Bacon's utopia, New Atlantis, a Work Unfinished, is the most immediately attractive of all his works.
'What a stupendous fabric of a College for Nature hath the great St Albans reared!' exclaimed John Hall in 1646.
It convinced Peter Heylyn that Bacon surpassed Sir Thomas More 'in the excellency and sensibility of his intention', and in 1668 it elicited sympathetic praise from Joseph Glanvill:
'This great man desired and formed a society of experimenters in a romantic model but could do no more: his time was not ripe for such performances'.
This use of 'romantic' is just: paradoxically, Bacon exploits imaginative fiction to advocate the scrupulous observance of scientific objectivity in well-organized co-operative research.
Though the presentation of the ideas was original, the ideas themselves were not. During Bacon's early visit to Paris, Bernard Palissy was urging the importance of experiments, collections of specimens, and teaching by means of practical demonstrations; and libraries and learned academies of various kinds had already been founded. Bacon had himself propounded most of the scheme in earlier works. His main non-scientific theme, glorification of the family as a stabilizing social factor in society was a commonplace. The importance of the utopia lies chiefly in the electiveness with which ideas from a variety of sources were combined and given timely expression.
Bacon fired the imaginations of his readers. Instead of a cold Institute for Co-operative Scientific Research, he painted a romantic Solomon's House on the island-continent of a new Atlantis, thus associating his grand design with Solomon in his glory and wisdom, with the magnificence of the legendary civilisation described by Plato, and with the fascination of a mysterious island remote beyond uncharted seas. So Bacon roused his countrymen to awareness of the possibilities of co-operative research, applied science, and organized learning. His was the greatest influence in the creation of what is known as The Scientific Movement. The work of Palissy, Harvey, Gilbert, and most other scientists contemporary with Bacon was little noted by ordinary cultivated Englishmen, though Galileo was to some extent an exception. Bacon composed the New Atlantis in the vernacular so that it appealed to men of power and influence and to a still wider public of intelligent readers: he helped to focus their attention, their leisure time, and-their unattached hopes upon science. He inspired those who would probably have ignored science to become gentlemen amateurs in it, to favour the Royal Society; and in time his writings made the whole western world conscious of the potentialities, achievements, and progress of science; he proved that utopianism need not be mere escapism; and the precedent of his own devotion to science gave it respectability and dignity.
Bacon's expectations for science have become common-place, but the charm of his fiction remains a potent force. He sounded a bell for benefactors and thus promoted
'foundations and buildings, endowments with revenues . . . new editions of authors . . . and the reward and designation of writers and inquirers....'
Bacon's chaplain, who saw New Atlantis through the press, prefaced it as follows:
This Fable my Lord devised to the end that he might exhibit therein a model or description of a college instituted for the interpreting of nature and the producing of great and marvellous works for the benefit of men, under the name of Solomon's House, or the College of the Six Day's Works.... Certainly the model is more vast and high than can possibly be imitated in all things; notwithstanding, most things therein are within man's power to effect.
Obviously Bacon realized that his imaginary country could not be imitated in all respects: for example, its geography, history, and isolation could not be duplicated by Britain. As a matter of fact, relatively few utopias are intended to be literally copied: most of them are propounded not as goals of perfection but as norms by which readers can judge their own societies and discover some means of bettering them. It is ordinarily both foolish and futile to assume that the inventors of fictitious commonwealths believed them to be ideal or to waste time in searching for flaws and inconsistencies in their accounts. The question worth asking is: What features of this utopia are set forth as desirable and realizable?
The features of New Atlantis which Bacon hoped could be paralleled or approximated in England included respect for the dignity of the individual, calm courteousness in human relations and careful attention to hygiene, paternalism, piety, religious toleration, and reverence for the family; unfolded in this order, they take up three-quarters of the book. Their basis is the maximum utilization of available resources of men, ideas, and materials under the paternalistic guidance of men whose intelligences are disciplined and whose sense of moral and social responsibility has been highly developed. All this has been made possible in a capitalistic society by benevolent, state-supported scientific research and its results. But Bacon did not suffer from the delusion that the inventions which he lists near the end of the work — approximations or anticipations of telephones, submarines, aeroplanes and the like — would automatically bring about the moral and social regeneration of mankind. He did recognize that if men adhered to Christianity and to the best institutions and traditions of the past and also organized their talent so as to understand and control nature and themselves by means of science, in obedience to its laws, they would have prosperity and happiness, strength and health. Though he does not say so explicitly, he seems to have realized that materialistic achievement was not enough by itself: bathroom gadgets, automobiles, television sets, and atom bombs do not ensure happiness and decency. Bacon graphically showed that scientific and technological progress was desirable and practicable; but he devoted the major portion of New Atlantis to safeguards, preventives, and correctives which would prevent the intensive development and application of science from becoming a sort of Idol which would warp men's lives and thinking: hence his emphasis on the balancing and restraining factors — religion, home, philanthropy, responsibility, and charity. As he stated in the essay 'Of Truth',
'it is heaven upon earth to have a man's mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth'.
To enable man's mind to do so, his environment and attitudes had to be consciously changed by the responsible and judicious advancement of science in all its aspects in conjunction with an equally judicious retention of the tested ideas and institutions of the past.