Doina Cristina Rusu
Re-reading the New Atlantis, one aspect in particular caught my attention in the beginning of the story. I noticed that the sailors’ attitude is very similar to the one described by the Spanish conquistadores, as it appears, for instance, in Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s story of Conquering the Aztec Empire. In the case of the New Atlantis and the arrival of the Spanish sailors, the Bensalemites take up the role of the natives, with only one difference. While both the natives and the Bensalemites are offering gifts to the respective ‘visitors’, the natives’ gift to the Spaniards is gold, the Bensalemites’ gift is the method of science. Before describing Salomon’s House, the Father says: “I will give thee the greatest jewel I have. For I will impart unto thee, for the love of God and men, the relation of the true state of Salomon’s House.”
Upon noticing this parallel, a new reading of the text occurred to me. A reading according to which Bacon sees himself as the equivalent of Columbus in the field of science: while the conquistadores were returning from the Great Atlantis with material jewels, Bacon’s sailors were returning with a more precious one: the method.
What is so special about the Island of Bensalem? We don’t know much about it, in fact. Bacon describes three main episodes: the revelation, the Feast of the Family, and the description of the House of Salomon. The first can be seen as a necessity in Bacon’s time, given the power of the Church. The second is a puzzling ceremony celebrating fecundity, and the last is an inventory of the discoveries, richness, and the scientific offices. Scholars have engaged in long discussions, and showed that the Feast of the Family as well as Salomon’s House are reflections of Bacon’s method in general (Garber 2010), of the Instances from the Novum Organum or of some experiments from his natural histories (Colclough 2010). If this is so, then Salomon’s House instantiates Bacon’s laboratory, maybe the ideal one, since Bacon didn’t own mountains and caves, and all the metals and precious stones. However, it has also been suggested that some of the machines he describes were already existing at James I’s court (Colie 1955). Why do we have to travel to the New Atlantis then? My suggestion is that Bacon’s travel is an intellectual one: Bensalem is the place where his philosophical method is put into practice.
In several parts of his works, Bacon talks about the discovery of Americas as the emblem of leaving behind the world of the ancients with the aim of pursing knowledge. Philosophers should follow Columbus, Bacon says, who crossed the Pillars of Hercules and ventured into the great ocean, finding the lost island of Atlantis. In other words, they should leave behind the philosophy of the Scholastics and discover new things through a careful investigation of nature. Accordingly, the frontispiece of the Instauratio Magna, Bacon’s project for the reformation of knowledge, depicts ships crossing the Pillars of Hercules. The frontispiece of the edition including the New Atlantis depicts the Pillars again, but this time instead of the ocean and the ships, we see a globe on which it is written “Mundus intellectualis.” For this travel to the intellectual world we only need the right method.
The New Atlantis ends with the suggestion that the sailors should go back to their homeland and describe what they have seen and heard. Correspondingly, Bacon himself is the messenger of the new philosophy, in spite of the fear of not being believed. But then, of course, hundreds of years later one can claim that he will be believed by all those who founded societies and academies in the early modern period.
I would like to finish with one question: the text mentions thirteen other travellers who returned from Bensalem to Europe, but probably their stories were not believed. Following my interpretation, these would be Bacon’s predecessors, who had founded the right method, but no one believed them, and their philosophies did not have the desired consequences. Who are these thirteen? Let’s try to find out together.
Colclough, David. 2010. “‘The Materialls for the Building’: Reuniting Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum and New Atlantis” Intellectual History Review 20/12, pp. 181-200.
Colie, Rosalie, L. 1995. “Cornelis Drebbel and Salomon de Caus: Two Jacobean Models for Salomon’s House,” Huntington Library Quarterly 18/3, pp. 245-260.
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. 1943. Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España. Mexico City: Nuevo Mundo.
Garber, Dan. 2010. “Bacon, the New Atlantis, and the Uses of Utopia,” Studii de Stiinta si Cultura 23/4, pp. 37-45.