Bacon's Essays: Of True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates

Of True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates wins the Longest Title Prize in the Francis Baconthemistocles essay contest, to be award posthumously, of course. It’s also very long. Bacon has a lot to say about what makes a kingdom great and how to achieve that worthy status.

The short version: If you want to enlarge your empire and thus make your kingdom greater, you must focus your state on the art and practice of war.

Fiddlers and plodders

The lead quote, with much paraphrasing, is “Themistocles the Athenian, who was haughty and arrogant, was desired at a feast to touch a lute. He said he could not fiddle, but yet he could make a small town into a great city.”

Bacon observes two different kinds of governors. “For if a true survey be taken of counsellors and statesmen, there may be found (though rarely) those which can make a small state great, and yet cannot fiddle; as on the other side, there will be found a great many, that can fiddle very cunningly, but yet are so far from being able to make a small state great, as their gift lieth the other way; to bring a great and flourishing estate, to ruin and decay.”

He identifies a third kind, the plodders: “There are also (no doubt) counsellors and governors which may be held sufficient (negotiis pares, ‘equals in business’), able to manage affairs, and to keep them from precipices and manifest inconveniences; which nevertheless are far from the ability to raise and amplify an estate in power, means, and fortune.”

Kingdom Analytics

This is Francis Bacon, shouting in the wind — maybe. Not many people saw the value in accurate data to support consistent analysis back in his day.

mustard seeds“The greatness of an estate, in bulk and territory, doth fall under measure; and the greatness of finances and revenue, doth fall under computation. The population may appear by musters; and the number and greatness of cities and towns by cards and maps.”

This is clear enough. Count things, measure things, add up what’s in the treasury.

“But yet there is not any thing amongst civil affairs more subject to error, than the right valuation and true judgment concerning the power and forces of an estate.” Here, I think he’s referring to influence and the capacity for expansion.

“The kingdom of heaven is compared, not to any great kernel or nut, but to a grain of mustard-seed: which is one of the least grains, but hath in it a property and spirit hastily to get up and spread. So are there states, great in territory, and yet not apt to enlarge or command; and some that have but a small dimension of stem, and yet apt to be the foundations of great monarchies.”

States like England, which are very small in territory compared to states like France, yet which have great influence owing to the greatness of their monarchs (and their navies.)

Wolves counting sheep


Fear me!

“Walled towns, stored arsenals and armories, goodly races of horse, chariots of war, elephants, ordnance, artillery, and the like; all this is but a sheep in a lion’s skin, except the breed and disposition of the people, be stout and warlike.”

There is simply no point in keeping a bunch of well-armored elephants if your people are sheep, regardless of how fierce they may pretend to be. Bacon further states that it doesn’t matter how big your army is, if your soldiers are wimps. “It never troubles a wolf, how many the sheep be.”

I have to wonder if that’s true. I thought wolves, like other predators, hunted the stragglers; in other words, a sheep without a bunch of other, sturdier and more alert sheep, around it.

Bacon gives us examples. Alexander defeated the much larger army of the Persians in the valley of Arbela. “When Tigranes the Armenian, being encamped upon a hill with four hundred thousand men, discovered the army of the Romans, being not above fourteen thousand, marching towards him, he made himself merry with it, and said, Yonder men are too many for an embassage, and too few for a fight. But before the sun set, he found them enow to give him the chase with infinite slaughter.”

Moral: when you see an army marching toward you that is too big for an embassage (ambassadorial visit), don’t make merry. Get busy.

That’s my moral for this section. Bacon’s is: “the principal point of greatness in any state, is to have a race of military men.” And not just numbers! Make sure they’re “good and valiant soldiers.”

Between the lion and the ass

lion-of-judah“The blessing of Judah and Issachar will never meet; that the same people, or nation, should be both the lion’s whelp and the ass between burthens; neither will it be, that a people overlaid with taxes, should ever become valiant and martial.”

The Lion of Judah is a symbol of strength and kingship. You should click over to the Wikipedia page, because there are some really cool images of this lion through history!

Wikipedia’s page for Issachar gives us this: his description in the Blessing of JacobIssachar is a strong ass lying down between two burdens: and he saw that settled life was good.” He depended on his brothers for financial and military support.

The point of that rather opaque quote is that you can’t be both a martial ruler and a ruler who is content to let others do the fighting. The ass lies down between jobs, rather than working out and getting ready for the next job.

Furthermore, you will not get quality fighting troops out of people whose taxes are levied by force. Free people are better defenders of their own lands. “So that although the same tribute and tax, laid by consent or by imposing, be all one to the purse, yet it works diversely upon the courage. So that you may conclude, that no people overcharged with tribute, is fit for empire.”

Occupy the Kingdom

Here’s some good advice that should be echoing down the ages: “Let states that aim at greatness, take heed how their nobility and gentlemen do multiply too fast. For that maketh the common subject, grow to be a peasant and base swain, driven out of heart, and in effect but coppiced_treesthe gentleman’s laborer.”

Bacon believed in the monarchy and he took pride in his gentle status, but he could see clearly that too much income inequality, as we would call it, makes a nation weak. We in the 99% have been very visibly “driven out of heart” in recent years, with many negative effects.

His analogy will be lost on us city dwellers: “Even as you may see in coppice woods; if you leave your staddles too thick, you shall never have clean underwood, but shrubs and bushes.”

