Francis Bacon and Images of Utopia

Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis was published in 1627, and although it was a work of fiction, a fable about a utopia, it proved to be just as influential as Bacon’s philosophical writings—that is to say, very influential. This series of posts is an introduction to Bacon’s Utopian vision by way of a mysterious illustration that I came across some time ago.

As Bacon saw the science of his day, it was dominated by two misguided approaches: the dogmatic blend of Aristotle and Christianity which lacked grounding in experience, and the trial-and-error experimentalism which lacked order and method. Many natural philosphers of the late seventeenth century took Bacon seriously and aimed for a middle course, a methodized approach to experimentation.

Bacon’s methodological ideas are inextricably linked to the Utopianism of the New Atlantis. For there can be no such thing as an ideal method apart from a conception of that method’s goal. For Aristotle, the goal was a life of contemplation, and his method was designed with that aim in mind. For many of the Renaissance experimentalists, the goal was to improve human life in this or that way, e..g., by treating diseases or by turning lead into gold. In Bacon’s mind, these goals, while noble, were too narrow, such that nobody saw the need for anything more than a trial-and-error method.

Bacon’s goal was epic in scope.

The work and aim of human power is to generate and draw a new nature or new natures down onto a given body. But the work and aim of human knowledge is to discover the form of a given nature, or the true difference, or the naturing nature, or the source of emanation. (New Organon II. 1, my translation)

Bacon’s idea that knowledge is power is familiar to many, but the subtlety of Bacon’s point is rarely appreciated. The point is that when we know the true nature of something, we have the utmost power to create that thing. Earlier experimentalists sometimes succeeded in curing a disease or preserving a slab of meat, but their power was limited because it wasn’t based on knowledge of the true nature of things.

Even many of those who disagreed with Bacon about the details of his method were  captivated by the future that he envisioned in The New Atlantis. In the next post in this series, we’ll consider what that future looks like.

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