Bacon's Debt to Machiavelli
Some Quotes in Context
The following is a handout I provide my students when teaching Machiavelli and Bacon, but which I thought might be of some interest to others. If you would like a pdf version, please email me.
The relationship between Bacon and Machiavelli is an interesting and subtle one, in that Machiavelli’s political science seems to have served as important precedent, perhaps even inspiration, for Bacon’s natural science, which has since come to dominate human thinking. The following is meant to introduce you to their relationship by examining a few places where Bacon refers to Machiavelli in The Advancement of Learning. Though Bacon refers to him elsewhere in his writings, I have restricted this handout to the Advancement alone, since it is part of Bacon’s “great restoration” of the sciences.
In The Advancement of Learning (1605), Bacon outlines the present state of the sciences, prior to his articulation of his method, as detailed in his later work, the New Organon (1620). In Book 2, Chapter 5, Section 3, he states that he will correct for the present state of the sciences through an application of Machiavelli’s political thought:
Is not the ground, which Machiavel wisely and largely discourseth concerning governments, that the way to establish and preserve them, is to reduce them ad principia [to their beginnings], a rule in religion and nature, as well as in civil administration?…Neither are these [comparisons like the one above] only similitudes, as men of narrow observation may conceive them to be, but the same footsteps of nature, treading or printing upon several subjects or matters. This science, therefore, as I understand it, I may justly report as deficient: for I see sometimes the profounder sort of wits in handling some particular argument will now and then draw a bucket of water of this well for their present use; but the spring-head thereof seemeth to me not to have been visited; being of so excellent use both for the disclosing of nature and the abridgement of art.
Bacon is referring to a passage from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, Book 3, Chapter 1, where he writes:
It is a very true thing that all worldly things have a limit to their life; but generally those go the whole course that is ordered for them by heaven, that do not disorder their body but keep it ordered so that either it does not alter or, if it alters, it is for its safety and not to its harm. Because I am speaking of mixed bodies, such as republics and sects, I say that those alterations are for safety that lead them back toward their beginnings. So those are better ordered and have longer life that by means of their orders can often be renewed or indeed that through some accident outside the said order come to the said renewal. And it is a thing clearer than light that these bodies do not last if they do not renew themselves.
The mode of renewing them is, as was said, to lead them back toward their beginnings. For all the beginnings of sects, republics, and kingdoms must have some goodness in them, by means of which they may regain their first reputation and their first increase. Because in the process of time that goodness is corrupted, unless something intervenes to lead it back to the mark, it of necessity kills that body. Speaking of the bodies of men, these doctors of medicine say “that daily something is added that at some time needs cure.” Speaking of republics, this return toward the beginning is done through either extrinsic accident or intrinsic prudence.
Notice the language of bodies in the first paragraph and the related language of medicine in the second (see also The Prince Chapter 3).
In a few places in The Advancement of Learning, Bacon refers to Chapter 15 of The Prince, as well as the following chapters, which cover the relationship between political prudence and morality. In Book 2, Chapter 21, Section 9, 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 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 unfensed.
Again, in Chapter 23, Section 45 of the same book, Bacon writes:
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; because the credit of virtue is a help, but the use of it is cumber: or that other of his principles, 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, which the Italians call seminar spine, to sow thorns…[then] 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.
Bacon has in mind the following passages from The Prince, Chapter 15:
[I]t has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.
As well as the following from Chapter 17:
One can say this generally of men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, eager for gain. While you do them good, they are yours, offering you their blood, property, lives, and children, as I said above, when the need for them is far away; but when it is close to you, they revolt.
Elsewhere in The Prince, Machiavelli makes similar statements, which Bacon may well have had in mind, as well. This Machiavellian principle is explicitly at work in Bacon’s instructions for gathering a natural history:
[A]ccept into this history, first, the commonest things which one might think it superfluous to put into writing because they are so familiar; then mean things, illiberal, disgusting (for all things are pure to the pure, and if the tax receipts from urine smelt good, much more so is the light and information we may get from any source); also, trivial, childish things (and no wonder, for we must become again as children, utterly); finally, things which seem to be excessively subtle, because they are of no use in themselves.
