Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, History and Philosophy of Science, Literature

Excerpt: The Triumph of Human Empire


Excerpt from The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World

by Rosalind Williams



The phrase human empire comes from a haunting tale by Sir Francis Bacon titled New Atlantis (Latin 1624, English 1627), in which he imagines a storm-tossed European ship lost in the South Seas, “in the midst of the greatest wilderness of waters in the world.” The vessel providentially washes up on an uncharted island, where the ship’s company discovers descendents of survivors of the lost city of Atlantis, a superior race that has established there a great research foundation, Salomon’s House. Most of the fable recounts the “Preparations and Instruments” they use. First, however, Salomon, the “Father of the House” who oversees its activities, explains its purpose in a single sentence:

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.

There is no article “the” before “human empire.” It is not like the Roman Empire or any other territory-based empire that wields power by extracting tribute from the ruled. Human empire is limited in territory to one fantasy island. Its rule comes from command of knowledge and powers that can make “all things possible” in multiple ways regardless of political boundaries.

When the concepts and practices of history arose in Greece of the fifth century BCE, the historical record was defined as the words and deeds of humans, set in the context of much larger, more enduring, more powerful structures and forces of non-human nature. Those actions and words of human beings were small, frail, and brief compared to the non-human stage on which they were performed—but they were special to humans as a species, and marked the separation between them and the rest of creation.

In Salomon’s House, the historical record was defined as the progressive conquest of non-human nature. Rather than being the greater whole in which humanity is embedded, nature was transformed from humanity’s Mother to a problem child. Humans asserted responsibility for knowing and controlling the rest of nature. In today’s language, the historical mission was redefined as turning the earth into “a smarter planet” to better meet our needs and wants.

The turning point in history described in this book—the realistic claim of human civilization as a whole to world domination—has recently been named “the age of the Anthropocene,” meaning “the age of man” and denoting an unprecedented human ability to alter the planet. However realistic this may be as a description of the current relationship between human and natural history, it does little to help us understand the distinctiveness and finer detail of human history. The same sweeping abstraction is true of the terminology of “first nature” being displaced by “second nature.” Again, this may be true, but it is not helpful in understanding in historical time how this displacement happened and how it was perceived as happening. Neither term begins to convey the power politics and violence inherent in the process of enlarging the bounds of human empire.

The language and concepts of ecology, ecosystems, and the earth sciences, as well as of technologies and technological systems, have grown to be and will continue to be indispensable in understanding the material manifestations of these transformations. This book emerges from a humanist’s—more specifically, a historian’s—concern for apprehending and describing the new conditions of human experience. Here I am paraphrasing philosopher and cultural critic Hannah Arendt, whose analysis of the human condition permeates every page of this study. In her book by that title, she asserts that “the earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.” Our relationship with our planetary home involves meaning and purpose as well as material resources. What is it like to live in the self-created circumstances of human empire? How does it work? How does it feel?

Read more about The Triumph of Human Empire here.