Chapter 6 Friendship in the European Enlightenment: The Rationalization of Intimacy?

In: Conceptualizing Friendship in Time and Place
Author: Adam Sutcliffe
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In this article I explore and discuss the arguments of Foucault, Bray and others, arguing that the western European debate on friendship in the Enlightenment was more complex and contested than they suggest.

I pay particular attention to eighteenth-century French radical thinkers such as Helvétius and the Marquis d’Argens who, influenced by materialist philosophy, sought to deflate idealized views of selfless friendship and to show that all human relationships were ultimately driven by calculated self-interest. On closer examination, however, their views on friendship were less consistent, and less coldly rational, than some critics have assumed. The complex political connotations of friendship became particularly significant in the revolutionary era at the end of the century, when it became both the sentimental underpinning for solidarity among equals—‘fraternity’—and widely invoked as the guiding spirit of attempts to forge solidarity across cultural differences, by becoming ‘friends’ of Jews or non-European slaves. Despite the widespread aspiration in the eighteenth century to place private intimacies under public and analytical scrutiny, the nature of friendship continued to resist neat codification or definition.


What is a friend? What do we owe to friends, and what do they owe to us? What are they for? Are friendships indispensable for happiness and for virtuous living, or is it possible, perhaps even preferable, to live without such potentially fickle attachments? Is friendship fundamentally an instrumental relationship, serving a selfish purpose for either party, or should an ideal friendship be grounded on selfless love? Should we accept the faults of our friends, or should we only befriend people of the highest quality, and move away from them if they do not sustain these standards? How many true friends can, or should, a person have? What is the relationship of friendship to sexual relationships, and are friendships different—or even possible—across the gender divide? Should we always grant friends preference over people we do not know? And how does the privacy of friendship relate to the wider public relationships of political solidarity, impersonal sympathy, and familial or ethnic kinship?

Today we seldom ask ourselves these fundamental questions about the nature of friendship. In eighteenth-century Europe, however, in the high intellectual circles associated with the European Enlightenment, such questions were closely related to themes of considerable interest, and it was not unusual for the nature of friendship to be raised directly and discussed in detail. The Enlightenment was a highly sociable movement, in which great hopes were invested in the promotion of polite and civilized interaction between educated individuals. Cordial sociability, in the expanding public sphere of coffee shops, scientific and cultural societies, Masonic lodges and other associations, was widely seen as crucial for the development of a more meritocratic, rational, and virtuous society.1 ‘Sensibility’—the capacity for responding sensitively to the world around, and particularly to the predicaments and feelings of others—was a key eighteenth-century concern, spawning a new genre of literature: the sentimental novel.2 For the pre-eminent economic theorist of the century, Adam Smith, this fellow feeling was the fundamental basis for the regulation of human relations in commercial society. Our ‘moral sentiments,’ he argued, were derived most crucially from our ability to step outside ourselves and consider how our behavior appeared to others. The perspective of this ‘man within the breast’ served to prompt us, when necessary, to adjust our comportment to retain the positive regard of others.3

These eighteenth-century preoccupations with sentiment, sympathy and sociability were primarily focused on the public sphere, rather than on private intimacies. However, the boundary between these domains was extremely hard to draw.4 Concern with the harnessing of emotions to promote virtuous conduct in the public sphere therefore inevitably shaded into a related interest in the nature, possibilities and limits of private bonds. Over the course of the eighteenth century there was an increasing tendency to extend the private language of friendship to apply to the public realms of organized associativity and politics. For the earlier part of the century, however, interest in friendship was not so readily apparent as a freestanding subject of examination and enquiry. For this reason, perhaps, the topic has not been widely studied for this period, and the existing literature on it is limited.5 An additional complicating factor is that the term ‘friend’ did not necessarily mean the same thing as it means today. In eighteenth-century England, as Naomi Tadmor has shown in her important study, the word ‘friend’ was used differently by people of different social classes, and could include a broad range of social acquaintances, commercial contacts and political allies.6

The Enlightenment inherited from the high cultural tradition of the Renaissance era an extremely lofty ideal of friendship, understood as a non-instrumental, reciprocal relationship between equals. The most prominent articulator of this earlier vision of friendship was the late sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne, whose elegant prose and probing self-examination retained a broad popularity in eighteenth-century Europe. One of Montaigne’s most famous essays, written in 1580 while France was riven by a protracted civil war between Protestants and Catholics, is titled simply “On Friendship.” Montaigne wrote the essay in memory of his dear friend, the poet Étienne de la Boétie, and this has established the relationship between the two men as one of the most famous literary friendships in French history. Montaigne idealized with unrestrained intensity both La Boétie and the friendship between the two men. There could be no secrets between the two of them, he writes, and even goes so far as to say that they were so close that it was barely possible for him to draw the boundary between his own self and that of his dear friend.7 Although this account was clearly highly stylized, Montaigne’s late Renaissance celebration of the perfect equality, trust and intimacy of pure friendship set a high benchmark against which later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commentators, and also twentieth-century historians writing about them, measured their disappointment with the more compromised, limited and controlled nature of friendships in post-Renaissance Europe.

