Machiavelli as He Is in the Works of Francis Bacon
“O come in equivocator.”
Whereas Shanti Padhi, in his book Serpent and Columbine, refers to Bacon as a ‘Machiavel of style’ and speaks of finding in him ‘a splendid oscillation in contrary directions’, Victoria Kahn sees him as working ‘an extension of rhetorical method into new areas of investigation’ and claims that Bacon’s appreciation of Machiavelli’s pragmatism is inseparable from an appreciation of his rhetorical method’. Machiavelli’s influence on political discourse was not to ‘supplant rhetoric with a more realistic view of politics’ but to make politics ‘more deeply rhetorical than it had been in the earlier humanist tradition’. Indeed, according to Kahn, Machiavelli ‘invested rhetorical resourcefulness and its ethical instability with clear conceptual lineaments, giving the double face of rhetorical politics a single name, so that its name came to signify two-facedness’. Thus, what Padhi sees as oscillation on Bacon’s part between separate viewpoints is seen by Kahn to be the articulation of a single Machiavellian discourse which is deliberately and necessarily equivocal.
That Bacon has an affinity with Machiavelli I do not dispute. I do think, however, that this affinity needs to be re-examined starting from a consideration of how Bacon actually cited Machiavelli, presented him to the reader, and commented on him. I believe that the evidence will indicate shortcomings in the arguments of those who, instead of interpreting Bacon’s reading of Machiavelli as a qualified reading, ‘find him sliding deeper and deeper into positions of moral compromise and Machiavellian quicksands’ (Padhi). In short, I agree with Felix Raab that ‘Bacon certainly had ethical standards, which he makes explicit and which differed from those of Machiavelli’. It is these differences which qualify his reading of Machiavelli, and which are manifest in the aims of his project; the expansion of knowledge ‘for the relief and improvement of man’.
It is the purpose of this essay to begin that process of re-examination, approaching the subject via Padhi’s claims in the hope that this method will avoid that diffusion of which, according to Montaigne, Lucan spoke:
Ventus ut amittit vires, nisi robore densae
Occurant silvae spatio diffusus inani…
In examining Padhi’s claims I will draw on the Advancement of Learning from which he quotes. Those sections that Padhi discusses happen to concern citations from The Prince. After I have dealt with Padhi and The Prince I will consider parallels between Machiavelli’s method and that of Bacon before considering the other places in the Advancement of Learning and the Essays in which Bacon cites the Discourses. In conclusion I will consider some of the implications of my findings in relation to Kahn’s argument.
If, as Kahn claims, appreciation of Machiavellian pragmatism and appreciation of his rhetorical method are inseparable, then a qualified appreciation of the former might be expected to manifest itself in a qualified appreciation of the latter. If, however, no such manifestation occurs, then it might be that Andrew Barnaby‘s criticism of Kahn’s argument has some value:
She does not distinguish… between ‘Machiavellianism’ as an available language of political thought … and Machiavelli’s writings as texts that were read and subsequently rewritten… to help resolve conceptual problems within later political debates.
Bacon either refers to Machiavelli or quotes him directly, and in so doing either names him or does not name him. Space does not permit me to delineate every place where Bacon refers to Machiavelli. Bacon inserted old material into new works so that similar references to Machiavelli can be found in different works. For example, Machiavelli’s discussion of the ancient saying that ‘”money was the sinews of war”‘ appears in Of The True Greatness of the Kingdom of Britain and reoccurs in the Advancement of Learning, De Augmentis Scientiarum, and in the Essays. All earlier references to Machiavelli that are cited in Spedding’s indexes reoccur in these three works. Of the ten references to Machiavelli that I have traced in the Advancement of Learning, six reoccur in De Augmentis Scientiarum. There are only two references to Machiavelli that I have found in De Augmentis Scientiarum which are not repeated elsewhere. Any direct reference to Machiavelli which does not find its way into either or both of these two works occurs in the Essays. I can therefore cover most ground if I concentrate mainly on the Advancement of Learning and on the Essays.
In the Advancement of Learning Bacon writes:
… we are much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do . For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil. For without this, virtue lieth open and unfenced. Nay, an honest man can do no good upon those that are wicked, to reclaim them, without the help of the knowledge of evil.
