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon made an intriguing assertion about atheism. Here are three versions:
(1) A little philosophy makes men atheists, though a great deal would cure them of Atheism.
(2) A little knowledge drives man away from God, but deeper knowledge brings him back.
(3) A little knowledge may take us away from God, but further knowledge will bring us back to him.
Would you please help me to find the correct phrasing and a citation?
Quote Investigator: The 1625 collection titled “The Essayes Or Covnsels, Civill and Morall” by Francis Bacon included the original version of the statement under analysis. The spelling in the 1625 text differed from modern spelling. For example, the letters “u” and “v” were sometimes swapped. The following passage employs updated spelling. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
I had rather believe all the Fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, then that this universal Frame, is without a Mind. And therefore, God never wrought Miracle, to convince Atheism, because his Ordinary Works convince it. It is true, that a little Philosophy inclineth Man’s Mind to Atheism; But depth in Philosophy, bringeth Men’s Minds about to Religion.
Below is a scan of the 1625 book page showing the text above followed by additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1677 “The Court of the Gentiles” by educator and theologian Theophilus Gale included a concise instance of the expression: 2
Whence that great observation of Sir Francis Bacon, That a little Philosophie makes men Atheists, though a great deal would cure them of Atheisme.
In 1623 Bacon published “De Augmentis Scientiarum” in Latin. A translation into English by a scholar at King’s College Cambridge was published in 1720, and Bacon’s thought was presented with a different phrasing: 3
But further, it is an assured Truth, and warranted by Experience, that a small, or superficial Taste of Philosophy, may perchance incline a Man to Atheism, but that a deeper Draught brings him back again to Religion.
In 1757 the famous Scottish philosopher David Hume included an instance of the saying in his essay titled “The Natural History of Religion”, but Hume presented a different phrasing for the remark: 4
A little philosophy, says my Lord Bacon, makes men atheists: A great deal reconciles them to religion. For men, being taught, by superstitious prejudices, to lay the stress on a wrong place; when that fails them, and they discover, by a little reflection, that the course of nature is regular and uniform, their whole faith totters, and falls to ruin. But being taught, by more reflection, that this very regularity and uniformity is the strongest proof of design and of a supreme intelligence, they return to that belief, which they had deserted; and they are now able to establish it on a firmer and more durable foundation.
An 1804 letter published in “The Scots Magazine” contained another version ascribed to Bacon containing the phrase “little knowledge” instead of “little philosophy”: 5
“A little knowledge, says Lord Bacon, makes men atheists; but a more thorough acquaintance with the sciences brings them back again to religion.“
In 1837 another instance in “The Dublin Review” referred specifically to Christianity: 6
. . . the old adage of Bacon,—“A little knowledge leads men away from Christianity, but a great deal brings them back to it,” is signally confirmed by the voice of history, and the testimony of individual experience.
The 1866 collection “Beautiful Thoughts from French and Italian Authors” included sayings from the French wit Nicolas Chamfort. The compiler placed related remarks from Francis Bacon (in Latin and English) and Alexander Pope adjacent to the words of Chamfort: 7
Peu de philosophie mène à mépriser l’érudition: beaucoup de philosophie mène à l’estimer.
A small inkling of philosophy leads man to despise learning; much philosophy leads man to esteem it.
So Bacon:—“Breves haustus in philosophiâ ad atheismum ducunt, largiores autem reducunt art Deum.”
“Small draughts of philosophy lead to atheism; but larger bring back to God.”
So Pope, “Essay on Criticism,” 1. 215 :—
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”
In conclusion, Francis Bacon should receive credit for the statement published in 1625. Many inaccurate versions of the saying have proliferated over the years.
Image Notes: Picture of the fresco “Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Richard Costas whose inquiry about a related expression led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
Update History: On October 11, 2018 the 1720 citation was added.
- 1625, The Essayes Or Covnsels, Civill and Morall, of Francis Lo. Vervlam, Viscovnt St. Alban. Newly Written, Chapter: of Atheisme, Quote Page 90, Printed by John Haviland for Hanna Barret, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1677, The Court of the Gentiles, Part III: Of the Vanitie of Pagan Phiosophie by Theophilus Gale, Book II, Chapter 1, Quote Page 109, Printed by A. Maxwell and R. Roberts, for T. Cockeril, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1720, Lord Bacon’s Essays, Translated from the Latin by William Willymott (Fellow King’s College Cambridge), Volume 2, Quote Page 8, Printed and Sold by H. Parson, J. Brotherton and W. Meadows, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1757, Four Dissertations by David Hume, I. The Natural History of Religion, II. Of the Passions, III. Of Tragedy, IV. Of the Standard of Taste, Start Page 1, Quote Page 44, Printed for A. Millar, London. (Google Books Full view) link ↩
- 1805 July, The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, Letter to the Editor from S.M., Date: March 16, 1804, On the Effects produced on Society by the successful cultivation of Science, Start Page 503, Quote Page 505, Column 2, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1837 April, The Dublin Review, Volume 2, Book Review of “Lectures on the Connexion between Science and Revealed Religion” by Reverend Nicholas Wiseman, Start Page 293, Quote Page 297, William Spooner, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1866, Beautiful Thoughts from French and Italian Authors: With English Translations and Lives of the Authors by Craufurd Tait Ramage, Quote Page 64, Edward Howell, Liverpool. (Google Books Full View) link ↩