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.

Yet is it? It’s not just the house of deceits of the senses that enchants its visitors with apparent marvels. In the sound-house, for example, the members of Salomon’s House “represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it.” In the perspective-house, they produce “all delusions and deceits of the sight, in figures, magnitudes, motions, colours.” Scruples aside, deception apparently belongs to scientific practice.

And in one central case, it seems possible that the men of Salomon’s House used these techniques, deliberately, to amaze and control their people. Shortly after the birth of Jesus, one of the learned men explains, “a great pillar of light” appeared off their island, “not sharp, but in form of a column, or cylinder, rising from the sea a great way up towards heaven; and on the top of it was seen a large cross of light, more bright and resplendent than the body of the pillar.” When ships sailed up to investigate, they were held motionless. But when a member of Salomon’s House prostrated himself and prayed, the pillar broke up. It left behind an ark, which contained the Bible and a letter of presentation from Bartholomew. Naturally, the islanders converted to Christianity at once.

What was the mysterious pillar of light? Before the investigator approached it, he prayed, describing the apparition as supernatural: “LORD God ... I do here acknowledge and testify before this people, that the thing which we now see before our eyes is thy Finger and a true Miracle.” But was it a miracle? In their perspective-houses, the men of Salomon’s House produce “all colourations of light; all delusions and deceits of the sight, in figures, magnitudes, motions ... all manner of reflexions, refractions, and multiplications of visual beams of objects.” What else was the pillar of fire but a visual image, enlarged and colored? Machiavelli agreed with Livy: the ancient king Numa made the Romans religious by pretending to take dictation from a goddess. Did Bacon imagine that the public-spirited inhabitants of Salomon’s House made their island Christian not by verifying a miracle, but by using their skills to create a “deceit of the senses”?

The New Atlantis is a story about improving on the senses and the body: about learning to see “things near as afar off; and things afar off as near; making feigned distances,” to hear better, taste more sharply, move more quickly and more freely than normal humans can; to swim and to fly. Magicians, in Bacon’s time, claimed that they could make automata. Bacon, by contrast, claimed that he could turn humans into something like cyborgs or replicants. It was only natural—as natural as scientific collaboration—for him to imagine that these new masters of the universe would delight not only in their powers of sense and muscle, but also in their ability to manipulate the masses who lacked them.

Anthony Grafton teaches European history at Princeton University. His most recent book, co-authored with David Bell, is The West: A New History (W. W. Norton, 2018).

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