Let me make it clear from the beginning that I accept a lost civilization could once have existed, but I do not believe it is Atlantis. Rather, Atlantis is a metaphor. But this said, there is a great deal of importance attached to Atlantis.
We are used to all forms of theories concerning Atlantis, but could it be that it holds a vital force within our intelligentsia and academic advancement itself? Indeed, could it fuel our idea of who we think we are?
Intellectuals go out of their way to ridicule Atlantology. And indeed, much of it cannot be classed as ‘academic’. Ignatius Donnelly is credited with beginning the modern interest in Atlantis.
This was furthered by the likes of Madame Blavatsky, placing a whole mystical tradition upon the subject. And when Adolf Hitler used Atlantis to further his maniac aims, Atlantis seemed to be discredited forever.
These elements aside, the reality of Atlantis is that it sparks the human mind at certain times in our past. And by narrating the history of the interest in Atlantis, another story emerges out of the myth of its insanity.
One of the seminal figures behind the scientific revolution and the spirit of liberal democracy that rose hand in hand with it was the English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon.
In his ‘The Advancement of Learning’ in 1605, he laid down the scientific method of experimentation above belief. However, towards his death he wrote his unfinished ‘The New Atlantis’, published posthumously in 1626.
This, above all else, was his legacy to the spirit of enquiry he had helped to birth. An allegorical romance, ‘The New Atlantis’ begins with a voyage in the Pacific. Near Peru the ship is blown off course and it comes upon the fantastic island of Bensalem.
A native tells the crew about King Solamona who ruled 1900 years before. The king had set up a series of laboratories, forming a research institute with the task of discovering: ‘ … the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’.
An entire society was built around this research institute, complete with a distinct social hierarchy, including collectors, experimenters, theorists and philosophers. The argument of the work was that knowledge and advancement could not come in isolation, but must be a collective pursuit. Hence, through reference to an Atlantis-style image, Bacon fantasised upon the future of scientific research.
SIR THOMAS MORE AND MORE
||Around the same time as Bacon’s work, a further treatise appeared by the Dominican Friar Campanella, using similar symbolism to rationalise the ideal Republic for the future. Expressing the political side of the new rationalism, its main forebear was Sir Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’.
Written in 1516, More wrote of an imaginary island where laws, morals and politics were perfect, using this symbolism to draw analogies with the system of his day. This tradition, reinvented by More, was, infact, quite ancient. It seems that whenever society can be seen as on the point of change, some political philosopher comes along to offer an allegory of an imaginary ‘ideal republic.’
Always it is alluded to as a ‘utopia’, which is itself suggestive of an Atlantian spirit, for utopia means ‘nowhere’.
From Cicero’s ‘De Republica’, through St Augustine’s ‘The City of God’, to Dante’s ‘De Monarchia’, a fantasy civilization is invented to guide us along our path to civilization and reason.
Ignatius Donnelly himself can be seen as part of this on-going political tradition. The father of modern Atlantology, he was a writer and US Republican congressman. An extreme radical, he worked in America’s seminal years following the American Civil War, which saw the country develop into the Superpower it is today.
A prophet of reform, Donnelly’s fiction carried a simple theme that American society was descending into oppression and tyranny.
Thus we have the political incentive for Donnelly to create his own fantastic, Atlantian literature as a metaphor and warning, just like More, Bacon and others before him. But is there any proof that this was his motive?
It cannot be just coincidence that Donnelly fuelled another controversy other than Atlantis. For Donnelly was one of the leading figures who tried to prove that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Donnelly wanted nothing more than to raise the author of ‘The New Atlantis’ to the status of a prophet.
From the Nazi fascination with Atlantis, to Blavatsky attempting to use Atlantis as a new spirituality to counter materialism, the entire Atlantis controversy has but one primary motivation.
Whenever a new strand of Atlantology is created, political change lies behind it, with Donnelly being no exception. And guess who was also a political activist intent on creating a new republic.
The creator of the Atlantis metaphor himself. Plato.
© Anthony North, March 2008
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