Historians continue to dispute to what extent, by the eighteenth century, intimacies between men had become more self-conscious and restricted. According to George Haggerty close friendships between men, which may or may not have included an erotic dimension, were at times described and expressed using the highly emotional language of love.8 Many scholars, however, have argued that the idealized intensity and innocence of friendships, as evoked by Montaigne in the sixteenth century, was no longer tenable by the eighteenth century. This was due to a multiplicity of factors: changes in gender relations with the increasing presence of women in the public sphere; the increased instability of traditional class hierarchies with the advance of urban bourgeois culture; and the emergence of a more self-conscious attitude toward male sexuality and emotionality. The view of the eighteenth century as a key moment in the rise of a modern, ‘disciplined’ culture is most closely associated with the highly influential work of Michel Foucault. Friendship does not feature prominently as a theme in Foucault’s work. However, his critique of the relationship between modern systems of knowledge and modern structures of power has had a great deal of influence on historians working in this area. The range of possibilities for human self-understanding, and for intimacies between humans, was, for Foucault, not broadened but profoundly constrained by the theories, arguments and classificatory systems that emerged with the Enlightenment. It was in the eighteenth century, he wrote, that homosexuality first became a key problem in European culture, with the rise of modern institutions—the school, the prison, the mental hospital, the army—that sought to regulate and discipline the relationships between those individuals whose lives and minds they dominated.9

The giant of late eighteenth-century German idealist philosophy, Immanuel Kant, can readily stand as emblematic of the rationalization and instrumentalization of human relations in this era, at least according to Foucault and his followers. Kant’s project was indubitably one of omnivorous rationalization—and friendship did not escape his attention. In his Metaphysics of Morals (1797) Kant explicitly attempted to rationalize the ethics of friendship, which, he argued, should be based on an ‘undifferentiated benevolence.’ We should not, he argued, show partisanship toward our selected friends: to do so would fall short of a universalist understanding of ethics. Rather, he wrote, we should experience friendship “as if all were brothers submissive to a universal father who wants the happiness of all.”10

This negative view of the Enlightenment, and of Kant in particular, was certainly the perspective of the most influential recent scholar of early modern European friendship: Alan Bray. Noted for his early, pioneering work on homosexuality in early modern England, Bray’s interest in the topic of friendship was piqued by his ‘discovery’ of a significant number of shared tombs of same-sex couples, or monuments to such relationships, dating from the early modern period. His pathbreaking book The Friend, published posthumously in 2003, is based on a careful study of these shared tombs and monuments, which have been strangely neglected and forgotten, despite in some cases being in very prominent locations (such as Oxford and Cambridge college chapels). Building his argument from this firm evidential base, he shows how a strong tradition of acceptance of loving friendships between men, and indeed of sanctification of them, endured in England until the advent of the Enlightenment. For Bray, as for Foucault, it was in the eighteenth century that these traditions were all but lost. It was in the period, he argues—in the case of England, at least—that the relatively accommodating and open premodern traditions of friendship were almost extinguished by the increasing rationalization of interpersonal relations. This relentless drive toward rationalization is, in Bray’s opinion, a central and deeply undesirable feature of Western modernity, most clearly expressed in the coldly logical ethical system of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy.11

While lamenting this closing down of possibilities in intimate relationships, Bray nonetheless offered his work in a spirit of optimism, reflecting, perhaps, the move toward greater social acceptance and public acknowledgment of same-sex relationships since the 1970s. He captures this changing mood very evocatively in the concluding paragraph of his book:

As in our own time the permafrost of modernity has at last begun to melt—and a more determinedly pluralistic world has bounded back into an often troubling life—the world we are seeing is not a strange new world, revealed as the glaciers draw back, but a strange old world: kinship, locality, embodiment, domesticity, affect. All of these things, but I would add that at times we are seeing them in something as actual—and as tangible—as the tomb of two friends buried in an English parish church. We did not see these tombs because they did not signify, but they are beginning to signify again.12

Bray’s work builds on an earlier, extremely important European philosophical study of his topic: Jacques Derrida’s Politics of Friendship (1994 in French; 1997 in English). This multilayered book is woven around a sustained interrogation of a puzzling dictum attributed to Aristotle, and revisited by, among others, Montaigne in the sixteenth century, Nietzsche in the nineteenth and Blanchot in the twentieth: “O my friends, there is no friend.” From this starting point, Derrida teases out the multiple paradoxes and exclusions that have beset the ideal of friendship in the Western political and philosophical tradition. The abstract virtue of unselfish loving—the ‘what’ of friendship—inescapably stands, he argues, in awkward disjuncture alongside the singularity of the ‘who’: the individual friend.13 Perfect friendship is unthinkable: while we aspire to emulate perfection, attaining such a God-like ideal would dissolve the interpersonal mortal needs to which friendship responds.14

Most potently, perhaps, the private intimacy and trust that most profoundly characterizes dyadic friendship awkwardly jars against political ideals of collective friendship, enshrined by the French Revolution in the principle of fraternity. All these visions of brotherhood-based friendship, meanwhile, teeter uncertainly on the boundary of homoeroticism, while implicitly excluding all other relationalities: friendships between women; friendships between men and women; friendships across generations.15 For Derrida, friendship is indefinable, and ultimately impossible. This is how he views philosophy in general, and thus the problem of friendship, he says, is a wider problem of how to ‘think the other,’ which is central to the problem of ‘philosophy’: “the question ‘What is Friendship?,’ but also ‘Who is the Friend (both or either sex)?’ is nothing but the question ‘What is Philosophy?’”16

Bray refers only in passing to Derrida’s text—but he identifies it as a kindred study, asking at its core ‘the same questions’ about the history of friendship.17 However, the two scholars differ markedly in their overall approach to the historicity of friendship. Bray is clearly hostile to what he regards as the confining impersonality of the Kantian universalist paradigm of friendship, and the instrumental and legalistic understandings of interpersonal intimacy, inherited from this Kantian paradigm, which he regards as dominant in the modern world. This differs significantly from Derrida’s subtle and non-evaluative exploration of the political significance of Kant’s notion of friendly respect, which, Kant seems to argue, distinguishes friendship from the ‘hotter’ passion of love.18

