Fall 2017–Winter 2018

The Deceptions of Utopia

Ruse and rationality in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis

Anthony Grafton

Science entered Utopia in the early sixteenth century, when Thomas More invented that imaginary, ideal country: the Utopians were expert at everything from the traditional disciplines of geometry and astronomy to hatching eggs by incubation. But science did not become Utopia until a little over a hundred years later, when Francis Bacon completed his New Atlantis—a visionary account of a society that inhabited an unknown land in the Pacific.


The central institution of the New Atlantis is Salomon’s House—a society of grave, learned, and courtly men. Its members dedicate themselves to pursuing “the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible”—knowledge as power. To achieve this, they have dug caves, raised towers, and built “perspective-houses,” “sound-houses,” and “engine-houses,” where they develop weapons that can do unimaginable damage and foods that can make men live longer.


Salomon’s House practices a rigorous empiricism, itself made possible by systematic cooperation. Direct study of nature (and of books) yields information. Reflection on this produces “observations and axioms.” Further experiments, carefully planned, yield principles of a higher order. Each of these tasks is carried out by a distinct group of workers, specially trained for its task: Mystery-Men, who collect craft knowledge; Pioneers, who try new experiments; Compilers; Merchants of Light; and more. It all sounds remarkably precise, and ascetic, and modern. No wonder that from the seventeenth-century Royal Society to the twentieth-century Cavendish Laboratory, scientists have looked back to Bacon’s book as a kind of manifesto.


But there is a fly in the ointment, buzzing loudly. Salomon’s House boasts something that sounds more like a carnival fun house than an experimental station: “houses of deceits of the senses; where we represent all manner of feats of juggling, false apparitions, impostures, and illusions.” Bacon rejected magic as superstitious nonsense, and insisted, against the consensus of many of his contemporaries, that most occult ways of knowledge were empty. Why would he add to his dazzling list of workshops designed to provide hard, fact-based knowledge of nature an Exploratorium of juggling and deception?


Bacon himself provides—or seems to provide—a prosaic answer. The passage as I, and many others, have quoted it is incomplete. It ends: “and their fallacies.” As a member of the House explains, Salomon’s men “could in a world of particulars deceive the senses, if we would disguise those things and labour to make them seem more miraculous. But we do hate all impostures, and lies.” The house of deceptions, in other words, is designed not to fool observers but to wise them up: to open visitors’ eyes to the tricks that purveyors of false knowledge—knowledge that affects “strangeness,” as magical recipes and incantations do—play on the gullible. This all seems respectable, even boring.


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