Competitive Friendships

Henry M. Rosenthal in the classroom

Competitive Friendships

When, as a young woman, I returned from a year in Paris with an affair to conceal (because that’s what you did about that sort of thing in those days) my women friends from high school and college were all either married or getting married.  There was only one brass ring for women at that time.  Nothing could be clearer.

With possible suitors, I felt literally unavailable – already spoken for — despite the fact that I hadn’t believed that my first love and I should marry.  This was certainly correct where my future development was concerned, but it put me out of the only game considered worth playing for women in those times.

Meanwhile, not positioned to give an account of my own purposes or pathway in life, instinctively I put distance between myself and my women friends.

The young American men with whom I had enjoyed such easy comradeship on our Fulbright year abroad, now locked themselves into the struggle to succeed at whatever they thought it best to do.  Conversations were no longer about the topic addressed.  The topic was the pretext.  These were not conversations.  They were positionings.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s nineteenth-century sage, wrote,

Social life is war.

I have just been reading the youthful correspondence between my future father, Henry M. Rosenthal, and his best friend in college and for some years thereafter, Lionel Trilling.  Trilling went on to make for himself the most brilliant career of his generation as a public intellectual.  Since they had been so very close, I never knew exactly why my father broke it off with him, but that could well have been the reason.  On the race track of life, it’s hard to eat your friend’s dust.  In his youth, my father wrote a short story, “Inventions,” (The Menorah Journal, January, 1928), where he foresaw the friendship’s demise.

Since the breakup that my father foresaw has some large implications, I will try to describe it.  At that juncture, my father was going to be a rabbi.  It did not turn out the right walk of life for him – he became a philosopher later – but then it seemed the most authentic way to assume and live out his Jewish identity.

Trilling, by contrast, did not think there was a God or that Jewish identity – about which he knew little – was any great shakes.  He was not merely “in favor of assimilation,” he really was assimilated.  He not only wrote about English literature, he sincerely felt more at home in England than anywhere else!  His mother was born there.  He admitted to being Jewish only insofar as it was a poor show to conceal an inconvenient fact for the sake of social advantage.

Young men test themselves by sharpening each one’s life instruments against the other’s.  Young lions do the same, from what we see in the National Geographic films.  So, in my father’s short story, it becomes a kind of trial by ordeal for his character in the story to test his personal truth by trying to “convert” his more assimilated friend.

The effort fails, as his character himself admits in the story.  The would-be missionary cannot attain sufficient inner conviction to convince anybody else.  Irony – the Jew’s classic defense against outside deprecations – has bit too deep into his own soul.  He can’t attain the one-pointedness needed to bring off a conversion.  In exasperation, his not-so-Jewish friend exclaims,

But find your God

 before you try to sell Him to me!”

Many years later, my father met the theologian Thomas Altizer at a social gathering.  I was watching from across the floor as my father walked up to him, draped an arm around his shoulder and said, laughing as if the theological notion for which Altizer was famous struck him as irresistibly funny, “You’re the ‘God is dead’ man!”  Still laughing, he dug an elbow into his ribs.

Some time after my father died, I happened to attend a party for academics which numbered Altizer among the guests.  The theologian told me that there was one thing and only one thing he cared about — “and that’s God.  And your father … was a man of God!”

I doubt my father ever learned how to sell Him to Lionel Trilling or anybody else.  But his transparency to the highest reaches of life was evident to some, including his students.  Over time, my father learned to live — with himself and some few friends — at a memorable depth.

The most crucial time to stand by your friends is when they haven’t found their purpose or their God —

and can’t sell either to anyone.

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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