The New Atlantis and The Great Instauration
by Francis Bacon, ed. Jerry Weinberger
Harlan Davidson, 1989
128 pages, paperback, $7.95
Francis Bacon (1561-1621) is the founding philosopher of modern science. The New Atlantis and The Great Instauration constitute two documents in Bacon’s project of placing science on a more experimental footing; of separating it from either natural or moral philosophy; of imagining it in the center of a new world; an until-then-unprecedented attempt to manipulate nature for the relief of man’s estate.
Although The New Atlantis has probably been more influential, The Great Instauration is a good place to start because it is a pretty straightforward polemic in favor of Bacon’s idea. In his Dedication to King James I of England, whom he served as Chancellor, Bacon hopes that James’s reign would become “famous to posterity” for its “regeneration and restoration of the sciences” under the patronage of the King. He hopes to “instaurate,” that is, to renew or renovate, science, the knowledge and understanding of things. Bacon’s goal is “the collecting and perfecting of a Natural and Experimental History, true and severe (unincumbered with literature and book-learning), such as philosophy may be built upon” so that “philosophy and the sciences may no longer float in air, but rest on the solid foundation of experience of every kind” (p. 6).
Bacon uses the word “philosophy” inclusive of natural philosophy, which is what the ancient philosophers—Aristotle and his disciples—called their inquiries into the nature of the physical world. Today we subdivide these inquiries into categories such as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Metaphysical questions with which philosophers have traditionally concerned themselves—what is the nature of man, for instance, or political questions such as how the best society may be ordered, are outside the reach of Bacon’s project, as first conceived.
It is this seeming modesty, this bashfulness of Bacon, his reluctance to touch the greater mysteries of philosophy and religion, that give a cast of innocence to his project while concealing its audacity. He piously invokes the aid of the Triune God “that remembering the sorrows of mankind and the pilgrimage of this our life wherein we wear out days few and evil, they will vouchsafe through my hands to endow the human family with new mercies.” Thus he subjects himself to God—but not to philosophy or tradition, which he proposes to “[purge] of fancies and vanity” by substituting the light of free inquiry. Yet notwithstanding his lowly posture, he rates his project quite highly: “through my hands,” etc. He sees in his own work something that has not yet ever been done and which might make him, we might say, the greatest benefactor of humanity since Prometheus:
For my own part, at least, in obedience to the everlasting love of truth, I have committed myself . . . [and] have upheld my mind both against the shocks and embattled ranks of opinion, and against my own private and inward hesitations and scruples, and against the fogs and clouds of nature . . . in the hope of providing at last for the present and future generations guidance more faithful and secure. (p. 14)
The means for this transformation is to be the scientific method. In contrast to and in opposition to those who leap from cursory observation to philosophy, Bacon has disciplined himself against the old speculative philosophy based on initial perceptions of nature, and sticks instead to a strict regimen of observation:
I, on the contrary, dwelling purely and constantly among the facts of nature, withdraw my intellect from them no further than may suffice to let the images and rays of natural objects meet in a point, as they do in the sense of vision . . . [and] by these means I suppose that I have established forever a true and lawful marriage between the empirical and the rational faculty, the unkind and ill-starred divorce and separation of which has thrown into confusion all the affairs of the human family. (p. 14-15)
In The New Atlantis, Bacon imagines by means of a frame story a mythical society oriented around an ideal scientific institute. Adrift in the uncharted South Seas, Bacon’s narrator and his ship’s crew happen upon an advanced island civilization unknown to history. It is clearly written not as a realistic fable or even a parable, but, as Bacon’s secretary notes, for the purpose of showing how an institute of scientific knowledge might be constituted. The secretary, W. Rawley, notes that Bacon was to fashion “a frame of Laws, or of the best state or mould of a Commonwealth” (p. 36) but that scientific inquiry took precedence. (Like many of his works, The New Atlantis was left incomplete at Bacon’s death.)