More broadly, Derrida seeks to show that the vexed relationship between the universalism of the ideals of friendship (the ‘what’ questions, in his analysis) and the inevitable partisanship of specific friendships (the ‘who’ questions relating to the particularity of the friend) reflect broader ambiguities and dilemmas of human intimacy that are ultimately inescapable and eternal. The implicit emancipatory power of Bray’s work lies in the reconstruction of alternative, premodern patterns of intimacy. Derrida, however, suggests that our ‘modern’ confusions and constraints are to some degree transhistorical: they cannot be transcended or resolved, but must instead be acknowledged and understood in their inescapable complexity.

The key period of historical transformation, for Bray, was the eighteenth century. It is in his treatment of this century, then, that the difference between his approach and that of Derrida is most apparent. Did, then, the significance of friendship in European culture change in any deeply significant way in the eighteenth century? Certainly, the increasingly vigorous pursuit of commercial self-interest in this period would at first sight appear to threaten the selflessness and mutuality on which, it was widely assumed, authentic bonds of friendship were based. The provocative argument of the Anglo-Dutch writer Bernard Mandeville, in his Fable of the Bees (1723), that the ‘private vices’ of greed and selfishness produced the ‘public benefits’ of commercial dynamism and prosperity, was an enduring provocation for the next fifty years, in particular to the leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, almost all of whom wrestled with Mandeville in their attempts to develop an analysis of commercial society that was both positive and clearly accordance with Christian ethics (Adam Smith’s argument that commerce, being based on trust, in fact promoted personal morality and interpersonal politeness, is the most notable riposte to Mandeville).19 Eighteenth-century commentators on friendship frequently struck to the core of this controversy, by addressing the question of the extent to which intimate relationships could transcend human selfishness and instrumentalism.20

Eighteenth-century considerations of friendship took place against a backdrop of profound changes in the social and cultural conditions that shaped actual friendships, and in the political freight borne by the concept. Early modern humanists almost exclusively conceived of friendship as a relationship of similarity, between male members of the social elite. Seventeenth-century French aristocrats invested considerable emotional energy in such relationships, which they valued, according to Jonathan Dewald, as “providing a private shelter from public life.”21 In the eighteenth century, however, notions of friendship were increasingly mobilized as part of a political attempt to envision, at an intimate and personal level, the possibility of solidarities that might transcend differences of gender, confession and race.22

Reformist political discourse in the 1780s often mobilized a language of friendship: this is apparent in discussions of Jewish political emancipation and socio-economic amelioration, and also in opposition to slavery, spearheaded in France by the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of Friends of the Blacks). In the French Revolution friendship was translated into fraternity, and in this form became a key rhetorical term.23 The key difference between friendship and fraternity is that the latter was imagined as extensible, potentially to all, and thus sought to overcome the division between the public and private realms. However, as Peter Fenves has pointed out, it ultimately makes little sense to speak of ‘fraternity’ unless this term is distinguished from something else, designating those it excludes.24

The tensions embedded in this revolutionary attempt to politicize and universalize friendship are valuably brought into relief by the various attempts by earlier eighteenth-century French materialist thinkers to scrutinize friendship and bring it philosophically to heel. Many early- and mid-eighteenth-century French Enlightenment radicals were seduced by the subversive power of materialist philosophy, particularly in its ‘sensationist’ form, which, in seeking to interpret all phenomena in unified material terms and regarding all knowledge as derived through the human senses, readily undermined theological doctrines such as the immortality of the soul.25 However, the implications of materialism when applied to human social relations were more troublesome, even in irreligious circles. If all aspects of human existence could be reduced to the sensory interaction between material bodies, impelled by nothing more than the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, then in what ethical terms should interpersonal relationships be understood, and what politics followed from this?

Several decades before the Marquis de Sade articulated his outspokenly libertine answers to these questions, earlier radicals, such as the Marquis d’Argens, the Marquis de Vauvenargues, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, explored amoral conceptions of human nature and put forward deflationary conceptions of friendship. However, these positions were difficult to sustain, and even more difficult to integrate with any sort of reformist politics, or with a viable ethic of friendship applicable to lived experience. Both in theory and in practice, French Enlightenment radicals revealed in their approach to friendship a recurrent slippage from bold materialist analysis to more moderate, humanist formulations in the vein of Montaigne. These slippages reveal a more fluid and uncertain face of eighteenth-century materialism than is usually recognized. They also suggest that, beneath the level of philosophical rhetoric, both the ambiguities and the attractions of friendship were relatively little changed in the era of the European Enlightenment.

