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


Bacon's Essays: Of Negotiating

This promises to be a useful essay. Bacon must have engaged in and witnessed a great deal Of Negotiating in his long career at court.

Letters are good

Quodlibet, by Cornelius Gijsbrechts. 1675

“It is generally better to deal by speech than by letter; and by the mediation of a third than by a man’s self.” He doesn’t elaborate, but having a mediator speak for you makes you seem more important, and also avoids the hazard of emotional excess.

“Letters are good, when a man would draw an answer by letter back again; or when it may serve for a man’s justification afterwards to produce his own letter; or where it may be danger to be interrupted, or heard by pieces.”

Modern advice is to get everything in writing. Don’t make deals over the phone; make them by email so you have dated copies of everything. Not making deals in places where you’re liable to be interrupted is just plain common sense.

Unless your face favors your cause

Would you buy a used car from this man? I would.

“To deal in person is good, when a man’s face breedeth regard, as commonly with inferiors; or in tender cases, where a man’s eye, upon the countenance of him with whom he speaketh, may give him a direction how far to go; and generally, where a man will reserve to himself liberty, either to disavow or to expound.”

I guess your face would breed regard if it’s a well-known face — or an especially handsome one. Or maybe it’s a patrician sort of face, with a patrician habit of expression.

We would say “delicate matters” instead of “tender cases.” If you need to assess the immediate effect of your plea or argument on the person you’re negotiating with, you have to be there, watching their face. You can alter your course on the spur of the moment. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. Let me explain it again.”


Choose your instrument

“In choice of instruments, it is better to choose men of a plainer sort, that are like to do that, that is committed to them, and to report back again faithfully the success, than those that are cunning, to contrive, out of other men’s business, somewhat to grace themselves, and will help the matter in report for satisfaction’s sake.”

The Mountebank, by Pietro Longhi (1701 – 17785.) Not the guy you want to negotiate for you, but I couldn’t resist this painting. Lots of persuasion going on here!

You definitely want a rep who will pursue your project, rather than their own. Let’s say you’re getting divorced and you’re negotiating ownership of the lake house. You want your lawyer to argue in favor of you getting that house, not letting your spouse win on condition that they let the lawyer buy it later at a bargain price.

“Use also such persons as affect the business, wherein they are employed; for that quickeneth much; and such, as are fit for the matter; as bold men for expostulation, fair-spoken men for persuasion, crafty for inquiry and observation, froward, and absurd men, for business that doth not well bear out itself.”

He must have a lot of men available to negotiate. If you have the choice, choose a bold man to expostulate (to reason earnestly), a persuasive man to persuade, a crafty (clever) man to observe the situation while negotiating, and an absurd man for uh… No idea what this means! Some business that really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, I guess. Your absurd negotiator will distract your opponent from the inadequacies of the thing being negotiated.

“Use also such as have been lucky, and prevailed before, in things wherein you have employed them; for that breeds confidence, and they will strive to maintain their prescription.”

Hire people who have success in the thing you’re hiring them for. More common sense. Also, you definitely want a person who is confident about their abilities, not a mealy-mouthed foot-shuffler. And you want people who take pride in their abilities and thus aim to succeed on that account, as well as to fulfill your request.

First sound from afar

“It is better to sound a person, with whom one deals afar off than to fall upon the point at first; except you mean to surprise him by some short question.”

Peter Falk as Columbo with his dog. Budapest.

Get a general sense of where the person stands with regard to your matter before negotiating. Except for the short question gambit. Bacon seems to love this little verbal tactic, which I think of as the Columbo Maneuver. You pretend you’re walking away or interested in something else, and then you turn and ask a very pointed question. “By the way, wasn’t that your car in front of the office yesterday?” Zappo!

“It is better dealing with men in appetite, than with those that are where they would be.”

The more your opponent wants what you have, the stronger your position. A person who already has everything they want can walk away at any time.

“If a man deal with another upon conditions [prerequisites], the start or first performance is all; which a man cannot reasonably demand, except either the nature of the thing be such, which must go before; or else a man can persuade the other party, that he shall still need him in some other thing; or else that he be counted the honester man.”

In truth, I don’t know what this means. If there are pre-conditions to the negotiation, like let’s say, the house must be freshly painted, then if you go look and if it’s not painted, you’re done. First performance makes or breaks the deal.

You can only set such conditions if they make sense. You can’t stipulate that a house be furnished before it’s built. But then it seems like he jumps to another topic with the stuff about persuading your opponent that you can employ them in some other fashion so they won’t feel bad if they lose.

Discover yourself

“All practice is to discover, or to work. Men discover themselves in trust, in passion, at unawares, and of necessity, when they would have somewhat done, and cannot find an apt pretext.”

Yes to the discovery of self part, but how that relates to not having a good excuse to get their thing done, I couldn’t say.

“If you would work any man, you must either know his nature and fashions, and so lead him; or his ends, and so persuade him or his weakness and disadvantages, and so awe him or those that have interest in him, and so govern him.”

Phew! At last, some more common sense, clearly stated.

A pair of cunning characters

“In dealing with cunning persons, we must ever consider their ends, to interpret their speeches; and it is good to say little to them, and that which they least look for.”

Cunning persons, and persons who wish you harm: consider their goals in order to evaluate what they say to you. Engage them as little as possible and say the thing they least expect.

“In all negotiations of difficulty, a man may not look to sow and reap at once; but must prepare business, and so ripen it by degrees.”

Be patient, build slowly, let things grow. Always good advice. But I’m not finding a juicy quote in this essay. He’ll have to come back and give it another polish.

This website uses cookies for basic features such as contact or blog comments, but not for anything else. For more information, read my Privacy Policy.