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Friendship Summary

In his essay “Friendship,” Ralph Waldo Emerson portrays friendship as a natural, albeit paradoxical, human need. For Emerson, humans may possess “selfishness that chills like east winds.” Despite this, humans are surrounded by “an element of love like a fine ether,” which points to an innate love and need for companionship.

Emerson believes that in having friendships with others we are exhilarated and freed. He then compares scholarly work to friendship and concludes that having a friend can supply happiness more surely than intellectual pursuits. Emerson also explains the uneasiness that comes with making friends. He describes the shallow beginnings of friendship and how a person may show her best self when beginning to get to know another person. Often the beginning of a friendship is paired with a nervous “throbbing of the heart” and excitement, but as friendship progresses, nervousness at upkeeping looks and intelligence falls away, and “vulgarity, ignorance, and misapprehension” come in. Here, Emerson characterizes the nebulous and changing nature of friendship. Friendship at first is often comfortable and enjoyable, but the more you know a person, the harder it becomes to continue a friendship. For Emerson, having a friendship is akin to “indulging” in one’s “affections.” A friendship at its base can give a person a feeling of love and companionship that can make “all tragedies and ennuis vanish.” Further, although friendship and connections with like-minded people are important to Emerson, he holds to his transcendentalist and individualist philosophies. Emerson claims that friendship is valuable, but being comfortable in solitude is necessary.

Emerson then posits that friendships have divine roots. To him, friends have come to Emerson as if given by God. The act of making new friends is a “great event” that “hinders” him from sleep, pointing to the ecstasy and importance of friendships. Emerson then elaborates on the negative aspects of friendship, such as idolatry, explaining that we tend to see our friends in a more loving way and are unable to see flaws. For Emerson, this is due to how friendships are based on love. Friendships are natural and necessary, like the ebb and flow of blood through the heart.

However, he is also careful to mention that because of idolatry and love of our friends, we often only see the imagined and contrived version of another person. Emerson warns that friendship is “too good to be believed,” because one can never truly know another person; to Emerson, there is a “strict science” that keeps all persons in “remoteness” from one another. Because a person cannot know another person completely, friendship then is based on an imagined concept. This concept is often modeled after our own selves, as Emerson believes that the human soul respects itself more than it does others. Therefore, the friends that we make are consistently a reflection and an affirmation of ourselves. Because of this, we cannot help but seek friends as our individual souls, or selves, grow and change. Emerson compares the making of friends to the growth of a tree, with new leaves and buds forever growing.

Emerson then includes a hypothetical letter to a friend, which explores the paradox of wanting a friendship with someone while simultaneously perceiving the intervening distance. In the letter, Emerson describes himself as “not very wise” and with “attainable” moods—essentially painting himself as an easy person to understand. However, Emerson also says that he cannot fully understand the “genius” or individuality of the person he wishes to be friends with. This gap in understanding leads to what Emerson calls “delicious torment.” The oxymoronic phrase shows that friendship is both desirable in the love and happiness it can bring and tortuous in the misunderstandings it can beget. The hypothetical letter ends with “Thine ever, or never,” showing the...

(The entire section is 1,308 words.)