The Essays of Francis Bacon/XIX Of Empire

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The Essays of Francis Bacon  (1908)  by Francis Bacon, edited by Mary Augusta Scott
XIX. Of Empire


XIX. Of Empire.

It is a miserable state of mind to have few things to desire, and many things to fear; and yet that commonly is the case of kings; who, being at the highest, want matter of desire, which makes their minds more languishing; and have many representations of perils and shadows, which makes their minds the less clear. And this is one reason also of that effect which the Scripture speaketh of, That the king's heart is inscrutable.[1] For multitude of jealousies, and lack of some predominant desire that should marshal and put in order all the rest, maketh any man's heart hard to find or sound. Hence it comes likewise, that princes many times make themselves desires, and set their hearts upon toys; sometimes upon a building; sometimes upon erecting of an order; sometimes upon the advancing of a person; sometimes upon obtaining excellency in some art or feat of the hand; as Nero[2] for playing on the harp, Domitian[3] for certainty of the hand with the arrow, Commodus[4] for playing at fence, Caracalla[5] for driving chariots, and the like. This seemeth incredible unto those that know not the principle that the mind of man is more cheered and refreshed by profiting in small things, than by standing at a stay in great. We see also that kings that have been fortunate conquerors in their first years, it being not possible for them to go forward infinitely, but that they must have some check or arrest in their fortunes, turn in their latter years to be superstitious and melancholy; as did Alexander the Great;[6] Dioclesian;[7] and in our memory, Charles the Fifth;[8] and others: for he that is used to go forward, and findeth a stop, falleth out of his own favour, and is not the thing he was.

To speak now of the true temper of empire; it is a thing rare and hard to keep; for both temper[9] and distemper[10] consist of contraries. But it is one thing to mingle contraries, another to interchange them. The answer of Apollonius to Vespasian is full of excellent instruction. Vespasian asked him, what was Nero's overthrow? He answered, Nero could touch and tune the harp well; but in government sometimes he used to wind the pins too high, sometimes to let them down too low.[11] And certain it is that nothing destroyeth authority so much as the unequal and untimely interchange of power pressed too far, and relaxed too much.

This is true, that the wisdom of all these latter times in princes' affairs is rather fine deliveries and shiftings of dangers and mischiefs when they are near, than solid and grounded courses to keep them aloof. But this is but to try masteries with fortune. And let men beware how they neglect and suffer matter of trouble to be prepared; for no man can forbid the spark, nor tell whence it may come. The difficulties in princes' business are many and great; but the greatest difficulty is often in their own mind. For it is common with princes (saith Tacitus) to will contradictories, Sunt plerumque regum voluntates vehementes, et inter se contrariæ.[12] For it is the solecism[13] of power, to think to command the end, and yet not to endure the mean.[14]

Kings have to deal with their neighbours, their wives, their children, their prelates or clergy, their nobles, their second-nobles or gentlemen, their merchants, their commons, and their men of war; and from all these arise dangers, if care and circumspection be not used.

First for their neighbours; there can no general rule be given (the occasions are so variable,) save one, which ever holdeth; which is, that princes do keep due sentinel, that none of their neighbours do overgrow so (by increase of territory, by embracing of trade, by approaches, or the like), as[15] they become more able to annoy them than they were. And this is generally the work of standing counsels to foresee and to hinder it. During that triumvirate of kings, King Henry the Eighth[16] of England, Francis the First,[17] King of France, and Charles the Fifth Emperor, there was such a watch kept, that none of the three could win a palm[18] of ground, but the other two would straightways[19] balance it, either by confederation, or, if need were, by a war; and would not in any wise take up peace at interest. And the like was done by that league (which Guicciardine[20] saith was the security of Italy) made between Ferdinando,[21] King of Naples, Lorenzius Medices,[22] and Ludovicus Sforza,[23] potentates, the one of Florence, the other of Milan. Neither is the opinion of some of the schoolmen to be received, that a war cannot justly be made but upon a precedent[24] injury or provocation. For there is no question but a just fear of an imminent danger, though there be no blow given, is a lawful cause of a war.

For their wives; there are cruel examples of them. Livia is infamed[25] for the poisoning of her husband; Roxalana,[26] Solyman's wife, was the destruction of that renowned prince Sultan Mustapha,[27] and otherwise troubled his house and succession; Edward the Second[28] of England his[29] queen had the principal hand in the deposing and murther of her husband. This kind of danger is then to be feared chiefly, when the wives have plots for the raising of their own children; or else that they be advoutresses.[30]

For their children; the tragedies likewise of dangers from them have been many. And generally, the entering of fathers into suspicion of their children hath been ever unfortunate. The destruction of Mustapha (that we named before) was so fatal to Solyman's line, as the succession of the Turks from Solyman[31] until this day is suspected to be untrue, and of strange blood; for that Selymus the Second[32] was thought to be suppositious. The destruction of Crispus,[33] a young prince of rare towardness,[34] by Constantinus the Great,[35] his father, was in like manner fatal to his house; for both Constantinus[36] and Constance,[37] his sons, died violent deaths; and Constantius,[38] his other son, did little better; who died indeed of sickness, but after that Julianus[39] had taken arms against him. The destruction of Demetrius, son to Philip the Second[40] of Macedon, turned upon the father, who died of repentance. And many like examples there are; but few or none where the fathers had good by such distrust; except it were where the sons were up in open arms against them; as was Selymus the First[41] against Bajazet; and the three sons of Henry the Second,[42] King of England.

