Chapter 5 Historical Moments of Friendship Ideals: David & Jonathan, Montaigne, Adam Smith

In: Conceptualizing Friendship in Time and Place
Author: Allan Silver
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Modern theory and culture distinguish between utility, interest, instrumentality, and calculative relations on the one hand, and those of friendship, centered on sincere intimacy and trustful self-disclosure, on the other. However, personal gain and intense friendship were highly compatible in many historical settings. The disinterested ‘pure gift’ is a heroic, exceptional ideal before it becomes a secular ideal of personal friendship in modern bureaucratic and market societies. Drawing on historical examples from the Hebrew bible, the European Renaissance, the onset of civil society in the eighteenth century, and material on modern friendship ideals, this article seeks to recapture conceptually the historical compatibility of gain and interest with friendship and its contrast with modern criteria of moral worth in friendship.


A consensus on the attributes of ideal friendship in modern society has emerged both among scholars and in popular culture. On this account, friendships are wholly voluntary and inhabit the domain of private life. The activities of friends are decided by friends themselves—none are prescribed or required. Friends are sovereign in determining standards of equivalency in exchanges between them. Instrumental benefits deriving from friendship are incidental rather than constitutive. No formal ritual establishes friendship’s start, and conditions of its end are not specified in advance. Friends are oriented not to each other’s particular attributes, but the totality of the other’s personhood. Of course, these characteristics are in part found in other bonds, most obviously erotic and family. However, taken as a whole they distinctively characterize friendship at its noblest and best.1

This account of friendship is open to commonsense refutation and incredulous or cynical dismissal—do not many satisfying friendships and cordial acquaintances fall well short of this ideal? However, the significance of ideals does not lie, as with norms, in the extent to which behavior conforms to them. As the British historian Richard Henry ‘R.H.’ Tawney observed:

…because doctrine and conduct diverge, it does not follow that to examine the former is to hunt abstractions. That men should have thought as they did is sometimes as significant as that they should have acted as they did, and not least significant when thought and practice are at variance.2

Norms are standards by which to measure the extent to which behavior conforms to them. Ideals are aspirational standards.3 Just as the sense of sin is acute when religious standards are strong, so lapses in friendship are most acute when friendship ideals are strong.

The ideal that friendship is at its noblest and best when utterly distinct from advantage and self-interest is hardly limited to modern culture but takes very different forms in differing historical settings. For La Rochefoucauld and Rousseau, hypocrisy and self-deceit disguise pervasive self-seeking in social relations, including friendship, which purport to exclude them. In the modern period self-interest is widely understood as intrinsic to rational behavior, making it possible to reconfigure the most apparently generous and altruistic conduct as benefitting oneself. This paper seeks to capture three such historical moments. The first is that of ancient, heroic warrior society, for which our key text is the Hebrew bible’s narrative of the bond between David and Jonathan. The second is that of Early Modern Europe, for which Michel Montaigne’s celebrated essay on friendship is central. The third is the movement from the culture of Renaissance merchants and of Baroque aristocrats to the social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment, theorizing the new civil society—what Adam Smith called ‘commercial society.’ What is the place of personal gain and self-interest in friendship across these historical vicissitudes?

Heroic Warrior Society: The Hebrew Bible

Strenuous bonds between warriors have been understood as ideal prototypes of friendship. Among many examples are Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the ancient saga Gilgamesh, Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, and Roland and Olivier in the medieval epic The Song of Roland. All tell of passions that arise in obligations and acts intrinsic to the rank and status of warrior nobles. This is also true of the story of David and Jonathan, told in the two biblical books of Samuel. All are often read anachronistically as accounts of passions arising from subjective interiority. Thus the extraordinary bond between David and Jonathan is widely taken as an exemplary instance of brotherly intimacy and superb generosity.4 This understanding is compactly expressed by Robert Brain, an anthropologist:

Our own [contemporary] special myth which epitomizes friendship as emotional and disinterested love is the biblical story of David and Jonathan…While not without certain external actions of friendship—the exchange of gifts, the sanctions of a pact—the love of David and Jonathan stresses the importance of inner attitudes, of the loyalty and trust of two men untouched by sexuality… Jonathan even went so far as to strip himself of the robe he was wearing and give it to David as a symbol of his love. The love of David and Jonathan was equal and harmonious. It was also passionate; Jonathan ‘fell in love’ with David at first sight… David returned his love, based on a complete mutual understanding and limitless admiration, unsoiled by any selfish motive…[Their] intense friendship…depended on the complete willingness of each man to give for that which is received, to forgo self-interest.5

This reading, which attributes key elements of modern friendship to the biblical text—disinterested reciprocal love, primacy of inner attitudes, intrinsic equality—is almost entirely wrong.

Let us rather consider the story of David and Jonathan in its setting—an ancient warrior society ruled by a single deity who controls history. In thinnest summary: Jonathan, son of Israel’s first king, Saul, is suddenly and strongly attached to David, a young shepherd who has demonstrated amazing powers as a warrior. Their bond grows more intense as Saul’s jealous hatred of David grows to murderous madness. At increasing cost and risk, Jonathan protects David, eventually ceding the succession to the throne to him. As king, David fulfills his promise to protect Jonathan’s descendants.

