Analysis of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis
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Humankind can easily be characterized by its fascination with unexplainable phenomenon. Throughout history, all discoveries have been conducted by men who were unable to accept the present explanations for different realities and felt constrained by existing boundaries. Francis Bacon is no stranger to this innate fascination with the unknown and attraction to the elements which lie beyond the confines of human understanding.
This controversial figure of the late 16 and early 17th century in England was credited with instigating the evolution of what is known as modern science today. After being impeached for accepting bribery as one of the highest lawmen for king James I, he concentrated the later parts of his life on the development of natural philosophy. The lawman and philosopher wrote many influential essays, such as “The Great Instauration” and “the New Organon” which explained his approach to a practical and theoretical project to reform the way men study nature. Based on those essays, he composed his only short story, “New Atlantis”, which pictured a perfect world beneficiating from the thorough application of his vision. The New Atlantis is nothing more than the account of a world in which men possess a successful inductive method to study nature. Bensalem can be viewed as a society of happiness dominated by science and monarchy and there is an evident connection between the state of science today and the idea Bacon had in late Renaissance.
The story was published by Rawley after Bacon’s death in 1627 and was supposed to include an account of the political and legal constitution of the Island of Bensalem. A crucial aspect of the story is perhaps the “House of Salomon” which controls the development of science in an effort to enlarge the human empire. At first sight, “New Atlantis” is the mere recollection of the events occurring to Spaniards lost in the Atlantic Ocean while sailing in search for new lands. Lost at sea, they observe a cluster of clouds forming along the horizon, which indicates the proximity of land. Sure enough, they are approached by a richly dressed man navigating a sophisticated boat, which informs them that they have reached the Island of Bensalem.
After a few questions concerning their affairs and catholicity, they are informed that they are invited on the island of Bensalem, where all illnesses will be promptly treated, and any needs sufficed during a period of 16 days. The Spaniards are received in “Strangers house”, an incredibly luxurious and comfortable establishment where sickness is cured in a way unknown to most Europeans in the 17ht century. From then on, The Benselamite “way of life” is revealed to the reader through the narrator, which acts as a token of the typical “European response”. His reaction towards Bensalem is the one any European would have setting foot on the Island. The narrator is an amazed reporter, recounting all the events which bring to light specific characteristics of the utopian society. We discover their religious beliefs, Traditions, values and unavoidably the tedious tasks and hierarchical organization of the pillars of Bensalem; the House of Salomon.
The plot itself is obviously not a token of Bacon’s narrative genius. The story is rather seen as “an attempt by Bacon to popularize the New Science”(Spedding 710). The power of this short story is that it enables us to understand the long term effect of enforcing Bacon’s vision onto our society. The effects of the application of “The New Organon”, which was Bacon’s account of a practical and theoretical project to reform the way men studies nature, are thoroughly discussed through the story of the New Atlantis. In fact, as stated by James Spedding, “The story of the New Atlantis is nothing more than a vision of the practical results which he anticipated from the study of natural history diligently and systematically” (711). Bensalem is not the recollection of an ideal world released from the natural conditions to which ours is subject, but of our own world as it might be made if we did our duty by it. While Bacon’s work mostly consisted of essays, the venue of the short stories permits him not only to use logic by explaining technical terms, but rather his imagination in defining a world in which his theory is applied to its fullest extent. The power of “New Atlantis” lies specifically here. It permits the average European to picture his own world as it might be if it were affected by Bacon’s reform.
Perhaps the most important part of the story is the description of Salomon’s House. The state institution is remarkably well structured, and has permitted a technical development on the Island that is still largely improbable for the European world in the 17th century. Salomon’s house is “dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God” (Bacon 253). Its aim is the enlargement of the human empire through the development of institutionalized Science. The novelty of an institution imagined at that period in history does not lay its instruments, as technical development was beginning to blossom in the late Renaissance, but in the very structure of the intellectual labor conducted by the Brethren.
The inhabitants of Bensalem have a vague idea of Salomon’s house’s functioning, while the rest of the world is unaware that it even exists. As the narrator states, “This happy Island, where we now stood, was known to few, and yet knew of most nations of the world, which we found to be true, considering they had the languages of Europe and knew much of our state and our business”(Bacon 251). The journey of acquiring knowledge from the outside world lies on twelve chosen men from the House of Salomon, known as “merchants of Light”. They travel to foreign countries using fake identities to deepen their knowledge of the natural world and bring back the information in outmost secrecy. Three “depredators” then collect the experiments contained in books from the voyages, while three mystery men collect the experiments relating to “mechanical arts”. Miners or pioneers have the task to conduct new experiments, and compilers draw the experiments into reports containing tables, and to extract axioms which are viewed by Bacon as the optimal way to extend general understanding of the natural world.
