Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The New Atlantis (2)

Reading the first few pages of The New Atlantis, I was surprised by its effusive piety. God is invoked at every turn, and our narrator places particular emphasis on the Christian orthodoxy of the people of Bensalem.

I was surprised because not only is Bacon not noted for his devotion to Christianity, but he was often in his own day suspected of atheism. (While invariably affirming Christian truth, he would also say things like this: “Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not; but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy, in the minds of men” — from the essay “Of Superstition”). If you look at his most famous writings, his Essays, you'll see that while his moral meditations often invoke classical precedents and philosophical stances — especially Stoicism — references to Christian scripture are rare. Bacon certainly seems to be one of those figures of the early modern world, like Montaigne or Machiavelli, whose Christianity feels nominal at best, a discreet covering for skepticism.

Yet here we have repeated insistence on the orthodoxy of the inhabitants of the New Atlantic, coupled with many protestations of piety by the narrator.

Well, that stuff doesn't last all that long. As I noted in my previous post, Bacon didn't live to finish the book, and we don't know how long it would have been, how detailed its portrait of Bensalem would have become. (It's even possible that Bacon would have had his narrator visit other parts of the island, not just the city of Bensalem.) But it's still interesting to see how nearly completely the piety is left behind.

The New Atlantis may be said to fall into three parts. The first describes how the narrator and his men arrived on the island, how they were received there, and how they were housed and cared for.

The second section deals with the domestic arrangements of the Atlantaens, with a focus on an elaborate ritual called The Feast of the Family, accompanied by a discourse on the wonderful sexual purity of the island's inhabitants.

The fragment concludes with a detailed accounting of the works, inventions, and researches of the inhabitants of Salomon's House: the "natural philosophers" (as Bacon would have said) or "scientists" (as we would say) of the culture. This section is as devoted a commendation of technopoly as one could wish for. It will be the chief focus of my later comments.

2 comments:

  • Thanks for the post, especially because it is important to draw attention to this long fragment. I have, however one point in this post that I cannot completely agree with: "Christianity feels nominal at best, a discreet covering for skepticism."

    This nominal attitude is not substantiated by some of his other writings, say his translations of certain psalms, his "Confession of faith," which is illuminating insofar as the metaphysical background of his scientific ideas are concerned, and his Advancement of Learning Bk I swarms with Biblical references, furthermore his justification of science (relief of man's estate, and the glory of God).

    I know all these may be labelled as some kind of lip-service, but the sheer number of these pieces may introduce an air of doubt concerning his atheism.

  • Thank you for these helpful corrections!

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