Bacon’s works


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

Bacon's essays: Of Prophecies

Happy birthday, Lord Verulam! Francis Bacon would be 457 years old today.

“I mean not to speak of divine prophecies; nor of heathen oracles; nor of natural predictions; but only of prophecies that have been of certain memory, and from hidden causes.”

In Of Prophecies, Bacon only considers confirmed cases of prognostication, in the OED’s second sense of the word: “a prediction of a future event or outcome.” He believed in prognostication; this is his exploration of the idea. Verification is crucial for Francis Bacon. You can’t just fling prophecies out there without following up on them to see if they really did come to pass.

Empires and new continents

Norse discovery of America

Bacon attributes his first quote to Homer. The lines come from the Aeneid, which was written by Virgil, but OK. “At domus Aeneae cunctis dominabitur oris, Et nati natorum, et qui nascentur ab illis.” Our good friend Richard Whateley translates: “Over every shore the house of Aeneas shall reign; his children’s children, and their posterity likewise.” Bacon says this was considered a prediction of the spread of the Roman Empire.

Seneca got credit for predicting the discovery of America:

“–Venient annis
Saecula seris, quibus Oceanus
Vincula rerum laxet, et ingens
Pateat Tellus, Tiphysque novos
Detegat orbes; nec sit terris
Ultima Thule:”

(There shall come a time, in later ages, when Ocean shall relax his chains, and a vast continent appear; and a pilot shall find new worlds, and Thule shall be no more Earth’s bound.)

That is actually kind of cool. Of course, Bacon would have been thinking of Christopher Columbus, not the Norsemen, but he supported the overturning of old ideas upon the discovery of new facts.

Degustabis imperium


The next section contains a stream of supposed predictions of persons becoming great rulers. I like the sound of this one: “Tu quoque, Galba, degustabis imperium,” (Thou also, Galba, shall taste of empire.)

In my variety of English, that’s ambiguous. Galba may taste like empire or he may get a taste of empire. I don’t find a regular thing called “empire cake,” but there’s a whole Wikipedia page for King cake, which I’d never heard of before. Who knew? Well, lots of people, apparently. These things are eaten all over the world for the festival of Epiphany at the end of the Christmas season. The kings in question are Biblical kings. Huh.


King cake, Southern style

“Domitian dreamed, the night before he was slain, that a golden head was growing, out of the nape of his neck: and indeed, the succession that followed him for many years, made golden times.” I can’t find a picture of this, sadly. You’d think someone would’ve painted an image like that by now.



Catherine de’ Medici, ca. 1555

Bacon reminisces, “When I was in France, I heard from one Dr. Penal that the Queen Mother, who was given to curious arts, caused the King her husband’s nativity to be calculated, under a false name; and the astrologer gave a judgment, that he should be killed in a duel; at which the Queen laughed, thinking her husband to be above challenges and duels: but he was slain upon a course at tilt, the splinters of the staff of Montgomery going in at his beaver.” (Don’t be vulgar! That means his hat.)

Bacon was in France for about three years in his late teens, so between about 1576-1579. The King of France during those years was Henri III. The Queen Mother — his mother — was the infamous Catherine de’ Medici. “Given to curious arts,” indeed!

“The trivial prophecy, which I heard when I was a child, and Queen Elizabeth was in the flower of her years, was, “When hempe is spun, England’s done.” whereby it was generally conceived, that after the princes had reigned, which had the principal letters of that word hempe (which were Henry, Edward, Mary, Philip, and Elizabeth), England should come to utter confusion; which, thanks be to God, is verified only in the change of the name; for that the King’s style, is now no more of England, but of Britian.”

We can see that interpreting prophecies requires a certain amount of artistic license.

Hints about fleets

English ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588

“There was also another prophecy, before the year of ’88, which I do not well understand.

“There shall be seen upon a day,
Between the Baugh and the May,
The black fleet of Norway.
When that that come and gone,
England build houses of lime and stone,
For after wars shall you have none.” 

It was generally conceived to be meant, of the Spanish fleet that came in ’88: for that the king of Spain’s surname, as they say, is Norway.”

I don’t well understand this one either. Apart from the whole Spanish Armada thing, the English didn’t get seriously into building houses of stone until the 17th century. Lots of timber and plaster before that, or so it seems to me.

Johannes Regiomontanus


“The prediction of Regiomontanus, “Octogesimus octavus mirabilis annus,” (Eighty-eight, a wonderful year) was thought likewise accomplished in the sending of that great fleet, being the greatest in strength, though not in number, of all that ever swam upon the sea.

I think Johannus Regiomontanus could have been talking about his garden, for all anyone knows. He was a mathematician and astronomer who died in 1476. He was the grand-teacher of Nicolaus Copernicus, but not generally famous for prognostication.



Jests, with dragons

“As for Cleon’s dream, I think it was a jest. It was, that he was devoured of a long dragon; and it Hokusai_Dragonwas expounded of a maker of sausages, that troubled him exceedingly.”

Man, I hate these philosopher’s jests. I totally don’t get it. But look at what a wonderful dragon I found for you! The expression on his face is priceless. He is “Dragon, by Hokusai,” Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849.)

Turns out Bacon thinks these prophecies are all hogwash!

“My judgment is, that they ought all to be despised; and ought to serve but for winter talk by the fireside.” Entertainment value only, although sometimes the causes of much mischief.

There are three things that give prophecies what credit they possess: “First, that men mark when they hit, and never mark when they miss; as they do generally also of dreams.”

“The second is, that probable conjectures, or obscure traditions, many times turn themselves into prophecies; while the nature of man, which coveteth divination, thinks it no peril to foretell that which indeed they do but collect.” Obvious predictions or odd little bits of obscure poetry, as we have seen, get turned into prophecies after the fact, because humans love to attribute things to the supernatural. What’s that about, anyway? It’s true, though.

Map of the known world in 43 A.D.

Bacon supports this assertion by taking another look at Seneca’s supposed prophecy about the New World, which impressed even skeptical me for a while there. “As that of Seneca’s verse. For so much was then subject to demonstration, that the globe of the earth had great parts beyond the Atlantic, which mought be probably conceived not to be all sea: and adding thereto the tradition in Plato’s Timaeus, and his Atlanticus, it mought encourage one to turn it to a prediction.”

I didn’t know there was speculation about lands beyond the sea in ancient times, but it’s plausible that there would be, especially with Vikings splashing about all over. (Kidding. They didn’t go that early.) But the ancients knew Africa was a large land mass beyond a sea. They could certainly have posited more of that nature.

Bacon’s last rather dry word on the subject: “The third and last (which is the great one) is, that almost all of them, being infinite in number, have been impostures, and by idle and crafty brains merely contrived and feigned, after the event past.”

So don’t be fooled, y’all!

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