A society that is never willing to die cannot truly live

[This article originally appeared in the American Postliberal on July 21, 2023]

“We have a water which we call Water of Paradise, being, by that we do to it, made very sovereign for health, and prolongation of life,” writes Francis Bacon in his 1626 unfinished work New Atlantis. The short novella describes a utopian civilization in which both want and illness have been cured, and the citizens, devoid of physical need, flourish. Health and longevity of life is the first priority of the ruling class, and in the long course of human suffering, they have once and for all been achieved.

We are undoubtedly progressing towards the world of Bacon—modern priorities, and the premises upon which society operates, are the same utopian ones that inform Bacon’s liberalism.  

In a recent article by Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the American cardinal claims that health and life, while goods in themselves, must be ordered to something higher—a goal that was especially easy to forget during the throes of COVID. Dolan questions, “Did we do enough? Did we raise the point that spiritual consolation given to patients was as essential as the bodily care?”

Health is a good, but when considered the essential good, neither Christianity nor civil society can flourish. Yet the moral justification for nearly every policy proposal assumes life as the highest good—“Abortion bans put millions of women and girls at risk,” says the United Nations; “Air pollution from burning fossil fuels causes over 50,000 U.S. deaths” annually, claims a study by Yale Climate Connections; “The Science Is Clear: Gun Control Saves Lives,” reads one headline in The Scientific American. Indeed, every moral issue is tied back to saving life in the abstract, instead of promoting its flourishing. The same is true for Bacon, who was looking for eternal life in all the wrong places.

Bacon was among the first to propose a health-centric society—a “scientocracy.” And the world has progressed towards this world since his articulation. Reshaping policy questions in terms more robust than preservation of life is a precondition to forming a good society. For granting life as the highest good (as seen through COVID restrictions limiting access to the sacraments) will eventually pit more robust moral goods against the will of society, and religion will not stand a chance. 

New Atlantis was written in response to an earlier utopian work, in which the term was coined, by St. Thomas More. More’s Utopia provides a succinct explanation of the Christian goal that was subverted by Bacon. Rather than Bacon’s goal of extension of life and assurance of health, More’s fictional society seeks “freedom and culture of the mind,” so as to lead its citizens towards true happiness. More spends time contrasting this utopian society with contemporary Europe’s political scene. Unlike Utopia and New Atlantis, each of which have a clear and unique orienting principle around which the society functions, practice does not align with principle in the real world. More describes sixteenth century Europe as a place where the Christian faithful strive for a substantive vision of justice, but where the rulers pursue only power and wealth: the elites abuse the lower class for their own gain. Both authors seek to provide an alternative vision of governance to this predicament.

More’s solution is to paint the picture of an ideal pagan society. In this, he shows the theoretical functioning of a society that perfectly abides by imperfect principles. This society lacks Christianity, but it functions better than contemporary “Christian” Europe. In doing so, he provides an example for Europe to follow in their amending and perfecting the laws among Christian people.

More’s arrangement is seen most clearly through the conversation towards the beginning of Utopia between Raphael Hythloday, the fictional discoverer of Utopia, and a cardinal who is a British state official. “Most princes apply themselves to the arts of war … instead of the arts of peace,” laments Raphael. He then critiques the British punishment for theft, revealing the structural flaws of the regime: it harshly punishes the criminals it systemically creates. The lords’ greed creates the decision between theft and starvation for a whole class of individuals, yet thieves are punished with death: “This way of punishing thieves goes beyond the call of justice and is not, in any case, for the public good.” The cardinal’s courtiers mock Raphael’s propositions, except when they believe they can gain favor with the cardinal through praising them. 

Yet through this discussion, More reveals the hypocritical Christian practice of the time. The courtiers justify their misdeed through selective scriptural citation. They practice Christianity privately, but it does not influence policy. The governance of Utopia corrects many of the vices of Europe, acting as a means of self-evaluation. 

Raphael first contrasts Utopia and Europe through his description of the Utopians’ punishment. Their punishment’s aim “is to destroy vices and to save men,” as opposed to the cruelty of the British regime. This society also emphasizes the dignity of workers—no one is treated like a “beast of burden.” Health is not disregarded, but life is a means towards achieving higher goods, both for the individual and society. 

This context clarifies the modern perversion of Christianity first expressed by Bacon. For Bacon, knowledge is the “greatest jewel.” The individuals in Solomon’s House—the society of elite scientists who manage the affairs of the nation—choose upon whom to bestow it. The society functions because certain keepers and developers of knowledge eradicate the burdens and scarcity of goods in life. This eliminates the need for conflict and allows man to flourish. Many of the inventions in Solomon’s House are undeniably beneficial to mankind. They mainly pertain to health and life. For instance, drinking the “Water of Paradise” mitigates the greatest evil in their society: death. The Father of Solomon’s House says, “We also have fair and large baths, of several mixtures, for the cure of diseases.”

In many ways, the society tries to undo the effects of the Fall. Death, hard work, and limited knowledge were imposed upon mankind through sin. The society of Bensalem addresses sin by uprooting its effects—they discover the goods that allow man to return to his prelapsarian state and instruct the people how to make use of them. Indeed, the effects of sin are dispelled through human invention—those inventions in Solomon’s House. This circle of men set an ideal, and society strives to attain it. The work of men saves men. Politics is the sole means of man’s salvation, for the effects of sin are dispelled by the arrangements of men: The people are made happy by the scientific working of the elites and the removal of suffering.

Creating a flourishing political community should be upheld as a noble end of politics. The goal of the modern “scientocratic” man is attractive, but men must be careful in embracing it, for it leaves aside the most important aspect of man’s nature. Believing that man can leave behind his own nature in the pursuit of worldly perfection creates a false happiness for mankind, striving towards which will not form man according to his telos. A properly ordered ideal does not remain purely material. Nor does it flee to the opposite extreme, ignoring man’s need to improve material conditions. 

Perhaps surprisingly, More’s articulation of the proper use of political ideals is not foreign to the American political context. A nearly identical formulation was expounded by the nineteenth century American Orestes Brownson. Brownson writes in his 1842 essay “Parker’s Discourse”: “The sensible does not stand opposed to the Ideal, nor the spiritual. Sensibility is as truly a medium through which we rise to God, as through which we attain to nature.” He then clarifies the middle ground that More takes—recognizing both lived reality and a robust notion of human flourishing— “Let no one, then, try to abstract the Ideal from the contingent existence which represents it, and think to make it, thus abstracted, an object of knowledge”; and he continues, “And let no one try to confine himself to mere contingent existence; for unless he recognizes its Ideal, he cannot recognize even it.”

The scientific utopians of today, unconsciously taking their inspiration from Francis Bacon, do not aim too high, but they aim too low. They take an ideal towards which to strive—that of everlasting life on earth—not realizing that there is a better end for man. Shaping policy with physical death as the primary evil and life as the highest good forms citizens according to a false religion. It deforms consciences and wreaks havoc on human flourishing.

Many learned along with Cardinal Dolan during the COVID regime that even if lockdowns and masks increased your chance of living by some small percentage point, they were not always worth adhering to. This knowledge must not leave the public consciousness. The only way to rebuild society in harmony with human nature is a renewed knowledge of the things worth the price of death. A society that is never willing to die will inevitably become a strangled scientocracy, unable to truly live.

W. Joseph DeReuil is a senior studying classics and philosophy. He can be reached at wdereuil@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Thomas More’s Utopia, 1518

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