If Scientists Were Angels

Francis Bacon has been charged with robbing science of its innocence. But what if we’ve all been reading him wrong?
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Francis Bacon is known, above all, for conceiving of a great and terrible human project: the conquest of nature for “the relief of man’s estate.” This project, still ongoing, has its champions. “If the point of philosophy is to change the world,” Peter Thiel posits, “Sir Francis Bacon may be the most successful philosopher ever.” But critics abound. Bacon stands accused of alienating human beings from nature, abandoning the wisdom of the ancients, degrading a philosophy dedicated to the contemplation of truth, and replacing it with something cruder, a science of power.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis goes so far as to compare Bacon to Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus:

You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants … but gold and guns and girls. “All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command” and “a sound magician is a mighty god.” In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible.

Lewis draws the final phrase of this critique from Bacon’s New Atlantis, the 1627 utopian novella from which this journal takes its name. But why would a publication like The New Atlantis, dedicated to the persistent questioning of science and technology, name itself after a philosopher’s utopian dreams about magicians on the verge of becoming mighty gods?

According to the journal’s self-description on page 2 of every print issue, this is not the whole story. Bacon’s book raises questions about the moral and political difficulties that accompany the technological powerhouse it depicts, even if it “offers no obvious answers.”

Perhaps it seduces more than it warns. But the tale also hints at some of the dilemmas that arise with the ability to remake and reconfigure the natural world: governing science, so that it might flourish freely without destroying or dehumanizing us, and understanding the effect of technology on human life, human aspiration, and the human good. To a great extent, we live in the world Bacon imagined, and now we must find a way to live well with both its burdens and its blessings. This very challenge, which now confronts our own society most forcefully, is the focus of this journal.

The fact is, people have been puzzling over Bacon’s uncanny utopia for four hundred years without being able to pin it down. The reason for this is simple: We’ve been reading it wrong. Bacon’s New Atlantis is not an image of things hoped for or of things to come. It is an instructive fable about what happens when human beings stumble across the boundary between things human and things divine, a story about fear, intimidation, and desire.

Human beings have always lusted after knowledge, specifically that knowledge which promises to open our eyes so that we might become like gods. Bacon did not invent or ignite this desire, but he did understand it better than most.

New Atlantis

In form, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis is modeled loosely on Thomas More’s Utopia. A ship full of European sailors lands on a previously unknown island in the Americas where they find a civilized society in many ways superior to their own. The narrator describes the customs and institutions of this society, which in Bacon is called “Bensalem,” Hebrew for “son of peace.” Sometimes Bacon echoes, sometimes improves upon, More’s earlier work. But at the end of the story, Bacon turns to focus solely on the most original feature of the island, an institution called Solomon’s House, or the College of the Six Days Works.

This secretive society of natural philosophers seeks nothing less than “the effecting of all things possible,” as C. S. Lewis duly notes. Bacon devotes a quarter of the total text of New Atlantis to an unadorned account of the powers and insights the philosophers in Solomon’s House have. Then the work ends abruptly with no account of the sailors’ trip home or the results of their discovery. The story ends mid-paragraph, with a final line tacked on at the end: “The rest was not perfected.”

What is the meaning of this tale? The first and simplest answer was given by William Rawley, Bacon’s chaplain, who was responsible for publishing New Atlantis after Bacon’s death. He wrote in his preface to the work: “This fable my Lord devised, to the end that he might exhibit therein a model or description of a college instituted for the interpreting of nature and the producing of great and marvellous works for the benefit of men….” The founders of the Royal Society, Great Britain’s famous scientific academy, seem to have had a similar idea a few decades later: Bacon “had the true Imagination of the whole Extent of this Enterprise, as it is now set on foot.”

