Durant 1926: The Utopia of Science (Francis Bacon)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter III, Section 4 (Part 3) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


IV.3 The Utopia of Science

To perfect science so, and then to perfect social order by putting science in control, would itself be utopia enough. Such is the world described for us in Bacon’s brief fragment and last work, The New Atlantis, published two years before his death. Wells thinks it Bacon’s “greatest service. to science” to have drawn for us, even so sketchily, the picture of a society in which at last science has its proper place as the master of things; it was a royal act of imagination by which for three centuries one goal has been held in view by the great army of warriors in the battle of knowledge and invention against ignorance and poverty. Here in these few pages we have the essence and the “form” of Francis Bacon, the law of his being and his life, the secret and continuous aspiration of his soul. 

Bacon’s utopia was to perfect science so, and then to perfect social order by putting science in control.

Plato in the Timaeus had told of the old legend of Atlantis, the sunken continent in the Western seas. Bacon and others identified the new America of Columbus and Cabot with this old Atlantis; the great continent had not sunk after all, but only men’s courage to navigate the sea. Since this old Atlantis was now known, and seemed inhabited by a race vigorous enough, but not quite like the brilliant Utopians of Bacon’s fancy, he conceived of a new Atlantis, an isle in that distant Pacific which only Drake and Magellan had traversed, an isle distant enough from Europe and from knowledge to give generous scope to the Utopian imagination. 

Bacon though of America as the place where his utopia could be fulfilled.

The story begins in the most artfully artless way, like the great tales of Defoe and Swift. “We sailed from Peru (where we had continued for the space of one whole year), for China and Japan by the South Sea.” Came a great calm, in which the ships for weeks lay quietly on the boundless ocean like specks upon a mirror, while, the provisions of the adventurers ebbed away. And then resistless winds drove the vessels pitilessly north and north and north, out of the island-dotted south into an endless wilderness of sea. The rations were reduced, and reduced again, and again reduced; and disease took hold of the crew. At last, when they had resigned themselves to death, they saw, almost unbelieving, a fair island looming up under the sky. On the shore, as their vessel neared it, they saw not savages, but men simply and yet ‘beautifully clothed, clean, and manifestly of developed intelligence. They were permitted to land, but were told that the island government allowed no strangers to remain. Nevertheless, since some of the’ crew were sick, they might all stay till these were well again. 

The story starts with a long sea voyage, when the desperately lost crew suddenly comes upon this fair island inhabited by intelligent people.

During the weeks of convalescence the wanderers unraveled, day by day, the mystery of the New Atlantis; “There reigned in this island about nineteen hundred years ago,” one of the inhabitants tells them, “a King whose memory above all others we most adore. … His name was Solamona, and we esteem him as the Law-giver of our nation. This King had a large heart . … and was wholly bent to make his kingdom and people happy.” “Among the excellent acts of that King one above all hath the preeminence. It was the creation and institution of the Order, or Society, which is called Solomon’s House; the noblest foundation, as we think, that was ever upon the earth; and the lantherne of this kingdom.” 

Nineteen hundred years ago, an institution of the Order, or Society, called Solomon’s House was created.

There follows a description of Solomon’s House, too complicated for a quoted abstract, but eloquent enough to (draw from the hostile Macaulay the judgment that “there is not to be found in any human composition a passage more eminently distinguished by profound and serene wisdom.” Solomon’s House takes the place, in the New Atlantis, of the Houses of Parliament in London; it is the home of the island government. But there are no politicians there, no insolent “elected persons,” no “national palaver,” as Carlyle would say; no parties, caucuses, primaries, conventions, campaigns, buttons, lithographs, editorials, speeches, lies, and elections; the idea of filling public office by such dramatic methods seems never to have entered the heads of these Atlantans. But the road to the heights of scientific repute is open to all, and only those who have traveled the road sit in the councils of the state. It is a government of the people and for the people by the selected best of the people; a government by technicians, architects, astronomers, geologists, biologists, physicians, chemists, economists, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers. Complicated enough; but think of a government without politicians! 

Solomon’s House is the home of the island government; but there are no elected politicians there. only those who have traveled the road to the heights of scientific repute sit in the councils of the state. 

Indeed there is little government at all in the New Atlantis; these governors are engaged rather in controlling nature than in ruling man. “The End of Our Foundation is 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.” This is the key-sentence of the book, and of Francis Bacon. We find the governors engaged in such undignified tasks as studying the stars, arranging to utilize for industry the power of falling water, developing gases for the cure of various ailments, experimenting on animals for surgical knowledge, growing new varieties of plants and animals by cross-breeding, etc. “We imitate the flights of birds; we have some degree of flying in the air. We have ships and boats for going under water.” There is foreign trade, but of an unusual sort; the island produces what it consumes, and consumes what it produces; it does not go to war for foreign markets. “We maintain a trade, not of gold, silver, or jewels, nor for silks, nor for spices, nor for any other commodity or matter; but only for God’s first creature, which was light; to have light of the growth of all parts of the world.” These “Merchants of Light” are members of Solomon’s House who are sent abroad every twelve years to live among foreign peoples of every quarter of the civilized globe; to learn their language and study their sciences and industries and literatures; and to return, at the end of the twelve years, to report their findings to the leaders of Solomon’s House; while their places abroad are taken by a new group of scientific explorers. In this way the best of all the world comes soon to the New Atlantis.

The goal of the government is defined by this key sentence: “The End of Our Foundation is 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.”

Brief as the picture is, we see in it again the outline of every philosopher’s utopia—a people guided in peace and modest plenty by their wisest men. The dream of every thinker is to replace the politician by the scientist; why does it remain only a dream after so many incarnations? Is it because the thinker is too dreamily intellectual to go out into the arena of affairs and build his concept into reality? Is it because the hard ambition of the narrowly acquisitive soul is forever destined to overcome the gentle and scrupulous aspirations of philosophers and saints? Or is it that science is not yet grown to maturity and conscious power?—that only in our day do physicists and chemists and technicians begin tosee that the rising role of science in industry and war gives them a pivotal position in social strategy, and points to the time when their organized strength will persuade the world to call them to leadership? Perhaps science has not yet merited the mastery of the world; and perhaps in a little while it will. 

We see in this picture again the outline of every philosopher’s utopia—a people guided in peace and modest plenty by their wisest men.


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