Bacon is here endorsing the wisdom of Machiavelli. His image of the wise serpent equates wisdom with evil; and his serpent-like dove is of the same genus as the Machiavellian hybrid, the lion-fox… Bacon advises a practicable combination of evil with good ways.
The implication of the phrase ‘the wisdom of Machiavelli’ seems to be that Machiavelli’s ‘ wisdom’, which is that of the ‘wise serpent’, is evil, and that Bacon, in ‘endorsing’ this ‘wisdom’ is ipso facto ‘endorsing’ evil. This implication is reinforced by Padhi when he equates the qualities of animality and duality in the serpent-dove emblem with those of the lion-fox emblem used by Machiavelli. But Padhi forgets that the relationship of the qualities of wisdom/evil to that of innocence is not analogous to the relationship which exists between the qualities of force and cunning. Padhi then interprets Bacon’s comments as a call to action: combine evil with good ways so that you can make use of the mixture. But a second reading of Bacon’s passage suggests otherwise.
It occurs in a section which considers ‘a Relative or opposite’ of the main theme which is ‘that good of man which respecteth and beholdeth society’. This ‘opposite’ is described as ‘touching the frauds, cautels, impostures, and vices of every profession’. Bacon observes that ‘men have rather sought by wit to deride and traduce much of that which is good in profession, than with judgment to discover and sever that which is corrupt’. He further states that ‘the managing of this argument with integrity and truth… seemeth to me to be one of the best fortifications for honesty and virtue that can be planted’.
Nevertheless Padhi continues:
This idea clearly underlies Bacon’s choice of words ‘join… with’ in the passage quoted above. A Sidney would have substituted ‘sever… from’ in such a context.
If only his eyes had strayed up the page he might have noticed that Bacon uses the same verb, sever, in the same sense: it is serpentine wisdom which must be joined to columbine innocency, that is, knowledge of corruption, so that corruption itself might be discovered and severed. Without such knowledge ‘virtue lieth open and unfenced’ This argument is not unique to Bacon, but is derived from Aristotle via the humanist practice of argument in utramque parte. Margaret L. Wiley reminds us that Bacon ‘grew up in a humanist climate in which rhetoric could be taken seriously’ while Kahn writes:
The humanists, following Aristotle, believed that one needs to be able to argue on both sides of a question, not so that one might actually defend a false position but so that one might anticipate and thereby more effectively rebut one’s opponent.
Bacon does not rest there, but argues that this observing of evil is, after all, functional, not so much in turning the heart to wickedness as in turning the heart of the wicked; the honest man is to use his knowledge of evil to do ‘good upon those that are wicked to reclaim them’. Knowledge of evil thus has an ameliorative as well as defensive function, but knowledge can only ameliorate if it is applied persuasively; it must be rhetorically applied, made apt for its audience so that he who hears is persuaded to sever himself from evil. This implies that an audience must also first be known by observation, then discursively met and moved: ‘the duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will’.
But Bacon’s praise of Machiavelli’s empiricism is not unqualified. Bacon turns that empiricism to a different rhetorical use as becomes evident when Machiavelli’s words are given back to Machiavelli:
… e` tanto discosto da come si vive a come si doverrebbe vivere, che colui che lascia quello che si fa per quello che si doverrebbe fare impara piu` tosto la ruina che la preservazione sua: perche’ uno uomo, che voglia fare in tutte le parte professione di buono, conviene rovini infra tanti che non sono buoni. Onde e` necessario a uno principe, volendosi mantenere, imparare a potere essere non buono, e usarlo e non usare secondo la necessita`.
For Bacon it is impossible to defend ourselves from the effects of evil and redeem those who practice evil unless we know its characteristics. But Machiavelli tells us that it is impossible for a prince to maintain his rule unless he knows how not to be virtuous and how to apply this knowledge according to a ‘necessity’ that is predicated upon the prince’s desire to maintain his rule.
