Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The New Atlantis (4)

The third section of The New Atlantis concerns the narrator’s interview with the Father of Salomon's House, “which house, or college . . . is the very eye of this kingdom,” or, as is later said, “the lantern of this kingdom. It is dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.”

When the narrator, having heard much of Salomon’s House, finally meets this Father — whose elaborate dress is, curiously, described in great detail — the great man describes the purposes and works of his community of scholars. What critics often note about this description is its emphasis on what we would now call experimental science, conducted according to an inductive method: this is the “Francis Bacon as the father of modern science reading,” and it’s right. But I’m interested in a few other things.

First: I noted in an earlier post that the effusive pieties of the early pages of the book seem to fade as the narrative moves on, and you can see that in the Father’s description of the House. It was the Governor of the city of Bensalem who had described the place as “dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God”; but the Father says, “First, I will set forth unto you the end [that is the goal, the telos] of our foundation. . . . 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.”

Enlarging the bounds of human empire — this does not exactly savor of divinity. And aside from a “God bless you” at the beginning and at the end of his discourse, the Father says not one word about their explorations as connected with those religious beliefs that, we are told, are so central to the life of this kingdom.

I think here of a powerful passage from C. S. Lewis’s great history of sixteenth-century English literature, a passage concerning the theory and practice of magic:

This glance at a forgotten, but influential, philosophy will help, I hope, to get rid of the false groupings which our ex post facto judgments of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘superstition’ urge us to impose on the past. Freed from those, we can see that the new magia, far from being an anomaly in that age, falls into its place among the other dreams of power when then haunted the European mind. Most obviously it falls into place beside the thought of Bacon. His endeavour is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians; but contrasted only in light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed. That event was then still uncertain. Stripping off our knowledge of it, we see at once that Bacon and the magicians have the closest possible affinity. Both seek knowledge for the sake of power (in Bacon’s words, as ‘a spouse for fruit’ not a ‘curtesan for pleasure’), both move in a grandiose dream of days when man shall have been raised to the performance of ‘all things possible.’ . . . Nor would Bacon have denied the affinity: he thought the aim of the magicians was ‘noble.’

So the calm, order, and harmony of Bensalem, indeed of the whole kingdom, exists so that the few wise men of Salomon’s House may without impediment dream their “dreams of power,” power that enlarges the bounds of human empire. Bacon repeatedly assures us that the wise men of Salomon’s House use their power wisely and for the benefit of their fellow citizens — that they are uncorrupted by their secret knowledge and the powers it yields them. Now that’s a dream.

2 comments:

  • Lewis says some very similar things in The Abolition of Man, where as I recall he cites Marlowe's Dr. Faustus as evidence that the magician is more a modern figure than a representative of the "Dark Ages". Inspired by that, I'm actually teaching Marlowe along with Bacon and Descartes (and Nick Carr's book, too) in philosophy this semester ...

  • Good to hear from you, John! — and yes, this is a favorite point of CSL's, which he returns to in multiple genres: note the deliberately ambiguous treatment of Uncle Andrew in The Magician's Nephew, who, though a magician, wears a white lab coat and performs what he calls "experiments."

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