Bacon's Essays: Of Nobility

suleiman-i
Suleiman I (1520–1566)

Francis Bacon discusses two types of nobility, but this essay actually begins with praise for Democracy. I will begin by noting that he uses the word ‘nobility’ to mean both ‘nobleness of character’ and ‘the aristocracy.’ He’s mainly concerned here with the latter meaning, especially in the first section.

“A monarchy, where there is no nobility at all, is ever a pure and absolute tyranny; as that of the Turks.” He means that if you’re going to have a monarch, you must have an aristocracy to balance that powerful individual or they have no restraints.

“But for democracies, they need it [a noble class] not; and they are commonly more quiet, and less subject to sedition, than where there are stirps of nobles.” [‘Stirp’ means ‘a line of descent.’ OED says it’s now somewhat rare, so we don’t have to feel bad about not recognizing it.] 

Bacon goes on to praise “the Switzers” for their stability, “notwithstanding their diversity of religion.” We are reminded that Switzerland was the homeland of Calvinism, the religion of Bacon’s mother. 

“The united provinces of the Low Countries, in their government, excel; for where there is an equality, the consultations are more indifferent, and the payments and tributes, more cheerful.”

Cheerful, yet! I find this praise for democracy a little surprising. Bacon was always a monarchist in that he always supported the prerogatives of the monarch in his advice letters and as Lord Chancellor. I believe that he truly believed in the goodness of the English monarchy. But here he is praising democracy like a wild-eyed radical. I’m shocked, I tell you; shocked.

Add majesty, subtract power

Bacon is not altogether fond of the aristocracy. On the one hand, “A great and potent nobility, addeth majesty to a monarch, but diminisheth power.” This is good. This prevents tyranny. Remember Bad King John? His nobles forced him to moderate his tyrannous behavior.

On the other hand, “A numerous nobility causeth poverty, and inconvenience in a state; for it is a surcharge of expense.” And “it being of necessity, that many of the nobility fall, in time, to be weak in fortune, it maketh a kind of disproportion, between honor and means.” How many noble persons did he irritate with this essay? He first published it in 1598 (I think), when he had no power of any sort. But how Bacon-like to tell the truth, both sides, regardless of whose feathers might be ruffled.

The ambivalence about the noble class doesn’t surprise me. He isn’t a member of the nobility, after all. His paternal grandfather was a sheep reeve for the Bishop of Ely, after all. His family is effectively self-made.

Waves and weathers of time

coughton-court
Coughton Court

“[I]t is a reverend thing, to see an ancient castle or building, not in decay; or to see a fair timber tree, sound and perfect. How much more, to behold an ancient noble family, which has stood against the waves and weathers of time!” He compares the English aristocracy to features of the beloved English landscape, which is fair enough. They certainly transformed it and then preserved it. I personally am grateful for all the lovely parks and stately homes, preserved for centuries by the oppressor class and then handed over to the National Trust for all to enjoy. Not to mention the wealth of documents preserved in those houses, dusted and polished daily by legions of English servants, who, I must remind you, were never servile.

 

“For new nobility is but the act of power, but ancient nobility is the act of time. Those that are first raised to nobility, are commonly more virtuous, but less innocent, than their descendants; for there is rarely any rising, but by a commixture of good and evil arts.” You gotta get your hands dirty, in other words. Or more likely, get your sword bloody — back in Bacon’s day, that is. Elizabeth I created only 18 peerages. She believed in nobility in the Baconian sense. James I, on the other hand, believed in the value of a hot commodity. He created dozens of fresh, new peers, including Bacon himself, whom he raised to a viscountcy. Not for money — Bacon couldn’t hold on to the stuff — but for services rendered.

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