Bacon had discussed knowledge of evil in his Meditationes Sacrae, parts of which he repeated in the Advancement of Learning. Here he expands on the role of serpentine wisdom in the service of goodness:
… it behoveth him which aspireth to a goodness not retired or particular to himself, but a fructifying and begetting goodness, which should draw on others, to know those points which be called in the Revelation the deeps of Satan; that he may speak with authority and true insinuation. Hence is the precept: Try all things, and hold that which is good; which induceth a discerning election out of an examination whence nothing at all is excluded.
Prudential observation and persuasive insinuation are here employed in a single benevolent purpose. In an earlier passage of the Advancement of Learning Bacon discusses the use of ‘poesy Parabolical’, which is both to ‘demonstrate and illustrate’15 and to ‘retire and obscure’
… Achilles was brought up under Chiron the Centaur, who was part a man and part a beast: expounded ingeniously but corruptly by Machiavel, that it belongeth to the education and discipline of princes to know as well how to play the part of the lion in violence and the fox in guile, as of the man in virtue and justice.
Dovete adunque sapere come sono dua generazione di combattere: l’uno con le leggi, l’altro, con la forza… Per tanto a uno principe e` necessario sapere bene usare la bestia e lo uomo…
Sendo adunque uno principe necessitato sapere bene usare la bestia, debbe di quelle pigliare la golpe et il lione…
If Bacon deployed a prudential justification for the knowledge of serpentine wisdom Machiavelli had gone further and argued the use of the beast from grounds of ‘necessity’ Bacon qualifies his citation of Machiavelli by pointing out both its corruption as well as its ingenuity. Undoubtedly Bacon is accommodating his ‘illustration’ to his royal audience, James I, to whom the Advancement of Learning was dedicated. He alludes to the apt example of the education of the princely Achilles in order to illustrate his point about ‘the exposition of fables’ while severing it from Machiavelli’s own ‘corrupt’ application. Bacon’s next comment serves not only further to qualify Machiavelli’s exposition, but also to emphasize the prudential nature of the expository art itself:
Nevertheless in many the like encounters, I do rather think that the fable was first, and the exposition devised, than that the moral was first, and thereupon the fable framed.
It is at the end of the first chapter of Serpent and Columbine that Padhi refers to Bacon as sliding into Machiavellian quicksands. He quotes Bacon:
‘As for evil arts, if a man would set down for himself that principle of Machiavel, That a man seek not to attain virtue itself, but the appearance only thereof; … the pressing of a man’s fortune may be more hasty and compendious.’
Padhi notes what appears to be Bacon’s impartial equivocating ‘between right and wrong’ and adds:
We should bear in mind that Bacon’s ethical and intellectual map had several cards and directions.
My contention is not that Bacon does not equivocate, but that the ground of his equivocation is located elsewhere. To give the passage a context and fuller rendering, it is found in the section which deals with the ‘Architecture of Fortune’, and specifically, on the ‘marshalling of men’s pursuits towards their fortune’. As before, Bacon has outlined the ‘bonae artes‘ of the field and turns to its ‘evil arts’. In the empty space in the middle of Padhi’s citation Bacon, commenting on Machiavelli, writes:
‘that he presuppose that men are not fitly to be wrought otherwise but by fear, and therefore that he seek to have every man obnoxious, low, and in strait’.
[This] and the like evil and corrupt positions, whereof (as in all things) there are more in number than of the good: certainly with these dispensations from the laws of charity and integrity the pressing of a man’s fortune may be more hasty and compendious. But it is in life as it is in ways; the shortest way is commonly the foulest, and surely the fairer way is not much about.
Equivocation is present, but located in constructions such as ‘that he presupposes‘ which both presents and subverts what follows. Bacon judges the content of that subject, of those ‘positions’ to be ‘evil and corrupt’. An equivocal ‘may be’ upsets the mood of certainty and redirects confidence towards ‘the fairer way’ by assuring us that it ‘is not much about’.
The only other, and perhaps least equivocal, direct reference to The Prince in Bacon’s major works does not occur in the Advancement of Learning but in the De Augmentis Scientiarum. Bacon, interpreting Proverbs XXIX, 21, offers advice to princes concerning their servants by noting that ‘Machiavelli well advises, that they should have ever before their eyes some ulterior object of ambition’.