Aristotle, Montaigne, and the Humanist Ideal of Friendship

Aristotle, in his Eudemian Ethics, offers a crisp definition of friendship that served as a key point of orientation in subsequent debates: “a man becomes a friend when he is loved and returns that love, and this is recognized by the two men in question.”26 Reciprocity, for Aristotle, was of fundamental importance to true friendship, as is the associated feature of non-instrumentality, or good will. True friends, Aristotle believed, must love each other for themselves, and disinterestedly wish each other the best. In places, however, Aristotle seems to retreat from this claim, allowing that certain, less ideal forms of friendship are to a degree instrumental, being based not on common virtue, but on the pleasure or other benefits provided by the company of a friend. The purest friend, however, is, he claims, nothing less than “another self.”27 This exacting ideal was extremely influential on later writers, most notably Cicero (in his De amicitia) and the most significant sixteenth-century writer on friendship, Montaigne.28

In “On Friendship,” Montaigne makes frequent reference to Aristotle, Cicero and Plutarch, and follows Aristotle both in his unrestrained celebration of ideal friendship and in the sharp distinction he draws between this rare ideal and the more limited nature of most friendships. He endorses Aristotle’s definition of ideal friendship as “a soul in two bodies,” describing it as a fusion of souls, in which there can be no instrumentalism because there is no sense of separate interests, or even of those sentiments which imply “division and difference,” such as obligation or gratitude.29

In a true friendship there is absolute honesty and trust. Montaigne writes that he would have more willingly trusted himself to his own lamented friend, Étienne de la Boétie, than to himself. In most friendships, however, Montaigne acknowledges that this ideal is not attained, and caution with friends is therefore necessary, as the friendship might prove impermanent, and the friend one day unreliable. He approvingly quotes the saying that you should love your friend “as if you were one day to hate him.” Recognizing this painful realism, he again quotes Aristotle, citing the famous statement supposedly attributed to him by Diogenes Laertius: “O, my friends, there is no friend!”30

This paradoxical dictum captures the core ambiguity of the classical tradition of European thought about friendship. On one level Montaigne, like Aristotle, is attempting to distill a perfect ideal of friendship. However, while claiming that this ideal was reflected in his own friendship (a singular friendship: it is only possible, he writes, to have one friend),31 he also seeks to say something of relevance to the wider world, in which most friendships, inevitably, are not ideal. It is in this more practical spirit that Montaigne distinguishes friendship from love. At this point, Montaigne significantly differs from the Ancients, who did not recognize this distinction. Montaigne equates love with sexual passion, intense but unsteady, and oriented towards women. He regards friendship as a calmer warmth, one of “all gentleness and polish,” and only possible between men.32 Love is destroyed by physical satiation; friendship, in contrast, strengthens the more it is enjoyed, and is thus an aid to self-improvement. While Montaigne here verges on offering a form of advice literature, he leaves the core of friendship shrouded in mystery. While mundane friendships may be held together by “opportunity or convenience,” true friendships cannot be rationally understood: as an explanation of his own intense friendship bond he could only offer, “parce que c’était lui; parce que c’était moi” (because he was himself; because I was myself).33

In this essay Montaigne’s humanist optimism outweighs his sceptical analysis. His friendship ideal, however, is very sharply marked apart from most ordinary friendships, which were liable to be compromised by self-interest and suspicion, and about which Montaigne had little to say. For the leading French sceptic of the next generation, La Mothe le Vayer, the balance between idealism and realism tipped. La Mothe le Vayer, while operating in a largely similar sceptical mode to Montaigne, took a pessimistic view of friendship. All friendships, he argued, were ultimately motivated by self-interest.34 This shift towards an emphasis on the role of selfishness in human affairs set the tone for much commentary on friendship over the subsequent century.

The development of reasoned critical analysis in the seventeenth century did not, however, straightforwardly undermine the humanist friendship ideal. Human emotions and passions—including friendship—were taken seriously by seventeenth-century thinkers as both mental and bodily states, playing an important role, when properly managed, in the pursuit of knowledge and of happiness.35 However, the distinction between mastered and unmastered passions was crucial, and nowhere more so than in Spinoza’s Ethics (1677), in which rational, measured friendship stands in sharp juxtaposition to the potentially destabilizing effects of love. Whereas love can readily be excessive, and thus disturb the balance of mind, friendship is for Spinoza unreservedly positive, because it is associated, by definition, with the supreme faculty of reason. “The desire to establish friendship with others,” he writes, is “a desire that characterizes the man who lives by the guidance of reason.”36

Spinoza’s view of friendship is extremely idealized: only the truly rational few, he claims, are capable of establishing genuine friendship bonds. For these enlightened individuals, fully in command of their desires and their intellect, the opposition between self-interest and common interest dissolves, and it is this shared understanding that binds them together: “Only free men are truly advantageous to one another and united by the closest bond of friendship.”37

Spinoza’s view of friendship was, like that of Montaigne, both highly rarified and defined in stark contrast to the mundane relationships of the masses. Unlike Montaigne, however, Spinoza sought to demystify friendship, according it a prominent position in his meticulously rational geometric analysis of the ethics of self-mastery. Despite this, Spinoza’s abstracted vision of perfected friendships, fully transcending both individual selfishness and the instabilities of desire, echoed the humanist tradition as much as it dissented from it. For eighteenth-century French radicals, Spinoza’s Ethics offered an emboldening model of a fearlessly secular approach to personal and interpersonal morality. However, although it was seldom if ever recognized as such, this text also offers an early example of the close intertwinement of Enlightenment interpretations of human relationships with those of their humanist antecedents.

