Downton Abbey, Francis Bacon, Spiderman, and St. Augustine: Who holds the power of That Thing We Call Science?

Lady Sybil and Lady Grantham
Lady Sybil and Lady Grantham

“I am come in very truth, leading Nature to you with all of her children, to bind her to your service and to make her your slave.” 

Francis Bacon 1884
Francis Bacon, not Lord Grantham

Francis Bacon was a beast of a man.

Standing in the midst of the post-Reformation chaos, aside the growing Copernican revolution, and hearkening the beginnings of the Enlightenment, Bacon spoke of nature as a woman to be conquered.  In The Masculine Birth of Time, where Bacon heralds the oncoming scientific revolution, he writes: “Does it seem to you then that I bear in my hands a subject of instruction which I can risk defiling by any fault in my handling of it, whether springing from pretence or incompetence? …So may I succeed in my only earthly wish, namely to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds.”

In the late 16th and early 17th century, Bacon rejected the metaphysically-laden “naturalist philosophy” of the past and welcomed the dawn of a new era, full of raw empiricism which could unveil the heart of nature and lift up the glory of man.  If you wanted to put a timeline on “that thing we call Science,” it would, in all likelihood, begin with Francis Bacon.  Sure, people have been investigating the universe for thousands of years, attempting to discover how the human body works, building bridges and roads, even plotting the stars…but what we know of “science” today is actually far closer to Baconian philosophy than to the ancient star-gazers and medieval mathematicians.  It’s not as though people before Bacon didn’t try to make the earth a slave, but Bacon, sitting as he did on the heels of the Reformation, the breaking apart of Europe, the rise of the university system, and the beginning of “modernity,” was perfectly poised to change the course of the scientific endeavor.

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SPOILER ALERT.  Honestly, if you haven’t watched last Sunday’s episode and plan to, I beseech you to save this article for later.

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Downton Abbey was a bruiser on Sunday night.  I thought that the limits of the tragic had been reached with Ethel Parks saying goodbye to her child out of the desperation of poverty and prostitution.  But, Sunday night, with Lady Sybil, her baby, the two doctors, and so many arguments…I knew we were headed for disaster.  To be fair, my wife called Sybil’s death first, about halfway through the episode.  I was thinking the child would die, not believing Downton would do away with such a likeable character.  Sheesh.

Now, some have already written on preeclampsia in the 21st century in response to this episode, and while this is interesting and important (especially if you or someone you love will ever bear children), I saw something else in the episode that brought Francis Bacon’s harrowing battle-cry to mind.  This episode was about Science.  Sure, on the surface, the episode was about the drama of Lord Grantham’s wrong-headed and out-of-date belief that a doctor who served the nobility was vastly superior to Downton’s “country doctor.”  His arrogance, coupled with the prestigious doctor’s self-assurance, began a feud between Lord and Lady Grantham that will undoubtedly last for many episodes, having cost the life of their youngest daughter.  But the enjoyment in watching Downton is its ability to layer meaning and drama over and through one another, simply by being quite good at storytelling.

So…how is this episode about Science?  First, let’s begin with Spiderman.

The Cover of Spiderman's First Comic
The Cover of Spiderman’s First Comic

Spiderman could be classified as a contemporary myth surrounding the power and potential of Science wrapped in a rags-to-riches tale of a timid boy who becomes a superhuman hero. In many ways, the tale fulfills Bacon’s cry for the subjection of nature and the divinization of humanity. Spiderman is not from another planet; he is not a billionaire with Morgan Freeman as his technician; he is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and mutates into a human with remarkable spider-like strength and abilities (but without the desire to kill others and exsanguinate them, thankfully…).  Peter Parker, given these powers, must consistently choose to use them in a noble and positive way.  And, of course, he must keep his identity secret….

Inspiring as “with great power comes great responsibility” may seem to be, this tagline is terribly deceptive in its anticipation of the mythic narrative.  Spiderman works, essentially, as a glorified New York City beat-cop, listening to his “spidey sense” and stopping the evil-doers before they hurt someone.  As much as these individual acts of heroism are nice, Spiderman just ends up getting wrangled by some or another super-villain, typically causing more violence in their sparring than other characters did the entire episode.  There really must be a better way to use his physical prowess.  Why not employ the capitalistic system, making millions to then completely give to charity in service of the poor?  Or devote his time to the dangers of unchecked scientific experimentation?  For every spiderman, there must be thousands of mutants who were bitten by these little spiders!