What it is that ‘Machiavelli well advises’ we note, and what it is that Bacon favours about his advice, is that princes should observe their servants in order to defend themselves against any ‘ulterior object of ambition’. They are also advised on how to meet out rewards by ‘measure’ so that servants ‘be accustomed to an occasional disappointment… for sudden promotion begets insolence’.
However, one editor of Spedding has protested that Bacon’s rendering of Machiavelli ‘hardly appears to justify the reference here made to him’. Machiavelli wrote:
Quando tu vedi el ministro pensare piu` a se’ che a te, e che in tutte le azioni vi ricerca drento l’utile suo, questo tale cosi’ fatto mai fia buono ministro, mai te ne potrai fidare.
For Bacon ‘the eye is never satisfied with seeing’, and he has reworked Machiavelli so that the act of seeing or noticing is frozen into one of untiring observation in which the servant’s motivation is measured, anticipated, and regulated by reward and denial. But it is when Bacon’s advice is checked against that of Machiavelli that we notice where the real weight of divergence lies:
E dall’altro canto, el principe, per mantenerlo buono, debba pensare al ministro, norandolo, faccendolo ricco, obligandoselo, participandoli li onori e carichi, accio` che vegga che non puo` stare sanza lui…
Whereas Bacon sees riches as ‘the baggage of virtue’ and hastily accumulated riches as necessarily corrupting – ‘Qui festinat ad divitias, non erit insons‘ – for Machiavelli they are a tool of virtu`, a means of binding men already wicked (tristi). He discusses the question of loyalty in the Discourses, as Bacon notes:
Machiavel might well make it a question, ‘Which was more ungrateful to their benefactors, a prince or a people?’
But Bacon undermines Machiavelli’s dichotomising of ingratitude with the rueful comment that ‘there is added the envy of the nobles’.
Bacon distrusts hasty benefaction as much as he distrusts haste in fortune. Observation requires time, more time than ‘not much about’ might imply, but observation is the key to that ‘fairer way’ because ‘if a man look sharply and attentively, he shall see Fortune: for though she be blind, yet she is not invisible’.
In De Augmentis Scientiarum Bacon tells us that in ancient times men collected knowledge ‘in parable or aphorism or fable’ but:
… now that the times abound with history, the aim is better when for this variable argument of negotiation and occasions is that which Machiavel chose wisely and aptly for government; namely, discourse upon histories or examples. For knowledge drawn freshly and in our view out of particulars, knoweth the best way to particulars again. And it hath much greater life for practice when the discourse attendeth upon the example than when the example attendeth upon the discourse.
In this passage Bacon’s praise for Machiavelli – that is, for his method – is unqualified. But Bacon does not intend that the exempla of historical discourse should replace the older methods but grow beside them. In Bacon’s classification of the sciences he places Method under Logic as that part of Tradition (or Elocution) which deals with the transmission of knowledge. Two of the several parts of Method are the magistral and the probative styles, that is, writing designed to be ‘best believed’ and ‘best examined’. Another part of Method is the use of aphorisms:
Aphorisms… cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences… and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt, to write Aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded.
The function of aphorisms is, according to Stanley Fish ‘heuristic rather than expressive or mimetic’. Through their presentation of knowledge as fragmented they ‘function to accentuate rather than remove difficulties’. They return knowledge to its principles and reveal parallels between one discipline and another, parallels which are:
‘the same footsteps of nature, treading or printing upon several subjects or matter’
When in the Advancement of Learning Bacon refers to Machiavelli’s comment in the Discourses that the way to ‘establish and preserve’ governments is to ‘reduce them ad principia‘, he says that he ‘wisely and largely discourseth’ and may have been attracted by Machiavelli’s use of parallelism:
‘…questi dottori di medicina dicono, parlando de’ corpi degli uomini: “Quod quotidie aggregatur aliquid, quod quandoque indiget curatione.“‘
It has already been stated that Bacon approved of Machiavelli’s empirical presentation. On the use of maxims Brian Vickers writes:
Machiavelli is always trying to lay down general rules on life, maxims which never fail, and in so doing he is predicting future human behaviour in a scientific way: from empirical data his method generalises by induction, and is thus a close analogue to Bacon’s own scientific theories.
