[first published March 2011]

Francis Bacon, polymath and scientific theorist, would be proud to read that Timothy Gowers has adopted two of his own techniques in the seeking of an advancement of mathematical learning. The first is what is a sort of linguistic colonialism, that is, the taking of words with specific meanings, and the re-defining of them. Gowers re-draws the word polymath, changing it from a word indicating a wide-ranging (and approaching comprehensive) knowledge into a rather facile pun. Bacon did the same, taking words like ‘form’ and ‘metaphysicke’ and reconceptualising them so that he might bend them to his own will: ‘my Conception & Notion may differ from the Auncient, yet I am studious to keepe the Auncient Termes’.1 Bacon understood that words had power, and that in re-defining them he made them work for him and against their original coiners. Continue reading

Circle learning

[first published 18th March 2012]

The demise of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s printed edition has been greeted with an awful lot of breast-beating, not least in the Grauniad, where Ian Jack bemoans its demise in not-so unequivocal terms, and several of the commentators wax not-so-lyrical about the clumping great tomes. In an area in which information changes so rapidly and inexorably, the printed source-book is prey to obsolescence at speed. To take a cute example, the C18th children’s ‘science’ book (and I use the term loosely, because it’s anachronistic to use this term: natural philosophy is so much more accurate) The Newtonian System of Philosophy Adapted to the Capacities of Young Gentlemen and Ladies (London: John Newbery, 1761) AKA Tom Telescope went through six editions between publication and the turn of the century. Over this time several important changes were made to the text. Examples are the introduction of the Orrery as a demonstrative instrument in the 1790s, with a point being made about the slowness of the mechanical demonstrations to keep pace with new discoveries such as the planet discovered by Herschal in 1781: Continue reading

Once more, and with feeling …

There’s something about revisiting old haunts which does both body and soul good. It’s doubly interesting when these old haunts are both physical and conceptual – literal and figurative. Thursday was one of those days. It began in usual furry fashion, as I awoke to find ginger lying on my back, purring like a geiger counter in a Sellafield fish shop, patiently waiting for his breakfast. We dined like kings, and I did some ironing. Then I loaded my library gear into my satchel, donned my greatcoat and set off into the morning air.

I’m particularly fond of my coat. It belonged to my grandfather, who was a fine fellow, and is proof against wind and cold, if not driving rain and, being woollen, helps to keep one fit and firing on all cylinders. Plus it has deep pockets. I tried, as ever, to write on the train but trains are the tools of Morpheus for me these days – I sleep almost as soon as I sit down. At Victoria I mooch about a bit, not entirely remembering where I’m going to, before walking to the river. Naturally, it sprinkles with rain, but nothing too terrible, and I cross the river. The Thames was as full as I’ve ever seen it – a couple of feet below the walls on its banks, covering the pilings of Vauxhall bridge. I walk East, and am passed by joggers, all seemingly impervious to the existence of others. I stop. I have lunch. Was I dawdling? Well, yes – it’s been so long since I’ve looked at something ‘proper’ that I’m a little apprehensive, to say the least. There’s a lot of apprehension in my world at present. After moving I’ve sort of stopped. Treading water while I wait for the lifeboat or the sharks.

Lambeth Palace Library is a funny little place. There’s an arched doorway in the wall with a bell. You ring it and someone comes and opens the door. You hang your coat up, sit down in the readers’ room and wait for your book to come. It was practically empty – none of the usual smattering of nuns (what is the collective noun for nuns? A habit? A compulsion?) – so I indulged in a little tweeting. I tweet that I’ve forgotten how to do academia, and a get a speedy response, ‘you start with a long coffee break’, followed by ‘then a long lunch break’.

My tome arrives. It is a bundle of letters collected by one Gibson fellow (never did bother to find out who he was). Still, he plainly left them to the church, hence my being at the library of ecclesiology.

The scary part is opening the book. You lay it down on a big pillow into which you’ve bashed a small depression for the spine (which is around 5 inches thick), put it down spine first, and gently allow its leave to spread. Then you get distracted by the first letter you see and read that before going for the letter you want. These letters were written 390 years ago. They’re still in fantastic shape because the paper was made of old pants, not wood pulp. The record is patchy, even considering these were written by, or to, the one-time Lord Chancellor of England. There are innumerable letters missing. The one I want was to Elizabeth of Bohemia, and considering Bacon was meant to have been her mentor, the fact that only one letter remains is instructive. Any of you who believe Shakespeare wrote no letters because we have none in our libraries take note.

I’m annotating this letter for a friend – that is, sticking in explanatory footnotes, context, cross-referencing, that sort of thing. I thought I’d start by checking the transcription. This may not seem to matter, but some academics base arguments on minutiae, so whether there’s a comma or a semi-colon or how honour or colour are spelled can be important. Often you find whole words mistaken. I found 25 errors, some blatant, some contentious. Go figure.

