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Portraits of Emerson and Thoreau

In Love There are no Mistakes: Lessons From the Friendship of Emerson and Thoreau


Two key figures in the philosophical thought of the United States maintained a singular friendship

Of all the relationships we’ll maintain over the course of our lives, it’s just possible that friendship is the one that gives the most to our hearts. “For friendship maketh indeed a fair day in the affections, from storm and tempests; but it maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts.” Francis Bacon thus wrote in one of the most remarkable accolades ever made to friendship.

Perhaps friends are so valuable in life because this is a relationship linked usually by freedom. Nothing unites us with a friend more than the sincere will to be in his or her company.

One of the most honest friendships in the history of thought was that between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Two pillars of the reflective consciousness of American culture, they were figureheads of “transcendentalism,” a school of philosophical thought that invited people to look beyond themselves and to work each day for higher values ​​such as truth, virtue or even love in its most refined expression.

According to their biographers, the two met in 1837, introduced by Emerson’s sister-in-law, Lucy Brown. Emerson, then 34 years old, had already written one of the founding documents of the intellectual independence of the United States, “The American Scholar.” Thoreau at the time was a young man, 20 years old, of a clear contemplative spirit, and sensitive to the most subtle nuances of existence. Emerson began to admire him for that very vocation.

Initially, the bond between them was intellectual. The difference in age prevented neither from recognizing in the other those points common to their ways of thinking and experiencing reality. If anything, as he was older, Emerson exercised a kind of implicit tutelage and, in some cases, material support. He allowed the young Thoreau to read his library of books and, years later, to live in the cabin on a lot in the woods near Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

Life, though, also strengthened the link between them through circumstances of another order. In January 1842, both suffered the loss of loved ones at almost the same time. Thoreau lost his brother, John, to a tetanus infection; Emerson saw Waldo, one of his sons, die of scarlet fever. Friendship suffers many tests during life, but contrary to what’s commonly thought, misfortune isn’t one such test. No true friend declines to accompany another at a moment of misfortune. Emerson and Thoreau endured theirs together, and their bond strengthened all the more. “Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years,” Emerson would write some time later, in an essay titled simply “Friendship.”

But unfortunately friendship, like everything human, is also fragile. There was a time when Emerson and Thoreau resented the effects of their misunderstandings, their mixed feelings, and, one might even say, the logical effects of an existence in which quests essential to each of two people run along courses which lead to their own separation.

For multiple reasons, the trajectories of both Emerson and Thoreau diverged until they became irreconcilable. Thoreau, in particular, resented the influence of the one he’d once looked to with admiration and of whom he’d even accepted a certain authority. That, perhaps, was the real breaking point, for no one can be the teacher of another person for all of their lives. Inevitably, the moment comes when the teaching ends and the apprentice realizes that he has to learn for himself. Perhaps that’s what passed through Thoreau’s mind. Perhaps neither of the two expressed their concerns in the best way, because the relationship began to darken with reproaches, suspicion, and rivalry.

When Emerson met Thoreau, he’d advised the young man to keep a diary. Thoreau took the advice and, that same day, a diary was begun. Many years later, on February 8, 1857, he noted there:

And now another friendship is ended. I do not know what has made my friend doubt me, but I know that in love there is no mistake, and every estrangement is well founded. But my destiny is not narrowed, but if possible the broader for it. The heavens withdraw and arch themselves higher. I am sensible not only of a moral, but even a grand physical pain, such as gods may feel, in my head and in my breast, a certain ache and fullness. […] My life is like a stream that is suddenly dammed and has no outlet; but it rises the higher up the hills that shut it in, and will become a deep and silent lake. […] Perchance there is none beside who knows us for a god and none whom we know for such. Each man and woman is a veritable god or goddesses, but to the mass of their fellows disguised. There is only one in each case who sees through the disguise. That one who does not stand too near to any man as to see the divinity in him is truly alone.  

When Thoreau died, Emerson read the eulogy. Without knowing it, his words were like a public reflection of that same note which Thoreau had made in private:

“Wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

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Images: Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

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