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Scientific Utopia in Francis Bacons New Atlantis


Three years ago a Bulgarian talent contest was won by a schoolgirl who knew a great
amount of world capitals even of countries most people didnt know that existed. Among
the participants there were dancers, singers, acrobats, a snake-charmer, a woman who could
repeat sentences backwards and a man who could break a coin with his bare hands. Having
this peculiar company to choose from, the audience, who had the final say, granted this little
girl with a considerably big (not only by local standards) sum of money because she knew a
lot of countries capitals (Yes, there were people who rather naively claimed she knew all of
them, but how could we know?). I couldnt help but wonder why people were so utterly
fascinated by what seemed to be a very well-done homework. One cannot deny that it had
cost her considerable effort but, after all, so did it the Aoidos, the classic Greek singers, to
spread epics like Iliad and Odyssey without a single word written down 1. It was not only my
suggestion that people were /and still are/ used to looking up such things instead of learning
them to such an extent that what this girl did seemed almost a feat. With such a vast amount
of information readily available around them, the paradox occurs that people simply dont
know things because they can check anything any time. They dont consider the very
knowledge important: who invented what doesnt really matter unless they are specifically
asked Now, try to imagine an Elizabethan who lost his life inventing the principles of
refrigeration suddenly realizing that people in the 21 st century not only dont know this fact
but dont feel it to be such a gap in their knowledge because it is just a few clicks away 2.This
poor old chap would be Francis Bacon, of course a man whose ultimate goal was the
knowledge that would extend and establish the empire of man over nature3. His dreams of a
society based on the pursuit of truth through science and experiments inspired a number of his
works, among which New Atlantis. In it he builds the image of the temple of science where
knowledge is the highest virtue which enables men to understand and subdue the natural
world through their inventions.
Now you could imagine how bitterly disappointed Sir Bacon would have been if he
knew the disregard with which people treat all that knowledge already achieved, how they
generously surround themselves with it in every possible form and how scarcely they actually
use it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aoidos (on May 30, 2011).


Just one here: http://www.life123.com/home-garden/home-appliances/inventions/who-inventedrefrigerator.shtml (on May 30, 2011).
3
http://www.bartleby.com/214/1409.html (on May 30, 2011)
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In New Atlantis Bacon constructs the image of a utopian academy based on the
aspiration to knowledge in the name of the peoples welfare. Although this knowledge aims at
understanding the divine order, its principles are deeply religious because they are seen as
fundamental for the society of Bensalem. The island of New Atlantis, hidden away from the
outer world and guarding jealously its secret and achievements, could be seen as a metaphor
for the scientific knowledge in the historical and social context of the time the work was
written.
New Atlantis is a specimen of genre with history starting even before Antiquity - may be
the first is to be found in the ancient description of paradise. Then Plato had his share and
while Thomas Moores Utopia draws heavily on The Republic, the perfect state which
embodies the principle of justice, Francis Bacon uses another of Platos works as a landmark
- the dialogues Timaeus and Critias in which the first reference to the mysterious island of
Atlantis is found. In Platos account Atlantis is a powerful naval force which manages to
conquer many parts of Western Europe and Africa but failed to do so with Athens and sunk
into the ocean "in a single day and night of misfortune" 4. But Bacon presents us with a
different viewpoint to the story: those proud enterprises 5 were punished by the gods with a
great flood. But the people of Bensalem used their masterhood of navigation not for material
gain and conquest but for exploration and gathering of knowledge. It is what makes Bensalem
the new Atlantis they repair the flow which has caused the end of Atlantis, the want for
power, and replace it with the pure desire to have light () of the world 6 and to find the
true nature of all things. This drive to discovery and truth find its most powerful expression
in the temple of cognition, Solomons House, which becomes the centre of a world found on
noble ambitions for knowledge. It seems that the whole narrative prepares us for this
particular achievement of the people of Bensalem not only that it comes at the very end of
the book but it constitutes the most potent of the accounts in the New Atlantis. The reader is
made to anticipate the crown of this utopian society where humanity stands for kindness
and one could easily believe that this is not due to some peculiar processes of semantic
change which took place since the 17th century but because it places people and their welfare
at the top of the value system. People and their harmonious relation are celebrated (a great
part of the narration is dedicated to the Feast of the Family). The utopia culminates in the
image of Solomons House, which rewards the readers patience. As Simon Wortham note
readers and critics are placed in the same boat as the European visitors themselves 7. The
4

