‘Truth Embedded In A Tale’: Stories Of Utopia From Philosophers Of The Early Modern Period

by Manjula Menon

Evolutionary biologists continue to disagree about the extent to which we differ from our primate cousins, chimps, and bonobos, but they do agree that there is something special about the species, Homo sapiens. Skills we thought made us stand apart, like the ability to pass the mirror reflection test or our capacity for language or abstract thought, are all behaviors that we now know other species are capable of. Arguably, what makes the difference is our desire for answers to fundamental questions about the nature of the world we find ourselves in. Or to put it another way, humans are different because we do philosophy.

Before empiricism and the scientific methodology took hold, humans tried to assuage this desire to understand the world with the explanatory power of storytelling. Our ancestors told stories that explained the behavior of flora, fauna and celestial objects, sacred stories that explained how and why the world was formed, and how and why it was going to end. Stories were used as both a methodological device geared towards truth-seeking, as well as the object of truth-seeking, something that is arguably also true of philosophy.

The contemporary philosopher, Timothy Williamson, argues in his 2020 work, Suppose and Tell: The Semantics and Heuristics of Conditionals, that human cognition relies on the use of psychological heuristics for conditional thinking. Indeed, philosophers often try to understand the world by postulating a ‘what if’ scenario featuring a compelling thought-experiment to get to an intuition about how the cosmos, or some aspect of it, works. Such philosophical thought experiments may use counterfactual or counter-to-fact speculation, as in asking, what if A had happened, and not B? If that sounds familiar to science fiction writers, it should. Science fiction, more than any other genre, features stories that explore the way things might be, might become, or might have been. Science fiction is thought experiments writ-large, starring humans, in all our messy glory, or other beings who are necessarily similar or at least intelligible to us, given that they are thought up by human authors.

The dawn of the scientific era, when observational techniques began to challenge prevailing scholastic methods of syllogism and argumentation, was a period of violent upheaval in Europe. Philosophers of the time wrote stories about idealized, faraway lands, where societal conditions were optimal, and the good life was there for the taking. These types of stories are now called ‘Utopian fiction’. This essay will look at three Utopian works of fiction from English philosophers who lived and wrote at a time when science was being birthed and, consanguineously, so was science fiction.

The word ‘Utopia’ comes from the titular nation of Thomas More’s 1516 novel. More, posthumously elevated to sainthood by the Catholic church, was a proponent of ‘humanism’, which in 16th-century London meant using rhetoric to persuade society towards social betterment. The word Utopia comes from the Greek and means ‘a non-existent place that is described in great detail’. While it is unclear whether More was advocating for the Utopia he explored in the novel, the work often reads as a rhetorical exhortation in favor of the described Utopian practices. More, a statesman and lawyer, was executed by Henry VIII for not agreeing that the king’s authority stood over that of the papacy. Given More chose death rather than renounce his adherence to Catholic tenets, one might think that More’s Utopia would describe a Catholic state, but one would be wrong.

More’s novel begins with the narrator, none other than More himself, who one day after church, sees ‘a man well stricken in age, with a black Sunne-burned face, a long beard, and a cloake cast homely about his shoulders’. This person is revealed to be a Portuguese philosopher by the name of Raphael Hythloday, where Hythloday means ‘nonsense’ in Greek and Raphael is the messenger of God, thus, it could be read as ‘Speaker of Nonsense’. Hythloday, who says he is one of the twelve who sailed with the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, declares that ‘To find Citizens ruled by good and wholsome Lawes, that is an exceeding rare & hard thing’. Hythloday proceeds to describe just such a state he encountered during his travels, an island nation called Utopia, one that he favorably contrasts with the Europe of his time. It is possible that More, influenced by vague accounts circulating in England about the cultures of the Aztecs and Incas, had chosen a geographically adjacent setting to provide a sheen of verisimilitude for his island nation of Utopia.