I enjoyed the chase. It was nice to be back looking at a letter Bacon had written himself. I felt incredibly uncomfortable at first, but as I noted things such as <Ma.> Being transcribed as <Majesty,>, I felt better. To explain, the <.> indicates missing letters, or that this is a contraction, the italics in the transcription showing the missing letters, while the <,> is simply an habitual insertion …

But when I left, I was glad to leave. It was a good thing that I did, not least helping out a friend, and it was fun. I don’t preclude a bit of hard academia every now and again, but I’m so far out of the game that it will only ever be superficial. I walked past the joggers happy I’d looked at Bacon’s hand again, happier still that I wasn’t going to have to do so again for quite some time.

Sometimes, when you revisit old haunts, what you really learn is why they’re old haunts. We move on. Inexorably.

An upstart crow

Once upon a time, I was at a party. I began talking with a young lady, and the conversation turned to Shakespeare. ‘Oh’, she said. ‘Francis Bacon wrote that.’

The conversation continued thus:

Me – I don’t think he did.

Her – He did.

Me – I know a bit about Shakespeare, and I don’t think he did.

Her – No, he did.

Me – Hmm. I teach Shakespeare at university, and I’m pretty sure it was Shakespeare.

Her – No. You’re wrong. It was Bacon.

Me – Hmm. I know a little bit about Bacon, and I don’t reckon he wrote Shakespeare.

Her – He did.

Me – Ok. I know a lot about Bacon, and I’m sure he didn’t write Shakespeare.

Her – He did.

Me – Right then. I have a phd on Bacon, and I can categorically state there is no evidence whatsoever that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. For one thing, he wouldn’t have had time.

Her – You’re wrong.

Me – So … er, what do you do for a living?

Her – I’m a waitress.

Me – Well, it’s been lovely.

Now, I don’t mean to insult waitresses anywhere, but this is the single-minded idiocy that emanates from the so-called anti-stratfordians.

The release of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous has started this all over again. Now let’s get this straight. Shakespeare was not written by the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon, and Marlowe did not fake his death and then write under the pseudonym Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

I contributed a couple of things to the Guardian post on this today (http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2011/sep/05/shakespeare-anonymous-roland-emmerich?) The first was this:

The problem here is simple, really. We suffer from a post-Romantic notion equating artistic genius with the tortured artist pose. Shakespeare seems to have died fat and happy. Which utterly denies the way we want to view artists.

That the greatest writer the world has produced wasn’t a Kit Marlowe (Spy, ‘homosexual’, ‘atheist’ etc), or a Ben Jonson (cantankerous git), or even a Francis Bacon (polymath, serial underachiever, genius, practically written out of the history he began) simply will not do.

Shakespeare was too great to have been a normal bloke.

Except that he quite plainly was. Get over it, people – the author of all those great plays was … William Shakespeare.

Are we done now?

It’s all getting rather dull, this. The argument turned to Shakespeare’s ‘illiteracy’ (yes, the ‘upstart crow’ was illiterate).

This was my reply to one commentator’s asserting of the following:

My evidence that Shaxspere was illiterate :

1) His letters – there aren’t any. Can you defenders of the status quo tell us why?

2) His library – he didn’t have one.

The quill on his monument – where he was inexplicably writing on a woolsack – was added later.

This is high-level intellectual stuff, as I’m sure you can see. I got a little sarky at this point:

Wow! I’m utterly convinced suddenly.

A lacuna proves nothing – even King Lear worked that out

No letters … hmm, let me have a think. Ok. No-one kept them. They all burnt with the Globe in 1614 or whenever it was. They were eaten by rats. They perished in the Great Fire. The paper was recycled – or ‘put to posterior usage’, as one wag had it.

HIs library – how do you know he didn’t have one? Have you evidence of people writing to each other saying ‘cor, that Will, he doesn’t have any books, you know …’?

Sorry, but this is non-evidence of the highest calibre.

One anti-stratfordian told me that the Merchant of Venice contained specific legal stuff Shakespeare could never have known. But Shakespeare knew Ben Jonson, who knew Francis Bacon, who was Lord chancellor and knew a bit about the law. But not Venetian law! he crowed … well, yes, but if you think that Bacon only knew English law, and knew nothing of any other country, you’d be a bit daft – he had clients all over the place, Henry Wotton in Vienna, for example.

Just get over it. So far as we know, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. With a little help from his friends, yes … but nothing wrong with that.

Jeepers. Can we all get on with something sensible now, please?