Yet clearly Bacon chose to fabricate this fanciful narrative for good reasons—perhaps to show how a society of his day might adopt his program. He takes great care to Christianize the utterly remote island of “Bensalem,” going so far as to have his guide narrate the divine miracle by which its inhabitants received a copy of the canonical Scriptures, along with an epistle from St. Bartholomew, in about 44 A.D., thus being converted to Christianity. We learn later that the Bensalemites already had knowledge of and contact with the outside world, themselves unknown and undiscovered. The true miracle is the existence of a set of the canonical Scriptures before most of the New Testament could have existed (ten years after the ascension of Christ). Holy St. Bartholomew, Batman! As in scientific inquiry, so in religion the Bensalemites seem to be ahead of the curve.
Similarly, in family life Bensalem surpasses the virtues of Europe. Their guide depicts a harmonious patriarchal society in which fecundity is honored by the state. The ceremony of “Tirsan” honors fathers who can count thirty or more living descendents over the age of three. The narrator reflects that this custom displays much moral and civic virtue.
Bacon narrates the foundation of Bensalem’s scientific institute thus: The greatest of their kings, Solamona, was a wise and just lawgiver who established a policy of self-sufficiency and anonymity, while at the same time sending explorers and investigators throughout the world to learn of the other nations. In this way, all the knowledge of the world was known to Bensalem, though it was itself unknown to the world. Among the treasures of knowledge they collected were books of knowledge belonging to King Solomon of Israel, since lost to the rest of the world. In honor of this king, not the king of Bensalem, the institute of learning was called “Salomon’s House,” in what is possibly a bow to the Christian tradition, or else to the esoteric tradition of which Solomon is supposedly the founder. But consider how similar are the names of the two kings.
This Judaic tradition is impersonated in Joabim, a Jewish merchant, “a wise man, and learned, and of great [political wisdom] and [well versed] in the laws and customs of that nation” (p. 65; substitutions for archaic language are from Weinberger’s notes). This Joabim explains the sexual and marriage customs of Bensalem, which seem to be Christian but without the abuses and infelicities of European marriage customs (i.e., arranged marriages and libertinism). Their moral principle: “That whosoever is unchaste cannot reverence himself;” and “That the reverence of a man’s self is, next religion, the chiefest bridle of all vices” (p. 68). Thus, self-regard enforces chastity. We note with great surprise that in such a virtuous society the chief moral duty of a Bensalemite is to himself. Thus, their morality faces inward and exists without reference to Christianity or an external ethical system. The most distinctive of their marriage customs Joabim explains thus:
I have read in a book of one of your men, of a Feigned Commonwealth, where the married couple are permitted, before they contract, to see one another naked. This they [the citizens of Bensalem] dislike, for they think it a scorn to give a refusal after so familiar knowledge: but because of many hidden defects in men and women’s bodies, they have a more civil way; for they have near every town a couple of pools . . . where 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. (p. 68)
Joabim then introduces the narrator to the Father of Salomon’s House, a priestly figure most highly respected in Bensalem. This worthy explains the system of Salomon’s House. This part contains the outward meaning of the book; my criticism is primarily of the inward meaning hidden in the frame story; however this being the element the story exists to frame, it would be wrong to overlook it. Here are a few extracts from his discourse:
The End 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.
The Father of Salomon’s House delivers an outline of scientific inquiries. Keep in mind that Bacon did not describe a science which already existed, but was working almost entirely from his imagination of what might be:
We also have great and spacious houses, where we imitate and demonstrate meteors; as snow, hail, rain, some artificial rains of bodies and not of water, thunders, lightnings; also generations of bodies in air; as frogs, flies, and divers others. . . .
We also have means to make divers plants rise by mixtures of earths without seeds; and likewise to make divers new plants, differing from the vulgar; and to make one tree or plant turn into another. . . .