When you coppice a tree, you cut it down and leave the stump, so that shoots will grow up out of it. These shoots grow more quickly than another tree, but they need light to grow tall and straight, like any tree. If you leave too many staddles — young trees left around to shade the area — your coppices won’t yield so many useful pole-like sprouts. Woods were usually managed by coppicing to produce firewood.

If your upper class is too numerous and sucks up too much of the wealth (sunlight), your common folk are reduced to base peasants, who make lousy soldiers. Bacon compares England favorably in this regard with France, which in that century still had actual peasants — farm laborers who were bound to the land, almost like slaves.

Bacon credits Henry VII, about whom he wrote a history, with establishing this desirable state of affairs in England. “in making farms and houses of husbandry of a standard; that is, maintained with such a proportion of land unto them, as may breed a subject to live in convenient plenty and no servile condition; and to keep the plough in the hands of the owners, and not mere hirelings.”

Nebuchadnezzar’s tree

I’m telling you, this essay is about the current situation in the US. He’s talking about territorial expansion when he says ’empire,’ but America is far larger than any nation in Bacon’s Europe. In a way, we’re like an empire, all by our ginormous selves. And we’re always seeking to expand in terms of influence and by spreading democracy, as we see it.

Nebuchadnessar_arbre“Therefore all states that are liberal of naturalization towards strangers, are fit for empire. For to think that an handful of people can, with the greatest courage and policy in the world, embrace too large extent of dominion, it may hold for a time, but it will fail suddenly.”

Nebuchadnezzar is another Biblical reference. If it weren’t for the Internet, this essay would be way over my head. Here’s some of the verses from the Bible: 

“I saw, and behold a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great.11 The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth:12 The leaves thereof were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and in it was meat for all: the beasts of the field had shadow under it, and the fowls of the heaven dwelt in the boughs thereof, and all flesh was fed of it.”

The Spartans refused to admit “strangers” (immigrants). They were mighty for a while, but they couldn’t sustain their expansion, and they collapsed suddenly. The Romans, on the contrary, granted naturalization to whole families, under all the legal statuses there were (and there were several, which I’m not going into here.) Also they planted colonies, which England was on brink of doing in Bacon’s day and which led to success, as far as Great Britain is concerned. Mileage varied in the colonies, as we know.

Spain was the Rome and the USA of the sixteenth century, looking simultaneously backward and forward. Bacon saw the similarity to Rome: “I have marvelled, sometimes, at Spain, how they clasp and contain so large dominions, with so few natural Spaniards; but sure the whole compass of Spain, is a very great body of a tree; far above Rome and Sparta at the first. And besides, though they have not had that usage, to naturalize liberally, yet they have that which is next to it; that is, to employ, almost indifferently, all nations in their militia of ordinary soldiers; yea, and sometimes in their highest commands.”

Delicate manufactures

“All warlike people are a little idle, and love danger better than travail.”ajax-achilles-dice

The big empires — Sparta, Rome — used slaves to do their building, crafting, and farming. Christian law eliminates slavery, as such (except for the virtual slavery of heathens in the New World and kidnapped Africans) but it allows significant disparities. Bacon notes that in his time many manufactures are left to foreigners or “to contain the principal bulk of the vulgar natives, within those three kinds,-tillers of the ground; free servants; and handicraftsmen of strong and manly arts, as smiths, masons, carpenters, etc.; not reckoning professed soldiers.”

Here are Achilles and Ajax playing dice during the Trojan War. These men do NOT go back to their tents and repair their equipment. They have slaves for that!

Add Amplitude

I’m going to spin quickly through the second half of this very long essay. The essence of Bacon’s message here is that if you want a great empire, you must study war and practice what you’ve learned on every possible occasion. No slacking!


Not really relevant, but who can resist a picture like this?

“But above all, for empire and greatness, it importeth most, that a nation do profess arms, as their principal honor, study, and occupation.”

“First, therefore, let nations that pretend to greatness have this; that they be sensible of wrongs, either upon borderers, merchants, or politic ministers; and that they sit not too long upon a provocation. Secondly, let them be prest, and ready to give aids and succors, to their confederates”

This is obvious, I think. Never let any insult go unchallenged, to you or your allies. Be first to get out there and smack that insulter down. “Let it suffice, that no estate expect to be great, that is not awake upon any just occasion of arming.”

War will keep your militaristic nation fit for action. “No body can be healthful without exercise, neither natural body nor politic; and certainly to a kingdom or estate, a just and honorable war, is the true exercise. A civil war, indeed, is like the heat of a fever; but a foreign war is like the heat of exercise, and serveth to keep the body in health; for in a slothful peace, both courages will effeminate, and manners corrupt.”

You can’t have this massive, well-trained army you’ve developed sitting around playing dice. Nor can you just send them out to evacuate disaster zones and rebuild shattered cities, which is what I would do with my armed forces, if I had some.


“To conclude: no man can by care taking (as the Scripture saith) add a cubit to his stature, in this little model of a man’s body; but in the great frame of kingdoms and commonwealths, it is in the power of princes or estates, to add amplitude and greatness to their kingdoms; for by introducing such ordinances, constitutions, and customs, as we have now touched, they may sow greatness to their posterity and succession. But these things are commonly not observed, but left to take their chance.”

Categories: Bacon's works Essays

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