Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Cartesian-Baconian Influence on Liturgy

A friend highlighted this Evening Prayer intercession for the Liturgy of the Hours (Thursday of Week IV):

Lord, it is your will that men use their minds to unlock nature’s secrets and master the world, – may the arts and sciences advance your glory and the happiness of all peoples.
Give us light, peace and security, Lord.1, 2

"That men use their minds to unlock nature’s secrets and master the world": For me, this phrase has too many overtones of Decartes and Bacon.

Descartes says his purpose is

[...] to discover a Practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artizans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords [or masters] and possessors of nature. And this is a result to be desired, not only in order to the invention of an infinity of arts, by which we might be enabled to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth, and all its comforts, but also and especially for the preservation of health [...] 3

Francis Bacon reveals his purpose by describing himself as

come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to you service and make her your slave.4

"Master" the world, indeed. Bacon elsewhere advocates vexing nature to reveal her secrets.5

Both Descartes and Bacon justify mastering nature in order to (in Bacon's phrase) "relieve man's estate", which is fine. But as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, “What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

The Latin original of the prayer is revealing:

Qui voluísti ut hómines ingénio suo secréta naturália investigárent ad mundum regéndum, — da ut sciéntia et artes ad glóriam tuam et ómnium felicitátem dirigántur.
Da lucem, pacem et salútem, Dómine.

The phrase of concern "ut hómines ingénio suo secréta naturália investigárent ad mundum regéndum" translates something like "that men should investigate natural secrets with their ingenuity in order to rule the world". As the song says, Everybody wants to rule the world.


1. English and Latin text from iBreviary.

2. It would be interesting to know the origin of this line from the Liturgy. Just from the face of it, I'm doubting it's an inheritance from the preconciliar Liturgy and suspecting it's a Bugnini device. I could be wrong, but from my brief investigations, it appears the intercessions didn't exist before the Council.

3. René Descartes (1596–1650). Discourse on Method. Part VI. (emphasis added)

4. Francis Bacon. "The Masculine Birth of Time" in Benjamin Farrington, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 62.

5. Bacon, Novum Organum, Bk. 1, Aphorism 98.