How to be a Friend: Salon Culture and the Pragmatics of Friendship

The complexities of friendship were experienced and explored with particular vigor in the Parisian salons, where stylized norms of social interaction and a heightened consciousness of interpersonal dynamics were conducive to an interest in the subject. A notable debate on friendship emerged in the early 1660s in the salon of the prominent Jansenist convert, the Marquise de Sablé, which engaged a number of leading Jansenist figures as well as La Rochefoucauld.38 This circle generally perpetuated a pessimistic view of the human potential for sincere friendship, in the vein of La Mothe le Vayer, which remained influential for the remainder of the century. In the salons of the early eighteenth century, however, the tensions between idealistic and pragmatic approaches to friendship were approached with less solemnity, reflecting the rise of a lighter, more playful attitude to the strain between the countervailing poles of public etiquette and philosophical provocation. This shift can be traced in the notable conduct literature on friendship that emerged in France at the end of the seventeenth century.39

Early examples of this genre varied in their degree of exuberance or optimism towards friendship, but had in common a tendency to avoid abstraction, focusing instead on practical questions of how to find, improve and sustain friendships. By the 1740s, however, this conduct literature had become a site of semi-surreptitious philosophical experimentation. Critics seeking to stir the social, religious and sexual conventions of urban elite culture found a ripe target in ideals of friendship, which they regarded as ridden with psychological fancy and moral hypocrisy. From the perspective of materialist philosophy, which by this time constituted the main intellectual current of radical subversion in France, human relations, no less than human bodies and human passions, demanded analysis without reference to unexplained moral absolutes. Radical writers on friendship drew on these ideas to challenge and mock the demure moralism of the more conventional conduct literature. While inhabiting the same close social milieu of the Parisian salons as the authors they satirized, these writers offered a contrastingly unsentimental and at times unabashedly erotic view of the forces driving interpersonal intimacies.

The first prominent friendship manual of the eighteenth century was the Treatise on Friendship by Louis de Sacy (1654–1727), a lawyer, academician, and a close friend and regular salon attendee of the Marquise de Lambert, to whom he dedicated this text. Like Spinoza, Sacy rejected Montaigne’s view of friendship as an inexplicable rapport: friendship, he wrote, is not “a blind impulse, but an enlightened sentiment,” requiring that friends be chosen with care.40 He was particularly careful in his handling of the problem of self-interest in friendships, seeking to balance a realistic appraisal of human nature with the preservation of an ethically and religiously infused friendship ideal. The underlying motivation of friendship, he insisted, is a selfless and religious duty: “to spread, whatever may be encountered, good or bad, in the lives of one’s friends, a certain secret charm, which blunts ill feelings, and sharpens good feelings.”41

Sacy tailored his advice concerning friendship to a world of flawed individuals. “To wish for friends without faults,” he writes, “is to wish to love nobody.”42 While following Montaigne in endorsing the Aristotelian view of the friend as a ‘second self,’ he nonetheless firmly places duties to friends (and family) third on a hierarchy of duties, beneath those to God and to ‘Patrie.’43 He suggests precautions to avoid ruptures in friendship, such as not listening to hostile gossip concerning friends, and also practical advice in cases when a friendship is irrevocably broken. In his carefully balanced treatment of his subject, Sacy attempted to straddle several oppositions characteristic of early eighteenth-century theorizations of human relations: between idealism and pragmatism; between a vision of endurance and an acceptance of inevitable change; between a celebration of intimacy and an awareness of the potential danger of such intimacies to public values of patriotism and law; and, most fundamentally, between a negative view of human nature as irredeemably self-interested and a commitment to the redemptive power of faith.

Perhaps the most popular French friendship manual in the early eighteenth century was the identically titled treatise of De Sacy’s dedicatee, the Marquise de Lambert’s Traité de l’amitié (Treatise on Friendship). Between 1710 and 1733 Lambert was a leading salonnière in Paris. Her literary gatherings on Tuesday afternoons, when she regularly hosted such prominent figures as Fontenelle, Fenelon, Marivaux and Montesquieu, were noted for their propriety, sophistication and prestige. Lambert carefully managed the circulation of wit, aesthetic debate and acquaintances at her home, and also mediated circulation between her Tuesday salon and her equally noted Wednesday afternoon aristocratic gatherings. She also wrote in a humanist vein on intimate themes such as ageing and motherhood, always emphasizing the importance of decorum and wisdom in human relationships. Her treatise on friendship was first published in 1732, but circulated privately before then.44

Friendship, Lambert asserted, was a basic human need:

Man is full of needs; turned in on himself, he feels an emptiness which only friendship can fill: always worried and agitated, he can only find calm and rest in friendship.45

Following the established conventions of this genre, Lambert asserted the superiority of friendship over the ‘turbulent passion’ of love: friendship, she wrote, was the stable, rational, form of love.46 Unlike Montaigne, however (whom Lambert nonetheless cites approvingly), but like Sacy, Lambert sought to accommodate human weakness, offering practical guidance to those in search of the consolations of friendship. The choice of friend, she emphasizes, is crucial: a good friend must be virtuous, and friends should be closely matched in age and tastes. However, she continues, at least in the early stage of a friendship, an illusory element of idealization is natural, and helps to establish friendship. With time, though, this should be replaced by the firmer grounding of friendship in reason and realism. Nonetheless, a friend’s faults must be accommodated, best of all by not dwelling on them.47 A bad friendship nonetheless requires loyalty—this should be accepted as a punishment for choosing a friend too hastily.48

