Uprooting Nebuchadnezzar's Tree: Francis Bacon's Criticism of Machiavellian Imperialism

By Clarke, Michelle Tolman | Political Research Quarterly, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Uprooting Nebuchadnezzar's Tree: Francis Bacon's Criticism of Machiavellian Imperialism


Clarke, Michelle Tolman, Political Research Quarterly


However boldly Francis Bacon might praise Machiavelli, he nevertheless formulates a powerful critique of his mentor's views regarding the means and aims of empire. Oriented by a prudential and normative commitment to philanthropia, Bacon reassesses the role of glory in political affairs and rejects key elements of Machiavelli's imperial vision. By deploying inversions of three Machiavellian images associated with empire-King Solomon rather than King David, the lowly mustard seed rather than Nebuchadnezzar's tree, and Themistocles rather than Fabius Maximus-Bacon signals his rejection of an imperial model based on violent conquest, a centralized and hierarchical structure, and conservative social and political values. In its place, he erects a new imperial model dedicated in principle to humanity, prosperity, and cosmopolitanism.

Keywords: Francis Bacon; Niccolo Machiavelli; empire; humanity; glory

Francis Bacon clearly admired Machiavelli. At a time when most writers dreaded the label Machiavellian, he braved this epithet by openly praising the Florentine throughout his work and by making copious use of recognizably Machiavellian language and imagery. In his treatment of war, empire, and imperial expansion, implicit and explicit references to Machiavelli abound. Since many of them are positive, a number of them enthusiastic, scholars have long speculated about the precise character of their intellectual relationship. One trend has been to argue that Bacon concurs with Machiavelli's general assessment of how an empire is created and maintained, namely that "increasing the inhabitants of one's city, getting partners and not subjects, sending colonies to guard countries that have been acquired, making capital out of booty, subduing the enemy with raids and battles and not with sieges, keeping the public rich and the private poor, and maintaining military exercises with the highest seriousness is the true way to make a republic great and to acquire empire" (D II. 19).' These commentators have argued that Bacon partakes of a republican tradition inherited from Machiavelli and traceable to Cicero, a tradition that was currently under attack by Tacitian humanism and a new conception of civic greatness forwarded by Justus Lipsius and Giovanni Botero (Peltonen 1992, 1995, 1996; cf. Box 1996; Zagorin 1998). They maintain that Bacon was allied with Machiavelli's conservative appeal to "the virtuous vita activa" against contemporary currents of thought that gave special place to the play of interests and provided the concept of grandezza with an economic basis (Peltonen 1996, 295-96, 300-8).

Other scholars have pushed for a more careful distinction between Bacon and Machiavelli oriented by a quite different reading of Machiavelli (White 1958, 1968; Faulkner 1993, 183-200; Kennington 2004; Weinberger 1985, 121-145). While they agree that Bacon's state is, in the words of Howard White, "definitely expansive and imperialist," these scholars find the essential point of contact between Machiavelli and Bacon to consist of their shared opposition to Christianity's denigration of national greatness and its elimination of those institutions originally designed for augmenting it. But they also stress Bacon's break from Machiavelli regarding the significance of Rome as a model of national greatness, with White suggesting that Bacon "intended a more radical departure from the greatness of historical experience" than his mentor. Arguing that Bacon turns to precisely those economic factors that Peltonen and others interpret him as rejecting, White goes so far as to designate Bacon as the secular root of "the spirit of capitalism" (1968, 42). It would be this spirit, empowered by "the service of valor," that would now motivate imperial expansion (82).

This essay argues that Bacon's attempt to reconcile imperial expansion with the principle of humanity (or philanthropid) is principally what distinguishes him from Machiavelli (cf. …

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