Emerson’s Essay on Friendship Contains Multitudes

Picture taken with no permission from Simply Recipes.
Picture taken with no permission from Simply Recipes.

Check out Ralph “Where’s” Waldo “rf Astoria”1 Emerson’s essay on friendship.2 At one point, he writes:

We are armed all over with subtle antagonisms, which, as soon as we meet, begin to play, and translate all poetry into stale prose. Almost all people descend to meet. All association must be a compromise, and, what is worst, the very flower and aroma of the flower of each of the beautiful natures disappears as they approach each other. What a perpetual disappointment is actual society, even of the virtuous and gifted!

Aaaaaaaaaaand I’m not really feeling it.

You can really smell Emerson’s fetish for self-reliance here: even getting close to people fucks everything up, let alone relying on others in any deep sense. In his mind, we walk around with beautiful crystalline constructions of ourselves and others in our minds, and as soon as they start bumping into real people, they shatter. I pick a metaphor that relies on something constructed rather than Emerson’s own metaphor, which is a natural, fragrant flower, because I don’t think it’s particularly natural to have these sorts of expectations. It takes something like Emerson’s particular bent, his elevation of the individual to a position of primacy, to expect that inside everyone there is something so amazing and so private that to “meet” is to “descend.”

To me this is like insisting that you are really good at basketball, even though whenever someone asks you to prove it, you miss the shot. I’m very skeptical that there’s anything hanging around inside our heads in some protected state that, if we could safely extricate it without the mundanities of typical social interaction, would shine forth like a beautiful jewel. Whatever “beautiful natures” we have, inside and outside, got there through interactions with other people. What Emerson calls “actual society” isn’t holding us back – it is a necessary constituent of who we are.

In the first place, I think it’s misguided to privilege constructions that we hold inside our head over what emerges when we interact, especially if, like Emerson, we’re talking not just about our self-conceptions but about our conceptions of others. Poor Emerson can’t enter into any association that is not for him a “compromise” because he is so attached to the pictures of others he’s formed that to see them filled out by actual human beings is to be inevitably disappointed. Ditto for his version of himself! To imagine that the inner self is the real self, and, even worse, to imagine that one’s constructions of the inner selves of others are their real selves, is to over-intellectualize oneself into the sort of place that eventually leaves one bitter and frustrated with the rest of the world’s inability to appreciate one’s genius, generosity, understand, and so forth. It is also the sort of thing that leads one to form unreasonable expectations of others that are based more on one’s own prejudices and misconceptions than on who other people actually are.

Let’s focus just on the self-conception. I imagine everyone goes through phases where we feel like the world doesn’t understand who we really are. We wish that people could get a load of what’s inside our heads for once, because in there, everything we want to express is articulated (to ourselves…) perfectly. We understand it without needing it explained, and in that understanding lies justification, acceptance, redemption. If only we could just give that to other people – make them grasp who we are deep down inside, without having to struggle and stumble with the crudities of language, and social mores, and getting people to look up from their goddamn cell phone for more than seven seconds at a time. Then everyone would see how beautiful our soul is and love us and whatever.

That at least is what Emerson wants, I think. He wants it for himself and he wants it for everyone else, because he wishes not only that he were transparent to other people but that they were like this to him. He wants the truth and acceptance and sincerity that he imagines come along with this kind of unveiling:

A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud… 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… Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.

And so on.3

There’s something very attractive and flattering about all of this. The shit we do to fit in? Just regrettable “hypocrisy,” says Emerson. It’s not who you really are. The clumsiness and banality which, unbidden, garb our deepest contemplations and convictions when we force them out of our hearts and heads and through our mouths and our pens and into the world, where they inevitably meet with less accolade than we think they surely deserve? “Dissimulation,” ultimately – distortions forced on us by the exigencies of society. But I see no justification for thinking like this. If something has to be the false face we put on and something else has to be our true self, why does the inner self get to be the real one? What did it do to win that contest?