Only three years after Lambert’s death her treatise was used as the springboard for a mildly scandalous satire on friendship, the piquancy of which was augmented by the fact that its author had been one of her close male friends. The prominent translator and satirist Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe, who had been a significant participant in Lambert’s salon, in 1736 published his Recueil de divers écrits sur l’amour et l’amitié, la politesse, la volupté, les sentiments agréables, l’esprit et le Coeur (Collection of Various Writings on Love and Friendship, Politeness, Desire, Agreeable Sentiments, the Spirit and the Heart).49 Included in this volume is Lambert’s Traité de l’amitié, credited semi-anonymously only to “Madame la Marquise de * * *,” but reprinted without alteration. However, the impact of her treatise is playfully subverted by the letter that precedes it, presumably by Saint-Hyacinthe himself, but purporting to be a letter to “Madame la Duchesse de * * *” from an anonymous courtier, recommending the treatise it introduces. At first summarizing Lambert’s argument, the courtier defines friendship as “a love free from cupidity” (erotic desire), and thus truly noble, in contrast to the “effervescence of the blood” of erotic attraction.50 However, he then slowly undermines this opposition, through the gentle introduction of materialist argument. If true love is spiritual, the letter argues, then two individuals who truly love each other will know that this love exists at a higher plane to the physical. However, they may nonetheless experience “the involuntary physical stirrings of desire,” which will indeed be heightened by true love. These sentiments are neither the cause, nor the purpose of love: precisely because of this, however, the courtier suggests, what reason can there be not to succumb to these “minor feelings of cupidity,” and the pleasures, unrelated to friendship itself, that they can bring?51

Materialist Philosophy and the Enlightenment Critique of Friendship

Saint-Hyacinthe’s mischievous blurring of the distinction between friendship and love, and, more pointedly, the boundary between platonic and erotic intimacy, deployed a materialist understanding of the body and its passions to mock the moral earnestness and prim respectability of conventional social ethics. His provocation is characteristic of the ways in which erotic or pornographic texts functioned simultaneously as entertainment and as philosophical argument in eighteenth-century France.52 In introducing these ideas into the friendship debate, however, Saint-Hyacinthe not only challenged conventional Christian morality but also gently destabilized attempts to codify a respectable public ethic of human relationships. This materialist critique of conventional views of friendship was pursued more outspokenly by the Marquis d’Argens—the author of the most celebrated materialist pornographic novel of the period, Thérèse philosophe (Theresa the Philosopher)—who opened his collected New Memoirs with an essay titled “Various and Critical Reflections on a Happy Life.”

D’Argens here scornfully rejects the idealized view of friendship advanced in the “pompous treatises” of Plato, Cicero and the other ancients, who, he argues, failed to take account of true experience.53 Most friendships, he writes, are far from reciprocal: more often we are envious of the happiness of our friends. Far from being a selfless impulse, friendship is exclusively based on self-interest, and this is according to d’Argens no bad thing: “Friends are precious to us only as long as they are useful. Our self-love demands that they are so, and this principle is the strongest bond of friendship.”54 On this theme he takes issue directly with Sacy, refuting his claim that true friendship can transcend self-interest.55

D’Argens attempts to approach and define friendship through pragmatism and logic, without any recourse to abstract theorizing, and in a spirit of pugnacious opposition to received wisdom on this topic. Rejecting the consensus among both ancient and humanist writers that it is only possible to have one true friend, he argues for having several, because friendships can rupture, but not too many, as this would dilute all affections; and in a similarly combative mode against Montaigne and Charron in particular, he argues that friendship is not indispensable for happiness, notwithstanding the many benefits that it brings.56 Citing the famous seventeenth-century example of Queen Christina of Sweden, he rejects Montaigne’s claim that friendship is not possible with or between women, and suggests that female friendship may even be superior.57

Despite his attempt to develop a theory of friendship that was free of the naïve ungrounded moralism (as he saw it) of more traditional thinkers, d’Argens’ essay nonetheless at times draws on a similarly normative moral language, and is in significant respects not dissimilar from the earlier friendship manuals that he repeatedly criticizes. In unresolved tension with his view of human nature as inherently self-interested, he states that seemingly selfless qualities such as good nature, probity and generosity are necessary to sustain friendship, and emphasizes the value of friendship in promoting virtuous behavior: “If you want to keep a friend for the long term, you need to make yourself likeable for him, thinking ahead of all the things that might make him happy.”58

D’Argens based his analysis of friendship in common sense and contemporary observation, and pointedly contrasted this to the airy theorizing and ungrounded assumptions of earlier writers on the topic. However, despite his methodological distinctiveness, in practical terms his overall vision of the nature and value of friendship was much more conventional than was suggested by the self-consciously freethinking tone of his text. His arguments were rhetorically radical, but not in any significant sense socially disruptive. While this may have contributed to the accessibility and popularity of his text, it also highlights something of a deflationary limit to the critical edge of materialist thought. The practical aspect of the topic of friendship exposed the outer reach of d’Argens’ boldness, and his ultimate dependence on a moralized, improving vision of interpersonal relations that was heavily indebted to the earlier, humanist traditions that he sought to challenge.

Other more defiantly radical thinkers derived markedly more pessimistic accounts of friendship from the materialist view of human nature as inherently self-interested. The Marquis de Vauvenargues (1715–1747), whose philosophy was strongly influenced by Spinoza, was particularly vexed by the implications of radical thought for the personal and moral life of the individual.59 We are drawn to friendship, he wrote, because of our individual weaknesses; but friendship inevitably disappoints, due to the incompatible demands that friends make on each other.60 The attention, even possession, that an individual wants from his friend must, according to Vauvenargues, clash with the attention and possession that that friend wants from him. Reciprocity is chimerical, and friendship, therefore, is doomed.