But this interpretation only goes so far. Solomon’s House does serve as a model for the modern research institution in certain crucial respects. We learn in the story that it is a large, well-resourced enterprise organized to pursue basic knowledge through diligent experimentation and to apply that knowledge to the invention of powerful new tools. But its power, knowledge, and peculiar pride of place in Bensalem remain unrivaled by any existing research institution today. Solomon’s House sees everything that happens outside its walls while keeping its own activities secret, and it wields unquestioned, if mysterious, political power in Bensalem. In the twentieth century, disturbed by the political and technological developments of their own time, readers of Bacon’s work began to look more closely at Bensalem’s politics, and they did not like what they found.

In his book Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress, Robert Faulkner concludes that the peace and prosperity Bensalem enjoys are products of a terrifying and opaque political machine. A single institution, Solomon’s House, combines all religious, political, and scientific knowledge and power in itself, and dispenses only what it wants, when it wants, to an obedient people. This has devastating spiritual effects, according to Jerry Weinberger, who in his article “On the Miracles in Bacon’s New Atlantispaints an image of a society totally dehumanized by its own success at mastering nature and establishing peace. The people of Bensalem are not truly happy, he argues, they are “contented cows,” or rather like sheep, “their orderliness lobotomised.” And, arguably, Bensalemites are only a few steps further along the path of Baconian “progress,” as Weinberger describes it, than modern Americans are.

This is a disturbing conclusion with disturbing implications for the future of the modern world. But Bacon does not actually claim, as Weinberger asserts, that New Atlantis “depicts the world to be produced by his famous project for modern science and technology.” Bacon writes an elaborate work of fiction in which he describes, among other things, an imaginary commonwealth that is as terrible in its power and intelligence as it is attractive. Readers have chosen, of their own accord, to interpret it as a premonition of their own hopes and fears.

Bacon’s New Atlantis is not even set in the future. The action of the story takes place “six-score years” after the discovery of the New World, that is, roughly in Bacon’s present day. That present is rooted, however, in a deep past that is counter to all historical fact. Three thousand years before the story begins, the island of Bensalem enjoyed commerce with Europe, Asia, Africa, and the lost empire of Atlantis. Over a thousand years after that, when Atlantis had fallen and the ancient art of navigation was forgotten to all but Bensalem, a wise lawgiver taught them how to live in isolation from the rest of the world. Since that time, Bensalem has enjoyed perfect peace. Capable of sustaining itself without importing goods, and inaccessible to the rest of the world, its only external commerce has been through a network of spies, sent out to keep tabs on world events and new technologies. Bensalem has honored its great lawgiver by strictly adhering, for nearly two millennia, to the laws he put in place. And in the meantime, it has been blessed with its own special revelation of the gospel, enjoying religious harmony without schism, controversy, or scientific rivalry. It is populated by people who are perfectly chaste, scorn money, and are not inclined to question authority or pry into state secrets.

This is not the world we live in, and it stands in marked contrast to Bacon’s own society as well. In England at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the wound of religious schism was fresh and political machination was a common, if dangerous, pastime.

Imaginary Commonwealths

A century before Bacon wrote New Atlantis, Machiavelli rebuked philosophers for imagining republics that “have never been seen or known to exist in reality, for the distance is so great between how we live and how we ought to live that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.” Bacon, a student of Machiavelli, takes up this thought in The Advancement of Learning, but subtly diverts its force:

As for the philosophers, they make imaginary laws for imaginary commonwealths; and their discourses are as the stars, which give little light because they are so high.

This is both to agree with Machiavelli that utopian philosophy does not shed much light on how human beings actually behave, and yet to deny that the exercise is therefore useless or counterproductive. As Bacon puts it in The Wisdom of the Ancients, “The revolutions and courses of the stars serve [man] both for distinction of the seasons and distribution of the quarters of the world.” Likewise, imaginary commonwealths may be impossible to imitate, but they do offer some “little light” by which the trained eye may see.