. . . all sorts of beasts and birds, which we use not only for view or rareness, but likewise for dissections and trials; that thereby we may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man. . . . We try also all poisons and other medicines upon them, as well of chirugery as physic. . . . We find means to make commixtures and copulations [combinations] of different kinds; which have produced many new kinds, and them not barren . . . Neither do we this by chance, but we know beforehand of what matter and commixture what kind of those creatures will arise. . . .
We imitate also flights of birds; we have some degrees of flying in the air; we have ships and boats for going under water, and brookings of seas . . .
And this we do also: we have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not: and take all an oath of secrecy, for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret: though some of those we do reveal sometimes to the state, and some not. (p. 73-82)
These and a great number of other efforts are supported by a regimented hierarchy of scientists, who carry out a variety of specific duties. But despite this expansive and virtually limitless program for the carrying out of scientific inquiry, I believe the true meaning of this book dwells in the frame story with which Bacon surrounds the Father’s description.
The fact that Bacon founds Bensalem prior to the rise of Christendom, then converts it to Christianity in an anachronistic miracle, while allowing this non-Christian character Joabim to explain Bensalemite marriage customs and later to show that this same Joabim is charged with the entertainment of the Father of Salomon’s House, suggests that the tradition he represents is more central to Bensalem than Christianity, which is by contrast a later and superficial addition to their culture. To quote the editor Weinberger:
All of this suggests that Bensalem, the true destiny of Christianity, is indifferent to the distinction between the old and new covenants, which according to Christian doctrine consists (among other things) in the saving grace of Jesus, whose divine perfection contrasts with the sinful weakness of king David, the very first of the House of David. (p. xxi)
The “sinful weakness” of David is none other than his adultery with Bathsheba, whom he concupiscently desired after seeing her bathe. Bensalem has taken David’s very temptation, (of which King Solomon was the eventual issue) and made it a cornerstone of the commonwealth whose highest moral principle is chastity. Thus Christianity is separated from having any real influence on their moral or scientific life. It is a later aggregation for which the people of Bensalem have little actual need. Weinberger suggests that there is some other guilt unmentioned by the Bensalemites for which they require the propitiation of Christ, but if this be the case, they do not mention it. Its inclusion is perfunctory and for the sake of appearance rather than of necessity. Yet, Weinberger observes, this institution of the pools would not be necessary if the people of Bensalem were by nature perfectly chaste: “It points to the licentious powers of choosiness, the love of one’s own, and the desire for more, which resides at the very heart of Bensalemite ‘goodness’” (p. xxviii). Their ethical system, inward-turning as it is, is governed by license, not virtue. Yet this license, reined in as it is by custom, is nowhere near as free as the unlimited inquiry permitted to the fellows of Salomon’s House.
Consider. The wayward shipmates are first met in the harbor by a Christian priest charged with hospitality to strangers, who explains the religious practice and foreign affairs of the land; however, on the narrator’s journey to the heart of Bensalem, he is companioned first by the Jew, who explains their system of not-quite-Christian ethics; and then by the priest of no particular religion at all, who expounds the institution truly central to their society–not the church, nor the family, but the organized pursuit of knowledge. Bacon has cleverly reversed the traditional order of importance.
So we leave this book with a serious dilemma. Francis Bacon is widely acknowledged to be the founder of modern science. Yet the careful, experimental scientific method which has served to bring such benefit to the human race, as Bacon foresaw, has not prevented that very science from being used to develop instruments of great harm. Scientific developments have often outstripped the ethical and religious developments necessary to deal rightly with the new powers and abilities science bestows upon mankind. Like the concupiscence at the heart of Bensalemite chastity, an unlimited license to pursue progress at any cost supports the boundless inquiries of science, with never a check. Baconian science is a train without brakes. This, then, is a bad book, and its author a wicked man, because in devising a technique for unlimited prosperity, he also doomed humanity to dwell under the threat of unlimited destruction.