You are on page 1of 9

Christopher Brown

Early Modern Literature

Dr. David Davies

2 May 2008

Unnaturalness in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis

“Nature is often hidden; sometime overcome; seldom extinguished” (417). So writes

Francis Bacon in his essay, “Of Nature in Men,” doubting man’s ability to overcome his own

nature. Although “custom only doth alter and subdue nature,” “nature will lay buried a great time

and yet revive upon the occasion or temptation” (417-8). Despite efforts to suppress man’s nature

permanently, it will resurface in “privateness,” “passion,” and “new [situations]” (418). Man’s

nature, though it “runs either to herbs or weeds,” runs unstoppably (418).

In this context, Bacon presents his scientific utopia, the New Atlantis.1 This island, called

“Bensalem” (463), is unnatural to the modern traveler; a visitor would be inclined to think “this

land a land of magicians, that sent forth spirits of the air into all parts” (466). Though he would

be corrected and told to regard the island as “angelical rather than magical” (466), instances of

unnaturalness abound, from the actions of the people to the order of the country. The people act

distinctly unlike the people of the world from which the crew comes; they seem to lack typically

human traits, as seen in the complacency and unselfish behavior of the Bensalemites. Throughout

the narrative, the crew cannot find fault with the islanders; the citizens of Bensalem are somehow

free of such natural human inclinations as selfishness or ambition—they seem to need neither

laws nor police. The abnormality the crew encounters in Bensalem demonstrates the unreality of

the island; this difference between the real world and Bensalem explains Bacon’s intent in writ-

1 The text used here is the Oxford World’s Classics edition, edited by Brian Vickers. Francis Bacon: The Major
Works. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2002.
Brown 2

ing the New Atlantis: to demonstrate how a scientific utopia is only possible after silencing natur-

al human passion.2 Through a narrative in which the author does not impart explicit judgment,

Bacon allows the reader to decide which is preferable, utopia or passion, using the crew’s experi-

ence in Bensalem to show the two cannot coexist. If the Bensalemites began to exhibit ordinary

human tendencies, their society would quickly disintegrate into a catastrophic coup because, thus

far, there has been no need for a punitive branch of administration; the country has had no need

to arm themselves against violence, thievery, or other forms of vice.

New Atlantis is a simple narrative of the experience of a ship’s crew that lands on an is-

land run by an organization called the “House of Salomon.” Sorely in need of provisions, their

ship in disrepair, the crew stumbles upon this uncharted island, where they are soon cordially

welcomed. They are brought ashore, shown great hospitality, and their sick are healed. In time, a

few of the crew, including the narrator, are invited into the most intimate settings and introduced

to the secret workings of the island. Various guides speak with the crew, answering the crew’s

questions and relating the history of Bensalem. The narrator, one of the more important officers

of the ship, ultimately speaks directly with one of the administrators of Bensalem, known as a

“Father of the House of Salomon.” Throughout the work, the narrator relates the various remark-

able institutions of the island, noting the unnatural workings of this seemingly utopian society to

2 The majority of literary criticism concerning the New Atlantis seeks to explain, first, the role of city and science
that Bacon advocates through the narrative, and second, the “incompleteness” which results from Bacon’s neglect to
set forth a descriptive outline of the administrative organization, manifest in the abrupt ending of the book. The gen-
eral interpretations of Bacon’s overall motive vary from the opinion that Bacon outlines a plan for a scientific re-
search facility, almost to the other extreme, which this essay pursues—that Bacon wrote the New Atlantis not to
design a utopia, but to show how drastically human nature would need to be altered so that humans could live peace-
ably under the rule of science. This “esoteric” mode of writing is heralded by Jerry Weinberger, to some resistance in
the critical sphere (883). Weinberger holds that “the New Atlantis is the image or pattern of man’s scientific
fortune”—a depiction of science and man’s effects on each other, and not a blueprint for a scientific facility (871).
Instead, Weinberger is able to see that “Bacon gives an account of the new science that is incomplete because of the
dangerous, unmentionable product of the new science” (879). Others, though, regard the New Atlantis as a perfectly
serious plan for a technological age. One such critic, Anthony F. C. Wallace, acknowledges Bacon’s involvement in
the Early Industrial Revolution, but confusedly interprets the New Atlantis as a direct forerunner and proponent of
that movement.
Brown 3

the extent that he is permitted to see them, thus revealing how scientific progress forms the

foundation of this island.3 The narrative is apparently inconclusive; it ends with a farewell gift of

money from the “Father” who speaks with the narrator (488), but relates neither the crew’s de-

parture nor every aspect of the island’s government—as might be expected from a utopian work.4