The ancients depended on starlight to navigate their ships, and astronomers mapped the heavens with greater and greater accuracy for millennia, producing, in Bacon’s time, the most rigorous and groundbreaking science there was. But on the other hand, human beings are often tempted to read more into the stars than can really be found. “It is not good,” Bacon observes, “to fetch fortunes from the stars.” And when you depend on them for navigation, all it takes is one cloudy night to lose your way.

In the preface to his project The Great Instauration, Bacon uses the metaphor of celestial navigation to illustrate a crucial difference between ancient and modern learning:

In former ages when men sailed only by observation of the stars, they could indeed coast along the shores of the old continent or cross a few small and mediterranean seas; but before the ocean could be traversed and the new world discovered, the use of the mariner’s needle, as a more faithful and certain guide, had to be found out.

The ancients may have been content to navigate the world by distant lights within a limited sphere, but the moderns itch to break free of old bounds by means of new tools. Bacon explicitly sets out in the New Organon to develop a set of tools equivalent to the mariner’s needle, which the philosopher can use to navigate beyond ancient, Mediterranean ideas.

North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy

This is not the story, however, that Bacon tells in New Atlantis. In this story, European sailors cross the Atlantic only to lose their way in uncharted seas. And in this wilderness, they discover an imaginary commonwealth, in the ancient style, that has no need of their innovations. Bensalem is a land “beyond both the old world and the new” that possesses its own secret navigational art, forgotten even by the Greeks. And it uses this secret art to gather a store of knowledge and power superior to that of all other nations, past and present. Bacon’s New Atlantis is not a premonition of the future but a thought experiment set in his own time, albeit high above and far away from the known world.

Wonders in the Deep

As Bacon sets the scene for the story, the European sailors, lost at sea, cry out for deliverance to God, “who showeth his wonders in the deep,” an allusion to Psalm 107: “They that go down to the sea in ships, … these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.” The next day, they see thick clouds that give them hope of land. They set a new course, and the day after that enter a good haven, Bensalem.

But they are not welcomed. At first sight of shore, as the sailor narrating New Atlantis tells us, they see people with sticks in their hands, “forbidding us to land, … warning us off by signs that they made.” The sailors, starving, sick, and hopelessly lost, cannot turn back, and so they stay, hoping for mercy. After a pause, the Bensalemites send an emissary to board their ship, who hands them a scroll written in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Spanish and marked with the sign of the cross. It reads:

Land ye not, none of you; and provide to be gone from this coast, within sixteen days, except you have further time given you.

Eventually, finding the Europeans both helpless and compliant, the Bensalemites allow them to come on land. They are lodged comfortably in the “House of Strangers,” given food to eat, and miraculous healing for their sick. But the narrator warns his fellows not to relax. They are paying for the hospitality they receive in information about themselves. The authorities of Bensalem have “by commandment (though in form of courtesy) cloistered us within these walls for three days,” provided attentive helpers, and forbidden them to go outside. “Who knoweth whether it be not to take some taste of our manners and conditions?” They are not yet saved:

We are but between death and life; for we are beyond both the old world and the new; and whether ever we shall see Europe, God only knoweth. It is a kind of a miracle that hath brought us hither: and it must be little less that shall bring us hence.

Miraculous Revelations

After the three days of the sailors’ confinement are up, a new man appears to them, bringing good news. He introduces himself as the governor of the House of Strangers, “by vocation … a Christian priest,” and he informs them that they may stay in Bensalem several more weeks and are now free to go outside, as long as they do not venture far beyond the walls of the city.

The sailors respond by “laying and presenting both our persons and all we had at his feet.” But he will take nothing. As a priest, he looks only “for a priest’s reward … our brotherly love and the good of our souls and bodies.” Then he leaves them “confused with joy and kindness, saying amongst ourselves, ‘that we were come into a land of angels, which did appear to us daily and prevent us with comforts which we thought not of, much less expected.’”

