Book Excerpts

True Relations in a False Age – Ralph Waldo Emerson on Friendship

“Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sincerity in life, sincerity in friendships is at the heart of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Friendship first published in 1841. Like C.S. Lewis, Emerson held friendships in high regard. For the former Unitarian minister, relations with other people evoke in us the call towards both truth and tenderness, asking at their highest level not for daintiness, but for the ‘roughest courage.’ So many conversations are spoiled, he writes, by the need of many to be humored, to reinforce their personas rather than to speak to one another’s conscience. 


I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know. For now, after so many ages of experience, what do we know of nature, or of ourselves?

Not one step has man taken toward the solution of the problem of his destiny. In one condemnation of folly stand the whole universe of men. But the sweet sincerity of joy and peace, which I draw from this alliance with my brother’s soul, is the nut itself whereof all nature and all thought is but the husk and shell.

“A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud.”

There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign, that I can detect no superiority in there, no reason why either should be first named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness, with which one chemical atom meets another. Sincerity is the luxury allowed, but diadems and authority, only to the highest rank, that being permitted to speak truth as having none above it to court or conform unto.

Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins. We parry and fend the approach of our fellow-man by compliments, by gossip, by amusements, by affairs. We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.

“Almost every man we meet requires some civility,—requires to be humored.”

I knew a man who, under a certain religious frenzy, cast off this drapery, and omitting all compliments and commonplace, spoke to the conscience of every person he encountered, and that with great insight and beauty. At first he was resisted, and all men agreed he was mad. But persisting, as indeed he could not help doing, for some time in this course, he attained to the advantage of bringing every man of his acquaintance into true relations with him. No man would think of speaking falsely with him, or of putting him off with any chat of markets or reading-rooms. But every man was constrained by so much sincerity to the like plain dealing and what love of nature, what poetry, what symbol of truth he had, he did certainly show him.

But to most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. To stand in true relations with men in a false age, is worth a fit of insanity, is it not? We can seldom go erect. Almost every man we meet requires some civility,—requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him.

“A friend is a sane man who exercises not my ingenuity, but me.”

But a friend is a sane man who exercises not my ingenuity, but me. My friend gives me entertainment without requiring any stipulation on my part. A friend, therefore, is a sort of paradox in nature. I who alone am, I who see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own, behold now the semblance of my being in all its height, variety and curiosity, reiterated in a foreign form; so that a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
From: The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson

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