02 Jan It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them [Emerson (Klein)]
“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, American Philosopher
Through the ages, an impressive number of philosophers – from hedonists to transcendentalists – have rated friendship as life’s greatest pleasure. Not sex, not extreme sports, not even coming up with an original philosophical insight – but simply having a very good friend.
Epicurus and Aristotle thought so, so did Montaigne and Bacon, Santayana and James. It is a long and impressive list. Given that doing philosophy is one of the most introverted occupations imaginable, it is fascinating that these folks valued companionship so much. Perhaps it takes being a solitary person to fully appreciate the pleasures of friendship.
Of course, there are some philosophers who hold a cynical view of friendship.
The French master of maxims, Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613 – 168o), wrote, “What men have called friendship is only a social arrangement, a mutual adjustment of interests, an interchange of services given and received; it is, in sum, simply a business from which those involved propose to derive a steady profit for their own self – love.’
Yes, we all have had relationships like that – relationships that turned out to be more about manipulation than companionship, more about being treated as a means to an end than as an end itself. But true, open, and trusting relationships exist also. I know this to be true in my most valued friendships and I have the incomparable privilege of being married to someone I trust with my life.
An insidious form of La Rochefoucauld’s cynical appraisal of friendship is in the air lately. It is called “setting boundaries,” and mental health tipsters from Dr. Phil to the editors of Psychology Today swear by it. The idea is that you should consciously set limits on what you are willing to do with and for your loved ones; that way you will not get riled or burned in your relationships. They tell us to set boundaries on what we are willing to sacrifice for our friends, what we will tolerate in their behavior, even what we talk about with them. That way we will have healthier, more peaceful friendships.
In other words, base your relationships on the commercial model of quid pro quo: If you do for me, I’ll do for you. It sounds like La Rochefoucauld’s “social arrangement, a mutual adjustment of interests, an interchange of services given and received.”
Is that what we want to mean by “friendship”?
But back to Emerson’s thoughts about the joys of an old friendship. I know whereof he speaks.
Tom and I have kept in close touch – daily touch since the advent of email – over the decades. Once or twice a year, we go off together for a few days, stay in a B&B or hotel, and basically just hang out. We talk. We go to a movie. We eat out. We talk some more. It is a treat and a privilege.
Over these years, we have gone through the rough passages of our respective lives with each other’s counsel and support.
The good parts, too, of course. And some of our long, heady discussions on philosophical topics have taught me more than I learned in any classroom. But if I were to pick out the most ecstatic times we have shared, those would be the occasions when we were pickled with goofiness, when we reduced each other to giggling fools. We trust each other enough to be able to be seriously stupid together. Total dumbos. And in the midst of so much laughter, there are sometimes moments when time seems to stop for a delirious rendezvous with the Eternal Now.
Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It