The New Atlantis Summary
Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis is essentially a utopian story about an island, called Bensalem, which travelers discover during a voyage to the South Seas (the South Pacific). Though Bacon unfortunately left it unfinished, it is a brilliant joining of a central myth of European thought—that of the lost continent of Atlantis—with a prediction of the future and the technological advances that human society has in large measure created in the nearly 400 years since Bacon's time.
The narrator of the story is a captain whose ship has landed on the unknown island, where an advanced civilization exists. The rulers of Bensalem have deliberately kept their realm a secret from the rest of the world. When they send out voyagers to Europe and other continents, they have these men pose as natives of known countries. In spite of their isolation, Bensalem's inhabitants are Christians, having been contacted twenty years after the death of Jesus by a signal in the heavens like a meteor, which sent to them an ark containing the Old and New Testament. Bacon has the Bensalem leader specify that the ark contained even some of the books of the New Testament as yet unwritten. This is an indication of Bacon's wish to maintain a genuinely historical approach (since, even in the 1600s, it was known that the Gospels were not written until decades after the death of Jesus) along with the miraculous description of the land of his fable.
Bacon alludes to the actual Atlantis of legend and identifies it with America. The governor of Bensalem is aware of Plato's account of the destruction of Atlantis and tells the ship captain that it was destroyed not in an earthquake as "your man" (Plato) describes, but in a flood, from which only a few inhabitants managed to survive, with their civilization destroyed. The New Atlantis, Bensalem, has now become the fantastically advanced culture (and more) that the Atlantis described by Plato had been.
The narrator is eventually given a long description of the scientific advances that have been achieved in this isolated, perfect setting. Much of it reads like a prophesy of what has actually come to pass through technology in our own modern world. There are buildings a half mile high. Advanced medicines and methods of refrigeration (Bacon actually uses that word) have been developed. There are "glasses and means to see small and minute bodies....and observations in urine and blood not otherwise to be seen." (In quotations I have modernized Bacon's spelling and punctuation.) There are means "yet unknown to you [the Europeans and the rest of the "known" world] of producing light, originally, from diverse bodies." They can "represent things near, as from afar off, and things afar off as near, making feigned distances." The catalogue of miraculous inventions goes on and on.
Bacon's story is a prediction of man's ability to advance, to create a better world for himself. It is also based on the primal myth that an advanced civilization has existed in the remote past and been destroyed or re-created in a place unknown to, and hidden from, the world at large. As the writer Loren Eiseley described him, Bacon was clearly a man who "saw through time."
An unidentified narrator, who is a member of a crew of 150 men sailing to China and Japan from Peru, records the events that transpire when their ship is blown off course. After some months at sea, they arrive at the port of a large island in an uncharted part of the South Sea. Eight people from the island approach the ship in a small boat and deliver a scroll whose message is repeated in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Spanish. The ship, the scroll says, can remain in port for sixteen days. It also extends the islanders’ offer to bring whatever supplies are requested and admonishes against landing on the island. Three hours after the supplies are requested, another dignitary approaches the ship and asks if those on board are Christian. Upon an affirmative answer, some of the crew are given...
(The entire section is 1,785 words.)