The narrative carefully specifies the exact moment at which Jonathan’s attachment to David springs to life. When David, a mere shepherd lad, returns from battle with Goliath’s head, Saul asks him:

“Whose son are you, lad?” And David said, “The son of your servant Jesse, the Bethlehemite.” And it happened as he finished speaking with Saul, that Jonathan’s very self (nephesh) became bound up with David’s and Jonathan loved him as himself. And Saul took him on that day and did not let him go back to his father’s house. And Jonathan, and David with him, sealed a pact because he loved him as himself. And Jonathan took off the cloak that was on him and gave it to David, and his battle garb, and even his sword and his bow and belt. And David would sally forth, wherever Saul sent him he would succeed.6

Saul is impressed by the obscure shepherd’s extraordinary success while Jonathan’s deep attachment flares at the very moment he learns of David’s origins. Jonathan has some sort of proleptic, intuitive knowledge that God has chosen the son of Jesse the Bethlehemite as future king.7 The great leader Samuel—to whom God has declared this—is absent from the whole story of David and Jonathan’s bond. Yet Saul is also depicted as knowing David’s origins well before the battle with Goliath. Subject to depression, a sign of God’s withdrawal of charisma, his servants advise Saul to seek a skilled player of the lyre. One servant knows of “a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, skilled in playing, a valiant fellow, a warrior.”8 Saul commands Jesse to send David to him and, very pleased with David, requests—in effect, commands—Jesse to remain with him. In the biblical text, this episode is reconfigured immediately after David’s defeat of Goliath, as though Saul had no knowledge of David’s father and tribe.9 Indeed, David himself knows his destiny, having been anointed by Samuel at God’s command.10
In giving David his cloak and battle dress, Jonathan acts on an unarticulated awareness of David’s destiny. The “cloak that was on [Jonathan]…and his battle garb, and even his sword and his bow and belt”11 are not ordinary gifts, but princely accoutrements—Jonathan’s cloak very likely announces his royal status. David had rejected Saul’s offer of his armor before combat with Goliath. His triumph without Saul’s armor surely emphasizes the miraculous nature of his victory; his subsequent victories with Jonathan’s gifts, foretells that he will inherit the kingship from Jonathan the prince, not Saul the king. There is no ‘exchange of gifts’—rather, gifts flow only from Jonathan to David. The youngest son of an obscure family cannot reciprocate the gestures of a royal prince—their bond is intrinsically asymmetrical. The passage’s grammar also suggests, “the initiative for the pact of friendship is Jonathan’s, and David goes along with it.”12 Even at their last meeting, David expresses the gratitude of the weaker party:

David…fell on his face to the ground and fell three times, and each man kissed the other and each wept for the other, though David the longer.13

David, the dependent and vulnerable party, bows deeply and weeps the longer because he is losing his protector.

What is the nature of this ‘bound up’ (niqsherah)—in other translations ‘knit together’—in which Jonathan’s very self is attached to David? It is often, but anachronistically, understood as a fusion of inner selves—a deep ‘elective affinity,’ to appropriate the title of Goethe’s great novel on the mystery of human attachments in the surge and flush of early romantic sentimental culture. However, the text speaks only of Jonathan’s emotions, not of David’s. Moreover, niqsherah carries political significance. It denotes both a strong attachment and the sense of a cognate word, qashar, ‘conspire,’ anticipating that Jonathan and David act in secret against Saul. The semantic field of ‘loved’ (aheb) is very large. The word “is the proper term to denote genuine affection between human beings, husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend.”14 Depending on context the verb is theological, political and personal—God ‘loves’ his people, kings ‘love’ kings with whom they make treaties. David’s extraordinary victories, personal attractiveness, and that he is quickly ‘loved’ by all, signify the charisma that God endows on him as Saul’s successor. As David’s victories and stature mount, and Saul’s jealous madness threatens David’s life, Jonathan’s understanding that David will be king grows in clarity, culminating in his declaration, “the Lord shall be with you as he was with my father.”15

Prince and shepherd make a pact (berit) binding them, to which God is witness. This word also designates treaties between kings and the ‘covenant’—the most frequent translation—between Israel and God. Affirming their pact at their last meeting, Jonathan adds to its terms David’s obligation, when he is king, to protect Jonathan’s descendants:

Go in peace, for the two of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying “the Lord is witness between me and you, and between my seed and yours, for all time…”16

Jonathan’s extension of their covenant to the future is merely a fatherly concern, but anticipates a political problem—David will realistically suspect Jonathan’s sons of resenting their exclusion from monarchical power. Indeed, the ‘Saulides,’ kin and allies of the defeated Saul, struggle against David’s rule and growing power.17
When Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle, David proclaims a magnificent lament, culminating in a famous passage:

I grieve for you, my brother, Jonathan.

Very dear you were to me.

