A friend suggested to me today, as she complained of the emptiness of much friendship, that I compose a post for this blog considering the opinions of great thinkers upon the subject. Although I have been commended for the wideness of my reading, I think myself hardly fit to conduct such an undertaking with either the scholarly care or philosophical perspicuity so grave a subject would demand. I do, however, keep often in my mind the remark of Francis Bacon, in his essay Of Followers and Friends, 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 the other.” I think we today would do harm neither to our happiness nor our virtue to consider friendship this way. For if Aristotle, the philosopher of optimates, could require that equality of friends which Bacon here dismisses, how much more so do we slaves to the democratic vision find ourselves searching eternally for friends who are our equals?
My grandfather once told me that the greatest difficulty in finding appointments for our clergy couples in the Methodist Church is the inevitable reality that one of the two will be a much better minister than the other; and so, in the best interests of the gospel and of Christ’s holy church, one must put a strain upon an institution pleasing to that same Christ and approved by the same holy gospel—for only among spouses of the humblest and best sort will the advancement of one not engender envy and remorse in the heart of the other left behind—otherwise we must do disservice to our mission by either elevating an unworthy laborer or holding back an excellent one. Yet we who are so ready to sacrifice at the altars of equity and equality would balk at the sacrifice of a spouse who puts their career in the service of their partner’s—and if it be the wife that does so those of us well trained by feminists will either pity her or blame her husband; the man who does so, well, is he not weak and uxorious? And yet who would deny the contribution such a sacrifice can make to matrimonial felicity? Indeed among the many causes of our society’s propensity to divorce may we not name alongside individualism, shamelessness, love-worship, and the contractual idea the fact that it is now equals who marry? When we are rivals with our husbands and wives in not only amatory contests of jealousy real or imagined, but also in the merciless and worldly battlefield of our status and careers, who can expect all barriers to vanish or affection to ground itself in the conversation of wedded souls and not the ambitions of advantageous partnership? And should another or no partnership seem better, by what cords are then the partners bound but those of legal inconvenience?
It is the first great advantage of a friend, says Bacon elsewhere in his essay Of Friendship, that they allow us “ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart,” that a friend is medicine for stress and sorrow. And yet if we are in constant fear of losing standing before our friends and hesitate to divulge our weaknesses in imagination of their later mocking us or thinking less of us, the medicine shall never be applied; indeed unless our friends are shrewd physicians and diligent confessors (friendship, says Bacon, is “a kind of civil shrift”) they may never detect either our symptoms or our evasions, and keep both absolution and prescription beyond our reach. If our friends are our equals this will always be the case, but if they are so far above us that we could never hope to gain their favor—and yet they may never be so beyond us that we do not think and feel as they do—or if, on the contrary, they are beneath us by such a degree that our livelihoods and happiness do not hang upon their opinions, then we will be freed to unfold before them the tale of all that ails us, and will not hesitate to share with them both relief and anxiety, sadness and joy. To be a peer in sentiment is to be ripe for friendship, but likeness in station is an invitation to rot.