Thanks …

The fact is that some people are desperate to believe that Shakespeare wasn’t just an actor manager who wrote the plays because he did it best. It was Jonson who started this ‘I’m an author’ nonsense …

Now, I once taught a class full of anti-Stratfordians, and jeepers were they a pain. Clever. Very clever. Well-informed. Totally single-minded.

I was teaching palaeography, or reading old handwriting. As the final test I gave them a really tough letter from 1611. After a few minutes I went to see how they were doing.

‘Stuck on the first word.’

‘I’ll get you started, then …

[blank] whereunto J referr you, sence [blank] J have [blank] of the

12 August, the which was most welcome unto me; and by the contents

thereof do rest fully satisfyed of all former doughts, wherewith

J was (before the receipt therof) much intangled, for [blank] …

They looked at me askance. But what about that word?

Can’t read it – we’ll work it out later …

but, what about that word …

And I realised the problem. They spot one tiny thing, and that’s it. The pivot point around which everything revolves.

Sorry, but like life, literature and bibliography simply don’t work like that.

The one thing may look momentous, but is the result of tons of other stuff – at least, if it’s truly significant it is.

Bacon wrote that the human mind is predisposed to find order where there isn’t any. He was a clever bloke. And a great writer. But he didn’t write Shakespeare.

The rest is silence. Isn’t it?

The garden of forking paths

Like most of us, I have my own pet fears, the fear that mildly paralyses, the fear that renders one strangely impotent.

One of mine is the fear of making the wrong decision. Taking the wrong path. Wearing the wrong shirt. It manifests itself in several distinct ways.

Today, for example (and I use the word today in the sense of one large expanse of time rather than midnight to midnight), I set about the tidying up of what is fast becoming my last academic hurrah. It’s an eight thousand word essay on how William Rawley, Bacon’s chaplain, secretary and amanuensis appropriated Sylva sylvarum, a work Rawley published in 1626/7, the year of Bacon’s death, to his own ends. He manipulated the paratexts, that is, the stuff the text is wrapped in, in such a way as to turn Bacon’s work into an approach to the new king, Charles, for patronage. Now, there’s nothing wrong with doing this, except that in not noticing that he was being, ahem, a little disingenuous in his presentation, the work, and its companion piece, New Atlantis, is misread.

The tidy up ought to be simple. A bit of clarification here, a tweak there … but as usual, I spot something and start to think to myself, ‘hang on a second, are you speaking nonsense here …’, and before I know it, I’m knee-deep in texts trying to find that quotation which floats in the back of my head but won’t quite give itself up … a passage I was so sure of suddenly becomes weak, vulnerable. I want to return to how I read it before, but don’t actually think I trust it any more.

So, at the crossroads of my career, and careering is a pretty accurate word for it so far, I’m obsessing over getting this piece just fucking so … and this makes me wonder am I doing the right thing?

There is a job going. My area. But a fellowship at Cambridge. Now. Tutorial fellowships at Oxford and Cambridge are renowned for being set-ups. Almost invariably there is an internal candidate already on the job sheet, the interviews are for show and to fulfill legal obligations. We all know it, we all know people who have been pre-selected (and sometimes they’re stupid enough to tell everybody). But do I waste a day of my life filling in what may as well be a lottery ticket, on the off-chance, knowing that it’ll only piss me off more, or do I hold my hands up and say ‘enough, no more … not so sweet and all that shit.’

The latter, I feel. But I’m terrified that that is the job with my name on it.

I walked home tonight along a foggy seafront, tumbling over similar questions in my mind. When I fucked up last year, I fucked up good and proper. In doing so I broke the heart of someone I loved very much. I then made an error of judgement, a colossal, pitiful error. Possibly an error made through my reluctance to make a judgement. An error made largely because I refused to make the decision, to admit to myself how I felt. This error – and yes, error is an awful word, a useless word that utterly fails to communicate the thought processes that may or may not have occurred, the awfulness of my behaviour. This error shut the gate. And, it seems, locked it. Simultaneously I understood. I understood. Understandably, all attempts at redress made since have been firmly, and generally politely, rebuffed. I want, well, not to return, but to underscore and move on, but in the same plain.

But I wonder. Is it simply because I hate to think I took the wrong path, because that path was comfortable, good, great actually … or because I’m scared that it was wrong all along and I really just hate to lose. Especially something so good. Well, there’s the answer.

Do I ignore the bad bits now?

And what of the path which is opening up before me?

What, indeed.

Knowledge is power?

Not so long back I wrote a rather involved comment on another’s blog. One of these business motivational guru sorts, who had clocked Bacon’s most famous utterance and was making the point that power is nothing without execution.

