Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon

The New Atlantis is a book in a form that has nearly entirely fallen by the wayside, which is to say the Utopian work. In earlier manifestations of Western Civilization, great thinkers would sit down and write a book about their version of Utopia. Merriam-Webster defines the term as follows:
a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions
Whose ideal perfection? The author's task in a work such as this is to make the case for their Utopia being agreeable to the reader.

One could make the argument that the replacement in popularity with Dystopian works indicates the collective unconscious' resignation to a society in decline. I wouldn't overtly make that claim. I would, however, make the suggestion that a Dystopian work is just the other side of the coin of Utopian works and that the existence of a Dystopia presupposes a standard of ideal from which it deviates. 

Although, there have been modern examples of Utopian works. Aldous Huxley wrote a very good one called Island. If you have access to a large selection of movies through this modern age's vast film resources, I would recommend the 1937 Capra film adaptation of James Hilton's Lost Horizon.

They tend to follow a form out of necessity. In the beginning of the work the author must needs explain how we came to knowledge of this place and why we aren't going there all the time. This usually works out into somewhat of a brief adventure story. (I sailed a wild, wild sea, climbed up a tall, tall mountain, etc.)  The key to exploring the fictional location's virtues is usually whatever reason/philosophy the society has for allowing the outsiders in to explore the fruits of their culture. Sharing wisdom seems to be your entry level Utopian fantasy. This is usually followed with what tends toward part-travelogue of a fictional location, usually with a sage for a tour guide. This is where the writing craft comes in because this could either be terrifically engaging or tremendously boring depending on the author's skill.

Bacon's Utopia, as I understood it, goes something like this:  It's a secluded and exclusive island in which the society revolves around the advancement of human knowledge. This, of course, necessitates the exclusion of the evil outer world, but their thirst for human knowledge also necessitates a corps of intellectual reconnaissance agents who travel abroad checking out inventions and thought. (A major point in Bacon is the pragmatically elegant or beauty in function.)  It's also probably worth mentioning that this is an unfinished work or, at least, unperfected. Written after Bacon's fall from public life, it's likely that he didn't polish it as much as he might have wanted, on account of his dying. 

The island has several rituals described in the text. Family is highly valued (our modern eyes have to allow for the ignorance of earlier stages of naturalism. There is no mention of the generational effects of genetics in a highly closed pool of coupling candidates. It probably didn't even occur to Bacon whereas it's one of the first objections that sprung to my mind.) Celibacy is only broken in cases of extreme monogamy. (If someone felt the irrepressible urge to characterize Bacon as a nerd, I doubt I would expend too much precious energy defending him against that allegation.) There is a large section at the end where an official talks at length about their advances in industry and breakthroughs in the natural sciences. Also, there is financial integrity in the officials (which may be an indication that Bacon learned a lesson in his own life or may be an indication that our understanding of his biography might differ dramatically from what his own interpretation of events would have been) as well as a great culture of generosity. 

I feel I'm not overstating my case when I say that the hibernation of the form of Utopian works is much to the detriment of human civilization. The purpose of the works seems to me to show that we can create whatever kind of world we choose. At present, we, as in America, don't seem to be convinced as a society that we are ascending. We also may be too rapacious and individualistic to seek unity in a vision; a byproduct of an economy based upon the human constant of cupidity. It may be too optimistic and socially responsible for current societal trends in the West, but the function of a Utopian work is an attempt to set up a bellwether toward which a Great Society can aspire. Which is a wise move because otherwise we're kind of just rushing around patching leaks as they arise. A Utopian work is having a plan instead of just having a system in which to put your faith for all situations. Of course, Utopias are most likely objective, but the purpose of great minds at one time all producing their own Utopian vision may help to focus emerging patterns. 

So, your homework and mine:

What would your Utopia look like?

If you want, write a report or a Utopian work.  If you choose to make a diorama, please send photos.

1 comment:

  1. I meant to respond to this sooner. I've been pondering your thoughts about the value of the personal utopia. Quite interesting, really -- not something I'd ever really thought about. I've mostly been on the outside looking at the utopian tendency as something at best a tad silly and at worst something sinister. Really, though, it's a way of discussing values. I think it's something I'll continue to chew on for a while.