Bensalem and the Failure of Atlantis: Francis Bacon’s Moral Conditions for Utopia

By Steven Matthews.

Published by The International Journal of Science in Society

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Francis Bacon has been implicated in the death of nature and the rise of an exploitive approach to science and industrialization. Much of this image, however, relies upon a cynical reading of Bacon’s religious and ethical statements which has been rendered obsolete by recent research. Bacon, and those who consciously followed him in establishing the Royal Society, were far more concerned with the ethical implications of their work than past interpretations have allowed. Although certain steps were taken toward an exploitive use of science by Bacon and the early Baconians, there was also an understanding of science as a preserving and regenerative activity established by them which influences scientific activity to this day.
This paper uses Bacon’s New Atlantis as a lens through which to view his expectation of a scientific community guided by clear ethical imperatives that limit exploitation. The New Atlantis is considered in light of Bacon’s more explicit statements regarding ethics which have come to light in recent research. The majority of the New Atlantis is not about science at all, but rather about the moral context and values required for true science to occur. Nowhere is this clearer than in the contrast between the failure of “Atlantis” in the text, and the success of the morally guided Bensalem. Bacon’s scientific utopia was more than a pattern for the foundation of the Royal Society, it was a morality tale which informed its founders, and gave modern science a lasting legacy of social obligation.

Keywords: Francis Bacon, Baconian, Royal Society, Ethics, New Atlantis, Religion

The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp.67-80. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.662MB).

Dr. Steven Matthews

Assistant Professor of History, History Department, The University of Minnesota, Duluth, MN, USA

Steven Matthews is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He has received an M.Div. from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a Ph.D. from The University of Florida. In research and teaching he specializes in the history of Christianity and the history of Science, with a focus on the foundations of both. His work on Francis Bacon has recently been published by Ashgate Press, in the book, Theology and Science in the Thought of Francis Bacon. His current research includes an examination of the role of religion in the foundations of the British Royal Society, as well as a monograph about the debate over the origins of Christmas, and an edited volume (with Mitchell Harris) on the use of the Church Fathers in early modern England. The Graduate School of the University of Minnesota has recently named him a McKnight-Land Grant Professor for his continued work on the relationship of science and religion.