Claude-Adrien Helvétius devoted a chapter to friendship in his De l’esprit (1758), the overall argument of which was to demonstrate that all human passions are reducible to the avoidance of physical pain and the seeking of physical pleasure, and that through appropriate education this principle can be harnessed to promote social virtue. Friendship, he argues, is based on want; and the stronger the want, the stronger the friendship. He thus accounted for this phenomenon in terms of his overarching general theory of cause and effect. Helvétius imagines a man and a woman stranded together on a desert island as the situation likely to generate the closest possible friendship, even if the two individuals concerned “would have hated each other, if they had stayed in Paris.”61 Concomitantly, in eighteenth-century society, in which individuals are not united by any common interest, but rather each pursue their own fortunes independently, there is no sufficient motive for us to “put up with the faults…of our friends. There is therefore no friendship.”62

Helvétius is unsentimental about this, as would seem to be necessary to sustain conformity with his philosophical system, in which the quest for pleasure and the avoidance of pain have no moral weight, but are simply a fact of human nature. However, he does not entirely decouple moral values from friendship: the best and most faithful friends, he writes, are “men free of any ambition and of all strong passions, and who get their greatest pleasure from the conversation of educated people.”63 This ideal strongly echoes Spinoza, and also much earlier ancient and humanist characterizations of the perfect friend. Helvétius’ account of such intellectual friendship, however, does not seem to be based on intense want, and thus does not clearly qualify as friendship as he defines it. His idealization of such detachment also sits awkwardly alongside his objectivist analysis of the place of the passions in human nature. In the final analysis, Helvétius seems to step back from the potentially amoral implications of his theory with respect to close human relationships, choosing instead to invoke conventional ideals of virtue for which he does not provide a firm philosophical grounding. As with d’Argens and several other thinkers in the materialist tradition, friendship was a particularly difficult phenomenon to account for in his own philosophical terms.

The potentially amoral implications of materialism erupted to the fore in the late 1740s, in the outcry over the extreme Epicurean materialism of the Breton doctor, Julien Offray de la Mettrie. In his L’Homme machine (Man a Machine, 1747), and equally provocatively in his Discours sur le bonheur (Discourse on Happiness, 1748), La Mettrie seemed to undercut all possible grounds for a notion of virtue beyond the individualistic pursuit of pleasure. This led most other French thinkers associated with materialism, including Diderot and his allies, to hastily repudiate La Mettrie and to seek to affirm their commitment to a secularized public morality.64 La Mettrie did not give the topic of friendship systematic attention, but he clearly saw it as an important facet of human pleasure, no less glorious for being understood by him, like all pleasure, as derived simply from bio-mechanical sensory stimulation. He mentions friendship several times in his Discours sur le bonheur, and in his Système d’Epicure (The System of Epicurus, 1750), lushly celebrates the conversational and social pleasures of ‘sweet friendship.’65

The publication of the first volume of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie in 1751, a landmark compendium of French Enlightenment thought, took place against the backdrop of the ‘Affaire La Mettrie.’66 While many articles in this volume advanced materialist ideas in semi-veiled form, Diderot and Jean Baptiste Le Rond d’Alembert were also concerned, for both pragmatic and political reasons, to dissociate themselves, and the Encyclopédie as a whole, from apparently amoral strands of philosophical radicalism such as that of La Mettrie, which they regarded as unproductive or paralyzing.67 The article on ‘amitié’ (friendship), penned by Claude Yvon, reflects this more cautious aspect of their project. This brief contribution bears no hint of materialism, and dwells not on the pleasures of friendship but on its potential disappointments and mutual responsibilities. Defining friendship straightforwardly as “the habit of conducting an honest and pleasant exchange with someone,” the entry bears more in common with the advice literature of Sacy and Lambert than with the more mischievous texts of d’Argens and Saint-Hyacinthe. While recognizing that successful friendships are based on the exchange of satisfaction, Yvon encourages modest expectations from friends, and a vigilant attentiveness to their needs and limits.68

Conclusion: The Limits of Rationalization

According to Jacques Derrida, perfect friendship is an impossibility. In friendship we aspire to transcend the instability of our everyday, and yet it is in everyday life that our friendships are forged. This paradox has its most profound implications in the realm of politics—and it is this that was Derrida’s central concern in his Politics of Friendship. As a private bond of loyalty, friendship sits uncomfortably within a public world in which our relations with each other are constantly on display, and are subject to comparison and regulation according to the prevailing social norms.

Over the course of the eighteenth century in Europe, practices of sociability became increasingly varied and prominent, and this led to much interest in the relationships and boundaries between public and private life, and between public ideals and private intimacies. Although there was certainly an aspiration, in various currents of Enlightenment thought, to make sense of this messy boundary, and to generate a philosophically integrated account of all forms of friendship, this was at best a hesitant and incomplete project. Those French thinkers influenced by the philosophy of materialism were, prior to Kant, the most notable non-theological systematizers of the eighteenth century. A study of their writings on friendship highlights, however, how resistant this topic was to rational and dispassionate systematization. Their boldest attempts to develop an uncompromisingly rationalist analysis of friendship gave rise to an extremely bleak and cold view of human sociability. This often led them to step back from this precipice by allowing long-standing notions of virtuous friendship to creep back into play.

Bray’s pessimistic view of the eighteenth century as a period in which the possibilities of friendship were dramatically narrowed seems, then, to be overstated. The evidence he presents in his own work, indeed, offers evidence of flexibility enduring into the nineteenth century. He devotes a fascinating section of The Friend to the emotional life of the Yorkshire landowner Anne Lister (d. 1840), and to her quasi-marital relationship with Ann Walker, which is recorded in detail in Lister’s diary.69 Other work on same-sex friendships in Victorian England has suggested that this era was far from being one of rigid emotional and interpersonal inflexibility.70

In our own era, in which the digital social media increasingly mediate, categorize and publicly display our friendships, our close relationships seem perhaps more regulated then ever. Facebook does not, however, capture by any means the totality of friendship as it is lived in the early twenty-first century. The internal contradictions and retreats of the attempts of eighteenth-century materialist thinkers to rationalize friendship in a sense foreshadow, then, both the complex late Enlightenment legacy of Kantian philosophy and the enduring messiness and complexity of friendships today—despite the pressure generated by the new social media toward transparency and standardization. The paradoxes of friendship so brilliantly dissected by Derrida were not, and could not be, dispelled in the eighteenth century. Attempts to resolve them were not successful, and the debates to which they contributed pushed to the fore of public consciousness the unruly and ultimately indefinable nature of human interpersonal passions.