For their prelates; when they are proud and great, there is also danger from them; as it was in the times of Anselmus[43] and Thomas Becket,[44] Archbishops of Canterbury; who with their crosiers did almost try it with the king's sword; and yet they had to deal with stout and haughty kings; William Rufus,[45] Henry the First,[46] and Henry the Second. The danger is not from that state, but where it hath a dependence of foreign authority; or where the churchmen come in and are elected, not by the collation[47] of the king, or particular patrons, but by the people.

For their nobles; to keep them at a distance, it is not amiss; but to depress them, may make a king more absolute, but less safe; and less able to perform any thing that he desires. I have noted it in my History of King Henry the Seventh of England,[48] who depressed his nobility; whereupon it came to pass that his times were full of difficulties and troubles; for the nobility, though they continued loyal unto him, yet did they not co-operate with him in his business. So that in effect he was fain[49] to do all things himself.

For their second-nobles; there is not much danger from them, being a body dispersed. They may some times discourse high, but that doth little hurt; besides, they are a counterpoise to the higher nobility, that they grow not too potent; and, lastly, being the most immediate in authority with the common people, they do best temper popular commotions.

For their merchants; they are vena porta;[50] and if they flourish not, a kingdom may have good limbs, but will have empty veins, and nourish little. Taxes and imposts upon them do seldom good to the king's revenue; for that he wins in the hundred[51] he leeseth[52] in the shire; the particular rates being increased, but the total bulk of trading rather decreased.

For their commons; there is little danger from them, except it be where they have great and potent heads; or where you meddle with the point of religion, or their customs, or means of life.

For their men of war; it is a dangerous state where they live and remain in a body, and are used to donatives;[53] whereof we see examples in the janizaries,[54] and pretorian[55] bands of Rome; but trainings of men, and arming them in several places, and under several commanders, and without donatives, are things of defence, and no danger.

Princes are like to heavenly bodies, which cause good or evil times; and which have much veneration, but no rest. All precepts concerning kings are in effect comprehended in those two remembrances; memento quod es homo; and memento quod es Deus, or vice Dei;[56] the one bridleth their power, and the other their will.


