Bacon's Essays: Of Empire


Flügelansicht eines Agnes-Retabels: Die Heilige Agnes von Rom verweigert den Götzendienst. Um 1485/1495. (I don’t know what any of that means either. I just think this king looks unhappy.)

The essay Of Empire is actually about kings. It didn’t occur to me until I started reading it that ’empire’ entails a monarch or emperor. (OED’s second definition is “An extensive territory under the control of a supreme ruler.”) Technically, then, there can be no such thing as an empire ruled by a democracy. Huh.

I have to confess I’m finding this essay a bit dull. He couldn’t very well not address the topic, in his day, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired him. Still, we must soldier through it, for completeness.

It’s murky at the top

“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.”

I get that. It’s like the eternal quandary of adult grandchildren at Christmas: What do you give a person who already has two of everything? And the mistake I see people my age making, of retiring without a new world to conquer on the horizon. What’s going to get you up in the morning and get that old engine revving? You can’t just hang out for 20 years.

OK, that’s a leap from Bacon’s lazy, paranoid king, but it’s in the general direction.

It’s all in your mind, Your Majesty

“The difficulties in princes’ business are many and great; but the greatest difficulty, is often in their own mind.” 

Well, sure, if you’re an absolute monarch. But who is, really, when you get right down to it?

“Kings have to deal with their neighbors, 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.”

See what I’m saying?

First, the neighbors


Berlin Wall, 1975

“First for their neighbors; there can no general rule be given (for occasions are so variable), save one, which ever holdeth, which is, that princes do keep due sentinel, that none of their neighbors do ever grow so (by increase of territory, by embracing of trade, by approaches, or the like), as they become more able to annoy them, than they were.”

Good fences make good neighbors, unless they’re like the one shown here. So do good trade agreements.

These topics are all major points of contention in this contentious year of 2016. I’m not even going to go there. (Let’s not build another wall, y’all.)

Second, those uppity queens

Roxalana, by Titian.

“For their wives; there are cruel examples of them.” Bacon didn’t have the Game of Thrones with its super-abundance of scheming queens, but he did have history. He mentions Livia, who poisoned Nero, Roxalana, who poisoned Suleiman, and Isabella, who had Edward the Second murdered by crueller methods.

If queens could have moved right onto the throne on their husband’s deaths, we might have expected even more dyspeptic monarchs. Titian’s queen looks like she’s thinking, “You’re next, buddy. Just you watch yourself.”

And baby makes three

Bacon’s best example of potential patricide comes from the three sons of Henry II. They didn’t kill their father, but he had good reason to worry about it. Two of them became king in their turn: Richard I and John, who was such a Bad King we’ve never had a John Two. We’ve had eight ‘eneries, though, with another one in the queue!

Bacon writes, “And generally, the entering of fathers into suspicion of their children, hath been ever unfortunate.” He sees more fathers killing sons proactively than the reverse. Pop has the power, after all. Suleiman murdered Mustapha and Constantius croaked Crispus. Tsk, tsk. 

‘Ware the priest!

“For their prelates; when they are proud and great, there is also danger from them; as it was in the times of Anselmus, and Thomas Becket, Archbishops of Canterbury; who, with their croziers, did almost try it with the king’s sword; and yet they had to deal with stout and haughty kings, William Rufus, Henry the First, and Henry the Second.”

We’ve gotten some great drama out of this stuff. First there’s The Lion in Winter, about Henry II and his sons. Wonderful movie; I’m surprised it hasn’t been remade. Then there’s Becket, with Peter O’Toole again. Now I’m going to have put both of those in my queue!

Noblemen are just as iffy as clergymen. The monarch can make them and unmake them, but not willy-nilly. “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.”

Less than prescient

peasants revolt

The Peasants (Wat Tyler) burn Palace of the Savoy. AD 1381.

Bacon didn’t think much of the common people, nor ever much about them, other than to urge a general sort of benevolence and respect. He thought them unimportant; one of the few cases in which he failed to foresee the future. He missed this angle altogether.

“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.”

Well, yeah.

The take-home quote

“Princes are like to heavenly bodies, which cause good or evil times; and which have much veneration, but no rest.”

Categories: Bacon's works Essays

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