Francis Bacon – Part II: The Secular as Sacred

If Spinoza used reason to unpack the misconceptions and misinterpretations about and allegedly found in sacred texts, Bacon made it his life’s work to set the mind on the path of discovery, first by dethroning the very idea that all knowledge had already been discovered and merely needed to be handed down by tradition and scholarship. Though approaching a problem from opposite angles, both thinkers were committed to freeing up the mind and thereby the life of humans. For Bacon, this entailed both deconstruction – the exposure to the light of day the idols of the past that have been embedded in our minds – and construction, the establishment of truth based on observation, induction, experiment and falsification.

This applied to the “Jewish problem.” In his work, The New Atlantis (1626), his model civilization is called Bensalem; religious tolerance is its defining characteristic. Though Jews had been banned from England in the thirteenth century, Jews had been allowed informally to set up some businesses in London. Bacon describes his encounter with one such Jew in Bensalem. Given its description, particularly the latter half, it is highly unlikely that it really happened. The whole story, after all, is a fable. He wrote:

By that time six or seven days were spent, I was fallen into straight acquaintance with a merchant of that city, whose name was Joabin. He was a Jew and circumcised; for they have some few stirps of Jews yet remaining among them, whom they leave to their own religion. Which they may the better do, because they are of a far differing disposition from the Jews in other parts. For whereas they hate the name of Christ, and have a secret inbred rancor against the people amongst whom they live; these, contrariwise, give unto our Saviour many high attributes, and love the nation of Bensalem extremely. Surely this man of whom I speak would ever acknowledge that Christ was born of a Virgin and that He was more than a man; and he would tell how God made Him ruler of the seraphim, which guard His throne; and they call Him also the Milken Way, and the Elijah of the Messiah, and many other high names, which they though they be inferior to His divine majesty, yet they are far from the language of other Jews.

Does this suggest that Francis Bacon was an anti-Semite? Perhaps in part, an advocate of anti-Judaism in its traditional form, but not antisemite. A deconstruction of the text in a Baconian mode indicates why.

There is an actual place called Bensalem in Pennsylvania, but the name is taken from Bacon rather than being the origin of the place Bacon describes. Similarly, though there is a place called Salem on the coast of Massachusetts where the notorious witch trials of the seventeenth century took place, Bacon could not have been referring to that Salem since the town was established the same year that the New Atlantis was published. Since Oregon was established well after the seventeenth century, its capital, Salem, had to be derivative as does the name of towns in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and South Dakota. Only Salem in Virginia and Bensalem in New Jersey might qualify.

I could have driven to Salem, Virginia, a town of 25,000, in five hours from Chattanooga by driving north-east, but it would have been of no help in understanding Bacon since the town was established 45 years after the New Atlantis was published. This is also true of the currently shrinking city of Bensalem in New Jersey of about 5,000 which I could have driven to in about a half an hour when I visited my eldest son about a month ago in Princeton. But it too was established at the same time as Salem, Virginia.

The reality is that the name has its root in the Torah, specifically Genesis XIV:18. 

יח  וּמַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן; וְהוּא כֹהֵן, לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן.18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High.

The chapter begins with a description of a war around the Dead Sea between one alliance of four kings (Alliance 4) and another of five kings (Alliance 5). The second alliance (Alliance 5) included the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. The war had already witnessed the defeat and slaughter of the Rephaim, the Zuzim, the Emin, the Horites, the Amalekites and the Amorites. Then the alliance of the five kings, that included Sodom and Gomorrah, took their stand against the marauding alliance of the four kings and were routed. Sodom and Gomorrah were both ravaged and looted. The kings of both Sodom and Gomorrah in flight threw themselves into bitumen pits. Lot, Abram’s brother’s son who lived in Sodom, was taken captive.

Abram was told of this. He then had 318 men under arms and, with his allies, went to free his brother and his brother’s son, which he did. He also recovered not only their property, but looted the property of the four kings and chased the losers towards Damascus. Following the battle that completely shifted the war effort, Abram was welcomed back as a conquering hero. “And Melchizedek king of Salem (my italics) brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High.” In other words, Abram was a war hero who totally reversed the fortunes of a number of rulers and was given a ticker tape parade in Salem.

Bensalem is the son of Salem taken from the Hebrew, shalom (שלם) meaning peace or to make whole or to complete, and ben meaning son. It is considered another name for Jerusalem, in fact, the original site of what would become Jerusalem. For Puritans, and their Baptist and Methodist successors, the name Bensalem was used to refer to a chapel belonging to a non-conformist church. According to Psalm 76:2, God’s tabernacle is in Salem. Yet it is also the location of the King of Sodom of infamous fame.

There is another personal name rather than place name in the story – the name of the Jew Bacon encounters, Joabin, also spelled Jobin. The suggestion is that it is a reference to Job, but the meaning of “in” as a suffix is not clear. It may mean a lesser Job as when we use sifron to mean a booklet compared to a sefer.  Who is this little Job?

If we look at the Book of Job, Chapters 1 & 2 provide a prologue, namely a wager between Satan and God in which Satan bets God that a pious man will abandon his faith in God if his life becomes a misery. Job loses his wealth, his family and his well-being but refuses to speak against God. However, his tone changes in Chapter 3 when he begins to curse his life. “You must have done something wrong to deserve this,” say his friends. “I’m innocent,” Job insists. Job turns to God and asks, “Why?” “Why this self-evident injustice?” And whatever the interpretation of God’s two answers, it is clear that suffering is NOT caused by sin. Job in the end remains faithful to God, both when God had been good to him and even when he was wronged.

