Francis Bacon

New Atlantis

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New Atlantis Summary

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New Atlantis is a utopian novel by Sir Francis Bacon. It was first published around 1627, after Bacon’s death in 1626. The book describes a utopian world where people live ideal, peaceful, enlightened lives, exposing the problems with such a world, which we often overlook. Incomplete, the book was originally published as an extract in a longer work called Sylva Sylvarum. Bacon was a prominent English philosopher who served as both the Lord Chancellor of England and the Attorney General.

New Atlantis is set in seventeenth-century England. A group of European explorers sets off for China. They are religious men who pray to God for safe travels. However, they are soon caught up in a storm and blown entirely off course. Assuming they will die at sea, they ask God to forgive their sins. They spend the night praying and making peace with death.

When dawn rises, the men have survived the storm. Although they are lost at sea, there is land on the horizon. They plan to reach the shore and recalibrate their route from there. However, when they reach the island, the locals refuse to let them leave the ship. Strangers aren’t allowed on the island because residents don’t want their perfect community changed by visitors.

The explorers discover they are on the mystical island of Bensalem, a Christian place where everyone is friendly, charitable, and peaceful. Once the islanders learn that the explorers are Christian, they let them disembark and explore the community. The people provide the explorers with medical supplies and the tools they need to fix their ship.

The explorers find it strange that this Christian island is so wary of strangers. They decide to learn everything they can about Bensalem and report to England. First, they explore the island’s religious history. They want to understand how Christianity reached Bensalem, and why the islanders haven’t contacted other Christian nations.

The islanders explain that, many years ago, God visited them, offering them salvation in exchange for accepting Jesus. God left behind scriptures and philosophies that are richer and more detailed than European gospels. The Bensalem islanders, then, have a greater understanding of Christianity and its guiding principles. Their religion is pure and untainted by outside influences.

Religion is a simple concept on Bensalem because the people worship God without relying on a church to guide them. They don’t argue over doctrine and what scripture means because there’s no arguing with God. There is no such thing as missionaries because no one needs convincing. To the explorers, Bensalem is like Heaven.

However, even Bensalem has its own ruler. A group of scientists rules the island from an institution called Solomon’s House. God appointed these scientists, and so no one questions their leadership. No one is allowed to leave the island, because the scientists don’t want other nations discovering their secrets. They want Bensalem to remain unsullied and uncorrupted by the wider world; they won’t listen to any scientific theories that potentially discredit their own. A utopian world, they claim, is one where no one questions anything.

The scientists explain that science and religion are inextricably linked. God designed the world for us to enjoy and discover. He wants us to explore nature, observe it, and learn from it. Once we understand how the natural world works, we can unravel the secrets of the universe.

The explorers wonder what the scientists plan to do with their scientific knowledge. The Governor of Solomon’s House explains that, unlike the mythical city of Atlantis, they seek knowledge to improve life on Bensalem. All knowledge should be used to benefit people and make their lives easier. This is what God intended—He did not intend us to waste knowledge on materialism and warmongering.

The Governor offers the explorers an island tour before making them a proposition. They can return home to Europe and never come back, or they can stay on Bensalem forever. The explorers find life glorious in Bensalem, and they have nothing better waiting for them in England. They stay, and the Governor makes them citizens of Bensalem.

The explorers spend time learning Bensalem customs. For example, brothels are forbidden because marriage is the natural state. Men rule the household; their goal is to produce children who become productive, pious adults. The more successful a man’s children, the more he is respected.

The scientists don’t trust ordinary citizens with scientific knowledge. They tell people what to think, because if people think for themselves, they might misunderstand things and cause conflict. Conflict is not acceptable on Bensalem. Explorers occasionally set out to spy on other countries to gain knowledge from them, but no one can ever set foot on Bensalem without an invitation.

New Atlantis exposes the problems with a utopian society in that people can’t think for themselves. Complete harmony is only possible when there is no room for disagreement or independent thought. However, Bacon uses New Atlantis to show what the Christian religion looked like before scholars, philosophers, religious men, and society corrupted its meaning.