Of Ambition — By Francis Bacon


Ambition is like choler; which is an humor that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped.
Explanation …. In medieval times, it was believed that the body has four bodily fluids– blood, phlegm, choler or yellow bile, melancholy or black bile. It was then thought to determine emotional and physical disposition. Choler or yellow bile makes people restless, irritable, and itching for action.
A person bubbling with ambitions can hardly lead an un-hurried, contented, and a relaxed life. Since he sets his eyes high, he will continuously think to do something newer, better, and harder. He will knowingly accept challenges, and strive to solve them. The more he succeeds, the more he will drive himself to do things which others don’t dare to do. Such a person will be a go-getter, a perfectionist, and a workaholic. He will be continuously restless with ideas and energy. Naturally, he will find people around him indolent, mediocre, sulking and un-worthy.
But if it be stopped, and cannot have his way, it becometh adust, and thereby malign and venomous.
Explanation …. If such an ambitious man is restrained, and not allowed to pursue his goal, he will feel stifled, angry and rebellious. Finally, all his creative energy and dynamism will be numbed and wasted. Due to his frustration, he will develop a negative mindset and hostility to other people.
So ambitious men, if they find the way open for their rising, and still get forward, they are rather busy than dangerous; but if they be checked in their desires, they become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye, and are best pleased, when things go backward; which is the worst property in a servant of a prince, or state.
If a person, with ambition burning within him, gets a conducive environment to pursue his goal with little hindrance, he will be totally lost in his work. No ill-feeling will enter his mind. He will not harm anyone. On the other hand, if the same person is held back and not allowed to work towards his vision, he will seethe in frustration and anger. Driven by his internal discontent, he will begin to dislike others and perceive everyone as wicked and hideous. When something bad happens to his boss, the organization, society, or the government, he will derive some wicked pleasure out of the misfortune of others. Employees developing such negative mindset are a liability to the government, and the society, at large.
4. Therefore it is good for princes, if they use ambitious men, to handle it, so as they be still progressive and not retrograde; which, because it cannot be without inconvenience, it is good not to use such natures at all.
It is, therefore, imperative that ambitious people be given sufficient freedom to let their creativity blossom. If this is made possible, the individuals will be an asset. They will not be hostile and angry. If it is not possible to afford or grant such freedom to an ambitious person, it will be a good idea not to employ them at all and invite problem later.
5. For if they rise not with their service, they will take order, to make their service fall with them.
If these ambitious employees continue to remain disgruntled, they might bring disgrace and downfall to their employers.
6. But since we have said, it were good not to use men of ambitious natures, except it be upon necessity, it is fit we speak, in what cases they are of necessity.
It is now realized that there is an inherent risk in employing ambitious men, so, unless essential, they should not be employed. But, this is not a rule written on stone (meaning ‘rigid’). There are situations where ambitious people should be the preferred choice for engagement.
7. 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.
While selecting the right person for positions of key commanders for the battlefield, existence of ambition in the commander-designate cannot be a disqualification. After all, for a man in arms, a contented, laid-back temperament is a huge negative trait. Such a soldier can never fight. Shirking his responsibility, he will run away from the battlefield at the slightest sign of defeat. Only a brave ambitious and egoistic commander can confront the enemy boldly and vanquish it.
8. 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.
Ambitious men are also essential where safeguarding the personal safety of the king or government’s senior-most functionaries are concerned. Ambitious men make reliable and astute body guards. For such responsibilities, the guard may have to shed his own life for saving the life of his employer. This calls for a spirit of extreme sacrifice on the call of duty. For the person employed as body guard, nothing is more sacrosanct than the life of the person he has to protect. Such single-minded dedication to duty is akin to the blind-folded dove (a small, robust bird) soaring higher and higher into the sky without bothering to worry about the distance and its limited energy. At one stage, it gets too exhausted to fly and comes crashing on to the ground. An ambitious guard can make similar sacrifice.
9. There is use also of ambitious men, in pulling down the greatness of any subject that overtops; as Tiberius used Marco, in the pulling down of Sejanus.
Sejanus was a gallant and ambitious warrior who was officiating as the emperor in Rome. Sejanus discharged royal duties in the absence of the real emperor Tiberious, who lived in a distant island. At one stage, receiving credible intelligence inputs, Tiberious began to suspect that Sejanus was contemplating to usurp power by dethroning and destroying him. He did not venture to challenge Sejanus frontally. Instead, he resorted to crafty intrigues to create confusion in the minds of the Senate members. He managed this subterrfuge by sending letters to them with ambiguous messages. Sometimes, he praised Sejanus in his letter, while deriding him in the next letter.
In Rome, Sejanus had created enough enemies by his boastful and brash manners. He was a brute too. Teberious plotted with the valiant and ambitious Marco to kill Sejanous. Teberious returned to Rome and summoned Sejanus early in the dawn ostensibly to decorate him. Marco seized this opportunity to take control of the mounted guards functioning under Sejanus’s command till then. After this, he attacked Sejanus and killed him and threw his body unceremoniously to the river.
Had an ambitious man like Marco not been there, Teberious could not have neutralized Sejanus. Hence, kings, generals and senior government leaders need ambitious people around them.
10. Since, therefore, they must be used in such cases, there resteth to speak, how they are to be bridled, that they may be less dangerous.
Having thus pleaded in favour of engaging ambitious men, Bacon gives an advice of caution. He suggests that such people in the payroll must be kept under a leash either covertly or overtly. If this is not done, the danger of these men turning against their benefactors and employers is a real possibility.
11. 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.
