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Themes in Friendship

Developing Strong Friendships: Before someone can enter into a friendship, Emerson claims that she must first look inward and develop her own sense of self. Once she has grasped a sense of autonomy, then can she look to others for companionship. In Emerson’s perspective, friendship must take root and bloom slowly and naturally, a process he refers to with the German word naturlangsamkeit. If a friendship is blindly or rashly formed, it will not develop with the same integrity; instead it should develop slowly and patiently—like a diamond taking shape in nature.

The Paradoxical Nature of Friendship: Echoing Aristotle’s “O my friends, there is no friend,” Emerson plays off of the dichotomies of a friendship. He sees a natural paradox in friendship, in the way that two people are continually oscillating between stages of estrangement and attachment. Using oxymoronic language, Emerson demonstrates how friendship involves an “alliance of formidable natures.” The two individuals involved in a friendship must each form a strong bond; however they must also retain their own individualism and look to one another from a distance, so the lustre of friendship might not fade.

Friendship as a Celestial Bond: When two individuals in a friendship connect as two spirits, their relationship transcends all earthly ties. Love and friendship, according to Emerson, is as holy as the divinity he envisions in nature. In the final lines of his essay, he states that true friendship is when one friend “deifies” the other, meaning that one individual looks onto the other with the reverence and veneration as a human looking to a spiritual being. This idea suggests the sacred bond between friends.

Themes Examples in Friendship:


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"It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both...."   ("Friendship")

In the final sentences of the essay, Emerson highlights the sanctity of friendship as a way of “deify[ing] both” friends. When the “interposed mask crumbles,” an image of temporal earthliness, friends can find strength in their own self-sufficiency built out of friendship. Using diction like “eternal” and “transcends,” Emerson indicates that friendship surpasses earthly burdens and heightens individuals to god-like figures.

"empyrean..."   ("Friendship")

Those who reciprocate one’s friendship are, in Emerson’s opinion, the “gods of the empyrean.” The word “empyrean” describes someone or something belonging to heaven. By comparing true friends with gods, Emerson states that friendship can transcend the temporal. As he states repeatedly throughout the essay, love and friendship are celestial and god-like.

"Janus-faced..."   ("Friendship")

The notion of a friend being “Janus-faced” also suggests the two-sided dimensions of friendship. Duality persists in the tension between hostility and generosity as well as distance and closeness. Furthermore, Emerson claims that a friend may, like Janus, have a duplicitous, meaning deceptive, nature.

"We will meet as though we met not, and part as though we parted not...."   ("Friendship")

This paragraph is replete with dichotomies, expressed in parallel structure: “I go in that I may seize them, I go out that I may seize them” and “We will meet as though we met not, as part as though we parted not.” This diction creates a sense of ambivalence. On the one hand, Emerson imagines a friendship where he treats his friends as distant gods and finds the ultimate friend within himself; on the other, he imagines that his friends were by his “side again.” At once desiring closeness and distance, Emerson speaks to the multiple facets of friendship, which he describes as “evanescent intercourse.”

"Janus-faced..."   ("Friendship")

“Janus,” the Roman god of gates, doorways, beginnings, and endings, is depicted as having two faces looking in opposite directions. Here, Emerson uses the phrase “Janus-faced” to indicate that a friend looks back to the past and forward to the future. Throughout this paragraph, Emerson provides a revolutionary stance on friendship. He decries the superficiality of European idolatry and urges readers to drop shallow friendships. In so doing, he suggests that we will meet true friends on a more spiritual, transcendental level, when we unite with them on a “higher platform” where friends persist timelessly.

"Ought I to feel that our tie is profane in comparison with yonder bar of cloud that sleeps on the horizon, or that clump of waving grass that divides the brook?..."   ("Friendship")

In an essay entitled “Nature”, written five years before “Friendship,” Emerson asserts his belief in the incredible unity of nature and humans: “Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.” Returning now to the theme of nature, Emerson equates friendship to the “harmony” and “delight” nature induces. To Emerson, friendship is not for sharing gossip or small talk; rather, it is a medium to experience poetry and purity. In the rhetorical question he poses, Emerson contemplates whether friendship is akin to the greatness of nature, encapsulated in a whimsical cloud or a piece of grass. If not, he claims, then it should be one’s duty to elevate a friendship to a more spiritual and universal “standard.”

