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What is Friendship?

Emerson's Praise and Worries about Friends

The fountains of my hidden life
Are through thy friendship fair.

When researchers tell us that they've associated friendship with not just happiness but health (including specifics like better recovery from cancer), it can seem as if friendship is something you ought to just go out and get yourself.

But there are certainly mysteries involved in friendship, despite how confident we might be about the practical advantages of having a good friend or two. And no matter how much we appreciate our friends, the relationship is still likely to be a peculiar one, full of ups and downs and a particular kind of commitment. We can know who are true friends are without stopping to consider how much luck is involved in friendship, or how a true friend really differs from someone with whom we are just friendly.

So perhaps philosophy can be of some help.

Aristotle's account of friendship might be his most-studied proposal. It's easily detached from his full ethical account and as a result it can be explained simply. It is also helpful, because we do not tend to analyze the concept of "friendship," despite how frequently we engage and depend on our friends.

Aristotle suggested that there were three types of friendship: a pleasure-based sort, where you stay friends as long as you are having a good time with a person; a utility-based sort, where you stay friends because it is so convenient to do so; and a virtue-sort, which is out of reach for most of us, but the very best kind of friendship. Aristotle tells us you are to live your life with a friend like this, sharing meals and everyday experiences together. But all of this depends on your commitment to pursuing virtue, and most of us don't have the time for that.

If we really want to think critically about our own friendships, I suggest Ralph Waldo Emerson be given more attention.

Emerson, an incredibly influential and charismatic figure, noted in his day for inspiring the deepest of admiration from those around him, has an incredibly thoughtful essay titled "On Friendship." It is a rousing tribute to friends. The Epicureans were known for putting friendship in the category of immortal good, but you can scarcely find friendship lauded in more cosmic terms than you do in Emerson.

And yet, Emerson seems more realistic than Aristotle on friendship. Though we do require some degree of magnanimity to be marked as a friend, Emerson certainly does not require we have virtue. Here is what he thinks it does take. It seems a certain independence is necessary in a friend:

Friendship requires that rare mean betwixt likeness and unlikeness, that piques each with the presence of power and of consent in the other party. Let me be alone to the end of the world, rather than that my friend should overstep, by a word or a look, his real sympathy. I am equally balked by antagonism and by compliance. Let him not cease an instant to be himself. … The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it. That high office requires great and sublime parts. There must be very two, before there can be very one. Let it be an alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them.

It is important for our self-respect, that our friends resist us a bit and push back on some of our ideas. It is awful to feel you have a friend due to pity. He also notes how odd it is that we will never become friends with some people, no matter how much time we spend with them, writing, "No two men but, being left alone with each other, enter into simpler relations. Yet it is affinity that determines which two shall converse. Unrelated men give little joy to each other; will never suspect the latent powers of each."

And yet, Emerson never suggests that any friendship itself can lives up to its promise. Is this also realistic?

The higher the style we demand of friendship, of course the less easy to establish it with flesh and blood. We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers ever the faithful heart, that elsewhere, in other regions of the universal power, souls are now acting, enduring, and daring, which can love us, and which we can love.

His suggestion seems to be that friends inspire us, but not through our daily interactions. It is the idea that we have made friends, that we have friends, that seems to do all the bolstering work, for Emerson. His advice is unusual, and it certainly complicates any over-cheery advice that assume the relationship between friends is a simple one:

I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them. We must have society on our own terms, and admit or exclude it on the slightest cause. I cannot afford to speak much with my friend.

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