23 pages 46 minutes read

Francis Bacon

New Atlantis

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1627

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “New Atlantis”

New Atlantis is an unfinished novel published posthumously in 1626 by the English philosopher Francis Bacon. It details the customs and culture of a utopian island society known as Bensalem, at the center of which lies a science and research institution called Salomon’s House. The work expresses many of Bacon’s scientific, philosophical, political, and religious ideas, though its unfinished status has made it the subject of intense scholarly debate over the novel’s meaning and themes. Bacon’s fictional Salomon’s House is said to have influenced the founders of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, the oldest national scientific institution in the world.

This study guide refers to the 2012 edition published by Start Publishing.

The book’s narrator belongs to the crew of a Spanish merchant ship sailing from Peru to China across the Pacific Ocean. After five months of strong easterly winds, the ship is blown off-course, leaving the crew stranded with a dwindling food supply. After praying for deliverance from God, the narrator spies an island off in the distance that isn’t on any maps. As the ship approaches the island, the narrator sees a port city as vibrant as any in Europe. The city sends an eight-person delegation in a small boat to intercept the ship and warn it against landing. The island’s delegates speak Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Spanish. They also hand the narrator a scroll explaining, in each language, that the ship may remain off-shore for 16 days, during which time the island’s residents will furnish them with food, repairs, and medical treatment if needed. Upon observing that the scroll is stamped with an image of a cherubim and a cross, the narrator is relieved that the islanders appear to be Christian.

Three hours later, a reverend sails out to the ship. Satisfied that the crewmen are neither heathens nor pirates, he permits them to land and to stay for up to 40 days in a domicile called the Strangers’ House. After three days, during which all of the crew’s needs are met, the men receive a visit from the Strangers’ House governor, a priest who answers questions about the history of Bensalem, the name given to the island. When asked how Christianity reached the island, the governor says that 20 years after Jesus’s Ascension, a giant pillar of light appeared off the coast of Bensalem. All of the boatmen who tried to approach the pillar were blocked by an invisible barrier. The only person able to get close to the light was a representative from Salomon’s House, an academic institution on Bensalem that is devoted to accumulating knowledge and investigating the mysteries of the natural world. As the representative came nearer, the column dissipated, leaving behind an ark containing the New and Old Testaments and a letter from Bartholomew the Apostle.

Later, when asked why the people of Bensalem prefer to keep their existence a secret from the rest of the world, the governor explains that in the distant past, humanity’s nautical prowess far outmatched that of contemporary 17th century navigators. Bensalem traded with numerous other lands and civilizations, including Plato’s mythical Atlantis, which the priest says was on the North American continent. After Atlantis invaded Bensalem, God destroyed the Atlantean civilization with a flood (the survivors of which include the ancestors of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas). After losing their main trading partner, the Bensalemites and their king Solamona chose to keep their civilization cut off from the rest of the world, concluding that the island could be “a thousand ways altered to the worse, but scarce any one way to the better” (17) if it were to make its existence known. The only Bensalemites permitted to leave are Salomon’s House representatives who conduct regular reconnaissance missions to monitor the rest of the world’s progress.

Going forward, the narrator and his crew are permitted to remain on the island indefinitely, as long as they do not travel more than a mile-and-a-half outside the city’s walls. One day, the narrator witnesses the Feast of the Family, an elaborate ritual honoring any man with at least 30 living sons, daughters, and grandchildren. The island’s focus on patriarchs and familial order is further explored in a conversation between the narrator and a Jewish merchant named Joabin, who says, “[T]here is not under the heavens so chaste a nation as this of Bensalem” (25).

Finally, the narrator is permitted an audience with the Father of Salomon’s House, who explains the institution’s purpose and accomplishments. Its mission, the Father says, is to explore “the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (30). The Father goes on to describe scientific advancements pioneered at Salomon’s House and not known to the rest of the world, in fields including agriculture, optics, energy, and medicine. He closes by giving the narrator permission to publish the wisdom and research findings of Salomon’s House for the benefit of other countries and civilizations.