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The New Atlantis is at once a fable, a work of political philosophy, and a religious text. The god that it preaches on behalf of is the humanistic god of the Enlightenment— with reason, knowledge, science, and progress as its sacred values…

baconThe spirit of the Enlightenment is vividly captured in Francis Bacon’s unfinished fable, The New Atlantis. Bacon offers a vision for a society driven mainly by science and knowledge, with its only driving principle being the bettering of man’s feeble condition. To that end, Bacon redefines science as being concerned solely with “the relief of man’s estate” and not with the pursuit of truth as a good in and of itself. At first glance, Bacon’s scientific humanism, most clearly expressed in The New Atlantis, may seem compatible with the Christian faith. After all, the titular “New Atlantis” itself, Bensalem, is composed of an almost exclusively Christian populace. A magnified venture through Bacon’s utopian narrative suggests a contrary picture. Religion has a role in crafting his perfect society, yet it is an illusory role subordinated to Bacon’s true faith—science. Christianity supplements society with a cohesive structure, but it is mostly a means to the end of scientific advancement. Bacon composes a worldly faith fundamentally hostile to orthodox Christianity by depicting reason as “light,” education as “salvation,” and by emphasizing the earthly utility of Christianity rather than any transcendent power that it possesses.

“Light” in The New Atlantis

The Gospel of John argues for the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ by constantly using powerful imagery equating the Messiah with a supreme light. In this Gospel’s famous prologue, Jesus is depicted as living a perfect life, a life that is “the light of men.”[1] John then casts this light as utterly divine by presenting its victory over all darkness. Jesus himself claims to be the “light of the world,” while Paul presents the Christian life as “light in the Lord.”[2] Light is a thematic element in The New Atlantis as much as the Bible; only it is used to cast reason—not Jesus Christ—as the illuminating factor in the human experience.

The New Atlantis explicitly equates knowledge with messianic light during the unnamed Governor of Bensalem’s account of the city’s founding. The Governor relates to the narrator the fantastic story of Salomon and his creation of the College of Six Days’ Works, what he calls the “noblest institution.”[3] This college, colloquially referred to as “Salomon’s House,” is noble because it is dedicated not to the pursuit of material things, but to spreading “God’s first creature… light,” throughout the world.[4] The Governor had, immediately prior to this, detailed the scientific prowess of Bensalem, leading to no other conclusion but that the term “light” provides a mystical, even religious, connotation to the pursuit and spread of scientific advancement. The New Atlantis further molds knowledge into light when the Father of Salomon’s House reveals himself to the narrator. Included in the Father’s list of employments are “Merchants of Light” as well as “Lamps.”[5] Both professions derive their names from luminescence and are dedicated to empirical knowledge; locating it and understanding it, respectively. Knowledge, therefore, usurps Christ’s divine role as the “light of the world” at the island of Bensalem.

Education as Man’s Salvation

The New Atlantis suggests that the methodical dedication of society to knowledge and education will eradicate all ills from the human condition. Bacon’s famous dictum, “knowledge is power,” perfectly captures this domineering spirit displayed in The New Atlantis.[6] Bensalem is a closed society completely dedicated to knowledge. It does not worry about material want, foreign intrigue, or war. Even disease and death cease to inflame fear on this utopian island. In short, the earthly city of Bensalem possesses every quality of the city of God. The narrator recognizes the almost cosmic significance of Bensalem at the very onset of the story when he proclaims that the island before the sailors’ eyes was “a picture of our salvation in heaven.”[7]

Later in the fable, the Father of Salomon’s House provides the narrator with the “greatest of his jewels”: knowledge of what Bensalem represents for humanity and all that it has done. This lengthy exposition serves to vividly capture the overpowering force of rationalism on man’s once-feeble condition. Salomon’s House, “the noblest foundation” of the society, works through secretive research to provide Bensalem with all conceivable benefits—health, materials, or pleasure.[8] The College’s elaborate design and description obscures its rather simple purpose: the conquer of all natural forces by scientific rationalism. The institution’s very name, “the College of the Six Days Works,” invokes a sense of biblical magnanimity. Just as God worked for six days to create the world, the institution works for six days to begin it anew using science and education.[9] The final sentence in The New Atlantis, delivered by the Father of Salomon’s House, informs the narrator that they stand “in God’s bosom, a land unknown.”[10] The progress of science and technology successfully ushered in a Zion unknown to the heretofore earthly, plebeian nations.