Naturally, I pointed out that there was an error here. Bacon did write Scientia potestas est, and he did so almost twice: once in 1598, then again in 1620. Typically for Bacon, each referred to a different sort of knowledge. The first (from Meditationes sacrae) concerned the match or mismatch between God’s foreknowledge and his power; the second concerned human knowledge and our ability to make things do what we want them to. Both very different points.

In the first, Bacon seems to have been a pretty good Calvinist, and a determinist – that is, it was God wot done it. This is what he wrote, when discussing heresies:

The third degree [of heresies which deny the power of God] is of those who limit and restrain the former opinion to human actions only, which partake of sin: which actions they suppose to depend substantively and without any chain of causes upon the inward will and choice of man; and who give a wider range to the knowledge of God than to his power; or rather that part of God’s power (for knowledge itself is power) whereby he knows, than to that whereby he works and acts; suffering him to foreknow things as an unconcerned looker on, which he does not predestine and preordain; (Meditationes sacrae (1598) in Works VII, p. 253).

The point is that for God, knowing and doing are one and the same thing.

22 years later, he published his magnum opus, Novum organum, which included a similar phrase (Scientia & Potentia humana in idem coincidunt), but this time wrapped up in some contextualising words:

Human knowledge and power come to the same thing, for ignorance of the cause puts the effect beyond reach. For nature is not conquered save by obeying it; and that which in thought is equivalent to a cause, is in operation equivalent to a rule. (Novum organum, 1620, Bk I, aph. 3, OFB XI, p. 65).

That is, if we know how it works, we can hope to reproduce it.

Obviously, this isn’t a post about Bacon, but about the relationship between knowledge and actuality. That is, how well does our knowledge map onto reality?

Now, I have no desire to start rattling on about fate and all that, though sometimes there is an inexorability about events which defies logic as much as it defies any attempt to alter its course. The irresistible force meets me. Me loses.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it seems. There is simply never enough knowledge to allow us to overhaul our instinct or predilection towards making decisions about what is going on, and then simply cherry-picking the pieces of information we need to support our views. And these views may be positive or negative.

But Bacon has a good point here – the only way to conquer nature (and this includes our nature), is to obey it. Obedience allows for comprehension, and acceptance helps to stop us raging against the dying of whatever light we are raging against at the time.

Suppositions based on the sorts of imperfect knowledge that we now see flying throughout our worlds – twitter, facebook, wordpress, SMS, email – leads to little but distress. Sometimes no knowledge is considerably preferable.

In fact, the more knowledge we have, the less we have to exercise power. Power is potential, and it becomes debased when it is exercised – exercised power necessarily debases both the exerciser and the exercised upon.

Knowledge is power. It’s just not quite the power we think.


With regards ‘Mathematics – Go Figure’ – http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/01/go-figure/

Francis Bacon, polymath and scientific theorist, would be proud to read that Timothy Gowers has adopted two of his own techniques in the seeking of an advancement of mathematical learning. The first is what is a sort of linguistic colonialism, that is, the taking of words with specific meanings, and the re-defining of them. Gowers re-draws the word polymath, changing it from a word indicating a wide-ranging (and approaching comprehensive) knowledge into a rather facile pun. Bacon did the same, taking words like ‘form’ and ‘metaphysicke’ and reconceptualising them so that he might bend them to his own will: ‘my Conception & Notion may differ from the Auncient, yet I am studious to keepe the Auncient Termes’.1 Bacon understood that words had power, and that in re-defining them he made them work for him and against their original coiners.

Bacon was also big on collaboration, as demonstrated in his New Atlantis and various other works, but more importantly, he invented what was, within the confines of the available technology, open-source natural philosophy. He was explicit in his suggestion that should a reader find an error in his work, they ought to change it, or at least suggest how to make it better. It worked. In Sylva sylvarum, Bacon write on the imitation of the human voice, noting en passant that ‘I have known a dog, that if one howled in his ear, he should fall howling a great while.’Dutifully, one reader followed Bacon’s earlier prescription, writing these words in the book’s margin:I hav tried this expt, but the dogg must love him who doth it.’2 Wisdom, indeed.

Bacon would, however, also be somewhat disappointed. He lost faith in the genius of his own times, and entrusted his thoughts to the future:knowing well enough the nature of the things that I impart, I deal out work for ages to come.’ Open collaboration, especially at a distance, and the re-meaning of words was something Bacon recommended four hundred years ago, so when Jim Giles writes of Gower’s collaborative ‘polymathematics’ that ‘there are now tentative signs that science is catching on too’, he is just a little behind the times.