  1. "The heaven for height, and the earth for depth, and the heart of kings is unsearchable." Proverbs xxv. 3.
  2. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, later Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, commonly called Nero, 37–68 A.D., Roman emperor, 54–68 A.D.
  3. Titus Flavius Domitianus Augustus, 51–96 A.D., Roman emperor, 81–96 A.D.
  4. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus (also Marcus Antoninus), 161–192 A.D., Roman emperor, 180–192 A.D.
  5. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, originally Bassianus, nicknamed Caracalla or Caracallus, 188–217 A.D., Roman emperor, 211–217 A.D.
  6. Alexander III., surnamed 'the Great,' 356–323 B.C., King of Macedon, 336–323 B.C.
  7. Caius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus, surnamed Jovius, 245–313 A.D., Roman emperor, 284–305 A.D.
  8. Charles V., 1500–1558, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, 1519–1556.
  9. Temper. Balance of qualities.
  10. Distemper. Disturbed condition. Bacon uses temper and distemper in their old physiological senses. Temper, or temperament, from temperare, 'to mix,' was one's 'mixture'; distemper was a 'variation from the proper mixture.'
  11. "Vespasian asked of Apollonius, What was the cause of Nero's ruin? who answered; Nero could tune the harp well; but in government he did always wind up the strings too high, or let them down too low." Bacon. Apophthegmes New and Old. 51 (136). This anecdote is related by Philostratus, the Greek sophist, in his account of the life, travels, and prodigies of Apollonius of Tyana, v. 28.
  12. The desires of kings are for the most part vehement and inconsistent one with another. Elsewhere Bacon correctly quotes this thought from Sallust (Caius Sallustius Crispus. Bellum Jugurthinum. 113). "Sallust noteth that it is usual with Kings to desire contradictories: Sed plerumque regiae voluntates, ut vehementes sunt, sic mobiles, saepeque ipsae sibi adversae." Advancement of Learning, II. xxii. 5.
  13. Solecism. Absurdity.
  14. Mean. Means.
  15. As. That.
  16. Henry VIII., 1491–1547, King of England from 1509 to 1547.
  17. Francis I., 1494–1547, King of France from 1515 to 1547.
  18. Palm. Hand's breadth.
  19. Straightways, straightway. Immediately. "And they straightway left their nets and followed him." Matthew iv. 20.
  20. Francesco Guicciardini, 1482–1540, Italian historian and statesman; he wrote L'istoria d'ltalia, 1561–1564.
  21. Ferdinand II., 1469–1496, King of Naples.
  22. Lorenzo dei Medici, 1449–1492, 'the Magnificent,' Florentine statesman and patron of letters.
  23. Lodovico Sforza, 'II Moro,' 1451–1508, Duke of Bari, and de facto, of Milan.
  24. Precedent. Preceding.
  25. Infamed. Infamous. This Livia was sister to Germanicus and wife of Drusus Caesar, son of Tiberius. Tacitus says that Sejanus was responsible for the death of Drusus, and not Livia. P. Cornelii Taciti Annalium Liber IV. 3.
  26. The name of the Sultana Roxalana was really Khourrem, which means 'the joyous one.' She was a Russian and was frequently spoken of as 'La Rossa,' that is, 'the Russian woman.' La Rossa was afterwards euphonized into Roxalana. In 1553, through the machinations of the Sultana Khourrem and her son-in-law, the Grand Vizier, Roostem Pacha, Prince Mustapha was murdered, in order to make way for the succession of Khourrem's son, Prince Selim.
  27. Mustapha, eldest son of Solyman I.
  28. Edward II., 1284–1327, King of England from 1307 to 1327. His queen was Isabella of France.
  29. "Edward the Second of England his queen"; notice the peculiar use of the pronoun to take the place of the ending of the genitive case. It is almost always used with names of persons, particularly with those ending with the sound of s. The locution was common with the Elizabethans, but went out of use in the following century.
  30. Advoutress. Obsolete form of adulteress.
  31. Solyman I., surnamed 'the Magnificent,' 1494–1566, Sultan of the Ottoman Turks, 1520–1566.
  32. Selymus II., son of Solyman the Great, Sultan of the Ottoman Turks, 1566–1574. He was called 'Selim the Sot.'
  33. Flavius Julius Crispus, died 326 A.D., eldest son of Constantine the Great and his first wife, Minervina. He was put to death by Constantine at the instigation of his stepmother, Fausta.
  34. Towardness. Readiness to do or learn; docility.
  35. Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, surnamed 'the Great,' 272–337 A.D., Roman emperor, 312–337 A.D.
  36. Flavius Claudius Constantinus, 312–340 A.D., second son of Constantine the Great, eldest son by his second wife, Fausta, Roman emperor.
  37. Flavius Julius Constans, 320(?)–350, youngest of the three sons of Constantine the Great and his second wife, Fausta, Roman emperor.
  38. Flavius Julius Constantius II., 317–361 A.D., third son of Constantine the Great (second son by his second wife, Fausta), Roman emperor.
  39. Flavius Claudius Julianus, 331(?)–363 A.D., Julian the Apostate, Roman emperor, 361–363 a.d
  40. Philip II., 382–336 B.C., King of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great. Livy says that Philip "mandata dedisse dicitur de filio occidendo." T. Livii Patavini Historiarum Ab Urbe Condita Liber XL. 24.
  41. Selymus I., 1465–1520, son of Bajazet II., Sultan of the Ottoman Turks from 1481 until he was dethroned and succeeded by his son Selim in 1512.
  42. Henry II., 1133–1189, first Plantagenet King of England, 1154–1189.
  43. St. Anselm, 1033–1109, Archbishop of Canterbury, and founder of scholastic theology.
  44. Thomas, known as Thomas à Becket, 1118(?)–1170, Archbishop of Canterbury.
  45. William Rufus, 1056–1100, second son of William the Conqueror, King of England, 1087–1100.
  46. Henry I., 1068–1135, Beauclerc, that is, 'fine scholar,' third son of William the Conqueror, King of England, 1100–1135.
  47. Collation. The bestowal of a benefice or other preferment upon a clergyman.
  48. Henry VII., 1457–1509, first Tudor King of England, 1485–1509.
  49. Fain. Obliged or compelled.
  50. Upon this phrase, which recurs two or three times in Bacon (see for instance the History of Henry VII., page 259; "being a king that loved wealth and treasure, he could not endure to have trade sick, nor any obstruction to continue in the gate-vein, which disperseth that blood,") I am indebted to Mr. Ellis for the following characteristic note. "The metaphor," he writes, "is historically curious; for no one would have used it since the discovery of the circulation of the blood and of the lacteals. But in Bacon's time it was supposed that the chyle was taken up by the veins which converge to the vena porta. The latter immediately divides into branches, and ultimately into four ramifications, which are distributed throughout the substance of the liver, so that it has been compared to the trunk of a tree giving off roots at one extremity and branches at the other. Bacon's meaning therefore is, that commerce concentrates the resources of a country in order to their redistribution. The heart, which receives blood from all parts of the body and brings it into contact with the external air, and then redistributes it everywhere, would I think have taken the place of the vena porta, after Harvey's discovery had become known; especially as the latter is a mere conduit, and not a source of motion." S.
  51. Hundred. A division of a county in England.
  52. Leeseth. Loseth.
  53. Donatives. Gifts, gratuities.
  54. Janizary. One of a former body of Turkish infantry, constituting the Sultan's guard and the main part of the standing army.
  55. Pretorian, or praetorian bands. In imperial Rome, the bodyguards of the Emperor.
  56. Remember that thou art man; remember that thou art God, or God's lieutenant.