Bensalem’s Religion

The New Atlantis describes Christianity as a useful element within the scientifically-run society of Bensalem. Bacon’s fable suggests that this usefulness stems not from any kind of moral, transcendent values encouraged by the religion. Instead, Bensalem’s “Christianity” serves two major purposes. Firstly, it fosters necessary cohesion which would otherwise be absent in a diverse island whose foundation rests solely on “science.”[11] The pursuit of science as an end in and of itself fails to motivate people thanks to its sterile nature. The rulers of Bensalem opportunistically use Christianity as a ploy whose main benefit derives entirely from its ability to deceive the people into accepting the status quo of scientific paradise.

The guise of religion also provides a way to interact with an otherwise alien world. When the narrator first meets the sailors, they ask his vessel what its religion is. The ambiguous dress of the religious priest contains Christian, Muslim, and Jewish elements.[12] This allows the rulers of Bensalem a measure of religious adaptability—regardless of what faith foreign sailors subscribe to. This suggests that the “Christianity” practiced on Bensalem is hardly the orthodox Christian faith. Instead, it is an elaborate farce maintaining some traditional images and ordinances, yet lacking any substantive belief in Christ’s reign over human history. The goal of this fabrication is clear; Bensalem’s rulers desire that its true god, scientific progress, is concealed to all but the island’s most enlightened residents.

Conclusion

One of the more memorable passages delivered in The New Atlantis involves the conversion of Bensalem to religion. Allegedly, a pillar of light appeared in the sea which delivered unto the people a transcript of the Holy Scriptures.[13] It is later revealed that this was most likely an illusion created by Salomon’s House to impress upon its people the spirit of religion. Such a tale is quintessential of the Enlightenment spirit; indeed, even the so-called “miracles” are subordinate to the natural world. Should man demonstrate complete prowess over nature, almost nothing is impossible. The New Atlantis is at once a fable, a work of political philosophy, and a religious text. The god that it preaches on behalf of is the humanistic god of the Enlightenment—with reason, knowledge, science, and progress as its sacred values. The New Atlantis’ remarkable success at spreading its religion can be found each time a citizen gazes at modernity and its dependence on science to instill a sense of purpose in an otherwise meaningless world.

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Notes:

[1] John 1:1-5 (NKJV).

[2] John 8:12; Eph. 5:8.

[3] Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (Irving, TX: Center for Thomas More Studies, 2003), 19.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 39-40.

[6] Dennis Desroches, Francis Bacon and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge (London: Continuum), 104.

[7] Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (Irving, TX: Center for Thomas More Studies, 2003), 8.

[8] Ibid., 19.

[9] Ibid., 20.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] Ibid., 31.

[12] Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (Irving, TX: Center for Thomas More Studies, 2003), 8.

[13] Ibid., 10.

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3 replies to this post
  1. According to Marshall McLuhan, Bacon’s scientific program was tied up with grammar and dialectics, and with rhetorical theory and practice. As such, he was not with the Okhamist wing of the schoolmen (who produce Calvin and metaphor eradication) but could be categorized with the Patristic Humanists of his era, along with More and Erasmus.

    Perhaps his wish for religious liberty was motivated by the same reason’s that Shakespeare had, religious oppressive Elizabethan England?