The amount of trust the natives give to the strange crew serves as the first striking ex-

ample of abnormality. Even when the crew first encounters the islanders, they show little cau-

tion, allowing the crew to land once they vow that they are Christian and that they have not re-

cently injured anyone. As one of the crew, the narrator is able to remark that fear provoked the

answers they give:

And thereupon the man whom I before described stood up, and with a loud voice in

Spanish, asked, ‘Are ye Christian?’ We answered, ‘We were;’ fearing the less, because of

the cross we had seen in the subscription. (459)

Yet, the welcoming band of citizens take their word without doubt. The sailors swear to have

done no violence recently, the oath is recorded in the natives’ register, after which they are

treated almost as brothers (459). They are led to the well-furnished “Stranger’s House” (459), in

3 Most critics view Bacon’s role of science as fulfilling civil needs that previously were solved by theology, philo-
sophy, and civil governments. Despite the appearances of religion in the work, science is the underlying answer to
man’s problems, a better solution than religion. Judah Bierman, for example, interprets the civil structure of Bens-
alem as nothing more than a justification of science’s precedence over traditional civil organization. Similarly, David
Spitz reads the theology of the New Atlantis as leading to the greater, more philosophic science—nothing more than
a foundation from which one achieves higher science.
4 Bacon’s ending, “[The rest was not perfected]” (488), has been the subject of much criticism and research, for it
seems strange to leave a work so blatantly incomplete. Most responses to this detail, though widely varying, claim
that the New Atlantis is actually complete as Bacon has finished it, and that the abrupt ending is intentional and of
great significance. Michael Hattaway, claiming a similar incompleteness in other works by Bacon, interprets the
ending as Bacon’s concession of science’s shortcomings, focusing on this statement by Bacon from another work:
“For the contemplation of God’s creatures and works produceth knowledge; but having regard to God, no perfect
knowledge, but wonder, which is broken knowledge” (Bacon 125). The incompleteness, then, justifies the judgment
of the title of his article, “Limits for Scientific Method”; Hattaway concludes that the New Atlantis is incomplete be-
cause science, especially its integration with theology, is incomplete (Hattaway 183). Many other critics argue that
Bacon indeed completes the plan for utopia and specifically outlines an administration with other works known as
the Great Instauration. Finally, Diskin Clay’s approach to Bacon’s intent resembles the sentiment of this essay; his
explanation of the work’s incompleteness is best summed thus: “Bacon, like Plato, knew that any essay in utopian
political philosophy must remain imperfect and unperfected, since human nature must remain imperfect and unper-
fected” (51).
Brown 4

which they are kept indoors for three days merely due to “custom” (460-1). Though it seems odd

to the crew, the natives show no fear or mistrust of the strangers; they exhibit no hint of “suspi-

cion.” In Bacon’s essay, “On Suspicion,” however, he writes that suspicions “dispose kings to

tyranny, husbands to jealousy, wise men to irresolution and melancholy” (405). Suspicions “are

to be repressed,” but they are natural and, unfortunately, often overwhelming (405). Although

Bacon would have advised the natives’ trust, he would have noted that it is hardly natural.

Continuing their strange reception, upon landing, the crew finds the people of Bensalem

almost entirely unaffected by the notion of newcomers; the citizens are remarkably and unnatur-

ally orderly:

[Our guide] led us through three fair streets; and all the way we went there gathered some

people on both sides standing in a row; but in so civil a fashion, as if it had been not to

wonder at us but to welcome us. (460)

The citizens do not crowd at the windows with peering eyes, though some form small, calm lines

to welcome the visitors. This is strange because the the appearance of visitors is far from com-

monplace; as the narrator later recalls the words of one of the priests, it has been “...these thirty-

seven years; for so long it is since any stranger arrived in this part” (462). Even the children have

been somehow subdued and prevented from exhibiting the excitement and curiosity typical of