The next day the governor comes back with the greatest gift yet: knowledge of Bensalem. But rather than volunteer any information himself, he invites them to ask questions. Wisely, the sailors don’t ask the question that is plaguing them directly, which is how much their hosts know about Europe and how likely they are to spare their lives. Instead, the sailors get at the same concern from a more flattering angle: How  did Bensalem, being so far from either Jerusalem or Rome, come to know of the Christian faith? The Governor is pleased at the question. The story he tells is incredible.

“About twenty years after the ascension of our Savior, it came to pass that there was seen by the people of Renfusa (a city upon the eastern coast of our island) … a great pillar of light.” The Renfusans rowed out toward this pillar in boats, but “when the boats were come within about sixty yards of the pillar, they found themselves all bound, and could go no further.”

Fortunately, however, a father of Solomon’s House was with them. And it being granted to his order to distinguish “between divine miracles, works of nature, works of art, and impostures and illusions of all sorts,” he solemnly declared before God and all present “that the thing we see before our eyes is Thy Finger, and a true Miracle.” Then he prayed for further leave to approach, and his prayer was granted. As he moved closer, the pillar of light dispersed. In its place floated a small ark containing a book and a letter from St. Bartholomew, one of Christ’s twelve apostles. The book was the Bible, and the letter explained that “I, Bartholomew, a servant of the Highest, and Apostle of Jesus Christ, was warned by an angel … that I should commit this ark to the floods of the sea.”

Afterwards, Bensalem received the gift of tongues, and “Hebrews, Persians, and Indians, besides the natives, everyone read upon the Book and the 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.” From that day forward, Bensalem became a Christian nation without schism or controversy.

As soon as the governor tells this story, he is abruptly called away.

A Land of Angels

It is useful to pause at this point to anticipate a troubling development. At the end of Bacon’s New Atlantis, the narrator finds out that the philosophers of Solomon’s House possess machines for shaping, magnifying, and projecting light, high towers for spying out to sea, and “engines for multiplying and enforcing of winds, to set also on going diverse motions.” They have the power to command the winds and lift up the waves. This means that the wonders the European sailors witness in the deep at the beginning of the work are well within the power of Solomon’s House to conjure up. And, if Solomon’s House developed these capacities early on, they might also have produced the pillar of light that so impressed the people of Renfusa, a city whose name, Jerry Weinberger argues, means sheep-natured, derived from the Greek words aren, meaning “lamb,” and phusis, meaning “nature.”

This is an uncomfortable thing to notice. It raises doubts about which events in the story are really miracles, which are merely displays of human power, and which are instances of what Weinberger calls “successful religious fraud.” In granting the fathers of Solomon’s House both unrivaled power to imitate miracles and unquestioned authority to distinguish true miracles from works of nature and works of human hands, Bacon invites the reader down a conspiratorial wormhole. He gives us an unlimited field for suspicion but no hard evidence on which to judge the facts.

Bacon blurs the distinction between divine and human power further by suggesting, in subtle ways throughout the work, that the Bensalemites are something more (or less?) than human. The sailors consider themselves to have come into a “land of angels,” where all their needs are quietly anticipated and no one will take money for their work. The people are sheep-natured and obedient, but Solomon’s House wields the power of the cherubim, God’s angels of light. There are cherubim on the frontispiece of the first published version of New Atlantis, as well as on the scroll the first emissary from Bensalem hands the sailors on their ship, warning them to be gone. This scroll is “signed with a stamp of cherubins’ wings, not spread but hanging downwards.” Later, when the people of Bensalem greet the sailors on land, they stand in rows and spread their arms, almost like wings, “which is their gesture when they bid any welcome.” And when we first glimpse one of the fathers of Solomon’s House, he is riding in a chariot, topped with “a small cherub of gold, with wings displayed.”