The long version:

Francis Bacon would be proud of Timothy Gowers, and for two different reasons. The first, and perhaps most surprising, is for his re-definition of the word ‘Polymath’. Gowers takes a word which has a very specific meaning, and re-uses it as a somewhat facile pun. Francis Bacon hails from an era when being a ‘proper’ polymath, that is, being in possession of large and wide-ranging gobbets of knowledge was still theoretically possible. These enlightened times perhaps make it impossible to be in possession of anything but a tiny percentage of that known – perhaps erudition is all that we can hope for. Far from being critical of this re-drawing of the word’s definition, Bacon would have approved, as one of his tactics in his campaign against the evils of received knowledge was exactly the same. He wrote in his Advancement of Learning (1605) that ‘I vse the word METAPHISICKE, in a differing sense, from that, that is receiued: And in like manner I doubt not, but it will easilie appeare to men of iudgement, that in this and other particulars, wheresoeuer my Conception & Notion may differ from the Auncient, yet I am studious to keepe the Auncient Termes’.3 That is, he kept the word, but changed what it meant. An Early Modern Humpty Dumpty, if you like. But for Bacon it was a serious, not a frivolous business. In re-defining terms used by ancients such as Aristotle and Plato, he not only used language that they recognised, but in making them re-assign new meanings to these old words, he wrestled them from their original context: this was linguistic colonisation.

The second aspect of Gowers’s ‘polymath’ idea is that of collaboration, and the denial of the primacy of the ‘lone genius’. Bacon’s entire philosophical programme, or Instauration as he called it, relied on the brains and hours of many, all working towards the same goal. Like Gowers, Bacon explicitly invited his readers to change his work when they saw errors:

For my own part, if I have wrongly given credit to anything, or grown sleepy or inattentive, or become weary on my way and left the investigation unfinished, I nevertheless make the things plain for all to see, so that my mistakes can be spotted and separated out before the body of science is further infected by them, and also so that my labours can be carried on easily and expeditiously.4

Now, Bacon may have been slightly disingenuous, but the principle was plain – his natural philosophy was open source. Now, the question is whether anyone actually joined in with Bacon’s new way of doing knowing. The example of the Royal Society is perhaps a little simplistic, not least because Bacon’s influence has been over-emphasised over the years. But one just has to look at his Sylva sylvarum, a rather odd (and misunderstood) compendium or collection of natural historical observations and experiments published shortly after his death in 1626 to find evidence for Bacon’s open source natural history bearing fruit – if rather odd fruit. It’s not the fact that Sylva was accompanied by his New Atlantis, the so-called scientific utopia, which contains the ‘blueprint’ for collaborative scientific research, but the margins where the student ought to look. One copy, lodged in the British Library, has marginalia from now fewer than five hands, most of which comment on, correct or cross-reference the printed material. One reader has plainly thought long and hard about the experiments contained within, and has even carried them out: exactly what Bacon intended. Experiment 238 concerns the imitation of the human voice by animals, asserting that only birds can do so, and that apes cannot, before commenting in a sort of aside, that ‘It is true that I have known a dog, that if one howled in his ear, he should fall howling a great while’.5 In the ample margins next to Experiment 238, the diligent, co-operative reader has written the following:

I hav tried this

expt, but the dogg

must love him

who doth it6

Jim Giles writes of this sort of collaboration that ‘there are now tentative signs that science is catching on too’. In his later works, written while disgraced and his hopes for a ‘publically-funded’ scientific institute were dashed, Bacon repeated like a mantra that he was writing ‘to present and future ages’. Indeed, Bacon went further, writing in the late and long-lost Abecedarium novuum naturae that

As for me, I am pretty sure that, because I have little faith in the genius of our times, my own words (as far as the work of instauration is concerned) could be accused of lacking an age or era to match them. […] That is why I am devoted to posterity and put forward nothing for the sake of my name or taste of others, but, knowing well enough the nature of the things that I impart, I deal out work for ages to come.7

Bacon would be overjoyed that Timothy Gowers had adopted both his technique of linguistic colonialism and the idea of open-source science. This Joy, however, might well turn to despair when he realised that they thought it was a new idea.

1 OFB IV, p. 80-1.

2 BL, Sylva sylvarum, 928.f.14, I2r.

3 OFB IV, p. 80-1.

4OFB, XI, p. 21.

5 BL, Sylva sylvarum, 928.f.14, I2r.

6 BL, Sylva sylvarum, 928.f.14, I2r.

7 OFB, XIII, p. 173.

Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis

My entry in the Literary Encyclopedia

Known primarily for the section on Salomons House, the supposed blueprint for the Royal Society, New Atlantis is one of only two fictional texts written by Sir Francis Bacon (1563-1626), natural philosopher and statesman, and occupies a precarious position in his canon. While in many ways a “utopian” text similar to Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602; 1623) and More’s Utopia (1516), to which it cheekily refers, it simultaneously subverts, manipulates and pulls itself clear of such generic bindings.

