The Works of Francis Bacon, Volume 1/Essays/Of Ambition

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XXXVI. OF AMBITION.

Ambition is like choler, which is an humour that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped: but if it be stopped, and cannot have its way, it becometh a dust, and thereby malign and venomous: so ambitious men, if they find the way open for their rising, and still get forward, they are rather busy than dangerous; but if they be checked in their desires, they become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye, and are best pleased when tilings go backward; which is the worst property in a servant of a prince or state: therefore it is good for princes, if they use ambitious men, to handle it so, as they be still progressive, and not retrograde, which, because it cannot be without inconvenience, it is good not to use such natures at all: for if they rise not with their service, they will take order to make their service fall with them. But since we have said, it were good not to use men of ambitious natures, except it be upon necessity, it is fit we speak in what cases they are of necessity. Good commanders in the wars must be taken, be they never so ambitious; for the use of their service dispenseth with the rest; and to take a soldier without ambition, is to pull off his spurs. There is also great use of ambitious men in being screens to princes in matters of danger and envy; for no man will take that part except he be like a seeled dove, that mounts and mounts, because he cannot see about him. There is use also of ambitious men in pulling down the greatness of any subject that overtops; as Tiberius used Macro in the pulling down of Sejanus. Since, therefore, they must be used in such cases, there resteth to speak how they are to be bridled, that they may be less dangerous; there is less danger of them if they be of mean birth, than if they be noble; and if they be rather harsh of nature, than gracious and popular: and if they be rather new raised, than grown cunning and fortified in their greatness. It is counted by some a weakness in princes to have favourites; but it is, of all others, the best remedy against ambitious great ones: for when the way of pleasuring and displeasuring lieth by the favourite, it is impossible any other should be over great. Another means to curb them is, to balance them by others as proud as they: but then there must be some middle counsellors, to keep things steady; for without that ballast the ship will roll too much. At the least, a prince may animate and inure some meaner persons to be, as it were, scourges to ambitious men. As for the having of them obnoxious to ruin, if they be of fearful natures, it may do well; but if they be stout and daring, it may precipitate their designs, and prove dangerous. As for the pulling of them down, if the affairs require it, and that it may not be done with safety suddenly, the only way, is the interchange continually of favours and disgraces, whereby they may not know what to expect, and be, as it were, in a wood. Of ambitions, it is less harmful the ambition to prevail to great things, than that other to appear in everything; for that breeds confusion, and mars business; but yet, it is less danger to have an ambitious man stirring in business, than great in dependences. He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men, hath a great task; but that is ever good for the public: but he that plots to be the only figure amongst ciphers, is the decay of a whole age. Honour hath three things in it; the vantage ground to do good; the approach to kings and principal persons; and the raising of a man a own fortunes. He that hath the best of these indentions, when he aspireth, is an honest man; and that prince that can discern of these intentions in another that aspireth, is a wise prince. Generally, let princes and states choose such ministers as are more sensible of duty than of rising, and such as love business rather upon conscience than upon bravery; and let them discern a busy nature, from a willing mind.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.