One day there were two of our company bidden to a feast of the family, as they call it; a most natural, pious, and reverend custom it is, showing that nation to be compounded of all goodness. This is the manner of it; it is granted to any man that shall live to see thirty persons descended of his body, alive together, and all above three years old, to make this feast, which is done at the cost of the State. The father of the family, whom they call the tirsan, two days before the feast, taketh to him three of such friends as he liketh to choose, and is assisted also by the governor of the city or place where the feast is celebrated; and all the persons of the family, of both sexes, are summoned to attend him. These two days the tirsan sitteth in consultation, concerning the good estate of the family. There, if there be any discord or suits between any of the family, they are compounded and appeased. There, if any of the family be distressed or decayed, order is taken for their relief, and competent means to live. There, if any be subject to vice, or take ill-courses, they are reproved and censured. So, likewise, direction is given touching marriages, and the courses of life which any of them should take, with divers other the like orders and advices. The governor sitteth to the end, to put in execution, by his public authority, the decrees and orders of the tirsan, if they should be disobeyed, though that seldom needeth; such reverence and obedience they give to the order of nature. The tirsan doth also then ever choose one man from among his sons, to live in house with him,--Bacon, New Atlantis (23).
This is the second post on the political economy of Bacon’s utopian island, Bensalem, which dazzled and inspired the founders of the Royal Society. It’s a society with an advanced division of intellectual labor performed in a central research institute, Saloman’s House, which occupies a privileged position in Bensalem’s society. But what exactly grounds this privilege?
The ‘feast of the family,’ as it is called, is a state-sponsored, fertility celebration. A detailed description of it occupies about ten percent of the (rather brief) text of New Atlantis. Oddly enough, while (as we have seen) there are (Christian) priests on Bensalem, and these can perform government functions, there is no hint that the state representative, the “governor of the city,” is a religious representative. Rather, the official presence is entirely secular;* in addition to the governor, there is also a “herald” that represents the king. In fact, near the end of the feast, the herald reads from the “king’s charter,” which contains “gift of revenue, and many privileges, exemptions, and points of honor, granted to the father of the family.” (23-24) The king has quite a bit of discretionary power and also, in practice, access to royal sources of income. So, at the heart of Bensalem’s political economy is a crude trade: if you breed, you will be rewarded with property (“the King is debtor to no man, but for propagation of his subjects”).
It is unclear what happens with the off-spring who are not chosen. From other passing details, the reader learns that they can inherit some property and we are reminded that the talented can have (what appears to be) a lucrative, scientific and technological career within Saloman’s House (24). Government service also appears to be well paid.** At first sight Bacon’s Bensalem seems very strange; a closer look reveals an oddly familiar political organization.
So, while breeding among the population is rewarded, the rewards go unequally to a privileged few within a political framework that is based on property, which has its ground in the arbitrary power of the paterfamilias. This offers a new perspective on “the praises of Adam, and Noah, and Abraham” at the ‘feast of family;’ these are all patriarchs whose sons quarreled bitterly.
Lurking in the background is a crucial mystery of the island of Bensalem: if population growth is encouraged, a perfected medicine (33-5) reduces mortality (and it seems that the Saloman’s house can even revive folk from the dead), resources are unequally distributed, there must be considerable pressure on those parts of the populations that lack property. Where do the great masses of non-propertied end up living and on what do they manage to live? One wonders what the methods of population control are ultimately.
*The modest religious elements in the ‘feast of the family’ are mentioned near the end: (a) there is a hymn sung, varied according to the invention of him that composeth it (for they have excellent poesy), but the subject of it is always the praises of Adam, and Noah, and Abraham; whereof the former two peopled the world, and the last was the father of the faithful” and (b) “concluding ever with a thanksgiving for the nativity of our Saviour, in whose birth the births of all are only blessed.” (25)
**The government officials that are encountered early in the story refuse bribes (“He must not be twice paid for one labor” (6, see also 8)) .