Thoreau on Friendship and Solitude
Writing in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers Henry David Thoreau tells us that “No word is oftener on the lips of men than Friendship, and indeed no thought is more familiar to their aspirations. All men are dreaming of it, and its drama, which is always a tragedy, is enacted daily. It is the secret of the Universe”. Thoreau compares the constancy with which we think of Friendship with the relative rarity that this topic appears in literature. Friendship is so familiar, it seems, that we sometimes feel little need to think deeply about what Friendship is, and what it can be. However, it is a theme which permeates Thoreau’s writings, and if properly understood can lend depth to both the transcendentalism of Walden, and the justification of acts of Civil Disobedience.
Thoreau says many fine things about friendship, yet he lays out what may seem to be some extremely harsh conditions for being a true friend, one might even wonder who would want to befriend such a demanding person. These conditions begin to make sense when we consider the role of the friend when one withdraws from society into solitude. For Thoreau, one contracts friendship with the virtues of a Friend to the exclusion of his faults and vices. Friendship, furthermore, requires distance and solitude, as well as silence, in addition to time spent together in conversation. Friendship educates us and calls upon us to be virtuous, yet we often think little of friendship and treat our friends as useful conveniences.
Thoreau writes: “Nothing is so difficult as to help a Friend in matters which do not require the aid of Friendship, but only a cheap and trivial service”. He laments that his friends will often ask for his help with a project, but not ask for his full presence, just for the work of his hands. “It is as if … your Friend should use you as a hammer and drive a nail with your head”. He compares this to a friend of his who knows how to make use of his talents and virtues, and who he pleasantly serves. We are left to wonder what exactly this difference is, and whether or not Thoreau would be the kind of friend to show up, unbegrudgingly, to help with a simple but necessary task, such as moving some furniture. Can we not expect that a good friend would show up with all of his virtues and talents even when all that is required of him is a little elbow grease?
Furthermore, Thoreau seems to expect perfection in action and deed from his friends in his presence. “The sorest insult which I ever received from a Friend was, when he behaved with the licence which only long and cheap acquaintance allows to one’s faults, in my presence, without shame”. Thoreau laments that men wish him to contract friendship not only with their virtue, but also with their faults and vices, and he says that in friendship virtues do not outweigh faults, but rather that the virtue with which one is acquainted makes the faults so much more egregious, “for a fault there is no excuse”. From this demanding ideal of friendship, however, Thoreau issues a warning, “Let the Friend know that those faults which he observes in his Friend his own faults attract”. The friend, therefore, acts as a mirror, and the faults which Thoreau finds unforgivable in his friends only serve to reflect his own faults back at him.
For Thoreau, “A Friend is one who incessantly pays us the compliment of expecting from us all the virtues, and who can appreciate them in us”. Friendship constantly challenges those who enter into it to be the best that they can be; “I make an infinite demand on myself, as well as on others”. This infinite demand certainly causes Thoreau to question whether or not there have been such friendships as he idealizes, and whether human beings really are capable of such friendship. Yet, he notes “…there have been times when our friend’s thoughts of us were so pure and lofty a character that they passed over us like the winds of heaven unnoticed; when they treated us not as we were but what we aspired to be”.
Friendship, for Thoreau, is an idealized relation in which one does not wish to tarnish the image of himself within his friend’s mind, but instead to elevate oneself to the ideal image which the friend holds. Two friends call out to each other to be the best, most virtuous persons, that they can be. Alternatively, the friends allow vice and fault to become habitual between them. “Beware, lest thy Friend learn at last to tolerate one frailty of thine, and so an obstacle be raised to the progress of thy love.”
Thoreau’s ideal of friendship seems at times to be extremely harsh, further, it is an ideal that we may never achieve in real life interactions with our friends; however, understanding that the greater part of our friendships happen within the ideality of the mind perhaps requires an ideal which is unreachable, but in reaching for it we become better friends and better people. What is more, is that this transformation of self happens most when we are silent with our friends, or alone when we engage ourselves in dialogue.
Thoreau reminds us that “it is impossible to say all that we think, even to our truest Friend”, therefore the greater part of friendship consists not in what we can say to our friend, but in being together in silence. “There are some things which a man never speaks of, which are much finer kept silent about. To the highest communication we lend only a silent ear”. Silence is not dominated by a complete lack of conversation, as if Thoreau sat around shushing his friends, but rather permeates and punctuates every conversation. These moments of silence can be more communicative than speech; however, Thoreau warns us that “in human intercourse the tragedy begins not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is misunderstood”. Particularly, when one party does not understand the value of silent communication. Thoreau reminds us that when we part ways with a good friend, and we know that it will be some time before we are in each other’s company again, that our wordiest farewells are less communicative than a handshake, when we need to brace ourselves for time apart with an embrace. Silent togetherness prepares friends for the time they must spend apart, during which the ideal friend keeps us company.
In Walden, Thoreau replies to a question as to whether or not he gets lonely in his cabin out in the woods. He responds not be speaking of loneliness but of solitude. Hannah Arendt states that the difference between loneliness and solitude is that solitude is a condition of being alone with oneself, in loneliness we are estranged from ourself. Thoreau admits that there was a brief time when he was feeling lonely, until: “I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me”. This friendliness with nature makes the company of human beings seem wearisome in contrast. Not that he suddenly does not need any human contact, and is happy with a solitary hermit’s life, but that he more efficiently wishes to balance time with society and company, and in solitude. “We meet at the post-office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications.”
The problem with such frequency of meetings, for Thoreau, is that it allows no “time to acquire any new value for each other”. He likens this to “giv[ing] each other a new taste of that musty old cheese that we are”. All too frequent intercourse allows for no new growth to contribute to the friendship, it encourages our friends not to think of us in terms of our aspirations, but of what we are, and this prevents them from calling upon us to meet our aspirations. It is in absence that we meet with the idealized form of our friends, when we are solitary it is our friends whom we are alone with, our ideals of friendship form that part of ourself with whom we speak to when we are solitary. “When they say farewell, then indeed we begin to keep them company”.
Despite his love of solitude, Thoreau considers himself no misanthrope. “I think I love society as much as most”. However, “If we would enjoy that most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot hear each other’s voices in any case”. Thoreau asks what it is that separates human beings from one another, and notes that “no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another”. Further Thoreau stressed that it is not as important to dwell near to society and the conveniences of the city “where most men congregate” as it is to dwell near “to the perennial source of life”. That perennial source of life drove Thoreau to Walden pond to discover the principle “Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the Universe”, and simultaneously, it justifies acts of Civil Disobedience “I have only the obligation to do at any time what I think is right.” Knowing what is right, and what is in accord with nature, depends on our ability to engage ourselves in solitude which would not be possible without the education that our friendships provide, and not without the long practice in virtue that our friends demand of us.
Friendship is a holy sacrament, during which “The virtue which we appreciate we to some extent appropriate, so that thus we are made at last more fit for every relation of life.” And yet, “We never exchange more than three words with a Friend in our lives on that level to which our thoughts and feelings habitually go”. Thoreau’s ideal of friendship is so rarefied that it takes great care to make it grow, and to harvest the fruits of friendship. Thoreau believes, however, that once harvested these fruits benefit the friends for the rest of their days.
“As surely as the sunset in my latest November shall translate me to the ethereal world, and remind me of the ruddy morning of my youth; as surely as the last strain of music which falls on my decaying ear shall make age to be forgotten, or, in short, the manifold influences of nature survive during the term of our natural life, so surely my Friend shall forever be my Friend, and reflect a ray of God to me, and time shall foster and adorn and consecrate our Friendship, no less than the ruins of temples.”