The Bensalemites’ constant, unthinking refusal of “bribes” demonstrates their complete

disinterest in personal gain—another unnatural trait that the crew finds bewildering. The crew of-

ten offers small gifts of “pistolets” to reward their hosts, without illicit intent, but they consist-

ently receive the reply, “What? Twice paid!” (458, 459, 461). This imperviousness to bribery—

and, perhaps, oversensitivity to an innocent gesture of thankfulness—is an example of an un-

Brown 5

questioned sense of morality; the narrator speaks only once of dissent among the citizens, and

even in that case it is rectified easily (473). Unfailing honesty, when found in a few, is surprising;

when found in the entire populace of a country, it surpasses the believable.

The narrator’s account of “Adam & Eve’s Pools” demonstrates how the Bensalemites

lack one of the most basic human vices: lust. The citizens use these pools to ensure their future

spouse is healthy: “it is permitted to one of the friends of the man, and another of the friends of

the woman, to see them [separately] bathe naked” (478). The purpose of this practice is to pre-

vent individuals from being tricked into marrying someone with “many hidden defects” (478).

The arrangement assumes an honest friend, who will report back with a truthful account, un-

swayed by human jealousy or selfishness, unaffected by nudity. Considering the natural sexual

predisposition of both men and women, the practice of Adam and Eve’s pools would fail in the

real world, and when it does so, it is no better than the practice from Thomas More’s Utopia on

which it is modeled.

The absence of human selfishness and jealousy ends the need for any outlets or control of

“sinful” behavior. Whereas the typical government is oriented around protecting its citizens and

making them obey basic rules, the nature of the Bensalemites frees the government from having

to protect against vice—the citizens are naturally good. Without that toll on resources, the gov-

ernment is free to further the comfort of its citizens in other ways. As opposed to our govern-

ment, the administration of Bensalem has an entirely different goal: scientific progress. This pro-

gress seems entirely driven by the goal of facilitating procreation and lengthy, pleasurable life.

One of the Fathers of the House of Salomon explains their ultimate objective: “The End [goal] of

our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of

the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (480). This “end” is purely
Brown 6

scientific, and includes no room for diverse culture as Bacon’s society knew it (or as ours knows

it now). Without human passions, there is no need for art, literature, poetry, philosophy, meta-

physics, theology, or politics. There is nothing to be explained or relieved, because science

already forms the logical foundation of every aspect of the island. Lacking these fundamentals,

the only resemblance Bensalem bears to typical society is in their scientific organization and

their religion.

The most curious and revealing aspect of Bensalem is this absence of typical studies.

Their isolation from confrontation with other countries explains the lack of overseas politics—

simply put, such politics are not needed. Their interaction among other countries is limited to “a

trade, not for gold, silver, jewels; nor for silks; nor for spices; nor any other commodity of mat-

ter; but only for God’s first creature, which was Light: to have light (I say) of the growth of all

parts of the world” (472). Besides this somewhat parasitic practice, their foreign policy is non-

existent because they are rarely approached by other countries, and never by anyone more threat-

ening than a distraught crew blown off-course. The aforementioned complacency of the citizens

—their natural tendency to keep the peace—explains the lack of internal politics and police or-


Next, the absence of all creative arts is shocking, but easily understood by observing the

perfection of science in Bensalem. Art and poetry arise, usually, out of a dissatisfaction with the

world or one’s experience—an absurd idea for any Bensalemite. The citizens appear universally

satisfied with their lifestyle, and put all their effort into perfecting science and “effecting all

things possible.” Poetry is usually a reaction to death, war, and illicit (or difficult) love—prob-

lems of which the Bensalemites know nothing. Likewise, philosophy rises out of discontent and
Brown 7

desire to make sense of God, nature, and man, whereas in Bensalem, religion seems undisputed

or peacefully ignored, and both nature and man have been subdued and controlled by science.

Theology is not completely absent; religion plays a prominent but nominal role in Bens-

alem. One of the first impressions the crew has of Bensalem is of a letter adorned with “the sign

of the cross” (458). The first guide to speak extensively with the crew is a priest; he relates the

tale of how Christianity came to Bensalem and the House of Salomon, and then disappears from

the remainder of the narrative; after his fundamental introduction, the crew sees him no more.

