Close Friends

David and Jonathan, Illustration from The New World Encyclopedia

David and Jonathan, Illustration from The New World Encyclopedia

Close Friends

This is one I keep revisiting. But friendship is one of life’s prime supports – almost the axis on which the whole thing turns – so one post hardly exhausts the subject.

Last Sunday morning I spoke long distance to my lifetime friends, Frank and Ada, in Maine. They live in the locale where my parents spent many summers and I continued, after my parents were gone, to spend some July or August weeks till I met Jerry … and our time took a different turn.

Ada had been my father’s philosophy student, the only one who went from an F to an A in one semester. She’d grown up on a farm and “never heard of Plato.” She and Frank own a great shore property and have worked in nature conservation for many years.

Since they’d appreciated and cared about my parents, they wanted to hear about my meeting this week with the biographer of the literary critic and public intellectual, Lionel Trilling. Trilling and my father were best friends in college and for six or seven years beyond. Although the Trilling diaries are now available, Frank and Ada weren’t interested in the gossip, but they gave me practical advice. Was it all right to be recorded? (Yes, it’s standard now, they said.) Was I right to put certain conditions on the use of my candid remarks? (Yes, but they probably won’t be obeyed.) Mostly, I told them, my conversation with the Trilling biographer had revolved around the question of why the two friends, my father and Trilling – whose closeness was so mutually defining in youth – had parted.

Ada said, when people are in a friendship, each one in the present is also looking toward the future. If the friends are seeing different futures, each is already starting to steer toward those divergent points. So the question of why they part is only interesting superficially. Whether there was an incident, a drama, or just a drifting outward from each other, their dissimilar futures were going to separate them, sooner or later.

For some reason, I found Ada’s words “consoling,” and told her so.

Why consoling? Did I need consolation, and if so, about what? My father did not seem to suffer from the breakup with Trilling. Another male friendship, more free, not measuring life by the yardstick of success, came to fill the space vacated by Trilling. Lionel meanwhile did not replace my father and, to the end, continued to speak of him as the “closest friend” of his youth.

Since the matter concerned the two men, and their breakup occurred before my birth, why do I care? Sometimes I’ve felt that my father, who “never made a useful friend,” could have used a useful friend! In spite of their falling out, when I began to read Trilling, I noticed that many of their values overlapped. Moreover, I felt that my father could have helped Trilling, by continuing to represent for him the uncompromised authenticity he had stood for when both were young. Trilling named it “genius,” a word that dazzles without telling us much.

I wept as I remember’d how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

Ada’s words consoled by suggesting that my desire retrospectively to mend the rift between them was misplaced. Each man had gone forward along the grain of his life. And each had paid the cost of his choices. No imaginary mediator could have improved their defining decisions. They were fully intelligent, fully aware, each in his own way.

In their one-time closeness, I’ve compared them to the two most famous men friends in the Bible, David and Jonathan. Now there’s a pair of friends worth thinking about!

David was the shepherd boy from nowhere who had unaccountably slain the heavily armored, Philistine warrior Goliath with a slingshot and “in the name of the Lord of Hosts … whom you have defied.” [I Samuel 17:45].  He then won acclaim in further combat for Saul, his king, also playing the harp to soothe the heavy heart of the king with songs (psalms?) of his own composing.

Jonathan was the king’s son and heir. He realized David’s many-sided talents, personal and political, and stepped in to warn his friend that Saul had come to see him as a threat. Thereby, Jonathan gave aid and comfort to the man who he knew could succeed to the throne instead of himself. Jonathan died fighting alongside his father and occasioned David’s celebrated lament for Saul and Jonathan:

I am distressed for you, my

brother Jonathan;

greatly beloved were you to me;

your love to me was wonderful,

 passing the love of women.


How the mighty have fallen,

and the weapons of war 

perished.   [2 Samuel 1:26-27]

Since David was a womanizer, the love he is distinguishing here is nonerotic.

It is friendship. It is love on the merits of the man. What a triumph for Jonathan, to have seen something so true!

That human worth is worth more than a kingdom.




They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead.

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

I wept as I remember’d how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.


And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

[William (Johnson) Cory. 1823-1892.]



About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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