Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538
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."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 886
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 permission to land. Six members of the crew are brought to the House of Strangers. Those who are sick aboard the ship are given orange-scarlet fruit to resist infection and small whitish-gray pills to help them sleep.
After three days at the House of Strangers, the six visitors meet the Governor of that house. This man, by vocation a priest, welcomes the whole crew to stay for six weeks. Indicating that the island is called Bensalem, he explains that although its existence is relatively unknown, the Bensalemites know about the rest of the world. Offering to answer any questions, he is first queried about the presence of Christianity on Bensalem. According to the Governor, twenty years after the ascension of Christ, a mysterious pillar of light appeared off the east coast of the island. After the pillar was acknowledged as a miracle by a wise man from Salomon’s House, the light disappeared, leaving a small cedar chest floating on the water. Inside the ark were the canonical and apocalyptic books of the Old and New Testaments and a letter from Bartholomew, who committed the ark and its contents to water by command of an angel. Similar to the miracle of the preaching at Pentecost, the books and letter were able to be read by all the people of Bensalem, despite the variety of native languages there.
On the next day, the Governor recounts the history of the island. Three thousand years before, Atlantis (identified as America), Mexico, and Peru were mighty kingdoms, and there was greater navigation throughout the world. Atlantis was destroyed by a flood, and, as a result of wars and other factors, navigation had also declined in other kingdoms. The existence of Bensalem was forgotten. The Governor then describes Salamona, the island’s famous lawgiver of nineteen hundred years before. This king was renowned for establishing Salomon’s House, or the “College of the Six Days Works,” which was “dedicated to the Study of the Works and Creatures of God.” Although visitors to the island were prohibited during his reign and Bensalemites were prevented from visiting other countries, every twelve years six Fellows from Salomon’s House were sent abroad to gather information concerning sciences, arts, and inventions in other countries. A week later, the narrator learns more about the island’s culture from Joabin, a Jew. The Jews of Bensalem descended from another son of Abraham, Nachoran. Unlike Jews elsewhere, they held the Christian Savior in high regard. Joabin, describing the sexual customs in Bensalem, explained there was no polygamy, prostitution, or homosexuality. The spirit of chastity prevailed, and marriage and family were held in highest honor.
Their discussion is interrupted by news of the arrival of one of the Fathers of Salomon’s House. Three days later, the entire crew is admitted into the Father’s presence, but a private conference is granted to one member chosen among themselves, the narrator. The Father then discourses about the area known as Salomon’s House. There were caves, high towers, lakes, orchards, and gardens—all for a variety of experiments and for observation. There were parks with birds and beasts as well as pools of fish, which were used for observation and for scientific purposes. There was a large number of structures and facilities for demonstration of and experimentation with sounds, light, colors, smells, tastes, weather conditions, machines, weapons, foods and beverages, and medicines.
The Father then detailed the variety of offices of the Fellows of Salomon’s House. The Merchants of Light sailed to foreign countries and returned with books, reports, and experiments. Each of the following seven offices had three representatives. Depredators collected experiments from books. Mystery Men collected the experiments in mechanical arts and liberal sciences. Pioneers (Miners) tried the new experiments. Dowry-men (Benefactors) devised useful and practical applications from the experiments. Lamps hypothesized new experiments. Innoculators executed the new experiments devised by the Lamps. Interpreters of Nature translated the discoveries from the experiments into general principles and axioms. All of these men took an oath of secrecy and concealed or revealed their discoveries and inventions, both from the government and from the people, as they saw fit. The Father ends by briefly describing two houses called galleries, one for inventions and one for statues of inventors. The narrator then kneels before the Father—who places his right hand on the narrator’s head and blesses him—and is given permission to publish the account related by the Father.