Cobwebs and solitude
Do not be fooled by the title: Emerson’s essay “Friendship” is much more a plea for solitude than a treatise on friendship. This begins mildly enough—
I chide society, I embrace solitude, and yet I am not so ungrateful as not to see the wise, the lovely, and the noble-minded as from time to time they pass my gate. (342, Essays & Lectures, Library of America)
—but is swiftly heightened:
The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society. (344)
Friendship and solitude are two poles, and the individual oscillates between them, each inducing the other state. This already establishes that a treatise on friendship must be just as much a treatise on solitude. Yet, above, I contended that the essay is a plea for solitude. That takes some explaining.
At this point in the essay, Emerson is in a theoretical mode, does appear to be working on a treatise. This does not last. For, in between these two quotes, Emerson has raised a skeptical worry, and as we shall see that worry comes to dominate the essay. If the soul oscillates between periods of solitude and periods of society, we must ask: where, along this oscillation, did Emerson’s soul find itself in the writing of this essay? Here is the worry:
We doubt that we bestow on our hero the virtues in which he shines, and afterwards worship the form to which we have ascribed this divine inhabitation. (343)
The worry, more or less, is that the soul bestows a form on the would-be friend, and then worships that form, and not the friend himself. Virtue, Emerson insists throughout the essay, has an affinity for itself; what he here suspects is that the felt affinity for another’s virtue is in fact merely an affinity for the projection of one’s own virtue. And, in that case, what we have is not genuine friendship, but merely a sort of solitude with an extra body. But some legwork is required to understand this in greater depth.
Friendship depends on common truth, on two individuals who together grasp the divine mind. So Emerson writes:
By oldest right, by the divine affinity of virtue with itself, I find them, or rather not I, but the Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance, at which he usually connives, and now makes many one. (343)
What is divine in me finds what is divine in another, and this shared divinity is the ground of the friendship. What is interesting here is that the Deity “derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character”—friendship requires the effacement of partiality and particularity. But one must be careful here, for effacement of partiality can go quite wrong.
In a defense of the view that friendship must be between two, and not between more, Emerson suggests it is for this reason:
In good company, the individuals merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. (349)
Let us tally the elements here. We have, first, the effacement of partialities, of particular relationships, and poorly limited individual thought. And, second, we have a common thought, shared by all parties, that is the basis of speech. How much this looks like Emerson’s description of friendship. Only,
Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one. (349)
Here, however, it is precisely these elements, the effacement of partiality and the shared thought, that is destructive, that eliminates any possibility of friendship. And it does so by preventing two souls from running into one. The problem is a problem of tempo: good society effaces what is particular too quickly, too hastily, in the name of good sense, a certain prudence. So it enforces a shared thought; this is imposed on the conversers rather than arrived at freely.
This emphasis on slowness is of the essence. A too quick effacement of partiality ends all possibility of friendship because it is nothing other than partiality and individual character that provides the method for arriving at shared truth. “There must be very two, before there can be very one.” (350) To strip one of these particulars too hastily, not to “respect the naturlangsamkeit (sic) which hardens the ruby in a million years” (344), is to strip simultaneously the very ability to form a higher union. Good society, in its haste, makes of commingling mere wine and dreams.
Yet these uneasy pleasures and fine pains are for curiosity, and not for life. They are not to be indulged. This is to weave cobweb, and not cloth. (345)
We “descend” to meet others, instead of waiting for them at the heights; we get impatient for company, and sacrifice our particularity. And the result is mere cobweb, something that hides in the shadows and is easily swept away. Insubstantial fluff. I am reminded here of that magnificent poem by Emily Dickinson:
To hang our head—ostensibly
And subsequent, to find
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind
Affords the sly presumption
That in so dense a fuzz
You—too—take Cobweb attitudes
Upon a plane of Gauze!
Emerson sets a high bar for friendship, and if that bar cannot be met, communion must be foregone. Recall that underlying all of this is the skeptical worry that we never truly find someone who possesses our shared virtue, that we merely impose a form upon another, then worship the form we have bestowed. And Emerson, here, replies to this skepticism with a concession:
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. (352)
Emerson softens his concession with a “sublime hope”, but how consoling is this? How lonely it is, to walk in the world without companions, and only to know that somewhere, maybe, such a companion is to be found, only you and he shall never meet. Our particularities, to which we must remain true, forever drive us apart. And what of when we do meet one we consider a friend?
The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for infirmity. It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both. (354)
With this, the essay ends, and on the surface it possesses an optimistic glow—but how may it be taken than as a direct reply to the skeptical worry earlier raised? Here Emerson admits that in all we call friendship, we treat the other as they are not, as a god, in order to deify them. Emerson in effect does his earlier skepticism one better: not only does the friend need deifying, oneself equally needs to be deified.
From this I surmise that Emerson wrote the essay in the midst of a deep spiritual solitude. Later, perhaps, he would be ripe for a friendship, but at the time of writing friendship was not possible for him. Emerson addresses the topic of friendship as a means of exploring his own solitude; friendship is not his real target.