Atlantis, Old and New

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


The story of Atlantis was invented by Plato in an unfinished sequel to the Republic constituted by the Timaeus and the Critias. These two dialogues attempt to relate the political philosophy of the Republic, the argument of which is reviewed at the beginning to the Timaeus, to natural philosophy. The Timaeus describes a prehistorically virtuous Athens, embodying the natural harmonies argued in the Republic, that defeats attack from the unlawful empire of Atlantis, once located in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Iberian peninsula and the North African coast. In defeat it sinks into the ocean. As Critias describes Atlantis, it was rich in both natural resources and technical developments—indeed, its technological works are described as "incredible" (Critias 118c) canals, fortifications, and palaces—but lacking in wisdom. With this story Plato raises questions about relationships between science and technology as well as technological and other forms of power.

Plato himself describes Atlantis as being recovered from the Egyptians, and the imagined island empire has exercised a continuing fascination in European literature. In the classical period, Aristotle, Herodotus, Proclus, Plutarch, Pliny, and others mention it. During the Middle Ages, interest languishes. With Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), however, the story is critically revived to address precisely the issues raised by Plato but in a distinctly non-Platonic manner.

The New Atlantis: Salomon House

Bacon's imaginary story is of a society ruled by scientists dedicated to the technological conquest of nature. For those who share Bacon's vision of scientific progress, it is an inspiring vision of how modern science and technology could promote a good society. For those who disagree with Bacon, it is a disturbing depiction of how a scientific elite could use manipulation and secrecy to rule over a docile people.

The story is about European sailors who discover an island in the South Pacific inhabited by the people of Bensalem. These people live by laws and customs that secure a life that is free, healthy, and peaceful. They are Christians, although Jews and other religious believers are free to live there without persecution. Marital unions and family life are regulated to promote fertility, monogamous fidelity, and respect for the authority of fathers. Economic life is prosperous; political life is organized around a structure of offices with a king at the top, although the king's rule is cloaked in secrecy.

The most important institution in Bensalem is Salomon's House. Bacon's description of Salomon's House is remarkable, because it is the first account of a modern scientific research institution supported by public authority to promote progress in science and technology to conquer nature for human benefit. Salomon's House is said to have two purposes—"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" (Bacon 1989, p. 71). The first purpose is knowledge for its own sake. The second purpose is power over the world. The aim is to unite human knowledge and human power.

Salomon's House has facilities and tools for studying every realm of nature, including soil, minerals, air, light, wind, water, plants, animals, and human beings. Scientists work to produce new kinds of drugs, foods, and machines. They produce flying machines, boats that move under water, robotic devices that move like animals and human beings, powerful military weapons, and artificially created plants and animals. The scientists search for ways to preserve human health and prolong human life.

The scientists in Salomon's House are assigned various duties. Some travel throughout the world secretly gathering whatever experimental knowledge human beings have developed. Others draw out general conclusions from these experiments. Others apply these experiments to develop new inventions. Still others build on this knowledge to develop a comprehensive knowledge of nature. The scientists consult together to decide which inventions and experiments should be made public and which should be kept secret. They all take an oath of secrecy to conceal whatever should not be publicized. Inventions are particularly important in Salomon's House, and for every new invention, the inventor is honored with the erection of a statue. The scientists visit the major cities of Bensalem to announce useful inventions and to help people explain and protect themselves against natural dangers such as diseases, threatening animals, earthquakes, floods, comets, and scarcity of resources. Salomon's House conducts daily religious ceremonies to praise God for his works and to ask his aid in applying knowledge of his works to good and holy uses.


Throughout his life, Bacon had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British monarch to sponsor scientific research just as Bensalem supports the work of Salomon's House. After his death, many people were inspired by New Atlantis to devise plans to set up publicly supported scientific institutions for promoting experimental studies of nature and useful inventions. The establishment of the Royal Society of London in 1682, with a royal charter from Charles II, was one of the most successful outcomes. Contemporary institutions for collaborative scientific research dedicated to new discoveries and inventions such as the U.S. National Science Foundation also seem to follow the model first depicted in New Atlantis.

The careful reader of New Atlantis may wonder about the ethical problems that arise from possible conflicts between science, politics, and religion. The religious faith of Bensalem depends on a belief in a biblical God who performs miracles, and yet the scientists in Salomon's House are responsible for judging whether apparent miracles are true or fraudulent, which implies the rule of scientific reason over religious faith. Indeed it seems that the scientists rule Bensalem through a new religion of scientific technology that secures earthly life, which replaces the old religion of pious hope in heavenly redemption. The scientific research on prolonging life suggests that the new religion might even provide immortality through the scientific conquest of death. But one must wonder whether the abolition of death through scientific technology is possible or desirable.

The oath of secrecy in Salomon's House suggests that Bensalem cannot be a completely free and open society based on universal enlightenment. The scientific philosophers must hide from the general public those experiments, inventions, and discoveries that would be harmful if they were open to full public view. This implies that scientific and technological innovation can be dangerous for society, and therefore it needs to be regulated by those with the wisdom to understand the ethical problems of such innovation. The critics of Baconian science see this as confirming their fear that modern science and technology shape social life without the free and informed consent of ordinary citizens.

Yet defenders of Baconian science point out the theoretical understanding and practical usefulness that this science has produced. By executing Bacon's project, human beings have both a greater knowledge of nature and a greater power over nature than ever before. Some economic historians argue that economic growth in the Western world since the eighteenth century has been driven largely by a Baconian view of knowledge that connects science, technology, and industrial production. Since the late-twentieth century, Baconian principles are evident in biotechnological research for enhancing physical and mental health and perhaps prolonging life. People are moving toward "the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible" (Bacon 1989, p. 71). In many respects, human beings are now living in Bensalem.


Indeed the effectiveness of Bacon's vision may even be reflected in the way the whole discussion of Atlantis, old and new, has turned away from philosophy and toward fiction and science. Ever since Captain Nemo's visit to Atlantis in Jules Verne's Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), the lost continent has been a persistent theme in contemporary entertainments. From the time Ignatius Donnelly, a congressman from Minnesota, published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), persistent interest has also focused on such historical and geographical issues such as whether Atlantis might have really existed and where. The journal New Atlantis (founded 2003) nevertheless seeks to return to that cluster of issues regarding science, technology, and philosophy that were at the heart of both the Platonic and the Baconian uses of the story of Atlantis.


SEE ALSO Bacon, Francis; Governance of Science; Plato; Utopia and Dystopia.


Bacon, Francis. (1989). New Atlantis and The Great Instauration, ed. Jerry Weinberger. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson.

Jones, Richard Foster. (1982). Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: Dover Publications. History of Bacon's influence on early modern science.

Lampert, Laurence. (1993). Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Account of Bacon's philosophic vision for modern world.

Leiss, William. (1994). The Domination of Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. Critical history of the Baconian idea of mastering nature.

Merchant, Carolyn. (1980). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row. Feminist historian's critical account of Baconian science.