This is not the time or place to go into the various theological debates that have arisen over the Book of Job, but the lesser Job in Bacon’s New Atlantis, in Bensalem, now overwhelmingly populated by Christians, is a Jew for Jesus, but of a very different kind than the one currently connoted by the phrase. This new Jew, Joabin, attributes to the Christian saviour lofty traits and even may acknowledge that Jesus was born of a virgin Mary. That is, Jesus is an archetype, a fictional model and not a flesh and blood being. For Joabin, Jesus was “more than a man” and assigned by God to be ruler of the seraphim. This new ideal offers a glimpse into a new source of light. In contrast, there are the “other” Jews who hate Jesus and carry a deep animosity to Christians. Why would Joabin as a lesser Job suffer for his beliefs?

There are a number of possible answers:

  1. He was disowned by the other branch of the Jewish people who despised Jesus;
  2. He identified with the suffering Jesus.
  3. He went from being a happy and prosperous citizen of Bensalem to someone, who, like Job, lost his family, his wealth and his good health.

The problem is that the fable says nothing of the kind re the third proposition. Further, with respect to the first, Joabin seems indifferent to the other branch of the Jewish family who hate Jesus and resent the Christians who have inherited Bensalem. What seems to be the case for Bacon is that Jews who accept Jesus, at least, as we shall see, this Enlightenment view of Jesus, are happy and contented and no longer even have to go through a suffering phase like Job while Jews who despise Jesus are malcontents, bitter and resentful. It is not Jews qua Jews who should be banished from England, but only Jews who reject Jesus as their saviour, that is, the new Enlightenment Jesus, as well as the traditional Jesus who, after all, can now be understood as a mythical figure given how he is characterized.

This is a midrash, a product of the imagination rather than a scientific conclusion drawn from observation and experimentation. But why would Bacon, this beacon of light for the Enlightenment dedicated to science as the means for improving the human condition fall back on a stereotype, on what he himself had labeled an Idol of the Market, a prejudicial notion unsupported by evidence and rooted deeply in a fixed perception of the other? Further, why would a man committed to science as the means for human betterment fall back on a religious trope that suggests that faith as a Christian is what delivers the goods?

As we read on in The New Atlantis, Bacon substitutes science for God as the means of satisfying and guaranteeing human welfare.  Bacon is not a believer in knowledge for its own sake. He is a proto-utilitarian. What function then does a belief in Jesus serve? Is the Christian church suddenly a supporter of science? Well, a certain kind of Christianity is, a religion which accepts reason as the light, and Jesus is that light, and education rather than surrender to the will of God is the means of salvation. A Christianity which gives a community coherence to support the utility of science is the kind of religion Bacon extolls.

So why divide Jews in to the good kind who accept Jesus as the ruler of the seraphim versus those who despise Jesus? Look at the difference between traditional Christianity’s view of Jesus as the supreme light versus reason as the supreme light. The former light is divine; the latter light is earthly. In The New Atlantis, the Governor of Bensalem tells the tale of the founding of Bensalem by Salomon (Solomon???) who creates the College of Six Days’ Works, “Salomon’s House,” dedicated to spreading “God’s first creature… light” throughout the world via the scientific prowess of Bensalem. Bensalem is the start-up metropolis inhabited by the “Merchants of Light” and “Lamps” which make empirical knowledge possible. And knowledge is power.

But the city is still an adaptation of Augustine’s City of God. Except it works through research that unveils secrets and provides material benefits – health, wealth and well-being, the very benefits God restores to Job when the latter remains faithful.

Just as God worked for six days to create the world, the College of Six Days’ Works uses reason, science and education to enable progress to usher in a new Zion in which Christianity provides the social cohesion which reason cannot provide. Christianity is instrumental in tricking people into accepting the scientific revolution and the quest for a new scientific paradise, one in which we now live. What about our original question – why offer a stereotype of the bad Jew and a utopian view of the good Jew?

Note that the religious priest of Bensalem wears clothing with both Christian and Jewish elements as well as Muslim ones. He is ecumenical. This is not a tale in which the birth of Jesus changes the course of history. Rather progress in history – and there is progress – depends on science, something which only the intellectual elites understand while the masses are carried forward by the use of traditional costuming.

Note that the Tanach appears in the sea for the sailors who seem to be substitutes for the sailors on the ship which threw Jonah overboard; it is equivalent to a hologram, an image created for effect but without any substance. The god of The New Atlantis is reason and science and he is a humanist. Insofar as Jews worship this rewritten version of God, insofar as they join the Enlightenment and, like traditional Christians, leave behind their Idols of the Market, they can join in the new religion of reason, science and the Enlightenment.

Joabin, and the Jews like him, are honest and tolerant and full of brotherly love for non-Jews. All humans belong to the same human family. Jesus, at least this re-interpreted Jesus, is a spokesperson for that view.  Therefore, Jews who no longer reject this Jesus, who accept the new sense of community, Jews who accept assimilation in the religion of reason and progress, Jews who no longer betray a dual loyalty, will not suffer as Job suffered at the hands of God.

If you recall Shakespeare’s portrait of Shylock and Marlowe’s portrait of Jews, whatever objections one might have to Bacon’s doctrine, this is a very different world than one which sanctioned the exclusion of Jews.

With the help of Alex Zisman


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s