Of Ambition by Sir Francis Bacon | Complete Summary and Analysis

Of Ambition by Sir Francis Bacon - Complete Summary and Analysis

The essay “Of Ambition” can be used as evidence to prove the worldly wisdom of Sir Francis Bacon. It is full of advice; it covers every profession and department of Bacon’s era. The author has advised every person whether he is a king, prince or a common man. The essay is less about ambitions but more about ambitious persons. However, as usual, the author shows both sides of the picture; he talks about the negative as well as positive qualities of ambitious people. He also talks about their different types; some of them are harmful, whereas others are useful. Likewise, different kinds of ambitions have been mentioned and fully explained in this essay; if ambitions are harmful then what are their impacts; if they are useful, then how these ambitions can help a person in this world?

Furthermore, readers hardly find any essay of Bacon in which he has not mentioned any example from Ancient Romans; Of Ambition is also not different from other essays of Sir Francis Bacon in this regard. Let us see what he further says about ambitions and ambitious persons.

Of Ambition by Sir Francis Bacon | Complete Summary and Analysis

Ambition and Ambitious Persons:

The author starts his essay with the definition of ambition; using a simile, he says, “Ambition is like choler”; “choler” is a physiological word. It was believed that there were four touches of humour in the human mind; one of them was choler; if something wrong happened to the choler, a person became wild. Sir Francis Bacon actually wants to say that ambition is the worst kind of disease; ambitious persons, like choler, become mad if something wrong happens to them; he elucidates it further; “if they [ambitious people] be checked in their desires, they become secretly discontent”. According to Bacon, ambitious people feel happiness in seeing others falling from prosperity to adversity; seeing people in adverse circumstances is their desire. Bacon then suggests princes and kings, do not employ ambitious people at any cost. However, if they are helpless and have no other choice then they should not check their progress as a precaution.

In which conditions, ambitious people can be employed?

Sir Francis Bacon is not in favour of negative ambitions nor does he consider it wise to hire ambitious people. Nevertheless, there are some critical situations when a king or prince can get their services; they can serve better in these critical situations. For instance, if an ambitious person has good war skills, he can be used as a general. It is because his advantage is greater than his disadvantage. The ambitious person also does not care about himself but about his ambitions. In order to achieve his goals, he can sacrifice his life; therefore, the job of a shield, in unsafe situations, best suits him. There is another last duty, which an ambitious person can fulfil; “pulling down the greatness of any subject that overtops”, mentions Bacon. Thus, the third purpose of ambitious people is to use them as a weapon against powerful persons.

Sir Francis Bacon in “Of Ambition”, quotes an example of Tiberius, Macro, and Sejanus in these words:

“Tiberius used Macro in the pulling down of Sejanus”.

Sir Francis Bacon

Let us clarify this example. In Tiberius Empire, Sejanus was a perfect praetorian guard but he somehow (actually by reforming the system) managed to make his reputation and gradually accumulated power by consolidating his influence over Tiberius. Thereafter, Tiberius used Naevius Sutorius Macro against Sejanus. Macro did his duty well and caused the downfall of Sejanus. Bacon refers him to as clear that an ambitious person can do anything because he just wants to rise.

How to control an ambitious person:

Employing an ambitious person is a risk. First of all, it is hard to identify an ambitious person. Nonetheless, in his essay “Of Ambition”, Sir Francis Bacon Bacon has a solution. Ambitious people should be raised from a low position to lofty eminence. In this way, they will be less dangerous. Moreover, they should be examined time and again; kings and princes must keep an eye on them; they can easily be identified by their harsh nature; they also try to please people and make a reputation among them, just like Sejanus. Bacon gives another suggestion; kings should reward or punish ambitious people through their favourites. Furthermore, if there is more than one ambitious person, then they can be used against each other. In Addition, men of low birth can be raised to annoy ambitious persons.

The last suggestion, that Bacon provides, is that reputation of ambitious people should be destroyed all at once. However, sometimes a king cannot do so then he should adopt an alternative solution; the king can convert his rewards to punishments; his positive image can be replaced with the negative one. By doing so, the king would spoil the mind of the ambitious person and he would feel insecure about his position.

It is worth mentioning here that the approach of Sir Francis Bacon in “Of Ambition” is entirely mean and full of selfishness. Although he is talking about the securities of the State, yet he is promoting selfishness. He is advising the kings and princes to use a person (ambitious person) and throw him for a loop. Hence, we can say that Alexander Pope rightly judged Francis Bacon. Perhaps, it is the essay “Of Ambition” due to which Alexander Pope says, Sir Francis Bacon “is the wisest, brightest and meanest of mankind”.

Types of Ambitions:

Sir Francis Bacon also divides ambition into certain categories. People, who belong to the first category, are common so as their ambitions. Everyone wants to dominate others. According to Bacon, this ambition is not harmful as compared to other ambitions. The second category contains those people, who try to build an image among people. We can say them, leaders. They gain the support of people and people walk side by side with them. These kinds of people are harmful in Bacon’s eyes. There is another category, which is harmful to kings but useful to people. Some people build their image in the eyes of nobles; they gain a reputation and become close to them. Although it is much more difficult to achieve such kind of position, yet ambitious people can achieve it. In Bacon’s view, such a person should be praised as he achieves a difficult task.

If we deeply judge the opinions of Sir Francis Bacon, then there is an ambition that he considers serves a noble purpose; the ambition to do good for others. Moreover, he suggests kings know the difference between good ambitions and bad ambitions. Likewise, they should differentiate between good people and bad persons. Some people really work but some just show off. A king should keep an eye on them and he should appreciate good ambitious persons as they bring positivity.


Sir Francis Bacon has presented a number of ways, through which an ambitious person and his ambition can be checked. His guidelines mostly are for the noble classes, kings and princes. It is not wrong to say that Bacon is dealing the ambitious people with iron hands. However, in the end, he shows some positivity. His attitude towards positive ambitions is soft. He praises those people who do good for the welfare of humanity.

As far as the style of the essay is concerned, there is nothing new in it. Bacon, in every essay, uses concise and lucid sentences. Everything is clear to the readers. They do not find any ambiguity in the whole essay. Whenever requires, Bacon uses similes to clarify his standpoint. In addition, he quotes examples from the past to simplify his views. If we talk about philosophy, then the attitude of Sir Francis Bacon is strict towards ambition and ambitious people. However, as a whole, the essay is a masterpiece from the emperors’ point of view.