Bacon's Essays: Of Followers and Friends

Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Followers and Friends” was first published in 1597. It was somewhat amended for the 1625 edition (the year before his death.) In 1597, things were getting tenser and tenser between his patron, the Earl of Essex, and Queen Elizabeth. In between writing advice letters, Bacon published a bit of philosophy (The Colours of Good and Evil) and this first edition of his immortal Essays. He also laid out the gardens at Gray’s Inn Walks. (They’ve changed in the past 400 years.)

Segmenting your followers

(Italics & bolding here are mine.)

Costly followers are not to be liked; lest while a man maketh his train longer, he make his wings king-trainshorter. I reckon to be costly, not them alone which charge the purse, but which are wearisome, and importune in suits.”

This is timely advice. I’ve been cleaning up my newsletter this month. Subscribers who never open anything (vain followers?) cost me money, which thus clips my wings by limiting some other thing I might do. And heaven knows we don’t want followers (think Twitter or Facebook) who are argumentative (wearisome) or constantly asking you for favors, advice, or anything.

Funny how things come around, huh? In the 80’s, none of us ordinary Susies had followers. Now, pretty much everybody has at least a few.

Ordinary followers ought to challenge no higher conditions, than countenance, recommendation, and protection from wrongs.” These are the ones you want. They just want you to acknowledge them (countenance) and recommend them from time to time. The Earl of Essex could get people out of jail if he wanted to. We can defend our social media followers from trolls, perhaps, or from being grossly misunderstood by another poster.

Factious followers are worse to be liked, which follow not upon affection to him, with whom they range themselves, but upon discontentment conceived against some other; whereupon commonly ensueth that ill intelligence, that we many times see between great personages.”

Party politics creates this situtation a lot. You don’t like the candidate you’re voting for much, but you really hate the one you’re voting against. So the one you vote for can’t count on you for anything. You’re acting purely oppositionally.


Trumpets of commendation

“Likewise glorious followers, who make themselves as trumpets of the commendation of those they follow, are full of inconvenience; for they taint business through want of secrecy; and they export honor from a man, and make him a return in envy.”

Bacon’s not a fan of publicity. He thinks most ‘business,” by which he means negotiation more than transaction, should be handled out of the public eye — in ‘secret.’ And it is true that having every word that falls from some politician’s lips repeated ad infinitum in the press can make that person seem foolish, or wishy-washy. Maybe that’s a valid portrait, but it doesn’t aid good governance.

“There is a kind of followers likewise, which are dangerous, being indeed espials; which inquire the secrets of the house, and bear tales of them, to others. Yet such men, many times, are in great favor; for they are officious, and commonly exchange tales.”

Some politicians love flattery and negative gossip about their opponents so much, they don’t realize they’re harboring a spy for the opposite side.

Descent into opacity

From about the midpoint, I find it very hard to figure what Bacon is talking about. He liked to be opaque; his mother scolded him about it. And these essays would have been read by educated men like his brethren in the Inns of Court or Lord Essex’s retainers. They would read them and discuss them with great enjoyment after supper.Shakespeare_and_His_Contemporaries

You and I, alas, must slog through as best we can. Whately is some help.

He starts by allowing that followers of men who are meant to be followed, as soldiers follow officers, are perfectly fine, provided that they don’t get carried away with “pomp or popularity.” (‘Popular’ was not a praise word for Francis Bacon; on the contrary.)

“But the most honorable kind of following, is to be followed as one, that apprehendeth to advance virtue, and desert, in all sorts of persons.”

Take out most of the commas and this makes more sense. It is honorable to follow someone who knows how to advance virtue and to deserve being followed. Yes, indeed.

“And yet, where there is no eminent odds in sufficiency, it is better to take with the more passable, than with the more able.” Well, color me stumped! ‘Sufficiency’ probably means ‘adequate competency,’ or something similar. ‘Passable’ could also mean ‘adequate’ — it means that today. Or it could mean ‘authorized, legal.’

I think this means, All things being equal, the more authorized option is better than the more exciting one. But I could be wrong.

“And besides, to speak truth, in base times, active men are of more use than virtuous.” This is pretty obvious once you understand that ‘base times’ means ‘times of trouble.’ You want that multi-talented mercernary when things go sour more than you want that virtuous philosopher.

Making use of your followers

“It is true that in government, it is good to use men of one rank equally: for to countenance some extraordinarily, is to make them insolent, and the rest discontent; because they may claim a due.”

Don’t play favorites, especially not among those of equal rank. Always good advice.

“But contrariwise, in favor, to use men with much difference and election is good; for it maketh the persons preferred more thankful, and the rest more officious: because all is of favor.

The older meaning of ‘officious’ is just ‘dutiful.’ He’s saying, reward the ones who work hard and use their talents toward your ends, because the rest will see that that’s the way to win your favor.


Henri III and the Duke of Guise. Lots of ill-advised favoritism going around at the French court in those days.

“It is good discretion, not to make too much of any man at the first; because one cannot hold out that proportion.” You can’t keep it up, he’s saying, but generally, respect has to be earned. And favors should be earned too, or they lose their value.

“To be governed (as we call it) by one is not safe; for it shows softness, and gives a freedom, to scandal and disreputation; for those, that would not censure or speak ill of a man immediately, will talk more boldly of those that are so great with them, and thereby wound their honor. Yet to be distracted with many is worse; for it makes men to be of the last impression, and full of change.”

Favoritism is a real problem in Bacon’s day. Probably in ours too, although it doesn’t come up much for the self-employed novelist :-). Also, our business and non-profit orgs have tons of rules about it. They don’t stop it from happening. The Favorite gets away with murder (scandal and disreputation). The Favorite might also talk boldly about the boss, claiming that private knowledge, which will ultimately end up making the Boss look like a Fool.

But being surrounded by an entourage is worse. It makes you more likely to have your head turned by whatever was said last, so you’re always changing your mind.

A (very) few words about friends

“To take advice of some few friends, is ever honorable; for lookers-on many times see more than gamesters; and the vale best discovereth the hill.”

Outsiders see more of what’s going on than insiders. You can’t really the hill while you’re standing on it, but from the valley, you can see the whole thing.

“There is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals, which was wont to be magnified. That that is, is between superior and inferior, whose fortunes may comprehend the one the other.”

This is kind of sad, but then these are some of the worst years in Bacon’s life. He’s getting nowhere, career-wise, in spite of the Earl of Essex’s best efforts. The earl is blocked at every turn by the wily Sir Robert Cecil, Bacon’s cousin and chief obstructor. Bacon was arrested in the street for debt the year after these essays were published. (You didn’t make much money from publication in those days either.) Bacon’s best friend was his brother Anthony, whose health was declining. His next best friend was the Earl of Essex, probably, but you can’t pal around with an earl, unless you’re one yourself.

Bacon had kinder things to say Of Friendship in an earlier essay.


The Earl of Essex, attributed to Nicolas Hilliard


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