Religion, in Bensalem, is a formality, exhibiting remnants of Christianity as Bacon’s time knew

it, but its place in the Bensalemite way of life is marginal. The narrator describes the Father of

the House of Salomon like a priest: he wears rich, almost papal, garments and commands a rev-

erence befitting clergy. Yet, instead of a brotherly, caring attitude, he “had an aspect as if he pit-

ied men” (478). His speech to the narrator features a few religious formalities at the beginning

and the end (480, 488), but these have no bearing or place in the substance of the Father’s

speech. For such an apparently holy person and God-fearing government, religion plays an very

small role. The “Order of Society,” that governs the whole of the island is called both Salomon’s

House and “the College of the Six Days Works,” which shows that their entire attention is fo-

cused on the creation, with no seventh day devoted to the Christian Creator (471). There is the

habit of religion, but no God, because science is already their salvation from sin (of which there

is none in Bensalem).

Instead of concerning themselves with typically human studies, the government of Bens-

alem, and consequently its citizens, focus their attention on furthering the comforts of life.

Without other concerns, the pursuit of science must chiefly drive at propelling propagation and

increasing pleasure. The “Feast of the Family” best exemplifies this overarching focus on human
Brown 8

life. It is a festival that the government hosts for every male who bears thirty children who have

all passed the age of three. For a few days, this patriarch takes up the title “Tirsan,” and begins

the festival by reconciling any disputes within the family and providing relief for any member

who may be poor (473). This is the only mention of hardship in the narrative, and only one para-

graph is allotted to address the issue, which is quickly and easily repaired. The festivities, on the

other hand, consist of much ceremonious feasting in great halls among lavish furnishings, with

the Tirsan gloriously waited upon by his progeny. Bacon allows his narrator to devote extensive

detail and length to these accounts of the feast, spanning four pages (472-5), in order to emphas-

ize the ostentation of the feast and glorification of humanity.

Francis Bacon wrote the New Atlantis to juxtapose human nature and a scientific way of

life. As the unnaturalness identified in the preceding paragraphs demonstrates how the two are

not perfectly compatible, Bacon seems to be predicting how, as science grows in power, man’s

humanity will wither. In the real world, man’s natural vice leads him to rebel against the peace,

however scientifically sound that peace might be. In Bensalem, however, facilitated by a popu-

lace free of vice and other intrinsically human traits, science’s goal is to increase longevity and

encourage reproduction. This, though, only appeals to man’s animal instinct; it ignores the en-

tirety of man’s higher intellect, which is both the source of and solution to vice, a balance that is

inseparable from man as we know him. By ignoring the problems caused by men’s intellect, the

New Atlantis demonstrates how only the absence of all sinful human nature would permit a sci-

entific utopia. Thus Bacon reveals the dichotomy between, on one side, the New Atlantis’ dispas-

sionate, scientific utopia, and on the other side, the arts, philosophy, and politics; the two cannot

be had together.
Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. The Major Works. Ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2002.

Bierman, Judah. “Science and Society in the New Atlantis and Other Renaissance Utopias.”

PMLA 78.5 (December 1963): 492-500. JSTOR. Blakley Library. University of Dallas,

Irving, TX. 12 April 2008.

Clay, Diskin, and Andrea Purvis. Four Island Utopias. Newburyport, MA: Focus P, 1999.

Hattaway, Michael. “Bacon and ‘Knowledge Broken’: Limits for Scientific Method.” Journal of

the History of Ideas 39.2 (April - June 1978): 183-197. JSTOR. Blakley Library. Uni-

versity of Dallas, Irving, TX. 12 April 2008.

Spitz, David. “Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis’: A Reinterpretation.” Midwest Journal of Political Sci-

ence 4.1 (February 1960): 52-61. JSTOR. Blakley Library. University of Dallas, Irving,

TX. 12 April 2008.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Social Context: Bureaucrats, Families, and Heroes in the Early In-

dustrial Revolution, as Foreseen in Bacon’s New Atlantis. Princeton: Princeton U P,


Weinberger, Jerry. “Science and Rule in Bacon’s Utopia: An Introduction to the Reading of the

New Atlantis.” The American Political Science Association 70.3 (September 1976): 865-

885. JSTOR. Blakley Library. University of Dallas, Irving, TX. 12 April 2008.