The structure of the House of Salomon is a hierarchical one, where highly specialized “natural philosophers” have their area of “legislation” while working together towards a common goal. Such hierarchy was absent in the world of science in the period of Renaissance. According to Matt Noble in Renaissance Sparknotes Study Guide, well versed scientists during Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe and Kepler, worked in the company of few individuals and isolated themselves from the outside world. Yet, the hierarchy Bacon envisioned within Salomon’s house encompasses working with other people. This is now a common denominator within all scientific institutions today.
The House of Salomon contains many specialized departments which forecast Bacon’s idea of endless possibilities for the relationship between man and nature. The brethren of the science institution have made major discoveries in domains such as chemistry, meteorology, medicine, biology, ecology, genetics, agriculture, pharmacology, physics, geology, optics and mechanical engineering. When speaking to the narrator, the member of the house of Salomon states that his house can provide “imitation of natural mines” and produce “new artificial metals” and different solutions for “health and prolongation of life”. It has “furnaces of great diversity”, “in imitation of the sun’s and heavenly bodies’ heats” and possesses “engines for multiplying and enforcing winds to set also on divers’ motions”(Bacon 258-261). Those different areas of study contribute in shaping the reader’s idea on the novelty, importance and advancement of Salomon’s house. They also provide guidance towards developing new areas of studies for readers of the 17th century.
Other intriguing elements of the House of Salomon are the more specific discoveries occurring as a result of following the intrinsic visionary rudiments of Bacon’s doctrine. In the late Renaissance, the natural philosopher already predicts the venue of various marvels. We encounter anabolic steroids; “we have drinks that used make [..] their strength far greater that otherwise it would be”(Bacon 260), submarines; “we have ships and boats for going underwater”(Bacon 261), airplanes; “we imitate the flight of birds”(Bacon 261), genetically modified organisms; “[by art we make] fruits greater and sweeter, and of differing taste, smell, color and figure, from their nature”(Bacon 262), underwater bombs, or “Napalm” bombs, robots and nuclear energy.
Through the New Atlantis, we get to understand the implications of Bacon’s vision for science. The man believes in the practical results of successful inductive and experimental practice, which are extensively represented in the utopian Island of Bensalem. The deeper message Bacon seems to be sending through his Utopia, is perhaps that science transforms life on earth into paradise, gives humankind perfect control over nature and enhances human conditions. Science becomes experimental and intervenes in the natural process of nature to uncover its deepest secrets. People are wealthy, healthy and seem happy. One state officer claims that he has “salary sufficient of the state for his service”(Bacon 242). The food was “better than any collegiate diet known in Europe”(Bacon 244). As for the Spaniards who were sickened by the long voyage at sea, “they mended so kindly and so fast”(Bacon 246).
Science enables life to be so much more viable as human conditions are annihilated from all suffering, unlike those present in Europe at that period of time in history. People fully exploit the fruits of nature instead of being oppressed by its fatal dangers. A control of nature implies eliminating illnesses, natural disasters and any potent source of destruction emanating from nature itself. As a matter of fact, death is never pictured in Bensalem. The Benselamite society seems to be immunized against all physical anguish, aging process and illness. Science has uncovered the sources of those sufferances and permits an optimal corporal well being. For Bacon, happiness lies in the well being of the body. The relationship between men and nature is one of dominance, only to fulfill the body’s needs. Nature is a menace that is to be dominated.
Bacon was not only a philosopher, but also a politician. This quality seems to be crucial in understanding the whole picture of his ambitious project to reform the way men studies nature. As stated by Julian Martin in “The State and the Reform of Natural philosophy”, “Bacon’s legal and political career was crucial in the creation of his natural philosophy and his natural philosophy cannot be separated from his philosophical ambitions”(2). Bacon saw in science and nature the great potential to enhance the powers of the monarchial state which dominated England during the Renaissance period. Science was a way to bring about social stability. This is brilliantly portrayed in The New Atlantis, where corruption is absent and men live in sober piety, gracious courtesy, open handed hospitality, fidelity and chastity, show graceful manners, order and decency.
According to Bacon, a monarchy dominated by science enables these types of behaviors to flourish within the society. Science is an optimal tool for monarchy, as the people become totally dependant on its end products. Since people are ignorant as to the steps to attain the end products, they cannot suffice their needs alone, and rely on the monarchy. While Bacon was genuinely fascinated by nature, he was also passionate about politics. He also developed his natural philosophy because he viewed it as a way to empower monarchy.
