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Historical Context in Friendship

Transcendentalism: One of the foremost members of the transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) published dozens of essays and delivered approximately 1500 public lectures across the United States. Through his lectures, essays, and poems, Emerson espoused the tenets of his movement: the holiness of nature, its ability to uplift the human spirit, the importance of autonomy and individualism, and the downfalls of communal thought. His own life experiences as well as the discussions in letters with friends and fellow transcendentalists—like Margaret Fuller, Samuel Ward, Caroline Sturgis, and Henry David Thoreau—would become the basis for his essay “Friendship.”

Historical Context Examples in Friendship:


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"beautiful enemy..."   ("Friendship")

Emerson writes that a friend should be a “beautiful enemy.” The first word demonstrates something attractive, while the latter references someone who is an adversary. The contrast between the positive attributes of the first word against the negative attributes of the second illustrates this oxymoron. While two friends must regard each other with reverence and praise, they must simultaneously see the other as a rival. Emerson’s pupil, Henry David Thoreau, echoes this sentiment in a January 1850 journal entry in which he writes: “My so-called friend comes near to being my greatest enemy.” Both he and Emerson understood that true friendship originated out of a union of two dichotomies: antipathy and affinity.

"The great God gave them to me...."   ("Friendship")

Although Emerson does not explicitly reference his personal friendships, here we get a sense of the friendships that enriched his life. Since Emerson claims that one person’s divinity seeks out the same in others, friendship-building eclipses any sort of physical limitations, including “individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance.” In this fashion, with the help of an inward, divine guide, Emerson met some of his most respected friends—including fellow writer Margaret Fuller, and pupil Henry David Thoreau, who was fourteen years his junior.

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