Here is what it did: it flattered us. That voice inside your head which sounds so convincing so long as it stays in there, the voice which tells you that ultimately you know who you are even if other people can’t see that yet, can be the much more alluring self-conception to adopt. It certainly has fewer restraints compared to one’s outer self, which must face the tribunal of actual events rather than fanciful musings. One’s outer self has to have the courage to act on its convictions, or else it doesn’t have the convictions. One’s inner self can just say “well, yes, I ought not to have done that, but the only reason I did that was to fit in. I’m not really like that.” One’s inner self isn’t always supportive and understanding and conceited like this, but Emerson’s is, and mine often is, and I think this is why it’s tempting to take the inner self for the real one.

It’s the attractiveness of this inner self that shows why we ought not to privilege it. If you like who you are more when you look at yourself from the inside, you’re not forming a judgment from a privileged, unbiased position. You’re just ignoring everyone else4 because you don’t like the picture you’d get if you built yourself up out of your relationships and actions rather than your ideals. But are you anything if you aren’t it in practice, around, with, and for others? Nobody is brave if they are only brave in their head. Nobody is kind if they don’t do kind things for others. Nobody is good at basketball if the only shots they can make are imagined.5 And nobody “descends” to “meet.” We ascend to introspect, to lick our wounds and convince ourselves that no matter how often we hurt someone’s feelings by being blunt or ignorant, we’re actually really sensitive and it was an honest mistake; to deceive ourselves into thinking that we came off as conceited or unattractive because of a quirk in the conversation, and really we’re a noble soul all things told; and so forth.6

But put aside for the moment my worries about trusting this inner self and taking it for “true” for no reason other than that we’d like it better if this were indeed who we really are. Emerson has a bigger problem. Those perfect little visions that he has of himself and of others, which inevitably tarnish when exposed to actual human beings, didn’t get there on their own. They’re not the flowers Emerson imagines, growing naturally in each of us.7 What we think of and expect from ourselves and others in the hallowed halls of our minds is as much a creation of our interactions as the more mundane impressions we get when we examine what actually happens with a more sober eye. Emerson’s lofty ideals are, in the end, just stylized refinements of patterns of enculturation that were shaping his and everyone else’s actions long before Emerson ever got to thinking about them.

Social psychologists never shut up8 about a concept which they’ve decided is so key that it gets the impressive label “fundamental attribution error.”9 This error, which is either so boneheaded or so prevalent or both that it gets to be called ‘fundamental,’ is to explain what other people do in terms of their character traits (“Danny wrote a long blog post because he’s a self-important blowhard”) and what we ourselves do in terms of situational factors (“I wrote a long blog post because I didn’t have time to make it shorter“). I wonder if this plus Emerson’s bias towards the decisiveness of the inner self has something to do with our regrettable tendency to not give a shit about people who are different than us. To the extent that we think their observed differences are a pale distorted shadow of what must be even more fundamentally different inner selves, rather than what they actually are (just reflections of the pedestrian fact that they grew up in a different culture from us), perhaps we are inclined to see them as more alien and unfathomable and unrelatable than they are.

My first year in graduate school I was a teaching assistant for a class called “The Nature of Reality,”taught by Adam Streed, a grad student here at the time. At one point during one of the lectures, the topic of the “true self” came up, with respect not to Emerson’s allegations that the true self is inside and that in social interactions we see the false self, but rather with respect to getting super duper drunk. A student raised their hand and expressed something along the lines of the opinion that when someone is drunk on alcohol, the way they behave10 shows who they really are. Adam expressed skepticism about the view. He said that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to peg the alcohol-fueled version of oneself as more “true” than how one behaves 90% of the time.

That seems right to me. Even if we pick behavior less urine-centric and more suggestive of revealing one’s potential true self, like lowered inhibitions and the sorts of declarations that might accompany them, I’m still not inclined to credit alcohol with the power of revealing who we really are. I don’t have a lot of inhibitions11 and the ones I have are there for a reason. Getting drunk doesn’t really smash them down, but if it did, it wouldn’t give anyone a peek at who Danny really is any more than getting someone sick shows you how healthy they actually are. Danny is what Danny does. Until Danny habitually gets drunk, Danny isn’t what he’s like drunk, and until Danny habitually acts like his gussied-up Emersonian self-conception, and until others start acting according to Danny’s conceptions of them (which is unlikely!) the true selves are going to be what they’ve always been, because it’s what’s on the outside that counts.