Appearing unheralded at the back of Sylva sylvarum (1626), a sort of compendium of natural historical experiments and observations published a few short months after Bacon’s death, New Atlantis lacks definitive evidence of authorial intention. All material relating to the circumstances of its composition (scholarly estimations range from 1613 to 1625), publication, purpose and meaning stem from its editor, William Rawley, latterly Bacon’s chaplain, secretary and amanuensis: it is not mentioned in Bacon’s works or letters. Rawley does, however, give two versions of its status: one accompanying the original vernacular edition, another the Latin translation which appeared in Operum moralium et civilium tomus (1638). In his rather sketchy letter “To The Reader”, Rawley refers to it as a “fable”, noting that Bacon intended (but failed) to incorporate a series of laws to form “the best State or Mould of a Commonwealth” (New Atlantis, a2r) connecting it squarely to both More’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic and finishes the text with the words “The rest was not perfected”. We have nothing but Rawley’s word for this, however.

Beginning like a typical travel narrative, New Atlantis could have been taken straight from Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations (1599/1600):

WEE sayled from Peru, (wher wee had continued by the space of one whole yeare,) for China and Iapan, by the South Sea; taking with vs Victuals for twelue Moneths. (a3r)

First becalmed, then lost in an “vtterly vnknowne” (a3r) part of the South Sea, the crew finally abandon all hope of survival. It is then that the island of Bensalem (which translates as son of peace) reveals itself. The sailors rejoice, praise God, and make for land. Their reception is cordial but firm, and the Bensalemites question them on their religion. Assured that no blood has been shed by the crew for forty days, they transfer the sailors to the Strangers’ House, where they are quarantined for a further three days before being given limited licence to remain on the island.

Part hospital, part quarantine, part guest house, Strangers’ House has lain unoccupied for thirty-seven years, as the island is so rarely discovered, and here the sailors get their first taste of Bensalemite food, which, as happens so often in New Atlantis, is not only shown to be superior to European fare, but is described in terms which mix the familiar with the exotic:

Dinner was serued in; VVhich was right good Viands, both for Bread, and Meate: Better then any Collegiate Diett, that I haue knowne in Europe […] A Drink of Graine, such as is with vs our Ale, but more cleare: And a kinde of Sider made of a Fruit of that Cuntry; A wonderfull pleasing and Refreshing Drink. Besides, ther were brought in to vs, great store of those Scarlett Orenges, for our Sick; which (they said) were an assured Remedy for sicknes taken at Sea (b1v)

The Governor of the House of Strangers, from whom they learn of the island’s spiritual and temporal history, a Christian Priest “by vocation”, is described as “clothed in Blew […] saue that his Turban was white, with a small red Crosse on the Topp” (b2r), perhaps evidence of the non-denominational Christianity which exists on the island. He explains the terms of the sailors’ licence to remain before answering the narrator’s question regarding the island’s conversion to Christianity by stating that it was “About twenty Yeares after the Ascension of our Saviovr” (b3v). A pillar of light appeared off the east coast which no boat could approach. A “wise man” from Salomons House, the island’s “scientific” institute, however, certified it as a miracle, upon which his boat was allowed to move closer   an early connection between religious devotion and natural philosophy. The wise man approaches to find an ark of cedar which opened to reveal “a Booke, and a Letter” (b4r). The letter, from Saint Bartholomew, states that God’s providence has guided the ark and brings salvation, while the book

conteined all the Canonicall Bookes of the Old and New Testament, according as you haue them; (For we know well what the Churches with you receiue😉 And the Apocalypse it selfe; And some other Bookes of the New Testament, which were not at that time written (b4r)

This statement is typical of New Atlantis, as it demonstrates the superior knowledge of the Bensalemites, who “know well most part of the Habitable World, and are our selues vnknowne”, and also the nature of their scriptures – given directly to the Bensalemites rather than mediated through the apostles in the Western tradition. Furthermore, they come pre-translated, as “There was also in both these writings, as well the Booke, as the Letter, wrought a great Miracle, Conforme to that of the Apostles, in the Originall Gift of Tongues” (b4v). Bensalemite Christianity is perfect, unriven by controversy, and truly sola scriptura. Indeed, Christianity is the driving force behind the islanders’ activities, and much of the reason why the sailors are greeted so warmly.

