Of Friendship

One soul in two bodies.
montaigne, “of friendship”

In the centuries when most marriages were contracted out of economic and social considerations, friendship was written about with the kind of emotional extravagance that we, in our own time, have reserved for an ideal of romantic attachment. Montaigne, for instance, writing in the sixteenth century of his long dead, still mourned friend Étienne de La Boétie, tells us that they were “one soul in two bodies.” There was nothing his friend did, Montaigne says, not an act performed or a word spoken, for which “I could not immediately find the motive.” Between the two young men communion had achieved perfection. This shared soul “pulled together in such unison,” each half regarding the other with “such ardent affection,” that “in this noble relationship, services and benefits, on which other friendships feed,” were not taken into account. So great was the emotional benefit derived from the attachment that favors could neither be granted nor received. Privilege, for each of the friends, resided in being allowed to love rather than in being loved.

This is language that Montaigne does not apply to his wife or his children, his colleagues or his patrons—all relationships that he considers inferior to a friendship that develops not out of sensual need or worldly obligation but out of the joy one experiences when the spirit is fed; for only then is one closer to God than to the beasts. The essence of true friendship for Montaigne is that in its presence “the soul grows refined.”

Montaigne’s friend died young, at a time when it was easy for the two men to imagine themselves lifelong intimates. What wisdom, I have often wondered, would the great essayist have given us had they lived on together into the maturity that, inevitably, would have produced divisions of taste, experience, and ambition capable of complicating not only Montaigne’s perception of “soul refinement” but that of friendship itself.

I once had a friend with whom I was certain I would grow old. My friendship with Emma was not one I would have described as Montaigne describes his with La Boétie, but now that I am thinking about it I see that, in important ways, it is analogous….

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