Francis Bacon’s Science-Fictional Jewish Matchmaker

January 2, 2024 | Louise Liebeskind
About the author:

While many individuals contributed to the birth of modern science, it was the English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (1561–1626) above all who formed our ideas of scientific and technological progress. Louise Liebeskind suggests a compelling new interpretation of Bacon’s novel New Atlantis, which imagines shipwrecked European sailors discovering an Edenic realm with advanced technology and moral purity. It’s worth focusing on the role Jews and the Hebrew Bible play in this book:

The narrator describes the customs and institutions of this society, which in Bacon is called “Bensalem,” Hebrew for “son of peace.” . . . But at the end of the story, Bacon turns to focus solely on the most original feature of the island, an institution called Solomon’s House, or the College of the Six Days Works. This secretive society of natural philosophers seeks nothing less than “the effecting of all things possible,” as C.S. Lewis duly notes.

The house of Solomon, in the Bible, is the Jerusalem Temple. The Christian society of Bensalem also includes a single Jew, who, according to Liebeskind, is the key to understanding the entire text:

This man is the only character in New Atlantis to whom Bacon gives a name, Joabin. According to Jerry Weinberger, “only a blockhead” could miss its significance. Bacon adds the suffix “-in,” analogous to “cherubin,” to the name of Joab, the fearsome Hebrew general and loyal servant of King David, who helped arrange Uriah’s death so that David might marry Bathsheba. Weinberger doubts whether “the vicious Joab” can ever be turned into an angel, even in Bensalem, but that is exactly what both his name and his conversation with the narrator suggest.

Joabin, “a wise man, and learned, and of great policy, and excellently seen in the laws and customs of that nation,” tells the narrator that “there is not under the heavens so chaste a nation as this of Bensalem, nor so free from all pollution and foulness. It is the virgin of the world.” Marriage is kept, without question or exception, as the only lawful remedy for “natural concupiscence.”

Joabin contrasts this chastity of both mind and body in the starkest possible terms with the decadence of Europe, where men have very nearly “put marriage out of office” by allowing them so many remedies more “agreeable to their corrupt will.” . . . But Joabin takes mercy on the narrator and performs a kind of miracle. Angelic matchmaker that he is, he is about to broker a fruitful marriage between Bensalem and Europe, despite Europe’s lust and sin.

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