Specific elements of “The New Atlantis” do indeed clearly depict the ends to which he devoted his science. The people of Bensalem remain passively in a state of ignorance about natural knowledge. Experiments and discoveries are entirely conducted and evaluated by a minority of men, which debate on their relevance and general usefulness to the people. This definitely leads us to suppose that, as a politician, Bacon believed knowledge to be socially and politically dangerous. In the story we learn that the men from the Salomon rarely visit the city and its people, and that the “brethren choose for them certain inventions or end products of their intellectual knowledge rather than to give out the fertile insights into the causes and secret motions of things”(Martin 3). In a way, Bacon is saying that the state can manipulate the population for its own well being and suppress its sense of oppression in a world that is rigidly controlled. According to the new Atlantis, not only do men need to reform the way they look at nature, but the state must control who gets the chance to study nature in a different way. Only few men must operate the scientific reform – in this case the brethren of Salomon’s House- in order to enable Bacon’s science to successfully serve monarchy. .
In today’s society, we can easily see the vestiges of Bacon’s work. According to Denise Albanese, Bacon’s philosophy is “a defining move in the emergence of modern scientific practice within the late Renaissance period”(8). Critics also agree in saying that the institutionalization of the sciences and their practitioners in the 17th and 18th century owes much to Bacon. In New Atlantis, Bacon stressed the need for corporal well being, and all the machinery present in the House of Salomon acts as a token his foreshadowing of an industrialized society. Materialism, which is an important concept in Bensalem, and industrialization, are omnipresent realities in our current society. Our world today is basically governed by science and technology, and men are driven by materialistic possessions. This has had some good, as predicted by Bacon, as suffering and illness has decreased in comparison to late Renaissance, but it also separated men from nature.
Since nature is viewed as a threat to humankind, domination becomes the only possible relationship between men and nature. While this obsession with domination propelled the Benselamite society into technical advance and corporal well being, much as it does in our society, it also cuts men from an inherent part of living; that of living in the beloved company of nature. For example, the men of the house of Salomon are so concerned with torturing nature to extract its secret, that they can no longer live within its confines and appreciate its beauty. Similarly, our present society contemplates cellular phones and computers more than it appreciates a walk in nature’s kingdom. Nature is an enslaved provider of resources.
This reality is well explained in Rachel Carson’s essay entitled “A Fable for Tomorrow”. Carson thoroughly describes the discoveries of technology and science, such as nuclear fusion and radiation, synthetic chemical compounds, and insecticides to prove that man is using the treasures of nature to better destroy it. Carson states that “the rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature”. In other words, men’s countless interventions on the flow of nature’s mechanisms do not take account of any possible consequences, which could be fatal because the pace of man is too fast for nature’s natural response. Carson foreshadows pandemics, the discontinuation of life and reproduction, and perhaps a complete retreat of nature. While a philosopher of the 16th century predicts great things out of science, and a woman of our contemporary society predicts great dangers for the future as a consequence of science today.
While the reform pictured by Bacon in his utopia shares glaring similarities with the world today, it is also very different in many ways. New Atlantis is a place where science tames nature, but is tamed itself. The few selected men of Salomon’s house rigidly control its applications. The reality we face everyday seems totally different. As science has begun to control the force of nature, it has itself become a wild and untamable force. Science has become a great source of danger, perhaps a more potent source than nature let alone because of the way it is applied onto our society. The Benselamite society doesn’t encounter these difficulties, perhaps because so few men are in control of science and its outcomes.
In our world today, everyone has access to information, discoveries and products. We can learn how to make bombs off the internet. Unlike in “The New Atlantis”, decisions on the relevance of certain discoveries lies on each of us as censorship on science is are barely existent. Business are saying; “hey here’s some chemical for your lawn, which contaminates your soil, dangerously enhances your risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, contributes to acidic rains, but it eliminates dandelions. You can buy it if you want, it’s your choice”. Solomon’s house probably would never even have divulged the existence of such a chemical to its people. This is perhaps the main difference between the world envisioned by Bacon and the realities we face today. The task of the brethren of Salomon’s house lies on everyone.
Bacon’s New Atlantis is a great story that definitely portrays the wishes of a visionary man, filled with optimism and dreams of a better life for future generations. It has been a defining piece of literature in the emergence of modern science. It raises many issues, questions the European society of the 17th century and merely convinces its leaders to embark into the long journey of practical science. Bensalem is pictured as pious land dominated by corporal happiness through the mechanism of the House of Salomon. Bacon was a thinker in the name of monarchy and in the name of science. According to Barry Gower, “Bacon’s science reflected a tradition of natural magic, alchemy and practical medicine which was discarded by many of his successors”(55). While Bacon was lacking some concepts, and some of his ideas were abandoned, he still inspired the perpetual motion of science and technology. He has extended the boundaries of mankind, and permitted other people to see further than he could ever had dreamed.
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