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More’s “Utopia” vs. Bacon’s “New Atlantis”

When it comes to utopia as a philosophical genre, one cannot forego the author who gave it its name. While More was far from the only philosopher attempting to envisage perfect society, it was his book that baptized such thought experiments as a proper type of a philosophical treatise in its own right. However, just as the utopian tradition in a broad sense did not start with More, it did not end with his either. Many other authors wrote to articulate their visions of a perfect society, and, among those, Bacon mandates mentioning.

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In The New Atlantis, the natural scientist outlined his ideas of how human beings should organize their lives properly. Both authors approached the same underlying themes, such as the structure of a good society, the role of philosophy, and the nature of progress. While agreeing on the importance of philosophy as a pursuit of knowledge, they disagree on two other points: More views perfect society as stagnant economically and technologically, while Bacon stresses scientific progress at any cost.

More’s Utopia is a society that demonstrates an evident admiration for philosophy. To begin with, one must be aware of More’s use of the term in the text: the author understands “philosophy” in the broadest sense as studying nature in all its manifestations. With this in mind, one may safely conclude that the people of his imagined island as driven by the constant urge to learn. When the newcomers attempt to teach them Greek and Latin, the inhabitants of Utopia prove to be highly capable students able to learn with extraordinary speed.

The islanders are also well-versed in medicine – even though they are all physically robust and healthy, they still find pleasure learning how to heal, if only theoretically. Apart from their learning capabilities, the focus of the Utopians’ attention merits careful consideration. The author mentions that while fascinated with Greek philosophy, they did not find anything of interest in Roman legacy, except for historians and poets. The fact Utopians are not interested in practical and material aspects of Roman civilization, such as engineering or metallurgy, demonstrates that they only seek abstract knowledge rather than the applicable one.

The people’s approach to philosophy is both similar and different in the New Atlantis. Its inhabitants do not merely respect the pursuit of knowledge – one may legitimately state it is their obsession. The entire institution of the House of Solomon serves to further the people’s knowledge of the world around them in every conceivable manner. Understanding nature is the utmost goal for the New Atlantians – it is no coincidence that one of the highest ranks in the House of Solomon is called the Interpreter of Nature.

This pursuit of knowledge is not limited to the country’s borders: the New Atlantis employs an entire fleet of Merchants of Light – agents whose job is to procure books describing advances of knowledge abroad. Yet, the focus on is the studies is different from that of Utopia. The New Atlantians are, first and foremost, interested in experiments, meaning they only value the knowledge that allows them to understand and change the physical world. They have gardens and menageries, but for scientific rather than aesthetic purposes. Thus, unlike the Utopians’ propensity for theory and artistic value, people of the New Atlantis are materialists and seek practical knowledge.

These different attitudes to knowledge correspond to the organization of respective societies, and, in the case of Utopia, social and economic stability is the utmost concern for the islanders. More describes the island’s social structures and economy in detail. According to him, the primary occupation of the island’s inhabitants is agriculture, and all the people in Utopia receive some manner of instruction in it.

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There are evident restrictions on consumption: all people wear the same clothes with slight differences distinguishing married from the unmarried and sexes from each other. There are no lawyers, as the islanders keep the laws and the civil proceedings as simple as possible.

All these examples demonstrate that More purposefully designs his perfect society as stable to the maximum extent. By basing Utopia’s economy on traditional agriculture and regulating behaviors so that the level of consumption would always stay the same, the author aims to devise a closed and fully self-sufficient economy. Social structures mirror the economic ones: the laws should remain simple and understandable for all eternity, meaning that the social relations regulated by them should also remain the same.

As opposed to More, Bacon – or, to be precise, the passage included in the Utopia Reader – does not describe economic or social features in detail but highlights the ultimate values of the New Atlantis. The facts that his imagined society can sustain such a massive instituting as the House of Solomon of that the country’s external trade serves specifically to obtain new knowledge speak for themselves. The New Atlantis is a state where developing knowledge is the highest priority – one would be entirely right to call it a technocracy.

Unlike Utopians, who purposefully limit themselves to agriculture, the New Atlantians demonstrate interests in all types of machinery that may be used to improve people’s lives. In the Utopian society, the pursuit of – purely theoretical – knowledge is merely a form of entertainment, but in the New Atlantis, it is the means to reshape the world actively. This is the main difference between the two visions of society: one is purposefully static, while another one changes and develops, at least in the intellectual sense.

The authors’ different perceptions of knowledge and perfect social organization manifest in their approaches to progress. More’s ideal society denies its very idea, as it is the opposite of the perfect stability which the author seeks to establish in his imaginary island. There is no room for economic growth and technological innovations in production. Since the state regulates demand so that it always stays the same, there is no incentive to introduce new means of production that would allow producing more. Social structures are also rigid, and some professions that emerge in the increasingly complex societies – such as lawyers – are outright forbidden.

This approach, although strange at first sight, makes sense, considering More’s goal as a utopian writer. The whole purpose of the genre is to envisage a perfect society – and if a community is already perfect, there is nothing to change and no need for progress.

Bacon, however, refuses to uphold this principle and makes progress the primary rationale for the existence of his imaginary society. As mentioned above, the New Atlantis is obsessed with knowledge, and this obsession aims consistently at a practical application. The representatives of Bacon’s perfect society are not content with treating knowledge as a mere fancy used for entertainment – they seek to use it for the practical purpose of reshaping the world around them. The idea of stagnancy and stability – at least in terms of knowledge – is entirely foreign to them. In More’s book, the Utopians learn Greek and Latin from the newcomers by pure accident.

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Such a situation would be impossible in the New Atlantis, as the Merchants of Light would soon learn of any useful knowledge from abroad and bring it to their native shores. Therefore, while More is not interested in development, Bacon makes scientific and technological progress the ultimate purpose of an ideal society. Admittedly, his approach may be different with regards to social progress, but the Utopia Reader does not offer enough information to make any definitive judgment in this account.

Since both authors focus on the study of nature, it is logical to apply their ideas to today’s environmental problems. More’s idea of a sustainable society that imposes sensible limits on consumption may seem appealing in this respect. However, maintaining the perfect and unchangeable stability as envisaged by More is hardly possible. Bacon’s approach represents a more sensible way of addressing climate change. Rigorous development of the new technologies reducing humanity’s environmental impact, much in the spirit of the House of Solomon, is a more realistic perspective than returning to traditional agriculture of the 16th century.

As one can see, More’s and Bacon’s ideas of a perfect society have considerable differences in approach to social organization and progress differently, and while both value philosophy, its functions are not identical in their writings. The two authors share at least one common premise: they hold philosophy, which they understand as the knowledge of nature in its entirety, in high esteem. Yet, the Utopians’ interest in philosophy is purely theoretical and even aesthetical, while the inhabitants of the New Atlantis seek knowledge for its practical application.

The authors’ views on the perfect society differ as well: while More stresses stability and sustainability, Bacon advocates a never-ending and active pursuit of knowledge. As a result, the two philosophers disagree on progress as well. While More views it as unnecessary, since a perfect society does not need changes and only has to maintain its perfection, Bacon supports development – at least scientific and technological one – wholeheartedly.

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