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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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