New Atlantis – Bacon

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The New Atlantis was written in 1624. Living in political disgrace in bad health, Bacon left it a fragment. It is a utopia, though it is very little indebted to the previous utopias. Plato’s Republic has a political and ethical system, and More’s utopia is an economic satire. Bacon’s utopia deals with none of these problems. Bacon’s contemporary, Campanella, published his The City of the Sun in 1620. This utopia is closer to Bacon’s. Both attack the Aristotlean method and prefer the experimental method in science. In both, the experimental scientists are given a very high and important position.

Bacon employs the form of a fable to express his philosophy of life. The ship sails in the wide seas and reaches the coast of Bensalem. The customs and manners of Bensalem have something to say about Bacon’s convictions regarding humanity:

“In sober piety, the serious cheerfulness, the tender and gracious courtesy, the open-minded hospitality, the fidelity in public and chastity in private life, the grave and graceful manners, the order, decency, and earnest industry, which prevail among these people, we recognize and image of himself made perfect.”

These features and qualities are visible even in the social institutions of Bensalem.

The core of the book deals with Solomon’s House. The description of this house is an expression of Bacon’s own vision of the future. The beginnings of experimental science in the 17th century led him to believe that the future of man lay in the rapid extension of practical scientific knowledge. He advocates experimental research. The New Atlantis thus becomes, in the words of Osborne:

“An expression of the hopes and ideal of a great man and also the most representative production of that age which saw the birth of the modern scientific spirit.”

Solomon’s House of Bensalem was “dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.” Bacon’s philosophy of science is expressed here. The pursuit of science here is “for the benefit of man.” The dream was partly realized by the founding of the Royal Society during the reign of Charles II.

Bacon’s utopia lacks the romantic glamour of the dreams of Plato and More. The expression of a utilitarian ideal is hardly fitted to the romantic atmosphere. The continent of Atlantis, which was presumed to have been submerged in the ocean, gave rise to the creation of New Atlantis. But it is a creation based on certain religious and ethical ideals and directed towards the realization of scientific ends.

Bacon’s thought: Bacon is a protestant Englishman who has combined in himself the spirit of Elizabethan England with that of the Jacobian times. He expresses the thoughts that “come home to men’s bosoms and business.” These thoughts cover the practical life and also the life of affections and emotions. The man of business believes in history; and the ideals he would cherish must be those that can be relished easily. That is Bacon’s primary concern is with the man of action, with the problem of getting-on in the world. But he does not preach mere self-love. Pure self-love, he admits, is the “wisdom of rats that will leave a house before it falls;” it is “the wisdom of a fox that thrusts the badger, who digged and made room for him;” or it is “the wisdom of crocodiles that shed tears when they would devour.” In public service one should be true to oneself and true also to the State.

In his Essays Bacon gives a very prominent place to expediency and prudence. Many essays are intended to advise the king, not the common man; and they are full of pieces of advice regarding territorial expansion, increase of revenue and militarism. This aspect is quietly ignored in the New Atlantis.

Aristotle preferred the life of contemplation; and Bacon is more vocal about the life of action. He pleads for a broad agreement, not for uniformity, in religious matters. He accepts religion on faith; and all other domains of human thought and endeavour are to be controlled by reason. In his ideas on ethics, he is not an idealist. He is not worried about what one ought to do. Any action is to be judged from the standpoint of advantage to the State. Thus, Bacon is both a utilitarian and a pragmatist. It is the result or consequence that would determine the rightness of an action.

Bacon heralded the new age. The renascence looked to the past and he enthusiastically looked forward to the emergence of a new epoch in the history of the human race. In Plato’s cave the people turn their attention to the shadows; and Bacon wanted the cave-dwellers to look at the light of science and philosophy. He directed man to a path that was to make him powerful. As it was observed, “he moveth the intellects that moved the world.” He himself stated, “I have only taken upon me to ring a bell to call other wits together;” “I have been content to tune the instruments of the muses that they may play that have better hands.” What Aristotle was to the schoolmen, Bacon is to all the experimental scientists.

Bacon’s Philosophy of Science: The immediate task of Bacon was to demolish the existing system of thought called scholasticism. This school held that the truth had already been attained, and that it was expressed in the scripture in the decrees of the Church Councils. The deductive logic of Aristotle helped them in systemizing these truths. This logic deduces a particular conclusion from a general or universal statement which is presumed to be correct. In such a view, there is no progress of knowledge, and experience cannot give rise to any new truth. Authority and tradition dominated the outlook of these medieval thinkers. Bacon felt rightly that this scholasticism gave rise to “cobwebs of learning, admirable for their fineness of thread and work but of no substance or profit.”

Bacon’ endeavour was to establish an effective and valuable relation between thought and actual experience. This is not possible so long as people believed in truth supported by time and tradition. So he started demolishing the idols including the fallacy embodied in the judgement of time. Referring to his own period he remarked, “these times are the ancient times, when the world is ancient, and not those which we account ancient by a computation backwards from ourselves.” From this it follows that “the wisdom which we have derived principally from the Greeks is but like the boyhood of knowledge and has the characteristic property of boys: it can talk, but it cannot generate; for it is fruitful of controversies but barren of works.” The emphasis is on utility, on an infallible method which can interpret nature and bring nature into the service of man. That is what the inhabitants of Solomon’s House do. Knowledge is to be realized “for the glory of the creator, and the relief of man’s estate.”