More wondrous your love to me

than the love of women.18

Lamenting Jonathan’s death, David addresses him on equal terms—his loving gratitude brings symmetry to their bond. Earlier, David had referred to himself as the subordinate party, ‘your servant’ (avdechah) in their covenant.19 Now he speaks of Jonathan as ‘my brother’ (achi). David had depended on Jonathan for his life—now Jonathan depends for his life in fame and memory on David’s loyal celebration of his greatness. The lament’s eloquent end is sometimes taken to reflect a homoerotic bond, whether or not consummated.20 This reading ignores or overrides long traditions in which the solidarity of male warriors, centered on heroism and glory, take large precedence over bonds with women. On this understanding, the passage’s second half, a symmetrical mirror of its first, celebrates Jonathan’s loyalty to David as surpassing the love of women, precisely in accordance with warrior mentality.21

To consider the great lament as the culminating expression of the David and Jonathan story omits David’s obligation to protect Jonathan’s ‘seed.’ Jonathan’s anticipation of David’s future is now realized—“the Lord had granted him respite all around from his enemies” and David was “king over all Israel.”22 David asks in public: “Is there anyone who is still left from the house of Saul, that I may keep faith with him, for the sake of Jonathan?”23 This may appear as a supererogatory fulfillment of his covenant with Jonathan. However, a political dimension also underlies David’s question—he is seeking any of Saul’s lineage who might oppose his ascent to power. Mephiboshet, a son of Jonathan, is led before the king trembling in obsequious fear. David extends him munificent hospitality, offering—in effect commanding—that Mephiboshet have a permanent place at his table and court. This is both kingly generosity and prudence—David keeps Saul’s grandson under close observation as David had been kept by Saul. Indeed, David insures Mephiboshet’s dependence by another act indistinguishably generous and cunning—he gives Saul’s lands to Mephiboshet while effectively depriving him of their fruits.24 David’s generosity appears the more exemplary because, as the episode is twice emphatic, at its start and end, that Mephiboshet is “crippled…and lame in both his feet.”25 In warrior society, a crippled man is neither a military asset nor a threat to the king. Is David’s elaborate hospitality the more generous or suspicious? Later, David spares Mephiboshet’s life while handing over seven of Saul’s sons to death.26 David thus accomplishes two apparently incompatible purposes—he splendidly fulfills his vow to Jonathan while conspicuously displaying his utter defeat of Saul’s lineage.

Is David’s behavior ‘ambiguous’—is he is loyal to Jonathan or acting in his own interest?27 The question is anachronistic in assuming that their bond is distinguishably either deeply emotional or self-interested. Jonathan’s moving generosity, David’s gratitude and growing dependence, their sorrow on parting—these are not less deeply felt because they also enact a crisis of political succession in accordance with God’s will. Jonathan’s understanding that God’s charisma has left Saul and is now endowed on David comes to him not through divine revelation but in observing Saul’s growing madness and David’s many victories. David maneuvers with the cunning of the vulnerable. God’s purposes are enacted through vivid human agency.28 The story’s appropriation as a narrative of exemplary personal friendship overlooks that it is soaked in warrior culture, political struggle, and the Hebrew bible’s master concern with God’s covenanted rule.


Montaigne’s great essay on friendship is composed in an elevated style, strenuously conveying an actual—not literary or imagined—perfect friendship. It strives to rebut two regnant understandings of friendship, practical and philosophical—the first explicitly, the other less so. Montaigne utterly rejects standards of personal loyalty in the prevailing aristocratic code, in which honorable alliance and service are easefully compatible with legitimate expectations of personal gain. And, while drawing on Aristotle, Cicero and others, he reconfigures, indeed subverts, some classical ideals of friendship embedded in humanistic culture.

Montaigne inverts contemporary aristocratic ideas of honor that turn on mutual obligation and service. Living in densely woven webs of alliance and patronage, nobles expected tangible rewards from relations governed by honor without the slightest embarrassment or incongruity. As summarized by a historian of the period:

Affection and gain were not competing motives… Gain was gain in honor. Though honor involved material advantage, honor was not equivalent to it. The nobles’ trust and companionship was not ‘affection’ as distinct from ‘self-interest,’ nor was their continued exchange of service and honor philanthropic… Their liberality was not without hope of gain.29

The incongruity in modern culture between self-interest and affectionate commitment, certainly in strong bonds of friendship, is absent in the honor code of Montaigne’s peers and contemporaries.30 Honor may indeed require the sacrifice of self-interest in struggle or defeat, but personal alliance and the legitimate expectation of gain are mutually implicated. Inverting this aristocratic code, Montaigne imagines the total impossibility of reciprocity in ideal friendship:

In this noble relationship services and benefits, on which other friendships feed, do not even deserve to be taken into account; the reason for this is the complete fusion of our wills. For just as the friendship I feel for myself receives no increase from the help I give myself in time of need…so the union of such friends…makes them…hate and banish from between them these words of separation and distinction: benefit, obligation, gratitude, request, thanks, and the like.31

