Love, Friendship, & Third Places

Ray & I are quoted in Bloomberg CityLab; I present selections from Francis Bacon's "Of Friendship"

I love the fact that in 2021 any article about social life and third places starts by referring to Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place. Ray turned 89 on Wednesday and says his memory is shot but we’ve still managed a couple of Zoom happy hours, thanks to his pal Robert Dugan, a librarian turned senior administrator at his university. He’s handed over the second edition of his famous book to a co-author—yours truly—and we’re quoted in Bloomberg CityLab this week.

That article is about non-intimate conversations, but what’s really been on my mind this week is the more intimate things we don’t talk about on Twitter or Facebook or Zoom: our doubts, regrets, longings, fears, and failures. I think back to conversations with close friends and realize that I’ve lost touch with what’s really going on with them because we haven’t been able to sit over a pot of tea or in a hotel lounge with a martini in hand, or taking a long walk in Hyde Park.


I’ve had it with Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook business model, but many wonderful people, some of whom I consider real friends, use Facebook a lot. Should I force myself to spend time there in order to stay in touch till we can meet again?

I thought Michel de Montaigne, the French essayist, might have some advice so I turned to his “On Friendship.” Since I have a set of the Harvard Classics, I also pulled out “Of Friendship” by the English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon.

It’s Bacon I want to share today because his three points about friendship are so relevant and so orderly. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he developed a system for cataloging books and has been called the father of the scientific method. His methodical approach is helpful when one is trying to dissect an older text!

You can read the whole essay here. But it took me two passes to pull out the most interesting details so I have no qualms about offering the highlights. His introduction contains a sentence that is particularly apt:

A crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.

And he mentions a concept that certainly resonates after more than a year of Zoom meetings, the “lonely crowd”:

Magna civitas, magna solitudo; because in a great town friends are scattered; so that there is not that fellowship, for the most part, which is in less neighborhoods.

True friendship, he says, has depth and relies on perfect trust:

No[thing…] openeth the heart, but a true friend; to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil…confession.

Friendship is essential to everyone. Even “princes that had wives, sons, nephews; and yet all these could not supply the comfort of friendship.” He refers to a person’s being able to confide “those secrets which troubled him most.”

This first fruit of friendship, says Bacon, “redoubleth joys, and cutteth griefs in halves.”

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The second fruit of friendship is that it “maketh daylight in the understanding.” He says that we become wiser “more by an hour's discourse [with a friend], than by a day's meditation.”

Bacon spends a lot of time in the essay talking about just why we need friends to put us on the right track.

The light that a man receiveth by counsel from another, is drier and purer, than that which cometh from his own understanding and judgment.

He says that those in positions of power especially need to be corrected and counseled, basically because they start to believe their own press and need to be brought back to reality.

It is a strange thing to behold, what gross errors and extreme absurdities many (especially of the greater sort) do commit, for want of a friend to tell them of them; to the great damage both of their fame and fortune: for, as St. James saith, they are as men that look sometimes into a glass, and presently forget their own shape and favor.

He’s no fan of “crowd wisdom,” either, and wouldn’t think much of people who turn to Twitter every time they have a question. He argues that true friends know the whole of us, and like a doctor think of the whole person when offering advice.

Therefore rest not upon scattered counsels; they will rather distract and mislead, than settle and direct.

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The third and last fruit of friendship “is like the pomegranate, full of many kernels; I mean aid, and bearing a part.”

This is where the rubber meets the road. A true friend will step up to help, and sometimes represent us. The following sentence seems very contemporary, don’t you think?

A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires.

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Browsing for more on the subject, I found the Oxford Book of Friendship, which I was sent as a review copy long ago and had never opened. It is remarkably interesting, full of all kinds of tidbits. I just happened on this:

In Mali, best friends throw excrement at each other and comment loudly on the genitals of their respective parents – this to us unnatural and obscene behavior is a proof of the love of friends. —Robert Brain, Friends and Lovers, 1976

And how about this, from the editors?

A recurrent complaint has it that whereas male friends are content to take you as you are, women usually want to change and improve you.

Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century has a chapter called “Community: Humans Have Bodies” that’s ostensibly about community, because that’s what Facebook claims it cares about, but that is just as much about the dynamics of friendship and intimacy.

Even the Cinderella story has been used, by the writer Rebecca Solnit, to teach a very contemporary lesson about relationships. She posits that the prince and Cinderella were just lonely young people, isolated in their different ways, and that instead of a romance they found happiness—and their true selves—in becoming friends, not lovers. This seems to miss the point of a nearly universal fairytale plot, but perhaps today the longing for a true friend is as powerful as the traditional longing to be turned into a princess.

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Here’s something to be happy about: the vaccine clinic at the school that at last has a sign outside reading “W. E. B. Du Bois Middle School.” Read more.

Next week is the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians and the “Three Loves of Lewis Mumford” panel we recorded will be available before the live discussion session next Saturday. We’re able to invite a few guests to join the session so if you’re interested in Mumford or women’s history, or marital infidelity, drop me a line.

*More about Terry Jones here.