What is the theme or central idea of Francis Bacon's essay "Of Followers and Friends"?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Bacon's essay "Of Followers and Friends" (ca. 1610), like all his essays, is designed to guide men to a successful life.  Bacon is not so much concerned with moral goodness in life as he is in practical behavior that leads to success in business and government.

The essay discusses in detail the dangers of collecting "followers," those who may or may not be friends but who latch onto a person for their own gain, not for the benefit of the person to whom they attach themselves.  The most dangerous of these Bacon identifies as 

[those] 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 is, understanding] that we many times see between great personages.

In other words, Bacon is warning of followers who align themselves with a person solely because they want to harm a third person.  As Bacon points out, many disagreements among the political class are the result of false information designed to create a disagreement.

Bacon's essay singles out followers such as spies, which he calls "espials," as particularly dangerous because they disclose one's secrets to others.  But, always the practical man, Bacon also notes that such followers are popular because they are efficient and spread gossip.

The most beneficial followers, according to Bacon, are those men--often soldiers who have fought for the person and are therefore loyal and trusted--are those whose primary goals are "to advance virtue and desert in all sorts of persons."  In effect, those followers are best who focus on those things that will advance the good of all the people, not just one class.

Perhaps Bacon's most important warning is to avoid relying on a single person:

To be governed (as we call it) by one is not safe; for it shows softness, and gives a freedom to scandal and disrepresentation.

Last, Bacon advises that the most honorable (and safest) course is "to take advice of some few friends," warning, at the same time, that friendship is rare among equals.

In sum, then, Bacon's essay identifies those followers who are dangerous, those who are useful, but concludes that true friends are the best advisers and followers. 

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