In contrast to the teachings of the Catholic church of which More was an adherent, euthanasia and divorce are legal in Utopia, priests can marry, and women can become priests. Indeed, multiple religions are practiced, with none discriminated against by the state, except perhaps for the practice of atheism, which is merely tolerated. The Utopians only go to war if necessary, and this is contrasted favorably with the European monarchs of the day, who are described as being easily goaded into war if only to enlarge their dominions. Utopians live in clusters of extended families; clusters vote for a leader, and those leaders, in turn, vote for a supreme leader, who assumes the position for life. Women and men are educated in the same way, including being trained for war. While private property is not allowed, slavery is legal, indeed every cluster is assigned a couple of slaves, often prisoners of war or criminals. More presses Hythloday on why he does not take up a position in court as a counselor to a European king, given that with his vast experience and knowledge, he could be of great use to the public in this capacity. Hythloday argues that kings are either so wise they wouldn’t need his counsel, or so unwise that they would not listen to counsel even if he were to provide it. While the words are Hythloday’s, it seems likely that the views are the author’s. Yet, given so many of Utopia’s laws stand in direct contrast to More’s avowed Catholic beliefs, indeed beliefs he chose to die for rather than recant, perhaps More conceived of Utopia as a place that should exist, but cannot, given his understanding of human nature.

Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, said of the Aristotelean system of philosophy that it was ‘only strong for disputations and contentions, but barren of works for the benefit of man’. Bacon’s seminal work Novum Organum argued for a new logic, one that advocated for inductive, rather than deductive, reasoning to advance knowledge and learning, paving the way to modern scientific methodology. One might think that an empiricist like Bacon would not place much of a focus on religion when describing his Utopia, but once again, one would be wrong.

Bacon’s novel, posthumously published first in 1627, and then the Latin version in 1636, was titled New Atlantis, is the story of a ship whose crew, ‘finding ourselves in the midst of the greatest wilderness of waters in the world, without victuals, gave ourselves up as lost men, and prepared for death.’  The crew’s prayers are answered when they catch sight of land and sail into ‘the port of a fair city, not great indeed, but well built, and that gave a pleasant view from the sea.’ An elegantly dressed party, who after asking for and gaining confirmation that the crew members are Christian and not murderers or pirates, offer medical care for any sick among them. The island nation is called Bensalem, a portmanteau that combines the Hebrew word for son, ‘Ben’, with the Hebrew word for peace, ‘Salem’. Bensalem’s well-dressed inhabitants are mainly Christian, but also include a Jewish community, all of whom are deeply cautious about interacting with outsiders. Other than being told that Bensalem has a monarchial system of government, little else is shared about their laws and societal structures.

Once ashore, the importance of family in Bensalem is made clear with a scene that vividly describes a grand feast that the crew attends. The Feast of the Family is funded by the Bensalem state to honor any man with thirty or more living descendants above the age of three. Such feted men are called ‘tirsans’, and as one of them explain, “You shall understand that there is not under heaven, a nation so chaste as this of Bensalem.” Next, the crew become witness to a miraculous column of white light that appears in the sea under a celestial cross, a vision that moves a resident of Bensalem to cry out, ‘thou never workest miracles but to a divine and excellent end, for the laws of nature are thine own laws, and thou exceedest them not but upon good cause.’ 

The story thus proceeds to the raison d’être of the novel as per the prologue: the description of Solomon House. The Father of Solomon House, a man resplendently dressed in silks and velvets, informs the crew about the institution: ‘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.’ The goal of Bacon’s Novum Organum could perhaps be described in the same way.

The Father of Solomon House describes to the visitors a few experiments currently in progress at the institution. The experiments all have firmly pragmatic aims, including the production of new drugs to defeat disease and to aid longevity, engines powerful enough to influence the weather, even new methods to provide nutrition to the body by the absorption of an engineered material dropped directly onto the back of a hand. He describes how sounds and scents can already be manufactured with fantastic precision, as can ultra-fast vehicles and ultra-precise clocks. Instruments of war being manufactured include houses of deceit that can produce realistic apparitions and illusions. 