This is not a narrow utilitarian theory. He observed: “For though it be true that I am principally in pursuit of works and the active department of sciences, yet I wait for harvest time, and do not attempt to mow the moss or to reap the green corn. For I well know that axioms once rightly discovered will carry whole troops of works along with them, and produce them, not here and there one, but in clusters. And that unseasonable and puerile hurry to snatch away by way of earnest at the first works which come within reach, I utterly condemn and reject as Atlanta’s apple that hinders the race.” This utilitarianism looks to the distant future and aims at abiding results.

Bacon lived at a time when many advantages fell the way of persons. Such are the art of printing, the discovery of America, and the peaceful conditions in the kingdom. These advantages stimulated his scientific undertakings. The two major achievements of this activity are the classification of sciences and the introduction of the scientific method. While the schoolmen gave an Anticipation of the Mind, he gave an approach to the Interpretation of Nature. As he says: “the end which this science of mine proposes is the invention not of arguments but of arts;” and its effect is “to command nature in action.” This is the method of inductions which proceeds with the observation and classification of particular facts to arrive at a universal conclusion. This conclusion may be hypothesis or a law. The collection and enumeration of facts are sorted out and classified. In the third stage we have the rejection or exclusion of facts that do not fit into the observed ones. Then there remains “form, affirmative, solid, true and well-limited.”

The great scientific activity conducted in Solomon’s House gives an idea of what can be realized if Bacon’s philosophy of science were to be accepted. It embraces all aspects of life. Yet the scientist is not bound to reveal all that he knows and his discoveries to the State. The members “take all an oath of secrecy for the concealing of those which we think meet to keep secret, though some of those we reveal sometimes to the State, some not.” Like the Philosopher-king of Plato, Bacon would have the scientist-king in his ideal state. It is virtually the scientist who controls everything in Bensalem. The scientific activity outlined by the father of Solomon House is allowed to be published “for the good of other nation.” It is a kind of altruistic utilitarianism, for like the medieval theologian, the modern scientist is to pursue universal salvation of man on the physical level and the intellectual plane. Bacon was thus making a plea for an important place to science and for the freedom of the scientist from any State control. All this appears just at the beginning of the modern period and looks like a manifesto of the scientist’s association.

Influences on Bacon: The first great influence on Bacon came from his own experiences. A keen observer of men and manners, he came to write of human conduct. Apart from this, there are some authors and works that shaped his manner and matter. He owes a great deal to the Bible. He frequently quotes from the Vulgate to illustrate his ideas; and there is always a parallelism between the context of his own passage and that of his Biblical reference. Bacon also quotes from the fathers of the Church, but not in an approving way always.

The next profound influence was from the history, mythology, literature and   philosophy of the Greeks and Romans. Better informed in Latin, he drew largely from the Italians.

Bacon’s Ethics and Religion: In religion, Bacon believed in unity and tolerance: “the ancient and true bonds of unity are one faith, one baptism, and not one ceremony, one policy.” Ethics is subordinated to religion. Rejecting all idealism, he praises Machiavelli for giving an account of what men actually do. Preferring an active life to a contemplative one, he judges an action by its effects. These effects are then examined from a social stand-point.

As a shrewd observer of society, he saw that one should not say all that one thinks but should keep one’s counsel. It is a morality of getting on in the world, and it is elaborately outlined in his Essays. Yet, he could also tell us to cultivate, “secrecy in habit, dissimulation in seasonable use, and a power to feign if there be no remedy.” He was also aware of the “secret hidden virtues that bring forth fortune; certain deliveries of man’s self, which have no name.” Hence the “wheels of the mind must keep way with the wheels of fortune.” These are the moral ideas of an ambitious statesman who did not refuse to accept bribes. Bribery was a common vice of the times; and in the New Atlantis he refers, many times, to those who receive bribes and calls them “twice paid.”

Bacon was highly conscious of the great moral ideas. He admits that “the inquiry of truth, which is the wooing of it; and the belief of truth, which is the enjoyment of it, is the sovereign good of human nature….certainly it is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in Providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.”

His endeavour was directed towards the promotion of knowledge; and knowledge was identical with power. He took without argument only his Christianity. He condemned intolerance in religious matters. He advocated unity in the church; not uniformity. The only aspect of religion that appears in his thought is his idea of love. Taking the word charity to mean love, he writes that “in charity there is no excess, neither can angel nor man come in danger by it.” At another place he says: “if a man is not kin to God by his spirit, he is base, ignoble creature.”

Piety and Humanity are prized most by the narrator of New Atlantis; and hence he exhorts his companion in the words: “As we love the weal of our souls and bodies, let us so behave ourselves as we may be at peace with God.” It is a general religious consciousness which is broad enough to admit every shade of opinion. This company is eager to “seek the Kingdom of heaven” by pursuing the path of knowledge which is the path of “peace and good will.” In its higher and altruistic reaches, the path of science appears to Bacon to be one with the path of religion.