The meaning of this symbol is easily lost, apt as we may be to picture a cherub as a cute baby with wings. But the cherubim of Scripture are the bearers of God’s presence and power. They stand guard with flaming swords over the threshold between things human and things divine. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden, God places cherubim at its gates to guard the tree of life. In Exodus 25, He instructs Moses to carve images of cherubim, overlaid with gold, to stand guard over the ark of the covenant, and, in Exodus 26, to weave their images into the curtain cordoning off the holy of holies in the tabernacle. In Ezekiel 10, they are the terrifying bearers of God’s throne. And in Psalm 18, when David, like the European sailors in Bacon’s work, cries out to God in the midst of his distress, God rides in “upon a cherub” to answer him: “Yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.”

Bensalem may be a “land of angels,” but that is precisely why it is an uncomfortable and uncertain place for human beings to dwell.

A Secret History

We pick up the story again the next day, when the governor of the Strangers’ House returns to visit the sailors. He apologizes for his previous abrupt departure but says nothing more. Again, he leaves it up to the sailors to ask questions. They pause, “fearful…lest we might presume too far,” but after much ado, betray something of their fear of Bensalem’s uncanny knowledge. They ask the governor how it happened that a far-flung island nation they had never heard of in all their wanderings has learned the languages and affairs of Europe. “For it seemed to us a condition and propriety of divine powers and beings, to be hidden and unseen to others, and yet to have others open and as in a light to them.”

The governor chastises them playfully, asking them if they think this is “a land of magicians, that sent forth spirits of the air into all parts, to bring them news and intelligence of other countries.” They answer, “that we were apt enough to think there was somewhat supernatural in this island; but yet rather as angelical than magical.” They hesitate to approach the question too closely, because they know Bensalem has “laws of secrecy touching strangers.” The governor concedes that there is much “it is not lawful for me to reveal; but there will be enough left to give you satisfaction.”

He begins with the story, “which perhaps you will scarce think credible,” that there was an ancient art of navigation, superior even to that of the great European explorers, which long ago allowed contact between the Old World and the New. The New World, “the great Atlantis (that you call America),” was then a mighty civilization. The sailors may recall, he notes, that a “great man with you” has written about this poetically, presumably referring to Plato’s myth of Atlantis in his Timaeus and Critias. All of Bensalem’s vast superiority stems from the art that brought Athens and Atlantis together. But after the fall of Atlantis, which the rest of the world forgot, Bensalem alone retained the ability to sail across oceans.

The details that follow in the long history of Bensalem are too complex to recount, but two important points stick out. One is that in the third century b.c., Bensalem’s great lawgiver instituted strict laws of secrecy, developed a sophisticated system of espionage, and established Solomon’s House, “the noblest foundation (as we think) that ever was upon the earth and the lantern of this kingdom.” This means that Solomon’s House had been in operation, and Bensalem had been keeping and protecting all the secret knowledge of the world, for three centuries before the miracle at Renfusa, and for nearly two millennia before the sailors arrived. The other detail is about the currency that has ever since been used in Bensalem: “You see we maintain a trade, not for gold, silver, or jewels … but only for God’s first creature, which was Light.” This is no ordinary human economy trading in ordinary human goods, but an angelic economy subsisting on the light of knowledge.

After his speech, the governor is silent, “and so were we all. For indeed we were astonished to hear so strange things so probably told.”

The Myth of Atlantis

Let’s pause again and examine what Bacon is doing in drawing on the ancient myth of Atlantis. In the opening scene of Plato’s Timaeus, Critias offers to tell Socrates a story he has heard through generations of whispered telling and retelling of “great and marvellous” deeds that have disappeared from the collective memory of the Greeks. Of all living Athenians, this history is known only to Critias because of his illustrious connections all the way back to the great statesman Solon, three or four generations ago. And the story itself reaches yet further back, to the old times, remembered only by the priests of Egypt, a time when Athenians knew how to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules, meaning beyond the Mediterranean, and fought a great battle with an empire on the other side of the Atlantic, the island of Atlantis, which has since been lost even to memory.