If these ambitious men offering security to the heads of state or king are from the lower sections of the society, they pose lesser danger than those who are from the aristocratic class. If the security personnel are ill-mannered and boorish, they pose less danger to their employers than those who are suave and popular. Similarly, newer recruits are less dangerous than those bloated ones who have been around for a long time. Since they are privy to the affairs of the palace and the court, they might feel tempted to misuse their knowledge to harm their masters.
12. 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.
In all ages, kings, heads of states and men of importance have preferred to employ their known and trusted people to form the security around them and to give them counsel during crises. Some say, this is an unsound and imprudent policy that smacks of nepotism. As per Bacon, this is a wise policy as it helps to keep unduly pretentious and scheming people reasonably satisfied with the cl;out they enjoy because of their proximity to the emperor. Some disgruntled ambitious people can upstage their superiors and employers whom they are duty-bound to serve. So, keeping them in good humour is a prudent policy.
13. For when the way of pleasuring, and displeasuring, lieth by the favorite, it is impossible any other should be overgreat.
In course of his duty, the favoured person, chosen by the king to do the duty, may either endear himself or antagonize his master because of his proximity to him. This may not be detrimental to the interests of the state or the king (employer), because the man will not possibly harm his master. On the other hand, an unknown ambitious person, despite his quality and talent does not fit well to this responsibility. He may have hidden hostility which might tempt him to rebel against his master.
14. Another means to curb them, is to balance them by others, as proud as they.
If at all such ambitious persons are employed, it is essential to preempt any over-zealous tendency in him by employing another person of equivalent talent in a parallel position.
15. But then there must be some middle counsellors, to keep things steady; for without that ballast, the ship will roll too much.
Bacon says, even this is not enough. What if the two persons collude to plot against the king? They may also fall out with each other creating disharmony and undesirable hostility around the master. To prevent such a situation from happening, a few counselors or high-level officials or ministers may be appointed to bring stability and coherence to the set-up.
16. At the least, a prince may animate and inure some meaner persons, to be as it were scourges, to ambitions men.
The prince / king / employer / head of state may prop up and bring in a person of somewhat lesser upbringing and inferior attributes to the inner circle. Although these persons may appear misfits and, even, disagreeable to be in the inner circle, they offer a counterweight to the overly ambitious and crafty employee.
17. 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.
Bacon exhibits his keen sense of observation and judgment here. If the potential candidate for the post of security-in-charge and advisor (similar to a minister’s job) has an awesome exterior, repulsive persona and an unpleasant aura around him, he may well be the right candidate for the job of the body-guard cum protector. In contrast, if the person is robustly-built with a daring nature, his appointment may invite disaster.
18. As for the pulling of them down, if the affairs require it, and that it may not be done with safety suddenly, the only way is the interchange, continually, of favors and disgraces; whereby they may not know what to expect, and be, as it were, in a wood.
If suspicion arises about the integrity and loyalty of the aides, and they are perceived to be potential usurpers, it would be advisable to ease them out cleverly. No rash action against them should be taken against them, lest they explode and do something nasty. In order not to upset them with the impression that they are facing dismissal, the ruler may confuse them through deception. He may reward them today, reprimand them tomorrow. Such ambiguous signals from the ruler will leave them wondering as to where they stand. Such confusion in their minds will unwittingly freeze their evil thoughts and put their unwanted ambitions in cold storage.
19. Of ambitions, it is less harmful, the ambition to prevail in great things, than that other, to appear in everything; for that breeds confusion, and mars business.
Bacon proceeds to argue that ‘ambition’, per se, is not bad. For example, a budding author wanting to write well to outshine his contemporaries is a good thing. A musician trying to blaze a new trail through his creative music is a great gift to society. A doctor trying to rise to world eminence by his medical skill is a boon to humanity. But, such burning ambition and zeal should be restricted to the area they excel in. It should not spill over to other domains like administration, military and other state’s affairs. In such case, an overly ambitious person is a potential hazard. He carries the seed of destruction of the state.
20. But yet it is less danger, to have an ambitious man stirring in business, than great in dependences.
So, it is welcome when ambitious people excel in their areas through single-minded effort. But it is fraught to have ambitious people in key administrative positions. The ruler depends on these functionaries to run the day-to-day administrations. Ambitious people may play havoc when they realize that the ruler leans on them to run the administration.
21. He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men, hath a great task; but that is ever good for the public.
Pursuit of excellence, fame and adulation by gifted individuals can never be bad for the mankind. These people should be nurtured and rewarded.
22. But he, that plots to be the only figure amongst ciphers, is the decay of a whole age.
However, if a person wants to tower over others and sway ordinary people to his control, we can conclude that his rise is ominous for the state. If not nipped in the bud early, he will destroy his own state and his generation.
23. 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.
Honor, as understood generally, brings the following benefits to an individual.
a. Reaching an exalted position in society, b.The access to the king and the upper echelons of power, and c. Affluence, prosperity and well-being.
24. 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.
An ambitious man who limits his aspirations to the above three goals is the right man to be engaged, encouraged and rewarded. The prince who correctly reads these attributes in an aspiring person and decides to take him on board is the wise ruler worthy of appreciation.
25. Generally, let princes and states choose such ministers, as are more sensible of duty than of using; and such as love business rather upon conscience, than upon bravery, and let them discern a busy nature, from a willing mind.
In conclusion, Bacon dons the garb of the modern HR manger for the princes, rulers and people in the highest authority of power. He wants a. People with their mind rigidly anchored to their duty to be nominated. b. People, who have propensity to use their position to further their own ambitions, should be shunned. c. People, who are driven by their conscience rather than by their bravery to discharge their duty, are to be chosen. d. People who love to remain engrossed in their work are to be given preference over those who exhibit obedience and servility.

If you need a more detailed note with questions and answers and a critical appreciation of Francis Bacon, please write to us.