Bacon’s Political Ideas: The Greek conception of State as expressed by Aristotle, shapes Bacon’s attitude to the State. He accepts with Aristotle the idea that states are naturally opposed to one another and that war is a necessity. Like the Greek, he did not attach any importance to the worker and he had no faith in democracy.

The greatness of a country, Bacon argues, depends on its territory which has to be preserved by a strong and adventurous army and navy. Since the bulk of the army comes from the peasants, these peasants should not be exorbitantly taxed. Believing in the absolutism of the King, he propounds Machiavellian ideas keeping in mind Henry VII as his ideal king.

Bacon observes that the judge must never forget that a private cause has public consequences. So he must consider the interests of the King involved in the case; and he must often take counsel with the king “for the good of the people.” Where the interest of the State does not come in conflict with the king’s interest, there Bacon upholds the former. Yet one should not be an extremist in one’s patriotism or in one’s loyalty to the king; for, “extreme lovers of the country or their master are seldom fortunate.”

Bacon had no faith in the banks, though he loved gold. Hence he pleads for the export of the manufactured goods. This needs good shipping and well-regulated foreign trade. But within the country, scientific activity is of supreme importance. Foreigners visiting Bensalem are not allowed to go beyond a mile and a half from the walls of the city without special leave; for, the ideal state is always jealous to guard itself from outsiders. The only contacts the people of this State maintain with the world outside are those meant to find out the inventions and other activities of an intellectual nature that take place there. They do not want to expand; they do not also want to lose their freedom. Freedom and prosperity has made them self-sufficient; and hence they could progress in their scientific activities. The political and economic life of the State has its final goal in the promotion of science alone, says Bacon, can interpret nature and produce “great marvelous works for the benefit of man.”

Utopias: From early times man has been looking to the remote past or to the distant future to discover or visualize a golden age, an earthly paradise. The dissatisfaction with the present makes man yearn for such an ideal. The Israelites pined fro the foundation of a holy city of perfect peace, virtue and joy. Christianity speaks of the possible realization of the kingdom of heaven on earth. St. Augustine spoke of the earthly city born out of a “love of self to the contempt of God;” and he sharply distinguished it from the heavenly city emerging from the “love of God to the contempt of self.” But the conception of a Utopia is “that of a planned imaginary human community, humanly organized for human well-being.” It is a kind of blue-print for a perfect state. The need for such an ideal is acutely felt during a period of the disintegration of human values. And the man who pines for it is usually a dreamer or a visionary who feels the need for order and novelty. At the same time, such a dreamer has firm faith in the power of human reason to organize, control and guide the social institutions.

One group of Utopias reveals that the authors are not worried about their practicability. A second set presents a picture which seeks to remould the world to the author’s innermost desires; and it is a picture which can one day be realized. A third kind is planned in immediate working order, and it can be set in motion at once. Then we have theocracies, political satires, and anti-utopias. Plato’s Republic is an example of the first kind. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) was not composed with the idea of realizing it in actual life. Andrea’s Christianopolis (1619) takes cognizance of political actualities, and gives a remarkable town-planning scheme, Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623) is ruled by Metaphysics with the assistance of Love, Knowledge and Power. Bacon’s New Atlantis 91627) is not a fully developed one, for it is more a plea for scientific research. This lea is realistic and bacon, the practical man of the world, could not be carried away by day-dreams.

The Great Atlantis: The story of the lost Atlantis first appears in Plato’s Timaeus. Some nine thousand years before Solon, Atlantis is said to have been flourishing; and at that time Athens, says Plato, had the institutions which, he outlined, in the first five books of the Republic. Atlantis was an island continent in the Atlantic ocean. The federated Kings of Atlantis overran all Europe upto Italy and all Africa upto Egypt. The pre-historic Athenians defeated these Kings. Soon after, both the Athenians and the people of Atlantis were victims of earthquake and inundation; and in a single day and night they were all submerged. The Egyptians records are the sole documents, and Solon was credited with the hearing of this account in one of his travels. Bacon accepted this story as a serious speculation and identified America with a part of Atlantis.

The Utopia of New Atlantis: Bacon’s New Atlantis is an Utopia which gives a historical account of a very ancient land. The people of this island were credited with an advanced State of civilization. They trace their history from the time of the deluge. This account is not given by Bacon as a piece of romance to enrich the narrative. But it is to be taken, as James Spedding observed: “as belonging to a class of serious speculation to which Bacon’s mind was prone.” He believed it to be “historically probable” because he had a strong tendency “to credit the past with wonders.”

This Utopia is a composition designed to attract the attention of the reader also by its fanciful and romantic fable; and the general impression it produces is so striking as to be retained in the mind. The conviction of the authors gives the romantic account a realistic touch. As Rawley tells the reader: “the model is more vast and high than can possibly be imitated in all things, notwithstanding most things therein are within men’s power to effect.” It is, in a way, a possible and probable Utopia. This gives a strong persuasive note to the narrative, at least from this century onwards.