Bacon speculates on the origins of this myth in his essay “Of Prophecies.” He notes that ancient natural philosophers knew enough about the shape and size of the earth to guess, on solid ground, “that the globe of the earth had great parts beyond the Atlantic” and that they were “probably conceived not to be all sea.” But, he explains, in Plato’s Timaeus we see this obscure idea presented as though it were an ancient long-forgotten truth. And since human beings covet “divination” and love to turn even “probable conjectures,” if they are stated obscurely enough, into something more, readers of Plato’s works took this fanciful story, woven around the guess that the world is big enough to contain unknown lands, into a concrete prophecy about the island of Atlantis.

It is not surprising to Bacon that credulous men have become obsessed with discovering the lost island of Atlantis, now that European sailors have navigated across the Atlantic and discovered a vast, previously unknown world. But it is regrettable, and they are deceived. This and all such seeming prophecies ought to be “despised” and “serve but for winter talk by the fireside.”

In the New Organon, Bacon explicitly refuses to use this kind of rhetorical ploy to get readers interested in his conjectures about what human beings might discover in the future using better methods of inquiry. But if he were to dabble in a bit of “fiction and imposture,” he would do it by imitating Critias in Plato’s dialogue:

If I had chosen to deal less sincerely, I might easily have found authority for my suggestions by referring them either to the old times before the Greeks, … or even, in part at least, to some of the Greeks themselves; and so gained for them support and honour; as men of no family devise for themselves by the good help of genealogies the nobility of a descent from some ancient stock….

But he didn’t, because:

I reject all forms of fiction and imposture; nor do I think that it matters any more to the business in hand, whether the discoveries that shall now be made were long ago known to the ancients … than it matters to mankind whether the new world be that island of Atlantis with which the ancients were acquainted, or now discovered for the first time. For new discoveries must be sought from the light of nature, not fetched back out of the darkness of antiquity.

And yet Bacon did write a work of fiction, and he named it New Atlantis. Tobin Craig rightly notes that this is an odd choice of title for a work about a society named Bensalem, which is neither new nor descended from its former neighbor, Atlantis. But the title is not descriptive, it’s provocative. Bacon could hardly announce more clearly that this imaginative tale, based on the assumption that Critias’ account of the Greeks’ ancient voyage across the Atlantic did, in fact, happen, is ultimately false. Any pseudo-ancient, pseudo-prophetic teaching within it should be despised.

But he also qualifies this statement. “When I say despised, I mean it as for belief; for otherwise the spreading or publishing of [seeming prophecies] is in no sort to be despised.” A false prophecy is only dangerous if people mistake it for a sacred truth. Seen for what it is, it can serve as a window into deeply held, and often hidden, human desires and beliefs.

The Matchmaker

After the sailors’ interview with the governor of the Strangers’ House, they take themselves “for free men” and set out to explore Bensalem on their own. They meet with many things worthy of observation, “as indeed, if there be any mirror in the world worthy to hold men’s eyes, it is that country.” I will focus on a central episode.

The narrator befriends another outsider who has been integrated into Bensalem, a Jew among Christians. This man is the only character in New Atlantis to whom Bacon gives a name, Joabin. According to Jerry Weinberger, “only a blockhead” could miss its significance. Bacon adds the suffix “-in,” analogous to “cherubin,” to the name of Joab, the fearsome Hebrew general and loyal servant of King David, who helped arrange Uriah’s death so that David might marry Bathsheba. Weinberger doubts whether “the vicious Joab” can ever be turned into an angel, even in Bensalem, but that is exactly what both his name and his conversation with the narrator suggest.

Joabin, “a wise man, and learned, and of great policy, and excellently seen in the laws and customs of that nation,” tells the narrator that “there is not under the heavens so chaste a nation as this of Bensalem, nor so free from all pollution and foulness. It is the virgin of the world.” Marriage is kept, without question or exception, as the only lawful remedy for “natural concupiscence.” In fact, if one desired to see “the Spirit of Chastity of Bensalem” personified, it would be in “the likeness of a fair beautiful Cherubin. For there is nothing amongst mortal men more fair and admirable, than the chaste minds of this people.”

