From The Pleasures of Life, by Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M. P., F. R. S., D. C. L., LL. D.; New York : John B. Alden, Publisher, 1887; pp. 53-58.
THE BLESSING OF FRIENDS.1
“They seem to take away the sun from the world who withdraw friendship from life; for we have received nothing better from the Immortal Gods, nothing more delightful.” — CICERO.
MOST of those who have written in praise of books have thought they could say nothing better of them than to compare them to friends.
Socrates said that “all people have their different objects of ambition — horses, dogs, money, honor, as the case may be; but for his own part he would rather have a good friend than all these put together.” And again, men know “the number of their other possessions, although they might be numerous, but of their friends, though but few, they were not only ignorant of the number, but even when they attempted to reckon it to such as asked them, they set aside again some that they had previously counted among their friends; so little did they allow their friends ot occupy their thoughts. Yet in comparison with what possession, of all others, would not a good friend appear far more valuable?”
“As to the value of other things,” says Cicero, “most men differ; concerning friendship all have the same opinion.” “What can be more foolish than, when men are possessed of great influence by their wealth, power, and resources, to procure other things which are 54 bought by money — horses, slaves, rich apparel, costly vases — and not to procure friends, the most valuable and fairest furniture of life?”* And yet, he continues, “every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends.”† In the choice, moreover, of a dog or of a horse, we exercise the greatest care : we inquire into its pedigree, its training and character, and yet we too often leave the selection of our friends, which is of infinitely greater importance — by whom our whole life will be more or less influenced either for good or evil — almost to chance.
No doubt, much as worthy friends add to the happiness and value of life, we must in the main depend on ourselves, and every one is his own best friend or worst enemy.
Sad, indeed, is Bacon’s assertion that “there is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals, which was wont to be magnified. That that is, is between superior and inferior whose fortunes may comprehend the one to the other.” But this can hardly be taken as his deliberate opinion, for he elsewhere says, “but we may go farther, and affirm most truly, that it is a mere and miserable solitude to want true friends, without which the world is but a wilderness.” Not only, he adds, does friendship introduce “daylight in the understanding out of darkness and confusion of thoughts;” it “maketh a fair day in the affections from storm and tempests :” in consultation with a friend a man “tosseth his thoughts more easily; he marshalleth them more orderly; he seeth how they look when they are turned into words; finally, he waxeth wiser than himself, and that more by an hour’s discourse than by a day’s meditation.” . . . “But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth, for a crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery 55 of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal where there is no love.”
With this I cannot altogether concur. Surely even strangers may be most interesting ! and many will agree with Dr. Johnson when, describing a pleasant evening, he summed it up — “Sir, we had a good talk.”
It is no doubt true, as the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table says, that all men are bores except when we want them. And Sir Thomas Browne quaintly observes that “unthinking heads who have not learnt to be alone are a prison to themselves if they be not with others; whereas, on the contrary, those whose thoughts are in a fair and hurry within, are sometimes fain to retire into company to be out of the crowd of themselves.” Still I do not quite understand Emerson’s idea that “men descend to meet.” In another place, indeed, he qualifies the statement, and says, “Almost all people descend to meet.” Even so I should venture to question it, especially considering the context. “All association,’ he adds, “must be a compromise, and, what is worse, the very flower and aroma of the flower of each of the beautiful natures disappears as they approach each other.” What a sad thought ! “Is it really so ? Need it be so ? And if it were so, would friends be any real advantage ? I should have thought that the influence of friends was exactly the reverse : that the flower of a beautiful nature would expand, and the colors grow brighter, when stimulated by the warmth and sunshine of friendship.
Much certainly of the happiness and purity of our lives depends on our making a wise choice of our companions and friends. Many people seem to trust in this matter to the chapter of accident. It is well and right, indeed, to be courteous and considerate to every one with whom one is thrown into contact, but to 56 choose them as real friends is another matter. Some seem to make a man a friend, or try to do so, because he lives near, because he is in the same business, travels on the same line of railway, or for some other trivial reason. There cannot be a greater mistake. These are only, in the words of Plutarch, “the idols and images of friendship.”‡ If our friends are badly chosen they will inevitably drag us down; if well they will raise us up. To be friendly with every one is another matter; we must remember that there is no little enemy, and those who have ever really loved any one will have some tenderness for all.
There is indeed some good in most men. “I have heard much,” says Mr. Nasmyth in his charming autobiography, “about the ingratitude and selfishness of the world. It may have been my good fortune, but I have never experienced either of these unfeeling conditions.” Such also has been my own experience.
“Men talk of unkind hearts, kind deeds
With deeds unkind returning.
Alas ! The gratitude of men
Has oftener left me mourning.”
I cannot, then, agree with Emerson that “we walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers ever the faithful heart, that elsewhere in other regions of the universal power souls are now acting, enduring, and daring, which can love us, and which we can love.”
Epictetus gives very good advice when he dissuades from conversation on the very subjects most commonly chosen, and advises that it should be on “none of the common subjects — not about gladiators, nor horse-races, nor about athletes, nor about eating or drinking, 57 which are the usual subjects; and especially not about men, as blaming them;”2 but when he adds, “or praising them,” the injunction seems to me of doubtful value. Surely Marcus Aurelius more wisely advises that “when thou wishes to delight thyself, think of the virtues of those who live with thee; for instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth. For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues, when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Wherefore we must keep them before us.” Yet how often we know merely the sight of those we call our friends, or the sound of their voices, but nothing whatever of their mind or soul.
We must, moreover, be as careful to keep friends as to make them. The affections should not be mere “tents of a night.” Friendship gives no privilege to make ourselves disagreeable. Some people never seem to appreciate their friends till they have lost them. Anaxagoras described the Mausoleum as the ghost of wealth turned into stone.
“But he who has once stood beside the grave to look back on the companionship which has been forever closed, feeling how impotent then are the wild love and the keen sorrow, to give one instant’s pleasure to the pulseless heart, or atone in the lowest measure to the departed spirit for the hour of unkindness, will scarcely for the future incur that debt to the heart which can only be discharged to the dust.”3
Death, indeed, cannot sever friendship. “Friends, though absent, are still present; though in poverty they are rich; though weak, yet in the enjoyment of health; and, what is 58 still more difficult to assert, though dead they are alive.”§ This seems a paradox, yet is there not much truth in his explanation ? “To me, indeed, Scipio still lives, and will always live; for I love the virtue of that man, and that worth is not yet extinguished. . . . Assuredly of all things that either fortune or time has bestowed on me, I have none which I can compare with the friendship of Scipio.”¶
If, then, we choose our friends for what they are, not for what they have, and if we deserve so great a blessing, then they will be always with us, preserved in absence, and even after death in the “amber of memory.”
1 The substance of this was delivered at the London Working Men’s College.
* On Friendship, section 55, by Marcus Tullius Cicero, is on Bill Thayer’s outstanding website LacusCurtius, on both Ancient Rome and American History, among many other enlightening things.
† Once more, nice Bill Thayer has just put up the essay by Plutarch that contains this passage. Although he states that Lubbock uses it out of the proper context, see the phrase : “shadows and imitations”.
‡ Cicero, loc. cit., section 55.
§ Cicero, ibid, section 23.
¶ Cicero, ibid, section 102 sq.