The Governor follows his spiritual history with a temporal history, accentuating Bensalem’s longevity, as three thousand years previously,

This Island, (as appeareth by faithfull Registers of those times) had then fifteene hundred strong Ships, of great content. Of all this, there is with you sparing Memory, or none; But we haue large Knowledge thereof (c1v)

This is but one of many references to unbroken record-keeping on the island, asserting Bensalem’s superior “tradition” over that of the Europeans while simultaneously allowing for a culture within which the production of a Baconian natural history might be accomplished. Bensalem, explains the Governor, avoided the fate of the other great nations of that time because King Salomon framed a series of rules which effectively hid the island from the view of the rest of the world, protecting it from malign influences. This, combined with a policy of assimilating those rare visitors who happen across the island, means that

in so many Ages since the Prohibition, wee haue memory not of one Shipp that euer returned, and but of thirteene Persons only, at seuerall times, that chose to returne in our Bottomes. What those few that returned may haue reported abroad I know not. But you must thinke, Whatsoeuer they haue said, could bee taken where they came, but for a Dreame (c3v)

The narrator then details the social make-up of the island, firstly through an explanation of a ritual called the Feast of the Family, a great honour accorded to “any Man, that shall liue to see thirty Persons, descended of his Body, aliue together, and all aboue 3 yeares old” (d1r) and secondly through his discourse with Joabin, a Jewish merchant who explains the Bensalemite marriage customs (gently poking fun at More’s Utopia), before he is “commanded away in hast”, returning only to inform the narrator that “one of the Fathers of Salomons House, will be here this day Seuennight: Wee haue seene none of them this Dozen Yeares. His Comming is in State; But the Cause of his coming is secret” (d4v).

The narrator is duly given an audience with the father (though not until over a page is spent describing his splendid attire and glorious retinue – the Bensalemites place great store, it seems, on their mode of dress, using it to communicate both status and function), who gives the narratorthe greatest Jewell I haue […] a Relation of the true State of Salomons House (e2r). For the majority of commentators this descriptive narrative is the focal point of New Atlantis: indeed, Rawley’s letter “To The Reader” states

THis Fable my Lord deuised, to the end that He might exhibite therein, a Modell or Description of a Colledge, instituted for the Interpreting of Nature, and the Producing of Great and Marueilous Works for the Benefit of Men; Vnder the Name of Salomons House, or the Colledge of the Sixe Dayes Works (a2r)

While keen that his natural historical project be carried out, Bacon saw that it was “plainly a work for a king or pope, or some college or order” (LL, VII, p. 533) and the dedicatory letter which accompanied the Instauratio magna of 1620 – Bacon’s magnum opus which included Novum organum – was essentially an extended plea for James to provide suitable finance. It may be that the founding of Salomons House was a coded criticism of James’s refusal to cough up the cash – James considered himself a new Solomon. The Governor of the House of Strangers noted that

amongst the Excellent Acts of that King, one aboue all hath the preheminence. It was the Erection, and Institution of an Order, or Society, which wee call Salomons House; The Noblest Foundation, (as wee thinke,) that euer was vpon the Earth; And the Lanthorne of this Kingdome. It is dedicated to the Study of the Works, and Creatures of God (c4r)

The father states that “The End of our Foundation is the Knowledge of Causes, and Secrett Motions of Things; And the Enlarging of the bounds of Humane Empire, to the Effecting of all Things possible” (e2r), echoing the rhetoric of Bacon’s Advancement of Learning and Novum organum. He then lists the various experiments and trials undertaken by the brothers of Salomons House, the advances in plant and animal husbandry, food manufacture, munitions, the prolongation of life, and so on. In doing so, the father accentuates not only the ongoing nature of the research, the time it has taken and its success, but its application to actual problems – this is operative, not speculative power.

As with Bacon’s own programme, Salomons House relied on the gathering of information over long periods of time, something allowed for by Salomon’s wisdom in assuring Bensalem’s temporal stability. The institute was tightly organised, with information collected according to the Baconian natural historical principles elucidated over the course of his works by several dedicated groups, not least the Parasceve of 1620.

The first such group, often mistaken for intellectual thieves, were the merchants of light: a group of twelve “that Sayle into Forraine Countries” to collect “the Bookes, and Abstracts, and Patternes of Experiments of all other Parts” (f4r). The raw information is organised by groups of three: the Depredatours collect the experiments in books; the Mystery-Men collect the experiments of the mechanical arts; the Pioners or Miners try new experiments. Then the Compilers “Drawe the Experiments of the Former Foure into Titles, and Tables, to giue the better light, for the drawing of Obseruations and Axiomes out of them” (f4v), before the Dowry-men investigate these experiments for things of use. The whole body meets to consider all that has been collected, before the Lamps direct new, more penetrating experiments, the Inoculatours carry out these experiments, and the Interpreters of Nature “raise the former Discoueries by Experiments, into Greater Obseruations, Axiomes, and Aphorismes” (g1r).