    Bacon recommended that anyone pursuing scientific knowledge should read the Book of Nature, a medieval text of unknown origin that tied the pursuit of knowledge with God’s given reason to mankind, and, used scripture as a basis for this pursuit. Isn’t the alternative unwanted fideism that has brought us the irrationality of many Protestant sects?

    Re : Bacon’s grammatica and rhetoric
    “Since the sciences and the arts are closely related and are often stated in almost identical language, a slight shift of theory or terminology may at a point bring an unexpected richness from one art to the threadbare terminology of another. The three customary questions of rhetoric, whether it is, what it is, and what sort, merged readily with the questions of logic and influenced early modern attempts to formulate scientific method.”
    -McKeon

    • Thank you for your comment. Your ideas are quite interesting and I am interested in reading more of Dr. McLuhan’s work on this subject. My first instinct would have been to put him in the tradition of Erasmus rather than Calvin, and I am interested in examining his scholarship due to your comment.

      I do think that the desire for an end to religious turmoil can be pinpointed as the central motivating factor for secularists such as Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke. I do think that they failed to account for the fact that, even in the least religious societies, there could still be a grave threat of violent conflict. Thus, atheistic communism coincided with the first-ever global fear of nuclear annihilation.

      As a confessional Protestant myself, I am not inclined to provide reason with the same place as faith in the life of a Christian, though I do see a very important place for it. The traditional Protestant position is not that faith is hostile to reason as the fideists claim, but that reason can only be a force for spiritual edification after we have come to faith in God’s truth and Word. The Holy Spirit, a divine person operating independent of human rationality, begins His work by regenerating our souls, and afterwards our reason is quite active during the process of sanctification.

      The Scriptures emphatically agree that we can know the existence of God by looking at His creation, but this does not necessarily mean that all people can come to God’s truth through sheer rationality. After all, in Romans 1, one of the major proof texts of natural theology, Paul nonetheless declares that there are many who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” and prefer to worship “the creation rather than the Creator” due to their very irrational sin nature.

      • Hi Koty,

        Thanks for your reply.

        No question that all people cannot come to God’s truth through shear rationality. Rationality has also shown itself useful to brutes.

        Classical culture’s impact on Christianity, specifically the Church Fathers, is a vast and intricate subject. Early Christians did recognize a defective logic in the classical world, the logic of classical naturalism. Their revolt was not from nature; it was from the picture of nature constructed by classical scientia, and to replace it with an adequate cosmology and anthropology, with the basis for such a revision they held to lie in the logos of Christ, conceived as a revelation, not of a new truth, but a very old one. From this came a new basis for a new physics, a new ethic, and above all, a new logic, the logic of human progress. Though early Christians did study the errors of the Greco-Roman intellectual systems found in Plato and others, they greatly admired and used much too, including Philo and Cicero.

        Early Church Fathers also used ideas such as holding to the analogist view of language, neither univocal or equivocal. This allowed one to understand God’s language, an open one versus a closed fist precision.

        This classical tradition was transmitted by monks like Bede and Alcuin that included everything from classic Roman culture: grammar, rhetoric, history, and astronomy. The De Natura Rerum bears this out for its encyclopedic attempt to fulfill the plan of the De Doctrina Chrsitiana: a summary of all that is necessaryto know in order to understand the Bible and explain it to others.

        The works of Bede became the textbooks of the great school of York to which students came from Germany and France. The same books went with Alcuin to the schools of Charlemagne, a continous thread of though from the Church Fathers who, like Bacon held to wisdom acheived by the tools of the trivium with its place for logic and dialectics as mere tools, something Bacon was aware of.

        The only work one may understand of McLuhans without great preparation discussses this history. It was his PHD thesis at Cambridge. His examiner claimed he learned more from this thesis than any other single work he had read.

        It is titled The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time (first publication of McLuhan’s 1942 doctoral dissertation). It isn’t really about Nashe but covers an intellectual history spanning from the time of Varro to Nashe, quite the accomplishment to put that into a few hundred pages.

        God bless.

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