Bacon's Essays: Of Friendship


From Gessner’s Animalium

Of Friendship starts out very oddly, as if in the middle of a conversation with someone we can’t hear. “It had been hard for him that spake it to have put more truth and untruth together in few words, than in that speech. Whatsoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.”

(It helps me to replace the period after ‘speech’ with a colon and ‘whatsoever’ with ‘whosoever.’)

Bacon is pro-friendship of course. Is there anyone who isn’t? Montaigne, maybe; I’ve never read his Essaies, although Bacon did. He was famously introverted, as was Bacon, although Montaigne purportedly lived alone in a tower, while Bacon endured a lifetime at court.

The perils of solitude

Your savage beast has “a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society.” There’s really nothing divine about solitude, unless “it proceed, not out of a pleasure in solitude, but out of a love and desire to sequester a man’s self, for a higher conversation,” meaning prayer. He lists a few classical and Hebrew hermits for support; references that go right over my head.


John Norden’s map of London, 1593

But people don’t really know what solitude is, he asserts. “For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.” One of his most quotable quotes.

“Magna civitas, magna solitudo [Great city, great solitude]; because in a great town friends are scattered; so that there is not that fellowship, for the most part, which is in less neighborhoods.” I find this true myself. Austin has tripled in the past twenty years, growing into a sprawling metroplex. My friends live all over, most of them way too far to drop in for coffee or whatever friends in small towns do. You have to make appointments to meet and think about traffic and parking and all that.

Bacon’s London was much smaller. Quite walkable, in my opinion, though perception of distance in such matters is entirely relative. And if you had a horse, as Bacon surely did, you could ride, although it would be a nuisance to ride into the City to go bookshopping, for example. Gray’s Inn was at the edge of the growing urban fringe in his day, with fields and orchards to the north and west. Spending most of your time in that kind of quiet would make venturing into the City an ordeal of clamor and tumult.

“But we may go further, and affirm most truly, that it is a mere and miserable solitude to want true friends; without which the world is but a wilderness.” One of the eternal truths of human kind. One good friend, whether near or far away, but still in communication, still offering their love and support – an important component of a good life.

Massive metaphor failure

Having established the badness of solitude, Bacon now must elucidate the goodness of friendship. Hemetamucil starts out by asking what are the fruits of friendship. That’s nice; we like fruit. Fruit is good. But then he embarks on an extended metaphor about blockages and disease that is, to put it simply, yucky.

“A principal fruit of friendship, is the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce. We know diseases of stoppings, and suffocations, are the most dangerous in the body; and it is not much otherwise in the mind; you may take sarza to open the liver, steel to open the spleen, flowers of sulphur for the lungs, castoreum for the brain; but no receipt openeth the heart, but a true friend; to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.”

Oh, OK. He ends up with friends as confessors, which is fine. Friends as a tablespoon of Metamucil before bedtime is not so delightful.

From storm into sunshine


Bonaventura Peeters, A Dismasted Ship in a Rough Sea. mid-c17.

We’re going to skip right over a long paragraph in which Bacon describes a hatful of classical friendships — or perhaps frenemy-ships — between Roman rulers and their confidantes. We all know how well that went for Julius Caesar and his BFF Brutus. The rest are best left to classicists. This sort of illustration was important in Bacon’s day, but irrelevant and digressive for us.

The next “fruit” is described in another extended metaphor, this time a successful one. “For friendship maketh indeed a fair day in the affections, from storm and tempests; but it maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts.”

And not just listening to your friend’s good counsel. The simple act of sharing your tangled thoughts apollowith your friend helps you to clarify them and arrive at what you’re really trying to express or believe.

“whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up, in the communicating and discoursing with another; he tosseth his thoughts more easily; he marshalleth them more orderly, he seeth how they look when they are turned into words: finally, he waxeth wiser than himself; and that more by an hour’s discourse, than by a day’s meditation.”

And here’s a bit of odd, but useful, advice from an introvert: “a man were better relate himself to a statua, or picture, than to suffer his thoughts to pass in smother.” You’re going to want to get your own statue if you make a habit of this. And what better choice of confidante than Apollo, God of Light and Knowledge, among other things?

A clear, dry light

This is the second half of the second fruit, a metaphor Bacon should never have started. There’s only one piece of fruit in this whole essay.

He now discusses the value of a friend’s counsel, beginning with a quote from the ever-cryptic Heraclitus, “Dry light is ever the best.”

By a dry light, Bacon means a clear, unobstructed view, meaning an impartial opinion or response. Your own thoughts are necessarily colored by your feelings.