Vickers cites an example of Machiavelli’s method:
A typical development in the Prince is inductive, moving from an opening definition, through the analysis of a number of classical and contemporary examples, and culminating in a maxim or admonition.
Unfortunately, as has already been seen, Bacon often found those admonitions of The Prince to be ‘corrupt’.
The Prince has a more immediate agenda than the Discourses. It offers advice to Lorenzo de’ Medici on how best to apply serpentine wisdom to the maintenance and expansion of the state; it exhorts him to liberate Italy; and in doing so it proffers Machiavelli himself as a suitable candidate for government service. The Discourses, on the other hand, constitutes an empirical inquiry into Roman history based on Livy in which conclusions are reduced to ‘maxims that never fail’, maxims that contribute to political knowledge but which are not offered as ‘admonitions’ to particular princes. Thus, from what has been said before, it would seem reasonable to suppose that Bacon would find less to censure in the Discourses than in The Prince. His direct quotations of the Discourses in the Advancement of Learning suggest that this was so:
… much was attributed by Machiavel in this point, when he said, That the kingdom of the clergy had been long before an end….
For Machiavel noteth wisely, how Fabius Maximus would have been temporizing still…
Bacon has cited Machiavelli favourably and without any qualifying censure. However, as in The Prince, Bacon does not always approve of Machiavelli’s conclusions:
… it pleaseth Machiavel to say, that if Caesar had been overthrown he would have been more odious than ever was Catiline; as if there had been no difference but in fortune, between a very fury of lust and blood, and the most excellent spirit (his ambition reserved) of the world?
Bacon registers his displeasure through the qualifying phrase ‘it pleaseth Machiavel’, which suggests by exclusion that it does not please Bacon. The argument is organised around the subjunctive comparative ‘as if’ and offers a tense symmetry of antithetical viewpoints which resembles the probative method of the Essays.
When we turn to the Essays we find that there are six references to Machiavelli, all of which cite the Discourses, and only one of which – ‘the sinews of war’, – is repeated elsewhere. Bacon does not refer to Machiavelli’s observations as corrupt anywhere in the Essays. He does, however, turn Machiavelli to the service of his own rhetorical ends. In the essay ‘On Goodness and Goodness of Nature’, for example, Bacon writes:
… Nicholas Machiavel, had the confidence to put in writing, almost in plain terms, That the Christian faith had given up good men in prey to those that are tyrannical and unjust.
This remains quite close to Machiavelli, who writes ‘pare che abbi renduto il mondo debole, e datolo in preda agli uomini sclerati’ (Discourses). However, Bacon applies some pressure to the direction of Machiavelli’s text:
Which he spake, because indeed there was never law or sect or opinion did so much magnify goodness as the Christian religion doth. Therefore, to avoid the scandal and the danger both, it is good to take foreknowledge of the errors of an habit so excellent. Seek the good of other men, but be not in bondage to their faces or fancies…
The first sentence equivocates as to whether Bacon is reporting Machiavelli’s opinion or stating his own, while the verb ‘magnify’ might suggest ‘exaggerate’ as much as ‘glorify’ Bacon has reformed an argument for pagan virtù into an argument for observation and a circumspect (as opposed to ‘zealous’) mediation of Christian doctrine.
The strongest-seeming criticism of Machiavelli in the Essays is not levelled on grounds of corruption, but of traducement:
As for the observation that Machiavel hath, that the jealousy of sects doth much extinguish the memory of things, traducing Gregory the Great, that he did what in him lay to extinguish all heathen antiquities, I do not find that those zeals do any great effects, nor last long: as it appeared in the succession of Sabinian, who did revive the former antiquities.
Machiavelli’s proposition is countered on its own historicist terms in the last half of the sentence. As in the ‘Caesar and Catiline’ example cited previously, an antithesis is established, but in this case it is complicated by the apparent censure of Machiavelli for ‘traducing’ Gregory. But Bacon’s line of attack is that Gregory has been traduced not in his intention, but in his effort, and in the results of his zeal, which had no great or lasting effect. It is Gregory the Great’s greatness which Machiavelli has ‘traduced’ by exaggeration. Machiavelli’s observation is therefore shown to be doubly false, but on similar grounds of hyperbole. Bacon’s mistrust of hyperbole and zeal is expressed in a single movement which turns on the turning of a single word which traduces as it turns.
