Monday, February 16, 2015

The New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon

Might have been great if he had finished it
The New Atlantis is a utopian novel by English philosopher, scientist, and statesman Sir Francis Bacon. It was originally published in 1627, a year after his death. This short work was left unfinished at the time of Bacon’s passing, which is unfortunate, because just when it’s starting to get good, it comes to a premature halt.

On a voyage from Peru to Asia, a European sailing vessel gets lost in the South Pacific. After running out of food, the passengers and crew have already resigned themselves to their impending death when they unexpectedly stumble upon an unknown body of land. To the great surprise of the Europeans, this large island or small continent is not only inhabited but also exhibits an advanced civilization. After some hesitant greetings and a required quarantine period, the lost travelers are welcomed into this previously undiscovered land, named Bensalem. The newcomers receive periodic visits from the nation’s dignitaries, who impart to them the secrets of its history, customs, and government.

The New Atlantis might very well have been a great utopian novel, had Bacon finished it. In its incomplete form, however, it is unlikely to satisfy enthusiasts of utopian literature. A utopian novel requires not only the presentation and description of a new and unusual domain, but also some insight into the workings of that domain and how its governance, economy, living conditions, or general philosophy are superior to the real world in which we live. If it doesn’t hold up a mirror and make us examine our own society, then it’s not really utopian literature but merely a lost civilization story. The problem with The New Atlantis is that the visitors spend a lot of time asking their hosts questions which don’t really shed light on Bensalem as a utopia. How is it that the inhabitants of this land speak European languages? How can it be that they follow the Christian faith? How is it possible that they are kept abreast of issues in the outside world, yet no one knows that they exist? What is the history of this land? These are all questions that need to be answered upon discovering a lost civilization, but they don’t contribute to Bacon’s utopian vision, and he devotes too many pages to them.

Only about the last 20 percent of the book truly qualifies as utopian literature. Here Bacon really starts delving into the workings of Bensalem society. An intellectual order known as Salomon’s House oversees all matters pertaining to science and reason. Its members supervise the execution of theoretical and experimental science in all manner of disciplines. Bacon provides a laundry list of their varied accomplishments, and in doing so outlines the structure of an institution that looks remarkably like a modern research university. This part of the book is fascinating, and invaluable for its vision of a society devoted to knowledge, education, and reason. Unfortunately it’s way too short, and Bacon only manages to whet the reader’s appetite for his intellectual paradise. The book ends abruptly in mid-thought, presumably at the point where the author met his demise.

If only he had finished this work! As it stands, the book has more to say about the Christian religion than it does about scholarship, which I doubt was Bacon’s intention. Nevertheless, the section on Salomon’s House is still a must-read for anyone who values science, education, and reason. Given that Bacon wrote this almost 400 years ago, his futuristic vision is remarkable.

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