During Francis Bacon’s last year on earth in 1626, a close friend asked him to rewrite his earlier essay “Of Friendship” to commemorate their relationship, and Bacon, being a good friend, complied shortly before taking a trip that winter with the King’s physician and being struck by the possibility of meat being preserved by cold. Being “the father of empiricism” and the scientific method (åas well as a friend and proponent of libraries), Bacon stopped the coach, went to a nearby farm and purchased a freshly eviscerated bird from a farm, packed it with snow, and immediately contracted pneumonia and died a few days later.
Bacon’s essay set forth the great benefits of having close friends. “A principal fruit of friendship,” he wrote, “is the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.” In other words, it’s important to have someone trustworthy to whom you can freely vent. Bacon’s second benefit of friendship described how when talking things out, “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.” Gaining a worthy friend’s advice often helps illuminate problems; “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.”
Good friends are priceless, but “You Can Only Maintain So Many Close Friendships,” an Atlantic.com article by Sheon Han, describes the “Dunbar Number” – “the number of stable relationships people are cognitively able to maintain at once” – whose namesake is Oxford professor Robin Dunbar. The average Dunbar number is 150 relationships, but there are a bunch of caveats. His book, “Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships,” will be released in the U.S. next January, and it contains a chart that looks like the layers of the planet Earth that show the encompassing layers of friendship, with each outer layer being three times the size of the previous one. At the center are your most intimate relationships and it’s composed of 1.5 people, usually your romantic interests. The second, or “close friend,” layer contains 5 people, who are “your shoulders-to-cry-on friendships” who will “drop everything” to support you when needed. At the third, or “best friend,” layer are fifteen people, including the previous 5, who are your “core social partners” who “provide the context for having fun times,” and “we trust them enough to leave our children with them.” The next, or “good friend,” layer is 50 strong and are “your-big-weekend-barbeque people.” The 150 layer (“friends”) are those invited to your weddings, funerals, and other “once-in-a-lifetime events.”
Beyond “friends” are 500 “acquaintances,” 1,500 “known names,” and 5,000 “known faces.” All these layers churn as some friendships grow closer and other less so, especially when we’re young and forming families, for “babies are the killer for any kind of social life for everyone. But the number starts to decline into old age – mainly by virtue to progressively losing the outermost layers. It ends up, if you live long enough, with just the innermost layer of 1.5.” Meanwhile, Dunbar notes that “falling in love will cost you two friendships” because of the extra time and energy necessarily invested would otherwise go towards sustaining 2 of your 5 “close friends,” who are bumped to the 15 “best friends” layer, bumping 2 friends there into the next layer and so on in a domino effect.
It’s been my experience that it’s impossible to have too many good children. I’m well-stocked in those, including a wonderful son who’s a constant source of joy and intellectual stimulation. For instance, he recently turned me onto Ptahhotep, a vizier to the Egyptian pharaoh over 4,700 years ago, whose own son followed in his dad’s footsteps by becoming the ruler’s next vizier. “Viziers” were the pharaoh’s main administrators; the term stems from “wazir,” Arabic for “one who bears the burden of office.” Ptahhotep, for instance, was also overseer of the pharaoh’s treasury, granaries, royal works, and also his head librarian. Since the office of vizier was usually held by older men, Ptahhotep drew upon his experience to write a book, “The Maxims of Ptahhotep,” containing advice for his son. Such books are known as “wisdom literature,” and the ancient world abounded in them.
The “Prisse Papyrus” was a scroll written around 2000 BCE that contains the last fragment of an earlier wisdom book by Kagemni, another vizier, and Ptahhotep’s complete maxims. It was discovered by French explorer Emile Prisse in 1847 and now resides in the Bibliotheque National, France’s national library. Among Ptahhotep’s many suggestions were advice on friendships. For example, “If you seek out the character of a friend, do not make your own inquiries, go direct to him, make the case with him alone,” and “If you wish friendship to last within a house you may enter, as master, as brother, or as friend, anywhere you may enter, resist approaching the wife.” He urged his boy to be reliable, trustworthy, and a good listener, all prime aspects of good friends. And he warned his son against “heated men” who easily lose their tempers as opposed to “silent men,” who are composed, weigh issues carefully, and are not quick to judgement.
Ptahhotep also cautioned against ignorance, but this comes in two flavors: ignorance arising from a lack of an opportunity to learn, and the willful ignorance of those who not only chose to ignore credible information but refuse to even consider and weigh options. Having access to lots of reliable and entertaining information seems like a good idea in this day and age, despite Japanese “organizing consultant” Marie Kondo espousing that you limit your household to 30 books. She’s backed off that statement, if all your books “spark joy” within you. However, my house contains many books I haven’t read yet, but suspect they’ll spark a load of joy when the time’s right to delve into them. In fact, I joyfully subscribe to another Japanese concept: “tsundoku,” surrounding oneself with unread books.
There are ways to find a compromise between Kondo and tsundoku. One, of course, is our public library that’s well-stocked with all forms of information. Another is Project Gutenberg (PG), the world’s first digital library containing 60,000 great works of literature that are in the public domains and can be downloaded and read for free. It was created by Michael Hart in 1971 who died in 2011, but not before speaking about PG at our library here in far-flung Fairbanks. He described how PG’s books are far more carefully edited to weed out errors than any other source of e-books, most of whom rely on optical character recognition programs, the best of which are rife with misprints. PG is very easy to use, so even I was able to download and start reading “The Maxims of Ptahhotep” within a couple of minutes.
None of this matters to the willfully ignorant, however, like those ingesting horse dewormers to ward off Covid. As wise old Ptahhotep noted over 4,000 years ago, “As for the fool unable to hear, nothing can be done for him. He sees wisdom as ignorance, and what is good as what is painful.”