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Emerson & Thoreau: Figures of Friendship

September 26, 2010

Scott F. Parker in Philosophy Now:

Emerson and Thoreau are lumped together in the American cultural memory for their leading roles in American transcendentalism, and also for their personal relationship. Emerson & Thoreau: Figures of Friendship, edited by John T. Lysaker and William Rossi, offers compelling biographical background on their famous friendship, as well as insightful scholarship on their main writings about friendship: Emerson’s essay ‘Friendship’, and the ‘Wednesday’ section of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).

The book’s bold aspiration is to be that rare hybrid: an academic work urgent enough to change the reader’s life. Following Emerson and Thoreau’s “at once… literary-philosophical and… existential concern” with friendship, in their introduction, Lysaker and Rossi write that “the present collection’s real concern is with friendship itself… Thus we would expect this book to enrich our readers’ collective sense of what friendship involves, what it requires, and how we might fare better on our paths.” (p.8.) If this ambition isn’t unfounded, it’s due as much to the breadth and importance of the subject, friendship, as it is to the transcendental inspiration of the sources. From Aristotle to the Romantics, a consideration of friendship has featured prominently in views of how to live, and as Lysaker and Rossi write, “like few folds in mortal life, friendship seems a necessary part of the good.” (p.1.) In an era when friends are publically counted in the hundreds, and made anew with the click of a Facebook button, we might pause at the ‘necessary.’ Or does discerning a distinction between quantity and quality just highlight the necessity of sincere friendship? [More]

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