It Is Not Quite the Same God to Which One Returns

Samuel Johnson? Robert Gordis? Francis Bacon? Morris Raphael Cohen? Mordecai M. Kaplan? Benjamin Jowett?

Dear Quote Investigator: While I was a student a few decades ago I came across a remarkable metaphysical expression that was similar to the following:

The search for knowledge will lead a person away from God, and then back toward God, but it will be a somewhat different God than the original one.

Would you please help me to determine the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: This is a very difficult problem because this thought can be communicated in many different ways. The earliest solid match located by QI occurred in the journal “Jewish Social Studies” in 1956 within a piece by Robert Gordis, a biblical scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Morris Raphael Cohen was wont to comment on Francis Bacon’s well-worn saying that “a little knowledge leads a man away from God, but a great deal brings him back,” by observing that it is not quite the same God to which he returns.

Cohen was a prominent Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. QI has not yet found a matching statement directly in Cohen’s writings or speeches.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The 1625 collection titled “The Essayes or Covnsels, Civill and Morall” by Francis Bacon included the original English version of the statement referred to above. The spelling in the 1625 text differed from modern spelling. For example, the letters “u” and “v” were sometimes swapped: 2

It is true, that a little Philosophy inclineth Man’s Mind to Atheism; But depth in Philosophy, bringeth Men’s Minds about to Religion.

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.

A separate article about Bacon’s quotation is available here. The phrasing has evolved over time, and sometimes the ascription changes. For example, in 1920 an item printed in “The Saturday Review” of London attributed a version of Bacon’s notion to Benjamin Jowett, a theologian at the University of Oxford: 4

I think it was Dr. Jowett who said that “a little knowledge takes a man away from God, and a great deal brings him back again,” or words to that effect.

The above instance is similar to the statement employed by Robert Gordis in the 1956 remark presented at the beginning of this article although Gordis credited Bacon: 5

Morris Raphael Cohen was wont to comment on Francis Bacon’s well-worn saying that “a little knowledge leads a man away from God, but a great deal brings him back,” by observing that it is not quite the same God to which he returns.

In 1963 educator Mordecai M. Kaplan published a version of the statement under exploration. He credited empiricist Francis Bacon and the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson: 6

Francis Bacon once said, “A little knowledge drives man away from God, but deeper knowledge brings him back.” To which Samuel Johnson added the comment, “But it is a different God to whom he returns.” Reinterpretation closes the gap between tradition and modernism.

QI has not yet found substantive evidence that Samuel Johnson made a comment of the type indicated.

In conclusion, Francis Bacon should receive credit for the statement he published in 1625. Morris Raphael Cohen is the leading candidate for coiner of the provocative and insightful extension of Bacon’s remark. A return to God is implicit in Bacon’s statement; strictly speaking Bacon mentioned a return to religion.

Image Notes: Illustration of a boat with oars cropped to only show a single point of illumination. Image from geralt at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Richard Costas whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The expression Costas asked about was similar to the one given in the query above, but it was not identical.)

Notes:

  1. 1956 January, Jewish Social Studies, Volume 18, Number 1, Book Review by Robert Gordis (Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary), (Book Review of “Theological Essays in Commemoration of the Jubilee of the Faculty of Theology” by L. W. Grensted, L. E. Browne, C. H. Dodd), Indiana University Press. (JSTOR) link
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 1920 April 3, The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Section: Correspondence, The Church and Current Belief by Factus Sum, Quote Page 332, Published at The Office of The Saturday Review, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1956 January, Jewish Social Studies, Volume 18, Number 1, Book Review by Robert Gordis (Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary), (Book Review of “Theological Essays in Commemoration of the Jubilee of the Faculty of Theology” by L. W. Grensted, L. E. Browne, C. H. Dodd), Indiana University Press. (JSTOR) link
  6. 1963, Higher Jewish Education: and the Future of the American Jew by Mordecai M. Kaplan (Mordecai Menahem Kaplan), Quote Page 30, University of Judaism Press, Los Angeles, California. (Google Books Snippet Match; this citation and excerpt are tentative and must be verified with hardcopy or scans)