Far from being instigators of war however, Bensalem motivations for building their powerful war machines are purely defensive. Indeed, they are so cautious that they sharply restrict their interactions with outsiders. The only external trade they engage in is the exchange of ‘light’, where ‘light’ stands for learning and understanding that is arrived at through the design, execution and verification of experiments. This trade in ‘light’ is conducted by twelve ‘merchants of light’ who sail under foreign names to other lands, to gather and return with new light. The imported light is subject to scrupulous scrutiny, till finally three men called ‘lamps’ contrive further experiments that aim to a higher light to penetrate even further into nature. Perhaps this is Bacon trying to evoke Genesis 1:3: ‘Let there be light” with knowledge derived from observational techniques. At the end of New Atlantis, when the sick have mended, the ship has been repaired and stocks replenished, the crew are granted permission to disseminate all they have learned from their visit, thereby becoming perhaps ‘merchants of light’ themselves. The isolationism of New Atlantis are interestingly parallel to the policies that the island nation of Japan had begun implementing in 1624, around the time Bacon was writing New Atlantis

Bacon was raised in a family deeply entrenched in the affairs of the state. His father was Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and his mother, Anne, was the daughter of the tutor to Edward VI. Francis himself eventually became a member of parliament and was deeply involved in the political intrigues of the era, close to both Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex (who led a failed insurrection against the Queen). In New Atlantis, the father of empiricism advocates passionately for a society that is not for the magical but for the angelic, not for superstition but for divinity, not for the ‘commixture of manners’, but for ‘preserving the good which cometh by communicating with strangers’, not for war but for building advanced weaponry.

Finally, consider the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 work, The Blazing-World. Cavendish, like Bacon, was a royalist, but unlike Bacon, backed the wrong side, and lived in exile for over fifteen years as a result. Also like Bacon, she rejected the Aristotelean method of epistemology in favor of the new empirical methods. As the first woman to address the Royal Society of London, she states in her prologue for The Blazing-World that she is specifically targeting a female audience for the work. Indeed, her prologue, addressed to ‘Noble and Worthy’ ladies, reveals that the tripartite structure of the work, which includes both a fantastical and a romantic section tacked on to her original Observation Upon Experimental Philosophy, was in order to better appeal to this audience ‘by reason most Ladies take no delight in Philosophical Arguments’.

The protagonist of the novel is ‘The Lady’, who in the first part of the book is kidnapped by a foreigner who has fallen vehemently in love with her. He races away with her as captive, only to encounter a storm that blows his ship to the north pole, where he, along with his men, perish. Only The Lady survives to discover that the North Pole serves as a gateway to another world, one with a sun of its own, peopled by strangers in the shape of animals and birds, but who walk upright. The Blazing-World, as she learns it is named, is an exceedingly peaceful place. From the bear-men to the fox-men to the geese-men, they all speak the same language, share the same monotheistic religion, and are obedient to the same emperor. The groups, in spite of their sharply different shapes and sizes and colors, live in perfect harmony. When she meets their emperor, he first assumes she is a deity, but when she insists that she is mortal, he professes his love, and asks if she will become his empress. Thereupon, she is given absolute power over the Blazing-World and quickly sets about creating societies dedicated to learning and scholarship, with an emphasis on empirical methods to derive knowledge.

Cavendish and her husband were supporters of the Crown who went into self-exile during the first English civil war, after the royalist faction lost to parliamentarians in favor of a constitutional monarchy. Her version of Utopia features, unsurprisingly perhaps, a strong monarchial form of government. When The Lady questions the inhabitants of the Blazing-World about why, they reply that just as it was natural for one body to have but one head, it was also natural for one political body to have but one governor. Moreover, they declare that the monarchy is a divine form of government, and in direct accordance with their monotheistic belief; just as they unanimously submit to only one God, they likewise unanimously submit with complete obedience to only one monarch. Under this all-powerful head of state are a cadre of eunuchs who work diligently on the ruler’s behalf. Perhaps Cavendish, punished for her support of her monarch, is metaphorically implying that a neutered nobility is what is required for a monarchial system of government to function harmoniously. Cavendish’s Utopia is thus one where harmony is a paramount goal, where empiricism is the gateway to epistemological success, and where all the people submit to one monotheistic religion and to one monarch.

Since the dawn of science, philosophy and science fiction have been natural allies, fellow travelers in humanity’s journey towards greater understanding. Inspired by the nascent scientific method for gaining knowledge, English philosophers of the early modern period wrote ‘truth in a tale’ type of science fiction, works they hoped would cross-pollinate ideas and shape narratives towards greater understanding and a better world.



Manjula Menon once worked as an electrical engineer in Brussels. She therefore regards this piece in Sci Phi Journal as a homecoming of sorts. A list of her other publications can be found at www.manjulamenon.com

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