English language translations of texts in other languages are given when available. All translations from texts listed here in their original language are by the author.

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For an overview of the importance of sociability in the Enlightenment see Jacob, “Polite Worlds of the Enlightenment,” 272–87; Munck, The Enlightenment; Van Horn Melton, Rise of the Public in Enlightenment.


See Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability; Ellis, The Politics of Sensibility; and, for a broader argument on the political importance of the eighteenth-century novel in promoting interpersonal empathy, Hunt, Inventing Human Rights.


Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments.


See, most recently, Kahn, Representing Private Lives.


Two recent edited volumes, however, have been published on the broader topic of friendship in early modern Europe. See Gowing, Hunter, and Rubin, Friendship and Faith; O’Donnell and O’Rourke, Love, Sex, Intimacy, and Friendship; see also, on male friendship, Merrick, “Male Friendship in Prerevolutionary France.”


Tadmor, Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England, 237–71; “Friends and Neighbours in Early Modern England.”


Montaigne, “De l’amitié.”


Haggarty, “Male Love and Friendship.”


Foucault, “Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity,” 163–73.


Kant, Metaphysik der Sitten, 217. (All translations from texts listed in their original language in the Bibliography are by the author.) See also Paton, “Kant on Friendship,” 152–53.


Bray, The Friend (2003) esp. 212–19. See also his “A Traditional Rite for Blessing Friendship,” and Homosexuality in Renaissance England.


Bray, The Friend (2003) 306.


Derrida, Politics of Friendship, 1–25.


Ibid., 221–24.


Ibid., 227–70.


Ibid., 240.


Bray, The Friend, 8.


Derrida, Politics of Friendship, 252–63. For a recent reading of Kant’s ethics in relation to heteronormativity and sexuality, see Clarke, Virtuous Vice, 101–21.


See Hirschman, Passions and the Interests, 17–19; Hont, Jealousy of Trade, esp. 37–51.


See McCarthy and McCarthy, “Hume, Smith, and Ferguson”; Silver, “Friendship in Commercial Society.”


Dewald, Aristocratic Experience, 144.


See Sutcliffe, “Spinoza and Friends.”


Linton, Politics of Virtue, 204–5, 210–11.


Fenves, “Politics of Friendship,” 140.


For general accounts see Yolton, Locke and French Materialism; O’Neal, Authority of Experience.


Aristotle, Eudemian Ethicsvii. 2, 1236a14–15. See also his Nicomachean Ethics viii. 3, 1156a7–21.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethicsix.4, 1166a29–b2.


On Aristotle and friendship see Price, Love and Friendship, 103–61; Sherman, “Aristotle on the Shared Life.”


Montaigne, “De l’amitié,” 189.


Ibid., 188–89; see also 147–48 above.


Ibid., 190.


Ibid., 184.


Ibid., 186–87.


Gerson, L’amitié au xviiie siècle, 35–38.


James, Passion and Action, 85–252.


Spinoza, Ethics, 339 (Part iv, proposition 37).


Ibid., 356 (iv. 71).


Craveri, The Age of Conversation, 97–136; Conley, Suspicion of Virtue, 20–44; Requemora, “L’amitié dans les ‘Maximes’ de La Rochefoucauld.”


For a survey of these friendship manuals see Vincent-Buffault, Exercice de l’amitié, 75–134.


De Sacy, Traité de l’amitié, 42.


Ibid., 62–63.


Ibid., 76.


Ibid., 145–57.


For an excellent overview of Lambert’s salons, see Hine, Madame de Lambert, 173–92.


Lambert, Traité de l’amitié, 98.


Ibid., 110.


Ibid., 108–10, 114, 123.


Ibid., 130.


Carayol, Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe, 64–65, 151–57; Marchal, Madame de Lambert et son milieu, 174–78.


Saint-Hyacinthe, Recueil de divers écrits, 3–7.


Ibid., 41–43.


See Hunt, The Invention of Pornography; Goulemot, Ces livres qu’on ne lit que d’une main; Darnton, Forbidden Best-Sellers, 3–22, 85–114.


D’Argens, “Réflexions diverses et critiques sur l’amitié,” 1–13, at 13.


Ibid., 15.


Ibid., 21–23.


Ibid., 44–50, 53–59.


Ibid., 65, 69–70.


Ibid., 64.


See Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 69–71.


Vauvenargues, Introduction à la connaissance, 41.


Helvétius, De l’esprit, 317.


Ibid., 319.


Ibid., 320.


Israel, Enlightenment Contested, 794–813; Wolfe, “A Happiness Fit for Organic Bodies.”


La Mettrie, Discours sur le bonheur, 264, 281, 289; Système d’Epicure, 381.


Israel, Enlightenment Contested, 794.


Ibid., 840–62.


Diderot and D’Alembert, Encyclopédie, 361–62.


Bray, The Friend, 239–46; Lister, Secret Diaries.


Marcus, Between Women; Dellamora, Friendship’s Bonds.