Having explained the workings, the rationale, and the successes of Salomons House, the father does something very strange, something which has gone un-noticed by critics who obsess over the final, editorial insertion of “The rest was not perfected”:

And when Hee had sayd this, Hee stood vp: And I, as I had beene taught, kneeled downe, and He layd his Right Hand vpon my Head, and said; G O D Blesse thee, my Sonne; And G O D blesse this Relation, which I haue made. I giue thee leaue to Publish it; for the Good of other Nations; For wee here are in G O D S Bosome, a Land vnknowne. And so hee left mee; Hauing assigned a Valew of about two Thousand Duckets, for a Bounty to mee and my Fellowes. For they giue great Largesses, where they come, vpon all occasions (g2r)

The narrator essentially becomes the mouthpiece of the father, an act which harks back to Bacon’s first piece of fictional writing, the Redargutio philosophiarum, in which the narrator recounts a speech given by “a man of peaceful and serene air, save that his face had become habituated to the expression of pity” (Farrington, p. 104) a description pre-figuring that of the father of Salomons House, “a Man of middle Stature, and Age, comely of Person, and had an Aspect as if he pittied Men” (e1r).

After publication, New Atlantis was regularly appropriated, with a continuation being published in 1660 by “R. H.” (who some take to be Robert Hooke), an explicitly Rosicrucian version appearing in John Heydon’s Holy Guide (1662), and Thomas Bushell stating that he would leave “after my debts paid a magnificent Monument in memory of my most deserving Master, by finishing his SOLOMONS House in all its dimensions, and with all the accommodations and endowments thereof, according to his Lordships own Heroick Idea” (Bushell, A3r). Naturally, Bushell failed to create the research institute in the flesh, but the idea was powerful enough for Samuel Hartlib to invite Comenius to England in 1641 to begin the “construction” of the “Invisible College”, based on Salomons House, while Joseph Glanvill called Bacon’s fictional institution a “Prophetick Scheam of the ROYAL SOCIETY” (Glanvill, c1v).

A rich and rewarding text whose influence on the “scientific” endeavours of the following centuries is, like much of Bacon’s oeuvre, underappreciated, New Atlantis bears several generic “utopian” features, while neatly encapsulating Bacon’s ideas on religion, natural philosophy, morality, and history. Even the “new” in the title reflects Bacon’s iconoclasm and desire to overthrow lazy dependence on received authority, and replace it with a natural philosophical authority as delineated in his Novum organum, itself an appropriation of the Organum of Aristotle, Bacon’s bête noire. In New Atlantis, Bacon simply wished to show how mankind could “make it new”.


Bacon, Francis, Sylva Sylvarum: or A natural history, in ten centuries (London: J. H. for William Lee, 1626/7)

The Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Alban and Lord Chancellor of England, ed. by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 7 vols, (London: Longmans, 1861-74) (abbr to Works)

The Works of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Alban and Lord Chancellor of England, ed. by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 7 vols, (London: Longmans, 1857-9) (Abbr to LL)

Bushell, Thomas, Mr Bushell’s Abridgement of the Lord Chancellor Bacon’s Philosophical Theory in Mineral Prosecutions (London: 1659)

Farrington, Benjamin, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, an essay on its development from 1603 to 1609, with new translations of fundamental texts (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1964)

Glanvill, Joseph, Scepsis scientifica (London: E. Cotes for Henry Eversden, 1665)

Recommended reading:

Denise Albenese, New Science, New World (London: Duke University Press, 1996).

John M. Archer, Sovereignty and Intelligence: Spying and Court Culture in the English Renaissance (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1993).

Marina Leslie, Renaissance Utopias and the Problem of History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

Bronwen Price, ed, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis: New Interdisiplinary Essays (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002).

Sharon Achinstein, ‘How to be a progressive without looking like one: history and knowledge in Bacon’s New Atlantis’, CLIO, 17 (1988), 249-64.

N. I. Matar, ‘The sources of Joabin’s speech in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis’, Notes and Queries, n.s. 41 (1994), 75-78.

David Renaker, ‘A miracle of engineering: the conversion of Bensalem in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis’, Studies in Philology, 87 (1990), 181-93.

Jose Maria Rodriguez Garcia, ‘Patterns of Conversion in Francis Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis”, Literature Interpretation Theory, 17 (2006), 179-211

Travis DeCook, ‘The Ark and Immediate Revelation in Francis Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis”, Studies in Philology (2007), 103-22.

Chloë Houston, ‘”An Idea for a Principality”? Encountering the East in Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis”, The Seventeenth Century ( ) 22-30.

Pete Langman, ‘The Future Now: chance, time, and natural divination in the thought of Francis Bacon’, in The Uses of the Future in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Andrea Brady and Emily Butterworth (Routledge, 2009).