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Francis Bacon on Friendship


Those who do not have friends “cannibalize their own heart,” according to the writer in one of his greatest essays.

The “dry light” of the friendly advice that characterized Francis Bacon’s The Essays, and which also gave us the excellent essay “On Beauty,” shines with particular power in his essay “On Friendship.” Here he does not delve into the nature of friendship, or into its moral aspect (as several philosophers and essayists have done, such as Montaigne, Kant and Emerson), but instead he moves straight to its usefulness, to the “fruits” that it brings to human beings. Those who do not have friends, “cannibalizes his own heart. ” And at the risk of going crazy, according to the writer.

His advice is astute and practical. Bacon is perhaps the first to conceive the need for an amoral friendship that is not the result of kindness, either natural or acquired, in a person. “The emotions of a human being are like fluids under pressure, which need to be discharged: this discharge takes place only through the outlet of a friend.”

This is the kind of essay that serves a fundamental purpose in the activity of reading: to promote non-hypocritical reflection, and which is not too elevated and above all not moral regarding the importance of relationships with another person, and from there give thanks for the ‘fruits’ that result from it. The essay contains some really persuasive passages, for example when he explains tersely why a friendship can contribute to character, in ways that self-examination or reading a book cannot. Perhaps, as Michel Pakaluk writes in his introduction, Bacon’s most notable suggestion in this essay is that self-knowledge involves the clarification of our thoughts, and which necessarily depends on communicating them with others. And for that there are friends, not family or colleagues. Here are two fragments that we consider magnificent:

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.

The second fruit of friendship, is healthful and sovereign for the understanding, as the first is for the affections. 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. Neither is this to be understood only of faithful counsel, which a man receiveth from his friend; but before you come to that, certain it is, that 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.


Image credit: Alessandro Pinto

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