The probative style of the Essays is not intended to serve a single line of opinion so much as to explore the nature of opinion itself. One thought equivocates with another, as it were, and the contingent nature of our ideas is evinced. Stanley Fish writes:
This same pattern – the casual proffering of one or more familiar and ‘reverenced’ witticisms followed by the introduction of data that calls their validity into question – is found everywhere in Bacon’s Essays.
Elsewhere in the Essays Bacon writes approvingly of Machiavelli’s empirical observations:
… as Machiavel noteth well, when princes, that ought to be common parents, make themselves as a party and lean to a side…
But Machiavel knew not of a Friar Clement, nor a Ravillac, nor a Jaureguy, nor a Baltazar Gerard; yet his rule holdeth still…
… Machiavelli well noteth (though in an evil-favoured instance)…
In the final citation it is the example Machiavelli cites which is evil-favoured; Machiavelli’s citing of it which is praised.
We have seen that in those places where Machiavelli advises the practice of that which is not ‘virtuous’ Bacon qualifies – or at least appears to qualify – his ‘appreciation of Machiavelli’s pragmatism’ with censure. However, the very awareness of an availability of ‘Machiavellian’ strategies in the rhetorical armoury renders all discourse susceptible to the charge of ‘two-facedness’. Or, as Kahn points out:
To recognize the inevitable mediation of signs is to acknowledge both the necessity of staging one’s virtue, and the possibility of feigning it.
Even so, that expressions of censure have been shown to exist in Bacon’s treatment of Machiavelli should be enough to raise questions about Kahn’s assertion that ‘an appreciation of Machaivelli’s pragmatism is inseparable from an appreciation of his rhetorical method’ provided that it could also be shown that, despite such qualifications of Machiavelli’s pragmatism as those discussed in this paper, Bacon’s rhetorical method was indeed ‘piu` machiavellico di Machiavelli’. For Kahn’s assertion to hold, either Bacon’s concern to distinguish the knowing of evil from the doing of evil must be demonstrated to be a device of ‘Machiavellian’ dissimulation, or Bacon’s appreciation of Machiavelli’s rhetorical method must be shown to be as qualified as his appreciation of Machiavelli’s pragmatism. The latter case, while preserving the link between Machiavelli and the Machiavel in Bacon’s texts might nevertheless unravel Kahn’s argument because she appears to assume that that relationship between Machiavelli’s pragmatism and his rhetorical method is an unqualified one.
Andrew Barnaby, whom I quoted in my introduction, touched on an important weakness in Kahn’s position when he wrote that she ‘does not distinguish … between “Machiavellianism” … and Machiavelli’s writings.’ Commenting on Raleigh’s ‘Machiavellian defence of … imitation’ based on Machiavelli’s prefaces to the first two books of the Discourses, Kahn writes:
The point here is not that what Machiavelli had to say was new, nor that Machiavelli is singled out for special notice (though occasionally he is). To the contrary: The Cabinet-Council suggests that what Machiavelli has to teach is, for the most part, compatible with the teachings of Aristotle, Lipsius, Tacitus, Bodin, Guicciardini, and others.
But this is exactly the point because it draws our attention to the weakness of Kahn’s insistence on the close relationship between Machiavelli’s texts and an all-embracing ‘Machiavellianism’ as ‘a language of political thought’, an insistence which, despite her caveat, serves to confuse the distinction between the particular rhetorical strategies of Machiavelli and Bacon on the one hand and, on the other, Machiavelli’s importance to Bacon for his secular, inductive approach to political affairs based on ‘maxims that never fail’. It is a confusion inherent in ‘the inevitable mediation of signs’ which Bacon would have ascribed to the worship of the Idols of the Market Place wherein ‘the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding’.
Elsewhere Kahn comments that:
The difference between policy and dissimulation is that the former involves a finer ability to discriminate.
Policy is indeed conveyed through ‘the inevitable mediation of signs’. ‘Machiavellian’ as a sign dissimulates. Signs that dissimulate must first be rectified that we might better discriminate:
Orpheus in sylvis, inter delphinas Arion.