60 in 60: #30 – Francis Bacon’s Of Empire (Penguin’s Great Ideas)


This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

Of Empire
by Francis Bacon (1561-1626

Memorable Line
1. “Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office.”

2. “An ant is a wise creature for itself, but it is a shrewd thing in an orchard or garden. And certainly men that are great lovers of themselves waste the public.”

The Skinny
This series of essays on everything from gardens to envy, anger to deformity, provides surprisingly good value considering the short length. Almost everything Bacon puts forward is characterized by a sense of moderation and commonsense, without being either “folksy” or too reasonable.

Relevance? Argument?
As with most of the Great Ideas books that include multiple essays, unified more by author than by unified subject matter,* it is difficult to be clear and specific without focusing in on a smaller sample. In this case, it makes the most sense to isolate a favorite and expand upon it, knowing this risks some asking “Did he read the whole book?” (I did indeed–and so sucked the marrow from the bone that each essay of Bacon’s would require an essay in return.)

Favorites included “Of Envy,” “Of Love,” “Of the Goodness of Nature,” “Of Travel,” “Of Empire,” “Of Suspicion,” “Of Ambition,” and “Of Gardens”. But of most interest to me personally, last night at least, was “Of Envy.”

Envy is a subject of intense interest to writers (or, really, driven, creative people in any profession) because it has been known to curdle careers and twist older creators into a kind of rigor mortis of bitterness. Thoughts of might-have-beens cross-pollinate with a sense of entitlement, and suddenly anyone getting more attention is a creep, a thug, a soul-sucking light-stealer leaving you in shadow.

To anyone in this position of being envious, I highly recommend Bacon’s thoughts on the subject. I find most intriguing that Bacon allies Envy with Love–“love and envy do make a man pine”–using the following argument: “They both have vehement wishes; they frame themselves readily into imaginations and suggestions; and they come easily to the eye, especially upon the presence of the objects: which are the points that conduce to fascination, if any such thing there be.”

I especially like how Bacon continues this exploration of envy and the eye, noting that in scripture envy is called an evil eye (Sauron, Saruman trapped) and that astrologers call “the evil influence of the stars evil aspects, so that still there seemeth to be acknowledged, in the act of envy, an ejaculation or irradiation of the eye.” It’s not much of a leap, then, to think of envy as a kind of vanity. A sense in which that which we most want to be is embodied in others–whom we would love as if kin, if only they were us?

Envy is an evil that seems to feast upon others, but instead feasts upon the one who envies, much like vanity. Yet Bacon also notes that a “man [or woman!] that is busy and inquisitive is commonly envious. For to know much of other men’s matters cannot be because all that ado may concern his own estate.” This comment is particularly relevant today, when we may so easily know the business of others through the internet. To protect against envy, the busy and inquisitive would be well advised to create blinders for themselves while online: shut down instant messenger, delete your blog favorites list, do not google yourself, and most definitely do not google those whom you envy. Otherwise, the reflection upon thy eye may be like unto a mote of nascent tumor that will only grow, dilating outward until there is nothing that you see of the world not tinged by envy. “For envy is a gadding passion,” Bacon notes, “and walketh the streets, and doth not keep home.” Nor does envy “take holidays.” In short, of a Sunday, envy may mug you if you are not careful. (Cue footage of man beating the heck out of himself in a back alley, and taking his own wallet.)

Another good point made by Bacon concerns those of us who multi-task: “They that excel in too many matters…are ever envious. For they cannot want work, it being impossible, but many in some one of those things should surpass them.” Thus, the book reviewer working on a novel who envies the full-on novelist. Or the novelist who dabbles in short stories and reviews and cannot understand why the attention for each is not equal. Or the short story writer who, with a titanic effort, manages a novel every ten years and in the interim grumbles about how the short story is underappreciated in the current literary climate, how debased the modern novel has become. And so on and so forth, all with an undercurrent, an implied subject: “Except for that fucker, who gets all the attention.) (Thus, too, is envy associated not just with love and vanity but with absurdity, for it twists people all out of their normal natures and makes of them a series of stop-motion grotesques the envy of any caricaturist.)

Bacon also explores the effects of time on envy: “It is to be noted that unworthy persons are most envied at their first coming in, and afterwards overcome it better; whereas, contrariwise, persons of worth and merit are most envied when their fortune continueth long. For by that time, though their virtue be the same, yet it hath not the same lustre, for fresh men grow up that darken it.”

As for the first part of Bacon’s quote: Gatekeepers and honest folk do not appreciate an intruder who appears not to have paid his/her dues or who simply, in the opinion of the observing eye, does not have talent equal to the praise given to it. For this reason, however, the longer this “unworthy person” retains the public eye, so too does the “envy” expressed toward the person begin to die–in part because, as with love and lust, it cannot be sustained; in part because a new outlier will soon enough come along; and in part because the subject of this scrutiny does, by dint of gradual gaining of experience, become more worthy. Perceived envy is sometimes simply an expression of an honest eye that cannot tolerate the unfairness of life.

The second part of Bacon’s quote is even more interesting, because it speaks to the ambitious newcomer who wants a long tail that s/he does not yet have–and upon seeing the long, jewel-encrusted, muscular tail of a distinguished elder covets it even though only the passage of time can make their humbly clothed stump other than what it currently is…Thus, there is a kind of Ouroboros Effect: the elder eyes with distrust the greenhorn and the greenhorn wishes now what cannot be until later. Envy, then, is like a great dysfunctional circle of life–amongst those who cannot overcome their attraction to this debased emotion.

