Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, February 7, 2011

The New Atlantis (3)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Bacon’s unfinished The New Atlantis falls quite naturally into three parts. The first merely orients us to the story by explaining how the narrator and his crew came to this mysterious island. The second and third provide the real meat of the fragment, and stand in interesting relation to each other.

The second section describes in some detail a central ritual of Bensalem:

One day there were two of our company bidden to a Feast of the Family, as they call it. A most natural, pious, and reverend custom it is, shewing that nation to be compounded of all goodness. This is the manner of it. It is granted to any man that shall live to see thirty persons descended of his body alive together, and all above three years old, to make this feast which is done at the cost of the state. The Father of the Family, whom they call the Tirsan, two days before the feast, taketh to him three of such friends as he liketh to choose; and is assisted also by the governor of the city or place where the feast is celebrated; and all the persons of the family, of both sexes, are summoned to attend him. These two days the Tirsan sitteth in consultation concerning the good estate of the family. There, if there be any discord or suits between any of the family, they are compounded and appeased. There, if any of the family be distressed or decayed, order is taken for their relief and competent means to live. There, if any be subject to vice, or take ill courses, they are reproved and censured. So likewise direction is given touching marriages, and the courses of life, which any of them should take, with divers other the like orders and advices. The governor assisteth, to the end to put in execution by his public authority the decrees and orders of the Tirsan, if they should be disobeyed; though that seldom needeth; such reverence and obedience they give to the order of nature. The Tirsan doth also then ever choose one man from among his sons, to live in house with him; who is called ever after the Son of the Vine.

The narrator then describes the liturgy of this Feast — for a highly liturgical ceremony it is — in considerable detail. It is clear that the whole point is to reinforce and consolidate the family patriarch as the source of social order. It’s strongly suggested that this is how a society is made to run smoothly: when its primary political unit is the family and its primary authorities the fatherly heads of families. It’s like Genesis 48 and 49 made into the first principle of political order — and make no mistake, order is what politics is about in this story.

But in light of the rest of the work, it would seem that this order is primarily good because it makes it possible for the natural philosophers in Salomon’s House to do their work. Bacon seems to be invoking a version of the Eloi-Morlock distinction — from H. G. Wells by way of Neal Stephenson — to suggest that the role of the Many is to preserve order so that the Few may pursue knowledge and wisdom. More about that knowledge and wisdom in another post. . . .

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