"magnanimous..."   ("Friendship")

Someone who is “magnanimous” is someone with an exceptional sense of generosity and benevolence. Emerson claims that only those who are kind and good-hearted can expect to enter into sincere friendships because only those have the ability to approach friendship with the “religious treatment” and sacredness it needs to develop.

"Let it be an alliance of two large, formidable natures..."   ("Friendship")

Emerson encapsulates the paradox of friendship: on one hand, it is an “alliance” or bond; on the other, it is comprised of two independent, strong-willed “natures,” here described as one’s inherent character. As Emerson writes earlier, a friendship is a “paradox in nature,” composed of two seemingly incompatible parts—unity and autonomy.

"Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo...."   ("Friendship")

Emerson provides a metaphor to explain that two members united in friendship must each have their own personalities and convictions. A friend must be autonomous and independent, like a “nettle” or a prickly plant with stinging hair, instead of imitative, like an “echo.” Friends must never concede themselves for the other, nor should they allow the other to be someone he is not.

"The only joy I have in his being mine, is that the not mine is mine. ..."   ("Friendship")

In this paragraph, Emerson fully concedes to the dichotomies of friendship. Echoing one of Aristotle’s proverbs, “O my friends, there is no friend,” he writes that the beauty of having a friend is knowing that the other person is “not mine,” or in other words, entirely himself. A friendship is strong when the two individuals involved each retain their personalities and allow the other to be themselves as well.

"drudgery..."   ("Friendship")

In the final line of this paragraph, Emerson states that friendships should be revitalizing, new, and never something that falls into “drudgery,” meaning dull or fatiguing work. Friendships should uplift and heighten one’s daily experiences by “embellish[ing] it by courage, wisdom and unity.”

"A friend therefore is a sort of paradox in nature...."   ("Friendship")

Here, Emerson gets to the crux of his argument. Plainly put, a friend is a “paradox,” a contradiction, or a puzzle. Emerson sees himself as a lonely renegade—“I who alone am”—yet nevertheless, he still finds merit in forming strong bonds with others. These friends, although in different terrestrial shapes and forms, “behold… the semblance of [his] being,” as if Emerson himself were reincarnated in a different body. A friend, in Emerson’s opinion, is like a mirror to himself, and thus, a “masterpiece of nature.”

"One is truth...."   ("Friendship")

This terse sentence, composed of entirely monosyllabic words, creates a pause amid the otherwise meandering diction Emerson uses. The brevity of the phrase, along with the direct meaning it conveys, stands out in this paragraph, which emphasizes Emerson’s belief that one of the main tenets of a strong friendship is being able to tell the truth.

"Thine ever, or never...."   ("Friendship")

The writer mirrors the same hesitancy of the letter’s beginning at the end by writing, “Thine ever, or never,” or in other words, “Yours, or not yours.” To Emerson, friendship is about the dichotomy of yours and not yours, closeness and distance, and familiarity and reservedness. Friendship is volatile—a continuous process of oscillation and fluctuation.

"I chide society, I embrace solitude..."   ("Friendship")

Another essay published in the same compendium, Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”, outlines his transcendentalist perspective, which praises independent thought over collective pressures: “It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” In “Friendship,” Emerson echoes and builds upon the same beliefs. While he highly values solitude, he also sees the merit in interacting with like-minded, intellectually-inclined people.

"But as soon as the stranger begins to intrude his partialities, his definitions, his defects, into the conversation, it is all over...."   ("Friendship")

While at first, Emerson seems to describe the positive qualities of friendship, here the essay explores one of friendship’s major paradoxes: while the forming of friendships may stir one’s excitement, the maintenance of friendship can easily deteriorate the more someone gets to know another. As Emerson makes clear throughout the essay, there is a fine line that delineates when friendships begin to turn sour.

"uneasiness betwixt pleasure and pain invades all the hearts of a household...."   ("Friendship")

Words and phrases like “palpitation” and “uneasiness betwixt pleasure and pain” illustrate how the process of forming friendships with strangers is one of trepidation as well as invigoration. This hesitancy and uneasiness stimulates the whole body with a visceral response that “invades all the hearts of a household.”

"The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend,..."   ("Friendship")

Here, Emerson establishes the importance of letter-writing, or epistolary communication, in creating a strong foundation between friends. Using juxtaposing images, Emerson compares the scholar, who broods unproductively at his desk, with friends who are overcome with “troops of gentle thoughts” that inform and enliven their conversations.

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