Bacon's essays: Of Ambition

Of Ambition was published in 1612, so Bacon probably wrote it before King James fell in love with his extremely ambitious favorite, George Villiers. George was 21 in 1614 when he caught the king’s eye. He rose and rose and rose some more, to become the 1st Duke of Buckingham.

King James must have had favorites between his accession to the English throne in 1603 and the appearance of the “most beautiful man in the world,” but I haven’t gotten around to reading a biography of James yet, so I don’t know who they might have been. Not Francis, alas; he was never anyone’s favorite, although both James and Elizabeth valued his advice and kept him close.

Elizabeth famously had her favorites too. I think Sir Walter Raleigh was twice as beautiful as George Villiers. Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex, was no slouch either, apart from that straggly beard. Y’all judge for your own selves.


Sir Walter Raleigh


George Villiers


Earl of Essex


Becometh thou not adust

“Ambition is like choler; which is an humor that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped. But if it be stopped, and cannot have his way, it becometh adust, and thereby malign and venomous.”

“Adust” is technical jargon, from the obsolete science of humoral medicine. The OED gives us this for the primary meaning: “Med. Designating any of the humours of the body when considered to be abnormally concentrated and dark in colour, and associated with a pathological state of hotness and dryness of the body.”


The four temperaments, Charles Le Brun-Grande Commande, 1674. That’s Choleric on the left, ready to go out and get adusty. Melancholy is reading a book all by his lonesome, Sanguine is playing the flute (la la la la la) and Phlegmatic is just standing there looking like, “Meh.”

Bacon’s using a secondary meaning: “Originally: affected with, or having a temperament determined by, adust humours (see sense 1a). In later use: having a melancholy character or appearance; gloomy; sallow.”

One of the supporting quotes is from my old pal Anthony Munday: “1605   A. Munday tr. G. Affinati Dumbe Diuine Speaker 228   Whereon it happeneth, that cholericke men (being adust and fierie by nature) when they are in heate, they cannot pronounce perfectly.”

I’m evidently feeling digressive. The meaning of the top quote there is clear enough: Ambition is great if the ambition person can keep moving forward. It motivates them. But if they’re thwarted, they turn sour, even dangerous. Bacon advises princes (which term always included queens in his day) not to take up ambitious men unless necessary; but sometimes it’s necessary.

“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.”

I would not attempt to pull off a good soldier’s spurs, not without my rose-trimming gloves on!

Screens to princes

“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.”



A seeled dove has had its eyes sewn shut as part of its training. They used to do that with falcons, when teaching them to hunt and return with their prey. Sounds horrible to us, but it was just the way things were for Bacon. The point here is that your ambitious man is so focused on rising that he doesn’t see the danger he’s in, but draws it away from the prince. At least I think that’s what this means. 

“There is use also of ambitious men, in pulling down the greatness of any subject that over-tops; as Tiberius used Marco, in the pulling down of Sejanus.” Roman politics is too complicated to explain concisely. You can read about Tiberius and Sejanus at Wikipedia if you’re into it.

The real problem is how to control the ambitious persons you bring in to protect yourself from the other ambitious persons on the next level down. “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.” Sounds like Sir Walter Ralegh.

In all those cases, they’re dependent on the prince for favor, they can’t win it on their own from the people or even their peers.

Favorites have their uses

“It is counted by some, a weakness in princes, to have favorites; but it is, of all others, the best remedy against ambitious great-ones. For when the way of pleasuring, and displeasuring, lieth by the favorite, it is impossible any other should be overgreat.”


Rolling ship

They deflect petitioners from the prince. James I used Buckingham in this way. You had to get George’s approval before the king would even listen.

“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.”

Elizabeth used this method, balancing Raleigh and Essex with the steady Cecils (father, Lord Burghley; son, Robert Cecil.) Bacon tried to stay in the middle, but was effectively pushed toward Essex by the frosty, unhelpful Cecils.

“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.” By ‘obnoxious,’ he means ‘liable to.’ Bacon had terrible personal experience of a favorite who was stout and daring: the Earl of Essex, who responded to Elizabeth’s attempts to curb him by revolting, thereby getting his curly, earl-ly head cut off.

Three aims of ambition

“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.”

This is an interesting observation that applies to more than courtiers. If you have lots of internet service providers, for example, they compete with one another to excel, thus raising the quality of service for everyone. But if you only have one or two divvying up the field so that each owns its own exclusive territory, they can do what they want: raise rates arbitrarily, refuse to extend service into unprofitable communities, etc. (Unless they were publicly owned, of course, in which case they would serve their citizen-owners.)

“Honor hath three things in it: the vantage ground to do good; the approach to kings and principal persons; and the raising of a man’s own fortunes. He that hath the best of these intentions, when he aspireth, is an honest man; and that prince, that can discern of these intentions in another that aspireth, is a wise prince.”


Diogenes in search of an honest man

Categories: Bacon's works Essays

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