New Atlantis Essay - Critical Essays

New Atlantis


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.


William Rawley (essay date 1627)

SOURCE: In The Works of Francis Bacon, Vol. V, James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, eds., Brown and Taggard, 1862, p. 348.

[Rawley, Bacon's secretary, published the unfinished New Atlantis in 1627 at the end of the volume containing Bacon's Sylva Sylarum. In the following note to the reader, Rawley states Bacon's purpose in writing the New Atlantis.]

This fable my Lord devised, to the end that he might exhibit therein a model or description of a college instituted for the interpreting of nature and the producing of great and marvellous works for the benefit of men, under the name of Salomon's House, or the College of the Six Days'...

(The entire section is 235 words.)

James Spedding (essay date 1862)

SOURCE: "Preface to The New Atlantis," in The Works of Francis Bacon, Vol. V, James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, eds., Brown and Taggard, 1862, pp. 349-53.

[In the following excerpt, Spedding correllates Bacon's New Atlantis with several of his concurrent works, and describes how Bacon's desire to complete a natural history forestalled the work's completion.]

The New Atlantis seems to have been written in 1624, and, though not finished, to have been intended for publication as it stands. It was published accordingly by Dr. Rawley in 1627, at the end of the volume containing the Sylva Sylvarum; for which place Bacon...

(The entire section is 1418 words.)

Joyce Oramel Hertzler (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: "The Early Modern Utopias," in The Utopiansm of Frances, Bacon's 'New Atlantis,'" in The History of Utopian Thought, The Macmillan Company, 1923, pp. 121-80.

[In the following excerpt, Hertzler examines several Utopian aspects of the New Atlantis and comments on how the nature of Bacon's thinking best applies to social science.]

There was a paucity of Utopian literature for nearly a century following the appearance of More's Utopia. This silence was broken in England by Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, with his ingenious fragment, the New Atlantis. He never finished this work but enough remains to show what the nature of his thinking was,...

(The entire section is 3022 words.)

Moody E. Prior (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Bacon's Man of Science," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XV, No. 3, June, 1949, pp. 348-70.

[In the excerpt below, Prior summarizes Bacon's view of the ideal man of science.]

The dominating motive of Bacon's intellectual life was the complete reformation of learning, and he labored under the conviction that he was, almost single-handed, promoting a revolution in knowledge to the end that man might win a new empire over things. In those of his writings which he regarded as the parts of his grandiose plan, he gave frequent expression to his new conception of the proper goals of human knowledge and proposed new methods by which they were to be attained....

(The entire section is 9547 words.)

A. L. Morton (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Revolution and Counter-Revolution," in The English Utopia, 1952. Reprinted by Seven Seas Publishers, 1968, pp. 78-111.

(The entire section is 2820 words.)

Robert P. Adams (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "The Social Responsibilities of Science in Utopia, New Atlantis and After," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. X, No. 3, June, 1954, pp. 374-98.

[In the following excerpt, Adams looks at the New Atlantis as a "plan for the perfection of science and the advancement of human welfare."]

In what follows I accept [James] Spedding's conclusion that while the New Atlantis is incomplete, it seems intended for publication as it stands, that in it Bacon included "as if already known, the things he most wanted to know," and that most probably "the unfinished portions would have dealth with the method of scientific investigation rather than with...

(The entire section is 1299 words.)

Sidney Warhaft (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Science Against Man in Bacon," in Bucknell Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, March, 1958, pp. 158-73.

[In the excerpt below, Warhaft points out the limitations and dangers implied by Bacon's method for a scientific utopia, arguing that he lacks the "cultivation of the entire person, " as well as "a thorough, energetic, and systematic development of the potentialities of the human as an essentially social and moral being." For these reasons, Warhaft concludes that the New Atlantis' Utopian ends are not necessarily met, and submits that his model may have contributed to the imperfections of contemporary society.]

Somewhere in New Atlantis amid the caves, towers,...

(The entire section is 6024 words.)

A. Wigfall Green (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Scientific Utopia: New Atlantis," in Sir Francis Bacon, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966, pp. 170-78.

[In the following excerpt, Green briefly reviews the probable sources and the content of the New Atlantis.]

The New Atlantis, the most imaginative of Bacon's works, is a "fable"—as Dr. William Rawley referred to it when he published the unfinished work in 1627—intended to be used as a model of a college for the interpretation of nature "and the producing of great and marvellous works for the benefit of men under the name of Salomon's House, or the College of the Six Days' Works." Rawley says in his address to the reader that "the model is more...