Joabin contrasts this chastity of both mind and body in the starkest possible terms with the decadence of Europe, where men have very nearly “put marriage out of office” by allowing them so many remedies more “agreeable to their corrupt will.” In Europe, men choose to marry, if at all, only late, and the arrangement is not seen as a sacred bond intended to produce children, “but a very bargain; wherein is sought alliance, or portion, or reputation, with some desire (almost indifferent) of issue.” From this contrast Joabin draws far-reaching implications for the moral and civic virtue of Bensalem, on the one hand, and the disorder of Europe, on the other. For chastity serves, alongside religion, as a bridle for all the vices.

After saying this, Joabin pauses and the narrator is at a loss for words, venturing at last only to say to Joabin, “that he has come to bring to memory our sins; and that I confess the righteousness of Bensalem is greater than the righteousness of Europe.” What good is it to a sinful human to be lectured on chastity by an angel? But Joabin takes mercy on the narrator and performs a kind of miracle. Angelic matchmaker that he is, he is about to broker a fruitful marriage between Bensalem and Europe, despite Europe’s lust and sin.

He begins by explaining a strange custom among the betrothed in Bensalem, putting it in terms the narrator can understand. “I have read 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.” Joabin would seem to be referring here to Thomas More’s Utopia, in which Hythloday describes just such a custom. The Bensalemites agree with More, Joabin explains, that it is wise to allow those about to commit to marriage to inspect their future mate for “hidden defects.” And yet, seeing it as “a scorn to give a refusal after so familiar knowledge,” Bensalem adopts “a more civil way.” A friend of the groom is allowed to view the bride, and a friend of the bride the groom, bathing naked in special pools to be found outside every town or city.

Taken literally, this is an unhelpful innovation on an already dubious utopian practice, a recipe for intrigue. Recall that when King David saw Bathsheba bathing naked, he was overcome with lust and committed a great sin (with the help of Joab). But Joabin has just told us that the citizens of Bensalem are more like angels than human beings, free from all lust, pollution, and foulness. They are interested in knowledge, not in sex. And he is not relating this practice to the narrator as a matter of curiosity, or suggesting he go home and institute it in Europe; he is explaining to him the process the two of them are about to carry out, albeit metaphorically.

Joabin is a trusted friend of Bensalem. He has already seen the Europeans’ hidden defects. But despite the fact that Europe would seem to be manifestly unworthy of Bensalem, he moves forward to arrange a marriage between the two, whatever that might mean for the future. And Joabin has singled out the narrator, as a worthy friend and representative of Europe, to view Bensalem’s nakedness.

Marriage and the Relief of Man’s Estate

In the preface to the Great Instauration, Bacon describes himself as establishing “a true and lawful marriage between the empirical and the rational faculty, the unkind and ill-starred divorce and separation of which has thrown into confusion all the affairs of the human family.” Later he explains that he is attempting to prepare the human mind to relate more honestly to the nature of things. In so doing, he is engaged in

the strewing and decoration of the bridal chamber of the Mind and the Universe, the Divine Goodness assisting; out of which marriage let us hope (and be this the prayer of the bridal song) there may spring helps to man, and a line and race of inventions that may in some degree subdue and overcome the necessities and miseries of humanity.

And when Bacon famously proposes, in the Advancement of Learning, that the last and furthest end of knowledge is to serve as “a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate,” he hastens to clarify his meaning with another metaphor. He compares knowledge to a beautiful young woman and lays out three possibilities for how we might relate to her.

We might imitate the Greek philosophers and treat knowledge as a heavenly creature, whom we call down upon the earth to converse with her in reverence. Or, instead, we might put her in the humiliating posture of a slave, who exists only to be applied to “lucre and profession.” But Bacon suggests a middle course: he proposes marriage. It is time to make an honest account of the state of knowledge, separating what is “empty and void” from what is “solid and fruitful” so that “knowledge may not be as a curtesan, for pleasure and vanity only, or as a bond-woman, to acquire and gain to her master’s use; but as a spouse, for generation, fruit, and comfort.”

