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New Atlantis

by Francis Bacon

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One of the by-products of the Renaissance was a proliferation of utopian visions. The renewed emphasis on man and his abilities resulted in new hopes that men could perfect their government and society in general. Thomas More’s Utopia, Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun, and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis are all widely-read examples of this genre.

Almost by definition, it seems, these utopias include some wacky ideas: More’s recommendation that the engaged couple see each other naked before the wedding comes immediately to mind, as does Plato’s idea that poetry should be banned.

Bacon manages to sidestep some of these absurdities—partially because his vision for the perfect society is not as comprehensive—but he also manages to suggest some absurdities of his own, including his alternative to More’s naked appraisal.

This suggestion and others seem half-hearted, however, because Bacon is not actually interested in a perfect society—he is only interested in the perfect science lab, which he eagerly begins to describe in the guise of “Salomon’s House.” This “house”—really a cross between a lab, a museum, and an academy—occupies much the same place in the utopian society as the brain occupies in the body. When Bacon describes it, he describes it with the same relish that I would describe the perfect trout stream. It is clear that Bacon’s passions are wrapped up in empiricism, and his attitude foreshadows the mindset of men like Charles Darwin, Ivan Pavlov, and B.F. Skinner.

Whether you are as fascinated as Bacon is with his descriptions of caves designed for the “conservations of bodies” or towers designed to view meteors probably depends on whether or not you love science. Regardless, reading Bacon will help your students hear one of the first voices of the coming Enlightenment (despite Bacon’s occasional pious outbursts).

by Jeff Baldwin