(The entire section is 3606 words.)

J. Weinberger (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Science and Rule in Bacon's Utopia: An Introduction to the Reading of the New Atlantis," in The American Political Science Review, Vol. LXX, No. 3, September, 1976, pp. 865-85.

[Here, Weinberger provides a comprehensive overview of the New Atlantis, examining the roots of modernity in order to provide a more complete understanding of the vision behind Bacon's seemingly anomalous, strictly scientific, approach toward the development of a modern utopia.]

Modern Utopian thought springs from the promise of modern science. It is the political expression of the claim of science to relieve man's estate and to enlarge the bounds of human empire. The...

(The entire section is 16764 words.)

J.C. Davis (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Sir Francis Bacon and the Ideal Society," in Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 105-37.

[In the following excerpt, Davis closely examines the structure and content of the New Atlantis with a view to clarifying "the scope and the crucial limitations of Bacon's approach to his ideal society."]

'Ambivalence' has been seen as one of the central characteristics of the social thought of Sir Francis Bacon. He is the 'preemptory royalist' who helped to provide an intellectual basis for 'the English Revolution'; the scientific modernist consigning all past philosophy to oblivion yet...

(The entire section is 12293 words.)

Charles Whitney (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Reading Bacon: The Pathos of Novelty," in Francis Bacon and Modernity, Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 173-204.

[In the excerpt below, Whitney analyzes several aspects of the society described in the New Atlantis, concluding that Bacon's description of the interaction between tradition and discovery within a utopia reflects issues of power and authority in both Bacon's time and the present.]

[F]reudian processes are pertinent to Bacon's New Atlantis, where modern consciousness is symbolized by the island of Bensalem, "a land unknown." The New Atlantis is different. Surprisingly, because it is a fable, this utopia's relationship to reality...

(The entire section is 3062 words.)

Charles C. Whitney (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Merchants of Light: Science As Colonization in the New Atlantis," in Francis Bacon's Legacy of Texts, edited by William A. Sessions, AMS Press, 1990, pp. 255-68.

[Here, Whitney describes how Bacon's narrow focus in the New Atlantis foreshadows the many benefits of inductive science, despite his failure explicitly to address contemporary social problems.]

Surely Robert C. Elliott's remark [in English Literary History 30, 1963] about the diversity of ideological response to Thomas More's land of Utopia could not find a counterpart with respect to Bacon's utopia in the New Atlantis: "Many claim it: Catholics and Protestants,...

(The entire section is 5061 words.)

Denise Albanese (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The New Atlantis and the Uses of Utopia," in ELH, Vol. 57, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 503-28.

[In the following excerpt, Albanese describes several utopian aspects of the New Atlantis.]

In 1608 Bacon prepared a brief for King James to encourage the "plantation" of Ireland. In its course, he draws a comparison between its proposed structure of governance and that designed for Virginia, whose settlement had been fitfully pursued: "The second [proposition] is that your Majesty would make a correspondency between the commission there [in Ireland], and a council of plantation here [in London]. Wherein I warrant myself by the precedent of the like council of...

(The entire section is 8737 words.)

John Michael Archer (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Surveillance and Enlightenment: Toward Bacon's New Atlantis," in Sovereignty and Intelligence: Spying and Court Culture in the English Renaissance, Stanford University Press, 1993, pp. 121-51.

[In the following excerpt, Archer examines the aspect of political power in the New Atlantis, concluding that Bacon's "representation of the sciences of nature implies the unwritten methodology of the sciences of human control within the modern state."]

In the Essays, Bacon had been largely concerned with the constitution of what he calls "a man's self; in the New Atlantis, the production of a new self by means of a reconceptualization of the...

(The entire section is 4770 words.)

Further Reading


Fuller, Jean Overton. Francis Bacon: A Biography. London: East-West Publications, 1981, 384 p.

Chronicles Bacon's life and works from his infancy to his death.

Green, A. Wigfall. Sir Francis Bacon: His Life and Works. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1952, 296 p.

Describes how the "broadened intellectual vision resulting from the Renaissance" affected Bacon's quest for knowledge as a visionary, scientist, statesman, and philosopher.


Achinstein, Sharon. "How To Be a Progressive without Looking Like One:...

(The entire section is 615 words.)