Admittedly, the marriage Bacon proposes to make between the human mind, with all its shortsightedness and unruly desires, and the material nature of things, with all its potential power, will destroy the proud virginity of ancient knowledge. But marriage is preferable, at least, to rape. And it is an appropriate concession to the material needs and the spiritual faults of human beings in their fallen state.

Solomon’s House

Soon after the conversation described above, Joabin arranges a meeting between the narrator and one of the fathers of Solomon’s House. On the appointed day, the father invites the narrator to a private audience, during which he imparts “the greatest jewel I have, a relation of the true state of Solomon’s House.” What follows is a long account, item by item, of everything the father reveals to the narrator that day, in which the hidden purposes and powers of Solomon’s House are laid out, naked and unadorned.

Bacon gives the reader an account here of the virgin bride-to-be of lustful Europe, stripped of all her veils. Point by point, he describes the ideal of an unlimited and fully empowered natural science, what it would have, how it would be organized, and what it might be able to do. The first item on the list of revelations describes the end goal of Solomon’s House: it seeks “the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of the Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

After this comes a list of all the instruments, employments, functions, and powers that Solomon’s House has instituted in pursuit of this end. Even by modern standards, the list is both awesome and terrifying. Knowledge and power are here totally without internal direction, limitation, or restriction. Solomon’s House gives itself license to experiment with and to effect all things, including the prolongation of life, through experiments on animals, and the development of previously unimagined instruments of war and death. This is the terrible and revealing image of science and technology that scholars have so long taken for Bacon’s goal.

Knowledge perfected, virginal and uncorrupted, is not a helpless maiden any more than the cherubim of Scripture are sweet, winged babies. She is a powerhouse who can as easily bring death as life. It is little less than a miracle that the narrator is allowed to see her and survive. But she is also vulnerable in the newly modern world. Bensalem’s power comes, in large part, from her hiddenness, her ability to see without being seen. As European navigation improves, sailors are increasingly likely to wander into her waters, and possibly, to glimpse her stores. Rather than risk a protracted and violent conflict, Bensalem offers and reveals herself to Europe now, in one fell swoop.

At the end of this revelation, the father of Solomon’s House stands up, places his right hand on the narrator’s head, and says, “God bless thee, my son, and God bless this relation which I have made. I give thee leave to publish it for the good of other nations.” Bensalem’s secret is out. Who knows what will come of it.

‘If Men Were Angels’

Francis Bacon does reveal something great and terrible in New Atlantis, but it is not the goal of his own scientific project or a prophetic vision of an inhuman future. Bensalem is an image of things that are not and can never be, not a model to be imitated. It works along the lines of James Madison’s “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” or Christ’s “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” But in Bacon’s case, the lesson is more unwieldly. It goes something like this: Let that society that sees all but remains invisible, has no need to make war and no trouble maintaining peace, is granted special revelation of divine truths, and governs a people without lust — let it found an institution dedicated to the effecting of all things possible.

Any other society would be wise to hesitate. Men are not angels, we are not without sin, and we have none of Bensalem’s advantages. But we are easily tempted. We want privileged, secret knowledge of the workings of the world and of the power to bend those workings to our will, even if, when we look this object in the face, we are rightly terrified. The ancient philosophers were well aware of this, so they hid the virginal ideal of perfect knowledge behind veils or cast it high up and out of reach. Bacon imitates their indirection, in New Atlantis, but in the end he lays bare what they concealed from view.

In an age where human beings can sail around the world in ships, print books that spread ideas across nations, and kill each other at a distance using explosives, philosophy has nowhere to hide.

Louise Liebeskind, “If Scientists Were Angels,” The New Atlantis, Number 74, Fall 2023, pp. 72–89.
Header image: Mosaic in Louis Pasteur’s crypt / Wikimedia

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