The honor code requires promises and solemn undertakings of personal loyalty, sustained by concrete acts of protection, service, favors and aid. For Montaigne, authentic friendship is rather a ‘fusion of wills.’ It is “uniquely a bond which constitutes itself”—the consummation of free will and personal agency. In contrast, the friendship of fathers and sons subverts paternal authority, which agency cannot override. Brothers cannot avoid rivalry, not least in the matter of inheritance. Erotic relations ‘hold us by one corner,’ lacking friendship’s “general and universal warmth.” Homoerotic relations depend on physical beauty and can only hope for “mental fellowship to establish a firmer and more lasting pact.” Marriage:

is a bargain to which only the entrance is free—its continuance is constrained and compulsory, not depending otherwise than on our will—and a bargain commonly made for other ends…whereas in friendship there are no dealings or business except with itself.32

In the friendship I speak of our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering: “Because it was he, because it was I.”
The sparse yet rich texture is of this celebrated passage is well captured by Ulrich Langer:

The very formulation establishes a perspective on the relationship that is always ultimately subjective. For the identification of the relationship becomes the identification of feeling or personal notion, and not, for example…of a series of actions by which the friends have demonstrated their friendship.33

“Because” twice promises replies but elicits only two pronouns in a symmetry suggesting their interchangeability. The adjectival nakedness of ‘he’ and ‘I’ excludes all reference to attributes, acts, purposes—as if their mere mention corrupts friendship with the possibility of contingency. Friendship’s utter solidarity abolishes causality, which evaporates in a lyrical sigh.
Montaigne’s relation to classic doctrines of friendship is multiply contested in some terms well outside this paper’s scope.34 Montaigne evokes Aristotle’s philia—at its noblest friendship among citizens based on excellence in virtue, in contrast with imperfect friendships of utility and pleasure and, however excellent of their kind, the philia of kinship and family. Montaigne’s perfect friendship, however, is so very rare, private and autarkic that it cannot serve as model for other forms of philia, at best aspirational. Montaigne describes the two in terms less of comparison than hyperbolic distinction:

Let no one put other, everyday friendships in the same rank… I knew them as well as anyone, and very perfect examples of their kind. But I should advise no one to measure them by the same rules.35

Indeed, his ideal is so much the antipode of civic friendship, even at its most excellent, that it is justly described as ‘sovereign friendship’—which incongruously and the more forcefully usurps a political term, ‘sovereignty,’ for the most private and equal of bonds.36

Montaigne’s subversion of classic friendship doctrine emerges vividly in his emphatic rejection of Cicero’s doctrine that true friendship can subsist only between men of civic virtue in the service of the Roman Republic. The theme dominates Cicero’s Laelius, De Amicitia, very well known to Montaigne’s readers. He paraphrases a passage in which Laelius—Cicero’s exemplar of noble friendship—interrogates Caius Blosius, among the allies (amici, literally ‘friends’) of the Roman tribune Tiberius Gracchus.

Laelius inquired of Caius Blosius, who was his chief friend, how much he would have been willing to do for him. His reply was, “Everything.” “How, everything?” demanded Laelius. “And what if he had ordered you to set fire to our temples?” “He would never have told me to do that,” answered Blosius. “But if he had,” Laelius insisted. “Then I would have obeyed him,” said he.

Cicero condemns this reply:

Doing wrong for the sake of a friend never justifies that wrong. Belief in a friend’s virtue sustains the friendship. It’s hard for the friendship to continue once the virtue is gone.37

For Montaigne, Gracchus and Blosius “were friends before they were citizens, friends to one another before they were either friends or enemies to their country.”38 This does not invidiously elevate friendship above citizenship, creating the possibility of a conflict between the two. Rather, Montaigne insists, virtuous citizenship is intrinsic to perfect friendship and not, as in Cicero, a prerequisite of it.
More relevant for our purposes, Montaigne stunningly elevates inner intention over public action. He condemns Blosius’s affirmation of his loyalty to Gracchus by agreeing to burn the temples. Rather:

[Blosius] should not have deviated from his confidence in Gracchus’s intentions…supposing this team to have been guided by virtue and governed by reason—and it could not have been driven otherwise—Blosius’ [first] answer was as it should have been… It is beyond the power of all the arguments in the world to upset my certainty of my friend’s intentions and judgments. No action of his could be put before me in any aspect that I should not immediately discern its motive.39

Montaigne takes civic virtue not as a condition of excellence in friendship, but as intrinsic to it. His concern is rather with the relationship of action to the mutually shared interiority of friends.40 Historically, men of noble station defined and validated identity by actions intrinsic to their stations. The basic paradigm dates from heroic society, of which Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

A man in heroic society is what he does. Hermann Fränkel wrote of Homeric man that ‘a man and his actions become identical, and he makes himself completely and adequately comprehended in them; he has no hidden depths.’ To judge a man therefore is to judge his actions… What is alien to our [contemporary] concept of virtue is the intimate connection in heroic society between the concept of courage and its allied virtues on the one hand and the concepts of friendship, fate and death on the other.41

The idea that acts are essential to personhood, however profoundly transformed, remained essential to aristocratic honor codes. To imagine noble friendship as founded utterly on interiority rather than action is an extraordinary imaginative leap. It follows, radically, that acts find their true meanings not in their substance and public consequences, but in the judgment and experience of friends bound in a condition of unison. Friendship becomes a privileged site in which personal interiority is uniquely fused with that of another.
Initially praised by few, in the three following centuries Montaigne’s essay was largely rejected as exorbitant, even incomprehensible. Illustratively, in 1674 a dismissive critic declared:

…what causes [Montaigne] to go astray in this matter is his love for beautiful fantasies, grand and extraordinary, especially when these imaginations flatter him and show him to advantage.42

Early romantics, however, embraced the essay enthusiastically, reading it to elevate personal intimacy and interior sentiment over the stoicism for which the eighteenth century had celebrated Montaigne.43 However, Montaigne’s concept of friendship combines a new interiority without modernity’s labile selfhood. It celebrates friends’ wholly knowable, unchanging, fully realized characters, not romantic and modern friendship’s reciprocal exploration of the elusively mysterious self. Montaigne’s radical account of friendship is better understood to confront its own time than to adumbrate the future.

Toward Friendship in Civil Society

Dense systems of patronage, service, obligation and loyalty permeated elite society in Renaissance England, France and Italy. Trustful personal bonds were crucial to advance and defend one’s position and interest but also, often inescapably, permeated with suspicion. Indispensable for practical purposes, they were often both intensively cooperative and also intrinsically agonistic. The Renaissance discovery of ‘self-invention’ led to virtuoso arts of betrayal and deception. A passage from an English discourse of the late sixteenth century illustrates pervasive themes:

A man must have a friend to whom to disclose the secrets of his heart and recount to him all his grief, trusting him with things touching his honor and deliver him to keep his goods and treasures [lest] one…live in obscurity for every insulting companion to spurn at. [However] these days there is such unsteady friendship among many, that it is hard to find a perfect and trusty friend: for now friendly words are common but when friendship cometh to the touch of proof, the alteration is marvelous: yea, and sometimes so dangerous that of friends in words they will become enemies in deeds.44

‘Secrets of the heart’ and ‘grief’ refer less to sentiments than to projects the more dangerous because the ‘perfect and trusty friends’ on whom one must rely cannot be free of suspicion. Francesco Guicciardini wrote an acutely precise account of these intrinsic tensions:

You have everything to gain from managing your affairs secretly. And you will gain even more if you can do it without appearing secretive to your friends… Often it is unwise to be open in your conversations, even with your friends—I mean on those matters which should be kept secret. On the other hand, to act with your friends [so that] they notice that you are being reserved is to assure that they will do the same with you. For the only thing that makes others confide in you is the assumption that you confide in them. Thus, if you reveal nothing to others, you lose the possibility of knowing anything from them.45

In vigorously mercantile settings lacking highly developed impersonal institutions, loans were frequently between friends—were, indeed, a mark of friendship. Often without documentation, and not enforceable by judicial authority, loans were indistinguishably personal favors and business transactions. To ask for repayment, or to refuse to extend credit without a schedule of repayment, risked the loss of practical benefits friends may provide in the future.46 The idea of ‘credit’ referred not to impersonally calculated probabilities, but to one’s own good faith, which could be given in friendship or withheld in enmity. Friendship was often indistinguishably ‘personal’ and ‘utilitarian’—the very distinction between the two modes of conduct and sensibility had yet to emerge with distinct clarity.
In weakening aristocracy’s privileges and powers and centralizing power, the Bourbons diminished the significance of friendship for competitive advantage. The materialist philosopher Helvétius, writing in 1758, lamented that friendship had become decadent precisely because it no longer turned on reciprocal usefulness:

In the ages of chivalry, when they chose a companion in arms…and when the cowardice of one might cost the life and honor of the other, they became, from interest, more careful in the choice of their friends, and consequently more closely united to them… In the present form of our government, individuals are not united by any common interest. In order to make our fortunes, we have less need of friends than of an infinite number of protectors.47

For Helvétius, friendship not based on explicit and mutual need is pleasantly trivial, self-absorbed and intrinsically hypocritical:

We desire a friend to live, in a manner, in him, to pour our soul into his, and to enjoy a conversation which trust always renders delightful… But… in what does the charm of the conversation of a friend consist? It is in the charm of speaking of ourselves.48

La Rochefoucauld, writing a century earlier, discerned pervasive hypocrisy, self-interest and self-deceit in the most apparently sincere and generous bonds of friendship. Illustratively:

What men have called friendship is merely association, respect for each other’s interests, and exchange of good offices, in fact nothing more than a business arrangement from which self-love is always out to draw some profit.49

La Rochefoucauld’s discovery that subtly manifold forms of intérêt corrupt all expressions of loyalty and friendship is dissolved, in Helvétius’s reductionist materialism, into narcissism. Friendship becomes not a hypocritically disguised pursuit of interest, but deprived of agency by centralized monarchy, a disguised form of solipsistic pleasure.
The sense of self-interest as corrupting the moral quality of friendship grew as friendship became less central for competitive advantage. A new problematic of friendship arose from acute awareness of friendship’s contamination by ubiquitous and disguised self-interest—whether La Rochefoucauld’s calculative, or Helvétius’s indulgent, self-regard. One response was the rich development of ‘sociability’—elaborately conversational codes excluding the very possibility of self-interested agendas by elevating the spirit and art of conversation over its substance. Reflecting on the culture of sociability articulated by such seventeenth-century writers as Chevalier de Méré and Mlle de Scudéry, the German social theorist Georg Simmel brilliantly understood sociability at its most refined as pure conversational play, utterly distinct from substantive purpose:

…in the purity of its manifestations, sociability has no objective purpose, no content, no extrinsic results…[Sociability] must create human beings who give up so much of their objective contents…and significance as to become sociable equals… The game becomes a lie only when sociable action and speech are made into mere instruments…of practical reality…[T]he disappearance of any concrete content of life—which royalty, so to speak, had sucked out of French aristocracy—resulted in the emergence of certain freely suspended forms…[which were] purely sociable… Talk becomes its own purpose…as the art of conversation that has its own, artistic laws. In purely sociable conversation, the topic is merely the indispensable medium through which the lively exchange of speech unfolds its attractions.50

Sociability ‘purifies’ amicable bonds from the suspicion and possibility of ulterior motive, but is hostile to friendship. It requires both an artifactual equality that rules out elective affinity and the substance of personality, both constitutive for friendship.
The most influential and profound attack on sociability by far was by Rousseau, for whom the more refined was sociability, the more it was empty and superficial. His attack on sociability, and the language of intrigue and maneuver as inauthentic and hypocritical, achieved wide success in his time and became modernity’s conventional norm. Rousseau claimed a new space of conversational sociability for the domain of sentiment and sincerity:

The only bond of my associations would be mutual attachment, agreement of tastes, suitableness of characters… I would want to have a society about me, not a court; friends, and not protégés. I would not be the patron of my guests; I would be their host. This independence and quality would permit all the candor of benevolence; and where neither duty nor interest entered in any way, pleasure and friendship would alone make the law.51

Rousseau’s profound influence as a seminal exemplar of modern sensibility derived from his fertile but schematic distinction between artificial and natural society. However, it is the Scottish Enlightenment, especially Adam Smith’s social theory, which offered a historically grounded account of the transformation in personal relations accompanying modernity.
Smith argued that in the new commercial society—in which “every man…lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant,”52 and:

…where the authority of law is always perfectly sufficient to protect the meanest man in the state—a clear distinction arises between personal relations oriented to calculation and interest, and those founded on personal affinity.53

Friendship loses the urgent charge arising from sacral solemnity, mutual dependence in dangerous enterprise and noble honor codes. This historical change enhances the moral quality of personal relationships by freeing them from urgent necessity, calculation and the anxieties of betrayal.
Smith understood bonds of friendship to benignly integrate individuals in a broader civil society:

…of all attachments to an individual, that which is founded altogether upon the esteem and approbation of his good conduct and behavior, confirmed by much experience and long acquaintance, is, by far, the most respectable. Such friendships, arising not from a constrained sympathy which has been assumed and rendered habitual for the sake of convenience and accommodation; but from a natural sympathy, from an involuntary feeling that the persons to whom we attach ourselves are the natural and proper objects of esteem and approbation…54

The new, pervasively commercial society establishes a distinct domain of commercial dealings in the marketplace, conceptually and empirically distinct from personal bonds. Friendships among Renaissance merchants often carried the obligation to make loans to friends, with uncertain prospect of repayment and anxious risk for the friendships’ future. For Smith, the logic of equal exchange is intrinsic to personal relations before, rather than in, modern commercial society with its impersonal institutions of legally enforced contract, banking and insurance. Smith understands commercial society to ‘purify’ friendship, because it distinguishes commercial exchanges as a domain seperate from friendship, founded on sympathy and affection:

If your friend lent you money in your distress, ought you to lend him some in his? How much ought you to lend him? When ought you lend him?… And for how long a time? It is evident that no general rule can be laid down… The difference between his character and yours, between his circumstances and yours, may be such, that you may be perfectly grateful and yet justly refuse to lend him a half-penny; and on the contrary, you may be willing to lend him ten times the sums which he lent you and yet justly be accused of…not having fulfilled the hundredth part of the obligation you lie under.55

Value measured by price systems in markets now has no bearing on values in friendship, which is entirely founded on circumstances distinctive to each bond, falling under the ‘sovereignty’ of friendship itself.
The moral theory of the Scottish Enlightenment rejects the tension, in mercantile and aristocratic friendship, between friendship’s indispensable utility and the tensions and suspicions that follow. According to Adam Ferguson:

We are told of a maxim…‘Live with your friend as with one who may become an enemy’… But this maxim…cannot be adopted without discontinuing the connection of friendship, or stifling the affection in which it consists… In societies in which men are taught to consider themselves as competitors, and every advantage they gain as comparative to that of some other person,…interested and sordid [men] make no allowance for good or ill offices that neither empty nor fill the pocket.56

Where vital resources are not created and distributed impersonally by markets and bureaucracy, the logic of the situation requires many to be what an enlightened age regards as ‘interested and sordid.’ Commercial society—later, ‘capitalism’—creates the ideal possibility of disinterested personal relations in which bonds of mutual usefulness are not constitutive. On the contrary, the moral ideal of the ‘perfect gift’—given voluntarily, without thought of reciprocation—comes to inhabit ordinary friendship as a routine virtue.