Just as a prince must be willing to accomplish vicious deeds, if he is to preserve himself, so must the natural scientist be willing to look into the base and disgusting. Both, too, appeal to fear, so as to create a sense of urgency in their audiences to improve their fortunes.
On the subject of natural history, it is instructive to look at Book 2, Chapter 23, Section 8 of The Advancement of Learning, where Bacon strikingly credits Machiavelli with arguing in a properly scientific manner, that is, by reasoning inductively from examples from history to more general principles:
The form of writing which of all others is fittest 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 way best to particulars again; and it hath much greater life for practice when the discourse attendeth upon the example, than when the example attendenth upon the discourse.
Note, again, that the second part of Bacon’s restoration of the sciences is to give us the new organon, that is, the new logic of inductive reasoning; the third part is the compilation of a natural history, which will supply the particulars. Bacon’s remark here is a reflection on Machiavelli’s procedure throughout The Prince and the Discourses on Livy, but he may also have in mind programmatic statements like the following: “I have found nothing in my belongings that I care so much for and esteem so greatly as the knowledge of the actions of great men, learned by me from long experience with modern things and a continuous reading of ancient ones.”
Bacon’s application of Machiavelli’s method may also have found some inspiration from the following remark in The Prince, Chapter 14. Machiavelli starts this chapter by asserting that “a prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but that of war and its orders and discipline.” In support of this claim, he argues that a prince
should learn the nature of sites, and recognize how mountains rise, how valleys open up, how plains lie, and understand the nature of rivers and marshes—and in this invest the greatest care. This knowledge is useful in two modes. First one learns to know one’s own country, and one can better understand its defense; then, through the knowledge of and experience with those sites, one can comprehend with ease every other site that it may be necessary to explore as new. For the hills, the valleys, the plains, the rivers, and the marshes that are in Tuscany, for example, have a certain similarity to those of other provinces, so that from the knowledge of a site in one province one can easily come to the knowledge of others.
Of course, this assumes that one’s ambitions extend only to those regions similar to Tuscany and not, say, to the Middle East. More to the point, Machiavelli sees the sole knowledge of the prince as in part concerned with physical nature, though we should not jump too quickly to the conclusion that he is proposing a full-fledged natural science. Still, we cannot help but be reminded of the intimate connection between scientific advancement and national security.
What does this all add up to? Bacon sees Machiavelli’s work as significant precedent on the question of science with respect to certain key features: first, both authors turn to the beginnings or principles, that is, to the process by which a thing comes to be such as it is, with particular attention to this process as a key to preserving the thing; second, they are both willing to consider the low, the base, even the disgusting, when looking to history, be that history political or natural, toward the end of discovering such processes as described in the first point; third, both aggregate and study their respective histories and, through a process of inductive reasoning, attempt to give accounts of the formal aspects of those processes, that is, to derive precise general rules of how to effect a particular outcome; fourth, in both we find an appeal to their audience’s fear and so an attempt to induce in them a yearning for acquisition, so as to improve their lot; and, fifth, in Machiavelli we even see something like an anticipation of the necessity of some sort of understanding of physical nature for effective political action, though the extent of that is uncertain.
 Perhaps the most illuminating reference is in Bacon’s Essays, Number 13, which should be compared with The Prince, Chapter 25. This reference helps illuminate Bacon’s use of religious imagery in his scientific works.
 See the title page of the New Organon.
 See also Book 2, Chapter 22, section 13.
 A reference to the Roman emperor Vespasian’s tax on urine.
 From Aphorism 6 of “Outline of a Natural and Experimental History,” the introductory part of the “Preparation for a Natural and Experimental History,” which was originally published along with the New Organon.
 From the “Dedicatory Letter” to The Prince.