Plato. Timaeus and Critias


Bacon, Francis. New Atlantis
6
Bacon, Francis. New Atlantis
7
Wortham, Simon. Censorship and the institution of knowledge in Francis Bacons New Atlantis, 2002.
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mysterious world of Bensalem is revealed bit by bit in front of us along with the travelers
fortune has cast on the island. Particularly important for the whole image of a sanctuary
shrouded in mystery is the very name of the institute. According to the biblical prophecy the
rebuild of the temple of Solomon will put the beginning of a new age of peace, harmony and
prosperity. (Yes, there are interpretations that this would be the Apocalypse but lets stick to
the optimistic version). As a matter of fact, Francis Bacons benefactor King James I was
portrayed as Solomon back in the 17th century.8 This is also in tune with one of Bacons most
influential ideas that of the instauration, the recovery of the long lost natural knowledge.
Whats more, those in the Bensalems academy are presented as interpreters of nature and
their ultimate goal is to understand and subdue nature. Just as Stephen McKnigh notes about
Bacons idea to natural philosophy that restores humanitys dominion over nature.9
However, the biblical references in New Atlantis dont stop with Solomons temple. The
very people of Bensalem bear a significant resemblance to the widely spread idea of the
Hebrew people as the chosen one the Benaslemians are given the perfect conditions which
could make them self-sufficient but still not isolated in the proper sense of the word (still a
ship travels every 12 years in the rest of the world to explore it). To this image also
contributes the image of god who resembles the stern angry father figure of the Old
Testament: it is the divine revenge that has punished the people of Atlantis for their pride
and greed (We should make a point that these are two of the deadly sins). Another thing to
prove the interconnection between the intellectual improvement and the religious faith is the
alternative name of the institute: College of the Six Days Works, which once again points
to the oldest Christian plot of the Creation. These are just few of the numerous references
which serve to build the image of the Bensalems zeal for knowledge as deeply connected to
the Christian faith. Their desire for scientific advancement is pious and humble: when the
father of the Solomons House presents the travelers with the concept of the academy he
points out that It is dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.10
Sarah Hutton remarks that New Atlantis is not so much descriptive or prescriptive work
as it is persuasive11. She sees it as a persuasion to science. This point of view, as debatable as
it is, makes sense having in mind Bacons idea of instauration and his life-long mission of
promoting a system of scientific knowledge based on empirical and inductive principles, the
ultimate goal of such an enterprise being the production of practical knowledge for the benefit
of men, it makes a lot of sense to me personally. We could see the whole project of scientific
8

McKnigh, Stephen. Francis Bacons God, 2005.


McKnigh, Stephen. Francis Bacons God, 2005.
10
Bacon, Francis. New Atlantis.
11
Hutton, Sarah. Persuasion to science: Baconian rhetoric and the New Atlantis, 2002.
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utopia as an intellectual propaganda, using the sophisticated tool of fiction. If we try to look at
the plot constituents a bit more formally, we could find an extended metaphor of knowledge:
what we have is a utopian place which stands for the ultimate truth and knowledge; it is
unattainable for the common people and one who is naturally inclined to seek knowledge is
driven there by fortune or a divine plan (it wouldnt be too hard to try and imagine Bacon
himself as one of the European travelers); already there, he gradually lifts the veil of mystery
over the long desired scientific knowledge which holds the key to the workings of God. And,
who knows, maybe stays there for good.
Bacon did stay there a step too far on the way to the truth. Thats where his
unfortunate experiment put him but gave people the knowledge to make life easier. I think
that if Sir Bacon could know the level of scientific advancement today, it would be his utopia
in reality a world where knowledge is easily accessible; it is all around and waits for the
people to grab it. But do they?

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Bibliography:
1. Bacon, Francis. The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford University Press:
1996. Print.
2. Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Digital.
3. McKnigh, Stephen. Francis Bacons God. The New Atlantis Journal of Technology
& Society, 2005. Digital.
4. Francis Bacons New Atlantis: New Interdisciplinary Essays, ed. Bronwen Price.
Manchester University Press: 2002. Digital: Hutton, Sarah. Persuasion to science:
Baconian rhetoric and the New Atlantis
5. Francis Bacons New Atlantis: New Interdisciplinary Essays, ed. Bronwen Price.
Manchester University Press: 2002. Digital: Wortham, Simon. Censorship and the
institution of knowledge in Francis Bacons New Atlantis
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aoidos (on May 30, 2011).
7. http://www.life123.com/home-garden/home-appliances/inventions/who-inventedrefrigerator.shtml (on May 30, 2011).
8. http://www.bartleby.com/214/1409.html (on May 30, 2011)