As for blunting that evil eye upon you, Bacon has good advice, counseling that the wise man will ever bemoan “what a life they lead, chanting a quanta patimur [how many things we suffer!]. Not that they feel it so, but only to abate the edge of envy.” Bacon further observes that “…nothing increaseth envy more than an unnecessary and ambitious engrossing of business. And nothing doth extinguish envy more than for a great person to preserve all other inferior officers in their full rights and pre-eminences of their places. For by that means there be so many screens between him and envy.” Note that Bacon in no way places blame for envy upon the recipient of envy, only advises that those in the public eye make provisions for dulling or blunting it, inasmuch as it may harm the recipient.

Returning in a brilliant way to the idea of envy as an evil eye, Bacon writes, “…as we said in the beginning that the act of envy had somewhat in it of witchcraft, so there is no other cure of envy but the cure of witchcraft; and that is, to remove the lot (as they call it) and to lay it upon another. For which purpose, the wiser sort of great persons bring in ever upon the stage somebody upon whom to derive the envy that would come upon themselves.” Envy is like a sliver, driven deep. Better, then, as in certain types of voodoo, to transport that curse to another. Make a kind of scarecrow nee figurehead–something sturdy that might better withstand the scrutiny, and leave the object of envy free of it.

But, largely, Bacon is saying envy is an expression of a perverse feeling of helplessness: an acknowledgment of our inability to control what we could never control anyway. The only true balm is to tend to our own work, our own business, and to be as sound and honest in it as we can be–and as for others, to treat them with love and affection, recognizing that what we may see of them in our eye, they too may see of us in theirs. Thus we are bound in a brotherhood and sisterhood of envy–welcome, fellow sufferers–and perhaps this knowledge too may remove the sting of the sliver when it enters, and when it exits.


Now I must confess to a lie at the beginning of this brief essay, perpetrated only for reasons here at the end of providing a better sense of pieces clicking into place: There actually is much to connect these essays of Bacon, and one pleasure is that the experienced reader can start at one of many places and find a thread leading through the rest, much as with an intricate maze. I started with “Of Envy” because it spoke to me as a writer, in this moment, but you could as well start with “Of Vainglory” or “Of Suspicion” or “Of Ambition” or “Of Anger” or “Of Beauty” or “Of Love” because, in some ways, Bacon is saying that they are all children of the same mother.

Let me provide a few examples, so as not to be accused of hyperbole.

In “Of Anger,” the reader finds that anger is both an effect and cause of envy, Bacon listing a sense of hurt and a feeling of contempt as allied with the causes of anger. He writes, “when men are ingenious in picking out circumstances of contempt, they do kindle their anger much.” And, too, their envy.

In “Of Ambition,” Bacon writes that ambitious men “if they find the way open to 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.” Not only is ambition related to envy, but Bacon is pointing out that envy can breed a kind of self-destructive impulse.

In “Of Suspicion,” Bacon writes of suspicion as gathering much as envious thoughts do: “like bats amongst birds[,] they ever fly by twilight. Certainly they are to be repressed, or at the least well guarded, for they cloud the mind, they leese friends, and they do check with business, whereby business cannot go on currently and constantly.” Is this not akin to expressing a lack of trust? And is not trust also at the heart of envy? If you could but trust the one you envy, then perhaps you would not envy them, for you would believe that they wished you no harm by their own success, envy creating in the mind the impression not only that the competitor is above you, but that s/he, in their essential nature, means to slip in the knife. Thus, when Bacon writes that “the best mean to clear the way in this same wood of suspicions is frankly to communicate them with the party that he suspects: for thereby he shall be sure to know more of the truth of them,” isn’t it also good advice for the envious? To know the object of envy is to find that the monster behind the curtain (behind the mirror?) is actually no better or different than oneself. This, in general, is like a writer plagued by a nightmare who finds the only way to be rid of the thing is to write it out: voila! the reality on the page banishes the horror in the mind.

Finally, in “Of Revenge,” Bacon writes, “This is certain, that a man who studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” Revenge can be a consequence of envy, and expresses the evil of the emotion, in that it creates a false paradigm in which vengeance is required despite no intentional injury having been inflicted (and in this way, envy is like a kind of emotional suicide). Envy too keeps wounds green, in part because envy burns energy and time, and either keeps a person from their work or burrows into them while they work. Even a tiny splinter can cause great distress.

Elsewhere, although I cannot find the reference now, Bacon writes of the good effect of a long perspective in keeping a person focused on the positive and benign; certainly nothing would be more instructional for someone suffering from envy than to keep Bacon’s book on their night table and quotes from it on the wall next to their workspace. For, as Bacon tells us, envy is “the vilest affection, and the most depraved, for which cause it is the proper attribute of the devil, who is called the envious man, that soweth tares amongst the wheat by night.” And this book provides solace both in the telling and in the context–being written five centuries past and yet on every page mirroring modern concerns. That indeed reflects the long view.

* Bacon’s essays “Of Gardens” and “Of Building,” meanwhile, prove that which is also proven by the book as a whole: he appreciates good, solid design, structure, and execution.

My affection for this volume is so great I will immediately seek out the rest of Francis Bacon’s works.

Question for Readers
What maketh you envious, and how doth you combat your envy?

Next up, Thomas Hobbes’ Of Empire


  1. says

    My Senior year in High School, I won the Francis Bacon essay contest with a two pager titled “On Creativity”.

    It influenced my essay style greatly thereafter.

  2. says

    I am in turns ambitious, driven, and utterly lazy. Typical traits of a perfectionist, I suppose. While I do my best not to become envious of another, I do love to engage in competition, even if the other person would rather not. I combat those feelings by devoting myself to learning more, interacting more with others, trying to get others involved in matters, thinking about how group ideas can transform matters, and so forth. Results have been mostly positive, so far. No longer aiming to be the best teacher at any cost…just at the right cost.