In commercial society, friendship loses its elevated, strenuous, competitive or agonistic character, and becomes, prevailingly, a calm pleasure in social life. The encounter of individuals in a field defined by their own affinities—replacing traditional bonds and the strenuous codes of warriors, agonistic aristocrats and merchants—contributes to civil society’s moral order.57 Smith holds that individuals inhabiting civil society contribute toward something like a civic fund of good will, suffused by generalized sympathy and benevolence, not centered on the strong ties of status, family and agonistic friendship. No one need suffer, Smith writes, if one’s ‘beneficence’ toward another does not elicit reciprocal ‘kindness’ or ‘gratitude’ for:

…no benevolent man ever lost altogether the fruits of his benevolence. If he does not gather them from the persons he ought to have gathered them, he seldom fails to gather them, and with a ten-fold increase, from other people.58

The intense friendships of time past with their strenuous demands for loyalty and reciprocal acts of loyalty, formed in competitive struggle against others, give way to milder friendships, situated in a society composed of relations of acquaintance, good will and of indifferent neutrality—the arena of citizenship.

Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary, published in the mid-eighteenth century, defined a friend as: “one joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy.”59 In his Life of Johnson, James Boswell describes a conversation at a dinner table in April 1779.60 He reports how his own—deliberately simplistic—answer to the question “What is a friend?”: “One who supports you and comforts you while others do not,” elicited the following reaction from Johnson:

Many man…would wish to have an intimate friend, with whom they might compare minds, and cherish private virtues.61

Earlier in Boswell’s Life, Johnson is reported as saying:

We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.62

It is impossible to better these words, which superbly capture what friendship becomes, ideally, in the liberal moment.


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For excellent accounts in anthropology and sociology of the modern friendship ideal, see Suttles, “Friendship as a Social Institution” (1970), and Paine, “In Search of Friendship: An Exploratory Analysis in ‘Middle-Class’ Culture” (1969). Among classical social theorists, Georg Simmel is seminal: Wolff (1950) 118–26, 307–26. Leib, Friend v. Friend (2011) argues that the legal system should admit friendship as a category in law, and that doing so would promote rather than inhibit the values associated with friendship. For modern friendship as a moral bond, see Blum, Friendship, Altruism and Morality (1980).


Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 11–12.


See Kant’s remarks on friendship ideals in Lectures on Ethics, 202–3.


Classical and Renaissance versions of the David and Jonathan story are summarized in Mills, One Soul, 22, 88, 170, 236.


Friends and Lovers, 28–29.


i Sam. 17:58–18:4. All quotations from the biblical books of Samuel are from the translation by Alter, The David Story. The same translation is included in Alter’s Ancient Israel. I have changed Alter’s ‘inner life’ for nephesh, which perhaps risks implying a kind of personal interiority absent in the story. As Alter emphasizes elsewhere in his remarkable translations, nephesh means something like ‘life force’ or ‘breath of life.’ Its frequent translation as ‘soul’ is misleading since nephesh carries none of its Christian meanings, as are terms that impute a quasi-modern interiority.


i Sam. 16:1–13.


i Sam. 16:14–22.


i Sam. 17:55–58.


i Sam. 16:11–13. These instances are a few of the complex textual issues—diverging sources, inconsistencies—known to biblical scholars. However, recent biblical scholarship has emphasized the role of the Final Redactor, the individual or groups, who—working with more or less diverse sources—sought to create a unified work, imposing a single perspective. My approach follows that of Alter’s translations, Robert Polzin’s Samuel and the Deuteronomist, and the immensely intricate analyses in Fokkelman’s Narrative Art, among other works. However, no interpretive choice is without its costs, and this choice leaves us with an uncertainty at the core of this paper’s discussion. Is the young David, summoned to Saul’s court, aware of his destiny, but disguises this knowledge out of cunning and weakness, even from Jonathan? Or do we have a divergence in the textual sources too great for the Final Redactor to overcome in imposing narrative continuity?


i Sam. 17:38–9.


Alter translates “Jonathan, and David with him, sealed a pact” because “the plural subject and singular verb [makes] the first member of the plural subject the principal agent” (The David Story, 112n); Ancient Israel, 344n.


i Sam. 20:41.


Thompson, “The Significance of the Verb Love,” 335.


i Sam. 20:13.


i Sam. 20:42.


From ii Sam. 3:1.


ii Sam. 1:26.


i Sam. 20:7,8.


Illustratively, see Ackerman, When Heroes Love, esp. Chap. 7; Oylan (“‘Surpassing the Love of Women’”) understands the passage to reflect a homoerotic bond, reading the prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 to prohibit anal intercourse, but not other forms of male homosexuality. Both authors review the literature on this abundantly commented passage.