Spiderman’s “great power” is only great in comparison with the everyday human sans-technological improvements.  The power of technology developed by Science exceeds Peter Parker’s limited power by nearly infinite levels of magnitude.  In other words, one might anticipate a more realistic headline for future films: On the next Spiderman, the Hobgoblin gives us developing his own weapons and steals some weapons from the military, leaving Spiderman to rely on webs while Hobgoblin’s heat-seeking stealth weaponry dispatches Spiderman like a thief in the night. The Hobgoblin then moves to Pakistan as a paid military contractor for the United States, assisting in the death of bin Laden and countless others.  Who’s the hero now?

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But technology, much like the iPhone, a Predator Drone, or an assault rifle, is powerless without human interaction.  It is far too easy to think that scientific superheroes, like doctors or nuclear physicists, wield vast amounts of power compared with us everyday humans.  Medical malpractice suits show this in large quantities; the reverence paid to Oppenheimer and Einstein is as much for the destruction of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as it is for the scientific brilliance behind the bomb.  We assign power to “keepers of science” and fail to see how much of this power and responsibility lies in each of us.

The despair of Downton Abbey was not the failure of medical advice: all things being equal, the stress of the moment forced Thomas, Sybil’s husband, to delay bringing her to the hospital for an experimental procedure we now know as the common C-section.  Because of the delay, Sybil died of eclampsia after the baby was born.  Because it was likely preventable in 1920, the story is tragic.  Told in 1820, her death would have been inevitable.  Told in 2013, the story would have had a happy and commonplace ending.  But in 1920, doctors disagreed and the perils of Science came through.  Just when we think we have conquered nature, we realize that we still have so far to go.

The Christian and theological call in the face of Science is one quite opposite the arrogant bravado of Francis Bacon.  Realizing our dominion over nature, we are called to act with justice, charity, hope, and mercy towards that which is within our power. We can legally buy millions of medications that could kill us, our children, or our friends in a heartbeat.  We can purchase weapons of many shapes and sizes.  We can even destroy people online via hurtful words, pictures, bullying, and terrorizing.  The list could continue for years.  Yes, surgeons cut open hearts and brains and stomachs, but the pressure (and paycheck) of their office often outweighs any “extra power” we might perceive.  And yes, predator drones operators push a button and drop the bombs, but how much choice is really theirs in the midst of the military industrial complex in which they live?

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In the end, the danger of That Thing We Call Science could be summed up in an often misused Christian phrase.  Taken from the fourth chapter of Philippians, the phrase “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” has come to epitomize a certain Americanization of the Gospel that blends worldly success and the power of positive thinking with Christian holiness.  I can finish first in this race!  I can get this promotion!  Indeed, the phrase has often transformed into the sentiment, “I can do all things in Science which gives me knowledge!”

On the contrary, Paul’s message surrounding the misused Biblical quote comes after he has just told the early Jesus-followers in Philippi that he has lived in poverty and wealth, being hungry and being filled, suffering and living in luxury.  Currently, Paul notes, he is in much need, and the Philippians have done well to help him, even though, as he states, he can do all things through Christ.  In other words, he can survive no matter the circumstances, no matter how weak he is, given the strength of Christ.

If we think of Science only granting power to a few, we become blind to the inherited power of domination over nature that each of us holds.  We may, in fact, be able to do many, many things via Science, but there will always be circumstances out of our control. There will always be better ways to fix someone’s broken arm; safer ways to deliver a baby; better psychological methods to ease someone’s pain; better ways to quantify how to fix a broken educational system; and more black holes to discover.  The pain of Francis Bacon’s words–beyond their misogynist cover–is their inability to see the vastness of Nature and their pride in thinking we’re just around the corner to a Star Trek-like-perfect society.

The Christian Gospel calls for charity, humility, and hope, despite the circumstances and power provided.  St. Augustine’s famous quip, “Love, and do what you will,” assumes the connection between Love and God’s Love that binds us together in a unified Christian notion of service to the poor and sight to the blind.  While the discoveries of Science may help us serve the poor and give sight to the blind, we must ever realize the power we hold in our wealth, in our science, in our technology…none of which can replace the humble call of the Christian life…which would have much served Lord Grantham and the Wealthy Doctor in their desire to care for Lady Sybil before her untimely death.  I end with Augustine’s call from his homily on the First Letter of John:

Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.

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