“And certain it is, that the light that a man receiveth by counsel from another, is drier and purer, than that which cometh from his own understanding and judgment; which is ever infused, and drenched, in his affections and customs.”

flatteryFriends guard you from flattery of the worst kind: the kind you give yourself. “So as there is as much difference between the counsel, that a friend giveth, and that a man giveth himself, as there is between the counsel of a friend, and of a flatterer. For there is no such flatterer as is a man’s self; and there is no such remedy against flattery of a man’s self, as the liberty of a friend.”

He doesn’t necessarily mean you’re standing there with your marble pal Apollo saying, “I’m so good, I’m the smartest, I’m the cleverest there is!” He means flattery in a broad metaphorical sense of favoring your own ideas. Novelists are famously prone to this type of flattery. We all have grave doubts about how well we write, but we also cling like delusional misers to some of our cherished ideas. “No!” We cry. “I must have an explosion in a haunted castle! That’s the whole reason I wrote this book! Yes, I know it’s a Western, but I can make it work!”

[Sorry, must digress. The most famous advice about that particular bit of writerly nonsense comes from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, On Style: “‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”]

Back to Bacon

Take a reality check

“Counsel is of two sorts: the one concerning manners, the other concerning business. For the first, the best preservative to keep the mind in health, is the faithful admonition of a friend.”

We need friends to tell us when we’re screwing up. Bacon understands that’s it’s too hard to hold FlintlockFiringyourself to a strict standard all by yourself and reading books of morality (behavior, etiquette) can be too dull to have an impact. We need friends to tell us when we’re crossing a line, over-reacting, or under-reacting perhaps. Being either too harsh or too kind.  

Or when we’re just flat making fools of ourselves. “It is a strange thing to behold, what gross errors and extreme absurdities many (especially of the greater sort) do commit, for want of a friend to tell them of them; to the great damage both of their fame and fortune”

Don’t rely on your own judgement. “As for business, a man may think, if he will, that two eyes see no more than one; or that a gamester seeth always more than a looker-on; or that a man in anger, is as wise as he that hath said over the four and twenty letters; or that a musket may be shot off as well upon the arm, as upon a rest; and such other fond and high imaginations, to think himself all in all.”

They only had 24 letters in Bacon’s day. Wikipedia says “The letters u and j, as distinct from v and i, were introduced in the 16th century,” but frustratingly does not say exactly when in the sixteenth century. After Bacon learned his letters, presumably. He may have written this essay as early as the 1580s, but he tinkered with these works for decades before publishing them.

Anyway, I like the metaphor about imagining you can aim a musket as well by resting it on your arm as by resting it on a more stable support. Advice not often heeded in the heat of battle, evidently. I couldn’t find a photo of a musket being properly supported.

“And if any man think that he will take counsel, but it shall be by pieces; asking counsel in one business, of one man, and in another business, of another man; it is well (that is to say, better, perhaps, than if he asked none at all); but he runneth two dangers: one, that he shall not be faithfully counselled…The other, that he shall have counsel given … mixed partly of mischief and partly of remedy; even as if you would call a physician, that is thought good for the cure of the disease you complain of, but is unacquainted with your body; and therefore may put you in way for a present cure, but overthroweth your health in some other kind; and so cure the disease, and kill the patient.”

Whew! The gist of that is, stick to one valued advisor who knows you and your whole business. Don’t pick and choose to fit your current game. 

At last, some actual fruit

“After these two noble fruits of friendship (peace in the affections, and support of the judgment), followeth the last fruit; which is like the pomegranate, full of many kernels; I mean aid, and bearing a part, in all actions and occasions.”

PomegranatesThere’s no limit to the benefits of friendship. We struggle to achieve things and leave a legacy, whether our works or our children, and then we die. But if we have friends, we can be comforted by the knowledge that our works will survive and our children will prosper. 

More: friends can do things for us that we can’t do for ourselves. “How many things are there which a man cannot, with any face or comeliness, say or do himself? A man can scarce allege his own merits with modesty, much less extol them; a man cannot sometimes brook to supplicate or beg; and a number of the like. But all these things are graceful, in a friend’s mouth, which are blushing in a man’s own.”

This is especially valid in Bacon’s day, when the best way to further your aims was to find a more influential person to speak on your behalf. Wait – that’s still true. We go to great lengths to get good letters of recommendation from influential people and oh, yeah – book reviews from influential readers.

A friend can expand our roles within our intimate circles. “A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.”

“[A] man cannot fitly play his own part; if he have not a friend, he may quit the stage.”


Francis Bacon had two very excellent friends: Sir Thomas Meautys and William Rawley, his chaplain. These men were loyal to him through thick and thin, and things got pretty thin at times. Together they ensured his legacy by collecting his letters and works and making sure they were properly preserved. We owe them a tremendous debt.

Categories: Bacon's works Essays

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