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The New Atlantis

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The New Atlantis is a utopian fantasy by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) set in the fictitious country of Bensalem located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The society of this land is characterized by Christian laws and ethics and, most importantly for the long-term significance of the work, the establishment of a special institution, Solomon's House, dedicated to intellectual and scientific pursuits. The description of this establishment, which can be likened to a prototype of the modern research institute, has been credited with being one of the significant influences leading to the founding of the Royal Society later in the 17th century.

Synopsis

A group of European voyageurs, setting sail across the Pacific Ocean, are blown off course, eventually arriving at a hitherto unknown (to Europeans) land. The land proves to be inhabited by a Christian people familiar with European languages. After receiving the voyageurs word that they too were Christian, the inhabitants administer an oath to them and, taking due care to prevent the spread of any infectious illnesses, permit them to land.

Once on land, the travellors are domiciled in Strangers' House, where they are hospitably hosted and their sick cared for. After three days allotted for rest, during which time they are observed with a view to ascertaining their manners and character, the guests are visited by the director of the House, a Christian priest, who informs them concerning the conditions of their stay. All of the guests are deeply impressed by the virtue and generosity of their hosts ("saying amongst ourselves that we were come unto a land of angels" as the narrator expressed it).

The next day the director returned for a friendly visit. He informed the travellors that they were landed on the island of Bensalem and that the island's inhabitants were well acquainted with the rest of the world, but that, for a variety of reasons, the contrary was not the case. He then invited the visitors to ask questions of him.

Their first question concerned how the islanders came to be evangelized. Their host replied that the Apostle Bartholomew, in obedience to an angel of the Lord, had set a cedar chest adrift in the sea and that this chest, through miraculous divine guidance, had come to their island. The chest contained the complete books of the Old and New Testaments, including those yet to be written at the time Bartholomew set it adrift.

After a break, the visit continued with the guests inquiring as to how it came about that their hosts were so well acquainted with the rest of the world but how the contrary was not the case. Their host then related that, at a time in the distant past, intercourse among all the nations of the world had been much greater than at present; that there came a decline, on the part of other nations, in navigation, and in some places, civilization generally, thus accounting for the absence of knowledge on the part of the outside world; but that his land (Bensalem) had escaped this decline.

It was explained further that, long in the past, his country had been ruled by a wise king who set forth rules governing the hospitable treatment of such foreigners as might happen to come upon the island. Such inadvertant visitors were to be permitted to stay, or to return, according to their wishes. In the event, almost all had chosen to stay and, those few returning, should they give report of their adventures, were unlikely to be believed. Thus the knowledge of Bensalem was preserved from outsiders.

As to the second part of their inquiry, this same king forbid their own citizens from leaving the land to visit other countries, with the exception of expeditions set forth periodically to collect knowledge and information about the rest of the world. And this explains how they remained informed about other countries. These expeditions were under the direction of an institution set up by that same king for the study of "the works and creatures of God". Called Solomon's House, it was said to be "the very eye of this kingdom".

At this point, the guests are permitted to roam about the city and, in the course of their explorations, some of their number are invited to attend a "feast of the family". This is an elaborate, quasi-religious ceremony which honors the patriarch of a family who can count at least 30 living descendants above the age of 3 years and at which the king invests the honoree with divers privileges and honors.

Following this, the narrator reports on a conversation with a merchant of the city touching upon such matters as the situation of the Jews in Bensalem and their marriage customs and general mores regarding the relations between men and women.

Here the narrator receives news of the impending visit to the city of one of the fathers of Solomon's House. This is a major event in the life of the city, infrequent in nature, and calls for a state procession with a formal entry. On the day of the visit, he was brought into the city carried in an elaborate and richly decorated litter, preceded and followed by numerous attendants and dignitaries. Multitudes of the citizens lined the streets to gaze upon the almost god-like personage, and to complete the quasi-religious nature of the event, "he held up his bare hand, as he went, as blessing the people".

In a show of great honor, the father agrees to receive the company of voyageurs and to bless them as well as to hold a private conference with one of their number.

After receiving the entire company from his throne and blessing them as they bent over and kissed the hem of his garment, all but the one selected for the private audience were dismissed.

At this point, there was imparted to the visitor "a relation of the true state of Solomon's House", beginning with a statement of the purpose as the "knowledge of causes, and secret notions of things, and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible".

There followed a brief description of the various areas of inquiry of the fellows of the House, which included botany, medicine, meteorology, zoology, physiology, mechanical arts, optics, mineralogy, metallurgy, music, machinery, chemistry, and mathematics. All of these investigations took place within the bounds of a substantial facility, as like a large park or reservation set aside for just such a purpose.

The host then explained the duties and responsibilities of the fellows. Among other things, several are directed to scoure the outside world for knowledge, books, and experimental results. Apart from that, the fellows also conduct their own theoretical and applied research and maintain publications to disseminate information. All is overseen by a system of peer review, with a hierocratic, academic division of labor with special groups devoted to each particular task, including the approval of future experimentation and the supervision of apprentices.

Finally, he described various ordinances and rites, hymns and services, prayers and daily rituals associated with this essentially religious enterprise.

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