Thursday, October 10, 2013

Utopias

Through the medieval period, people seemed to not think much about improving our lot in this life. This is not to say that they didn't think of improving agricultural practices, architectural design, or combat equipment. But the thought of improving human life as such would not have made much sense. Thoughts of a better world, promised by God in the pages of the Scriptures, remained focused on the life to come.

The New Jerusalem of medieval contemplation was replaced in Early Modern Europe by Thomas More's Utopia (1516), and the numerous attempts at improving on his vision. Where the New Jerusalem of medieval contemplation was visited by saints and crusaders, Utopia belongs to the age of daring adventurers like Christopher Columbus or possibly a Robinson Crusoe.

In his Utopia, More painted an image of a highly regimented social order, in which education occupied a place in the daily goings on equivalent to work and play. Utopians needed to understand why they did what they did and why they lived the way they lived--and why it was the best way of life. Not a repudiation of the Christian faith, Utopia attempted to articulate what society might look like if the faithful were as concerned with this life, as they were with the next. Instead of treating the present life as a sort of half-way house, More seems to have had in mind experimenting with the idea that this life had its own intrinsic value. For the image of the New Jerusalem presented at the end of the Book of Revelation, as many generations of Christian scholars would have known, comes down from heaven to rest on this earth.

More experiments with this possibility, but waver in his convictions. But this loss of nerve did not trouble a later generation of visionary thinkers. A spate of new Utopian visions extended More's vision beyond merely educating to include active exploration, experimentation, and other forms of knowledge gathering. Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1602) Johan Andreae's Christianopolis (1619), and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1624), along with a group of less well-known attempts, all placed at the center of their Utopias what, for all intents and purposes, is a collaborative research institution, funded by a central government authority and encyclopedic in scope.

When the Royal Society of London (for Improving Natural Knowledge) was founded in 1660, its founders took as their examplar Solomon's House, which was Francis Bacon's version of the ideal research institution. The founders likely hoped that the Royal Society would be publicly funded, as Solomon's House had been in the New Atlantis. The only royal support the Royal Society received, however, was King Charles II's royal charter.

The next time you step on a university campus, keep in mind that the vision inspiring the idea of a collaborative research institution is that of a holy city come down from heaven. The original ideal of science was of a collaborative enterprise with the end of improving humanity's material condition, not unlike Jesus Christ feeding the hungry and clothing the needy.