New Atlantis Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

New Atlantis

Sir Francis Bacon

Utopian fiction.

Considered a paradigm of Renaissance scientific and Utopian literature, Bacon's New Atlantis (1624) pioneered new methodological standards by systematizing the process of scientific enquiry and discovery. The work is the foundation of Bacon's reputation as the father of modern science in England and as a herald of the modern scientific and philosophical world-view. Bacon has also been distinguished by scholars and scientists throughout the centuries for his important contributions to politics, law, and literature as well as philosophy and science. Thomas Jefferson characterized him as one of the three greatest men the world had ever known. Though scientists and political theorists today reject many of Bacon's findings, they are indebted to his New Atlantis and other scientific writings for offering a model for modern research and development.

Biographical Information

Bacon apparently intended the New Atlantis as the culmination of his philosophical vision, or "Instauratio Magna" (Great Instauration), a lifelong project that proposed to classify and interpret all knowledge by restoring what the writer saw as humankind's primeval mastery of the natural world. Bacon envisioned the "new Atlantis," Bensalem, as a society governed by the principles of learning entailed by this grand scheme. Bacon's secretary, William Rawley, who edited and published the New Atlantis after Bacon's death, claims that Bacon meant to write a concluding account of Atlantis's laws but was distracted by the composition of his natural histories. Throughout his political career Bacon had attempted to promote his grand scheme. He became a member of the English Parliament in 1584 and held many subsequent positions as a courtier. He wrote many legal and political tracts, and published his philosophical magnum opus Summi Angliae Cancellarii Instauratio magna (Novum Organum) in 1620. Bacon reached his highest point in office when he was appointed Viscount Saint Albans in 1621. That year, however, also marked Bacon's political downfall. Accused of accepting bribes from a client in a lawsuit, Bacon was tried,

convicted, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and fined £40,000 by the House of Lords. Although he in fact paid no fine, remaining in prison only three or four days and receiving a general pardon later that year, Bacon's political career was finished. Furthermore, he was forced to leave office without having gained the respect of either monarch he served so faithfully: neither of the two monarchs under whom he served—Elizabeth and James I—ever seemed interested in Bacon's suggestions concerning statecraft. Nevertheless, he continued working with great energy, publishing the New Atlantis in 1621. In 1623 he published De Dignitate & Augmentis Scientarium, a Latin translation of Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), a work which illustrated the first part of his grand scheme; two years later, the final edition of his Essays (1625) appeared. Less than one year after Bacon's death in 1626, Rawley published his unfinished New Atlantis in the Sylva Sylarum: or A Naturall Historie In Ten Centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

In the New Atlantis a fictitious merchant sea captain recounts his experiences on an island called Bensalem, from which he has returned to describe that enlightened society. A sustained gale propelled his ship for many days until, its provisions exhausted, it entered Bensalem's harbor. The natives' enigmatic welcome—remote yet comforting—was a sign of things to come: at every stage of the crew's apparent assimilation the island society surrounded them with prohibitions and secrets. Visitors to Bensalem are few, and those who have touched its shores have almost never returned to their homes; just thirteen have done so in nineteen hundred years. The attractiveness of the island made the sailors "forget all that was dear" in their own countries, ensuring that they would not return home to spread the news of Bensalem's location and riches. The captain alone was allowed to hear of the most important Bensalemite institution, the research and development laboratories of Salomon's House, though the information he received from a "Father" of the house is a list of wonders rather than a revelation of natural laws. Salomon's House is devoted to the "enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible," including the resuscitation of what might "seem dead in appearance." Its researches focus on discovering the means of making anything into anything else, either materially or by means of illusions that are generated in "perspective houses" and "houses of deceits of the senses." Spy missions to the outside world collect additional information about scientific innovations. The Salomonic priesthood withholds some inventions from the state; those it publishes are made known "without all affectation of strangeness" so as not to "induce admiration" by making their operations "seem more miraculous." Hymns are sung daily, in prayer to God for guidance in new inquiries and applications. The priesthood's extraordinary secrecy, power to alter the world, and ability to alter perceptions of its accomplishments are mitigated—and yet concealed—by its private religiosity and the benevolent appearance of its wonders. The occurrence of miracles is accepted, but these must be certified by the scientific priests. It was a Father of the House of Salomon who interpreted the revelation of Christianity to the Bensalemites when a column of light topped with a cross appeared in the sea near the coast. Unable to approach it nearer than sixty yards, the people were dumbfounded until a representative of Salomon's House, the institution serving as "the very eye" of the kingdom, certified the wonder as a genuine miracle. Without the authoritative word of a member of the pious scientific elect, the Bensalemites would not have been able to distinguish this miracle from an illusion.

Major Themes

Conflict between tradition and innovation is a central theme in Bacon's writings. In his New Atlantis the conundrum presents itself when he develops an empirical method of inductive scientific research and enquiry without abandoning assumptions that today would be considered archaic or occult. Bacon believes that human perception can be reconfigured by implementing a system of "new learning" that merges theology and empiricism. This, he argues, will enable a person to determine "the Knowledge of Causes, and Secrett Motions of Things; And the Enlarging of the bounds of Humane Empire, to the Effecting of all Things possible." Most modern scientists and scientific thinkers hold that Bacon's epistemological focus is incompatible with modern scientific methodology. For Bacon, however—as Bensalem's scientific certification of miracles makes clear—religion justifies, but does not influence, science and affairs of state. He concludes that neither science nor religion alone is sufficient for Bensalem's peace and prosperity, but that properly conducted scientific research is, in fact, consistent with religious propriety and social stability; or, as Judah Bierman explains in her 1963 essay "Science and Society in the New Atlantis and other Renaissance Utopias," "that science will not make atheists and communists of the citizens."

Critical Reception

The effect of Bacon's message—especially as expressed in the New Atlantis—was immediate. His ideas were well-received by many of his contemporaries, especially Ben Jonson, the first (though unofficial) poet laureate of England and a prominent writer of the Elizabethan Age, whose praise influenced seventeenth-century attitudes toward Bacon's scientific works and enhanced his reputation. Detractors, however, considered the New Atlantis to be awkwardly written, enigmatic, and painfully didactic. Bacon's ideas of progress spread quickly, first in England in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, then in Europe, and then throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Shortly after Bacon's death, institutions based on Salomon's House appeared throughout Europe. In 1645 the Invisible College for the discussion of natural philosophy was established, an institution from which the Royal Society of London developed. Modern scientists, however, find Bacon's method flawed in several ways: Bertrand Russell, a twentieth-century British philosopher and mathematician, for example, stated that "Bacon's inductive method is faulty through insufficient emphasis on hypothesis. He hoped that mere orderly arrangement of data would make the right hypothesis obvious, but this is seldom the case…. Usually some hypothesis is a necessary preliminary to the collection of facts, since selection of facts demands some way of determining relevance. Without something of this kind, the mere multiplicity of facts is baffling." Inadequate for the development of natural science, Bacon's philosophy and his deep thirst for knowledge nevertheless faithfully reflect the expansive spirit of the seventeenth century.