New Atlantis: A Fable by Francis Bacon

If you were to purchase a scientific textbook from a book shop today, you would probably be surprised to find a fictional work in its final chapter. To ‘Renaissance Man’ Francis Bacon, however, a utopian fable was the perfect place to explore the fruition of his scientific ideas.

We have numerous copies of Francis Bacon’s works in the library, most of them from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which explore topics as varied as scientific methodology, natural history, philosophy and learning. ‘New Atlantis’ is found at the end of Sylva Sylvarum, or a natural historiae in ten centuries (1639).

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Title page. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK). 

This ‘fable’ describes a voyage from Peru, during which the boat was pushed by winds for many days until the ship ran out of food. The crew’s prayers eventually brought the ship to an unknown land, inhabited and fair. The ship was given a scroll, marked with the sign of the cross, written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin telling them not to land but offering them aid before their departure. After swearing an oath that they were Christian they were finally allowed to land and given shelter.

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Engraving from an eighteenth century travel book. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The island they landed on, known as Bensalem, was cut off after the Great Flood and forgotten by the rest of the world. The king of the island, which was ruled by God’s laws, sent occasional ships out to bring back knowledge from other civilisations. Bensalem was itself run as a society of perfect peace and tranquillity, following Christianity but respecting other religious communities as well. There was an institution on the island called Solomon’s House, which was an establishment for the study of all the disciplines of knowledge, so that invention and knowledge grew and flourished. The scientists of Solomon’s House use the Baconian method to conduct their experiments, as laid down in Bacon’s other works; it could be seen as a vision of a modern research university.

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Engraving of Francis Bacon in ‘Opera Omnia’ (1730). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

It was Thomas More who coined the term ‘utopia’ (literally meaning ‘no place’) in his 1516 book of the same name. This description of a fictional society allows its writer to explore theories of how people could best live and work together. ‘New Atlantis’ is the culmination of Bacon’s ideas and values, with society, science and religion working in perfect harmony.

 

Keith Roe

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