Distant friendship

Joseph Epstein, a frequent contributor to Commentary, has written a book, Friendship: An Exposé. A four page essay on Friendship Among the Intellectuals appears in the July-August issue. The archived article is posted in Adobe Acrobat .pdf format.

Mr. Epstein writes in the essay about the friendships, and the breaking up of same, among what he calls “the hothouse world of the New York intellectuals.” He notes Norman Podhoretz’s book, Ex-Friends, in which Mr. Podhoretz wrote in the introductory chapter, that friends can disagree on a lot, “but only provided the things they disagree about are not all that important to them.”

Mr. Epstein wrote:

    Here is the question Ex-Friends raises in high relief: for what ideas would one be willing to give up one’s friends? Most of us, I suspect, would answer: none. Ideas, after all, are but abstract things and as such are not worth even a single flesh-and-blood friend. And yet, abstract as they are, in the realm of politics ideas have consequences, and those consequences can be measured all too often and all too precisely in flesh and blood.

The point is very well-taken, and Mr. Epstein continues to document friendships lost, in that “hothouse world,” because the flesh-and-blood friends could not, in the end, remain close friends with those with whom they strongly disagreed.

But now we have a new thing, or perhaps an old thing writ anew. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, friends and colleagues as patriots and revolutionaries, found their friendship waning, and eventually broken on the shoals of political disagreement. It was only after they retired from public life, and not only were not personally involved in the political disagreements of the early nineteenth century but were physically separated that they became friends again, through the writing of letters and learned discourse via the post. Time and distance and the chance for reflection cooled the fires that led to wrath and discord, and intelligence and the love of debate enabled them to get past their old animosities.

So it is that Mr. Epstein’s observations caused me to think about my many friends — whom I have never met.

I participate in two e-mail circles, one which is exclusively conservative (how conservative? I’m possibly the most liberal member!), and one which is primarily liberal. Two of the people in the first group write on this site as well, Yorkshire and Art Downs.

All of us met, if “met” is really the right word, on the old New York Times bulletin boards on America Online, back in the mid-1990s; I started posting there in the summer of 1994. When that was shut down, some people tried to pull together an e-mail discussion group, one which was actually pretty large.

Well, things didn’t always work out, and in a situation where all we had were political discussions, sometimes harsh or insulting language was used, tempers flared, and a large group shrank, then split. But if some people simply couldn’t stand other people, for whatever reasons they had, it is also true that some “friendships” endured, despite some insults, and despite some genuine lack of respect for the ideas of the others, because the electronic friendships were based upon a love of debate. Heck, one of our biggest difficulties is having a couple of groups where there are over a dozen people, all of whom have a burning desire to get in the last word!

Our second and third presidents were burdened by the slowness of the mail between the very rural middle of Virginia and the outskirts of Boston. They chose their words carefully, because words in a time of slow post had both more urgency and more value. Today, I can write and respond to my e-mail friends a dozen times a day; every small point can be discussed, and the arguments can go back and forth at a dizzying pace. One wonders if Presidents Adams and Jefferson would have resumed their intellectual friendship if they had e-mail!