New Atlantis

Interpretations

New Atlantis is a story dense with provocative details. There are many credible interpretations of what Bacon was attempting to convey. Below are a couple that give some sense of the rich implications of the text.

Bensalem's Conversion to Christianity

Early in the story, the governor of the House of Strangers relates the incredible circumstances that introduced Christianity to the Island:

“About twenty years after the ascension of our Saviour it came to pass [c. A.D. 50], that there was seen by the people of Renfusa (a city upon the eastern coast of our island, within sight, the night was cloudy and calm), as it might be some mile in the sea, a great pillar of light; not sharp, but in form of a column, or cylinder, rising from the sea, a great way up toward heaven; and on the top of it was seen a large cross of light, more bright and resplendent than the body of the pillar. Upon which so strange a spectacle, the people of the city gathered apace together upon the sands, to wonder; and so after put themselves into a number of small boats to go nearer to this marvellous sight. But when the boats were come within about sixty yards of the pillar, they found themselves all bound, and could go no further, yet so as they might move to go about, but might not approach nearer; so as the boats stood all as in a theatre, beholding this light, as a heavenly sign. It so fell out that there was in one of the boats one of the wise men of the Society of Salomon's House (which house, or college, my good brethren, is the very eye of this kingdom), who having awhile attentively and devoutly viewed and contemplated this pillar and cross, fell down upon his face; and then raised himself upon his knees, and lifting up his hands to heaven, made his prayers in this manner:

"'Lord God of heaven and earth; thou hast vouchsafed of thy grace, to those of our order to know thy works of creation, and true secrets of them; and to discern, as far as appertaineth to the generations of men, between divine miracles, works of nature, works of art and impostures, and illusions of all sorts. I do here acknowledge and testify before this people that the thing we now see before our eyes is thy finger, and a true miracle. And forasmuch as we learn in our books that thou never workest miracles, but to a divine and excellent end (for the laws of nature are thine own laws, and thou exceedest them not but upon great cause), we most humbly beseech thee to prosper this great sign, and to give us the interpretation and use of it in mercy; which thou dost in some part secretly promise, by sending it unto us.'

“When he had made his prayer he presently found the boat he was in movable and unbound; whereas all the rest remained still fast; and taking that for an assurance of leave to approach, he caused the boat to be softly and with silence rowed toward the pillar; but ere he came near it, the pillar and cross of light broke up, and cast itself abroad, as it were, into a firmament of many stars, which also vanished soon after, and there was nothing left to be seen but a small ark or chest of cedar, dry and not wet at all with water, though it swam; and in the fore end of it, which was toward him, grew a small green branch of palm; and when the wise man had taken it with all reverence into his boat, it opened of itself, and there were found in it a book and a letter, both written in fine parchment, and wrapped in sindons of linen. The book contained all the canonical books of the Old and New Testament, according as you have them (for we know well what the churches with you receive), and the Apocalypse itself; and some other books of the New Testament, which were not at that time written, were nevertheless in the book. And for the letter, it was in these words:

"'I, Bartholomew, a servant of the Highest, and apostle of Jesus Christ, was warned by an angel that appeared to me in a vision of glory, that I should commit this ark to the floods of the sea. Therefore I do testify and declare unto that people where God shall ordain this ark to come to land, that in the same day is come unto them salvation and peace, and good-will from the Father, and from the Lord Jesus.'

"There was also in both these writings, as well the book as the letter, wrought a great miracle, conform to that of the apostles, in the original gift of tongues. For there being at that time, in this land, Hebrews, Persians, and Indians, besides the natives, everyone read upon the book and letter, as if they had been written in his own language. And thus was this land saved from infidelity (as the remain of the old world was from water) by an ark, through the apostolical and miraculous evangelism of St. Bartholomew." And here he paused, and a messenger came and called him forth from us. So this was all that passed in that conference."

The traditional date for the writing of St. John's Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation) is the end of the 1st century AD. It is not only the presence of the full canon of Scripture long before it was completed or compiled, but also the all-too-convenient proximity of the scientist who will attest to its miraculous nature of this wonder that lends the story an air of incredibility.[2]

Later the Father of Salomon's House reveals the institution's skill at creating illusions of light:

"We represent also all multiplications of light, which we carry to great distance, and make so sharp as to discern small points and lines. Also all colorations of light: all delusions and deceits of the sight, in figures, magnitudes, motions, colors; all demonstrations of shadows. We find also divers means, yet unknown to you, of producing of light, originally from divers bodies."

He also boasts about their ability to fake miracles:

"And surely you will easily believe that we, that have so many things truly natural which induce admiration, could in a world of particulars deceive the senses if we would disguise those things, and labor to make them more miraculous."

Renaker points out the Latin of the second passage is stronger and literally translates to "we could impose on men's senses an infinite number of things if we wanted to present these things as, and exalt them into, a miracle."[3]

The skill of creating illusions coupled with the incredibility of the story of the origin of Bensalem's Christianity makes it seem that Bacon was intimating that the light show (or at least the story of its occurrence) was an invention of Salomon's House.[3]

Who Rules Bensalem?

The Father of Salomon's House reveals that members of that institution decide on their own which of their discoveries to keep secret, even from the State:

"And this we do also: we have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not; and take all an oath of secrecy for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret; though some of those we do reveal sometime to the State, and some not."

This would seem to imply that the State does not hold the monopoly on authority and that Salomon's House must in some sense be superior to the State.

In the introduction to the critical edition of New Atlantis, Jerry Weinberger notes that Joabin is the only contemporary character (i.e., living at the time of the story) described as wise—and wise in matters of government and rule at that. Weinberger speculates that Joabin may be the actual ruler of Bensalem.[4] On the other hand, prejudice against Jews was widespread in his time, so the possibility cannot be excluded that Bacon was calling Joabin wise for the same reason that he felt the need elsewhere to call him "the good Jew": to make clear that Joabin's character was benign.

Social Ritual of the Bensalemites

While Bacon appears concerned with the House of Salomon, a portion of the narrative describes the social practices of the Bensalemites, particularly those surrounding courtship and family life. An example of these rituals is the Adam and Eve pools. Here betrothed send surrogates to observe the other bathing to discover any deformities. Here Bacon alludes to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), where More describes a similar ritual. However, the crucial difference is rather than surrogates, the young couple observes the other naked. Bacon’s character Joabin remarks on this difference: “I have read in a book of one of your men, of a Feigned Commonwealth, where the married couple are permitted, before they contract, to see one another naked.”[5]


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