A similar sentiment appears in this quote, which is typically attributed to Aristotle:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

The quote is actually a summary of Aristotle written by Will Durant in his book The Story of Philosophy, but it’s a fine summary.12 For Aristotle, you can’t be a good person by having the right ideas or even by doing the right thing at one point. To be a good person is to be the sort of person that does good things. Virtues are inherently public things that exist in the space formed through our interactions with each other. You can’t be virtuous in your head.

This has been a common sentiment ever since, showing up everywhere from tweets by singer-songwriters I rarely listen to:

…to Kurt Vonnegut, who, in Mother Night, writes:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

It might just be my imagination, but I often read admonition in the expression of these sentiments. As I said above, it takes a big ego for this idea to represent an admonishment rather than words of encouragement, because the assumption must be that one’s inner opinion of oneself suggest a better person than is revealed by one’s actions. That we continually commit the fundamental attribution error suggests that we’re far more likely to use this idea as an admonition to others rather than as a check on our own self-conception. The solution, I think, is some sort of smartphone app that records everything you do and then tells you how much of a jerk you are. Google probably already has this – if they don’t, I’m sure the NSA does. Whoever’s got it just has to give it to us. If my phone yelled at me every time I was a jerk, I’d be a much better person.

  1. These may not actually be nicknames that he went by, at least not during his lifetime. I haven’t checked. If these are accurate, I’m sure there’s a really interesting story behind “rf Astoria.” []
  2. You don’t have to read it before reading this blog post, although if your priorities are such that reading my blog post takes precedence over reading Emerson, then ehhhhhhh… []
  3. It’s interesting that Emerson’s paragon here is the interaction of atoms with each other. Usually when someone labels a conception of human beings as “atomistic,” they mean it as an insult. The phrase suggests that one has lost sight of relations between humans and has subscribed to the fantasy that we all create ourselves. Since I think Emerson is basically doing a fancy version of this, he’s really painting a hell of a target on his own back here. []
  4. And, by extension, reality, which, as Philip K. Dick puts it, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” []
  5. Except the bad guys in Space Jam. All of their shots are imagined because they occur only in fiction, but hot diggity can those aliens play basketball. []
  6. As noted above, this is all convincing to the degree that one’s ego actually is this voraciously self-serving. Mine is, as is Emerson’s, and I think that’s actually the lesser of the two evils, since the main alternative is a crippling lack of self-confidence, plus constant self-castigation. To the extent that one’s inner life is a torment rather than a self-deceiving ideal, I think it’s all the more important to realize that what really makes us who we are is how we are with others, and to focus on the positive effects our actions and personality have on others. So we have reasons to disagree with Emerson even if we aren’t as sanguine about ourselves and others as he is. As a third alternative to all of this, I suppose one might yearn for a sort of golden mean between egoism and self-destruction. Perhaps that is what it would be to be “well-adjusted.” As if that’s possible. []
  7. In this metaphor I think cell phones would be bees and text messages would be pollen. Netflix would be whatever is killing all the bees, and Kanye would be the beekeeper. Think about it. []
  8. I’m actually not sure if this is accurate, because I don’t think I’ve talked to any social psychologists about anything, ever. Basically this is entirely unsubstantiated libel. []
  9. The phrase always reminds me of a similarly impressive-sounding phrase in philosophy, “the hard problem of consciousness.” []
  10. Peeing on things, for instance – we were talking about a group of UCSD students who apparently engaged in this sort of behavior, and for all I know, those people are still peeing on things. []
  11. Seriously, I don’t! Mostly I’m uptight because I am boring and have nothing to let loose, not because I’m keeping it all penned in. []
  12. The quote’s actually a summary of Duran’t summary. Durant’s actual summary reads like this: “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by doing his actions’; we are we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Much better, no? []