The passage is rightly read independently of any homoerotic theme: “Jonathan’s love for David was astonishing because—even without a sexual component—it was stronger and more militant than sexual love” (Halperin, One Hundred Years, 83, emphasis in original).


ii Sam. 7:1. Evoking Jonathan’s “do not cut off your faithfulness from my house for all time, not even when the Lord cuts off all David’s enemies from the face of the earth” (i Sam. 20:16).


ii Sam. 9:1.


ii Sam. 9:9–11.


ii Sam. 9:4, 13.


ii Sam. 21:1–9. The later narrative of David’s dealings with Mephiboshet, during David’s struggles to defend his rule, is more distant and complex than can be addressed within this paper’s limits (ii Sam. 16:14; 19:25–31; 21:3–8). The issues are minutely discussed in Fokkelman, Narrative Art, 1:23–40.


For example, Perdue, “‘Is There Anyone Left of the House of Saul…?,’” 74–75.


McGuire briefly sketches the case that the story is not about friendship at all but rather about the realization of God’s will in Friendship and Community, xvii–xix.


Dewald, Aristocratic Experience, 104–45; and Sandberg, Warrior Pursuits, Chap. 4.


A remark of Nietzsche’s speaks precisely to the point: “it is only with a decline of aristocratic value judgments that this whole antithesis between ‘egoistic’ and ‘unegoistic’ forces itself more and more on man’s conscience” (Genealogy of Morality, 13, original emphasis).


Montaigne, On Friendship, 99, translation modified. Desan discusses the intricate paradoxes of Montaigne’s project to escape reciprocity (see Les commerces de Montaigne, esp. 154).


Moreover “women [are] inadequate for that communion and fellowship which is the nurse of this sacred bond [of friendship].” On Friendship, 95; translation modified.


Langer, Perfect Friendship, 166, emphasis in original. Langer notes that compared with contemporary models of ideal friendship, Montaigne’s is uniquely “prelinguistic or extralinguistic” (171). Langer’s discussion of the passage (On Friendship, 97) is exceptionally rich (169–75). For Weller, “[this] eloquent tautology simply makes the incapacity of speech more palpable” (“The Rhetoric of Friendship,” 514).


Apposite literature is concisely surveyed by Scholar in a valuable discussion of material on friendship in other essays (Montaigne, 140–54).


On Friendship, 99.


See the excellent discussion by Kaouk, “The Lure of Mastery,” 547–53.


Cicero, Laelius, De Amicitia [44 bce], 37, in Habineck (2012) 88.


On Friendship, 98.


On Friendship, 98–99.


Montaigne is well situated in Renaissance scholarship on individuality and sincerity in Martin, “Inventing Sincerity,” 1334–38.


MacIntyre, After Virtue, 122; Fränkel, Early Greek Poetry, 79. On honor as identity, see Berger, “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor.” Of French aristocrats in the sixteenth century, Neuschel observes, “the nobles had only limited means with which to characterize political activity except by concrete reference to action…they use concrete words that never stray far from their lived experience. They speak, for instance, not of being ‘followers’ but of ‘following.’ And they use the word literally, not figuratively; the physical act of following is always being described… These are the terms in which ‘political’ obligation or loyalty is discussed…‘If you do such-and-such a favor for me, I will be as good a friend to you as any that you have’… Relationships in theory are discussed in terms of relationships in practice.” (Word of Honor, 118–19, 197–98).


On the later reception see Boase, The Fortunes of Montaigne. Boase comments, “Montaigne is first taken to task for all that he has written in praise of friendship. Human friendship is a commerce, not a virtue… Friendship permits one to be impious, sacrilegious and to betray a secret” (418).


Frame documents the reception of the essay on friendship (Montaigne in France, 16–26); later, he remarks, “the tremendous admiration of Montaigne’s friendship with La Boétie” in the early romantic period was “virtually new” (230).


Burghley, “Certain Precepts,” 7–14.


Quoted in Weissman, Ritual Brotherhood, 31–32.


Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence, 236–41.


Helvétius [1758] (1810) 273–74.


Helvétius [1758] (1810) 277–78. I have slightly altered the translation.


Maxim no. 83. La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, 47–48.


Simmel, “Sociability,” 45, 49, 55, 52, respectively.


Rousseau, Emile, 348–49.


Smith, Wealth of Nations, 37.


Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 223. Some of what follows is drawn in part from Silver, “‘Two Different Sorts of Commerce.’”


Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 224–25.


Ibid., 174.


Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science, 2.363, 376.


The Scots theorized social realities emerging in their time. Illustratively, see Turner, Diaries and Tadmor, Family and Friends. However, ‘friends’ continued to retain the older meanings as “all those who expected or, reciprocally, from whom one could expect the benefits of patronage” (Perkin, Origins of Modern English Society, 46). In the eighteenth century, friendship “could mean a distant or close relation, a patron or a client, an individual to whom one was tied by mutual sponsorship, or someone attached by warm affection” (Stone, Family, Sex, and Marriage, 97).


Smith, Moral Sentiments, 225. This theme runs throughout the Scottish school. Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith’s teacher in moral philosophy, wrote approvingly, “These different sorts of love to persons according to their nearer approaches to ourselves by their benefits [are] observable…in all the strong ties of friendship, acquaintance, neighbourhood, partnership; which are exceedingly necessary to the order and happiness of human society.” Cited from Raphael, British Moralists 1.290.


Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language, 26; the author referred to is Dryden.


Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 3, 386–91.


Ibid., 386–87.


Ibid., 165.