One of the writers I greatly admire (despite his seeming low opinion of women), the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne, had a lot to say about the subject of friendship. His famous essay Of friendship describes the unique relationship he had with Étienne de la Boétie, a fellow writer he met while both men were serving at the Bordeaux Parliament. La Boétie is best known for a treatise he wrote condemning tyranny and absolute monarchy (Discours de la servitude volontaire) but is equally well-known as Montaigne’s closest friend. The two men were so close that after La Boétie’s untimely death in 1563 (at the age of 32), Montaigne despaired of finding someone who could understand him as well as La Boétie did.
The loss of this trusted confidante is said to have been the catalyst for the development of Montaigne’s life’s work: the 107 written pieces that make up the three books of his Essays. If Montaigne could no longer converse with his friend about all that was on his mind, he could pour out these thoughts and ideas onto the page instead. This is what makes Montaigne’s writing so compelling to later readers and admirers; to read one of his essays is to feel like you are listening to a friend, following his arguments, allusions, and theories about a variety of subjects.
On the subject of friendship, Montaigne concluded that “…what we ordinarily call friends and friendships are nothing but acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by some chance or convenience, by means of which our souls are bound to each other.” In contrast to this, he describes the type of friendship he enjoyed with La Boétie as one in which “…our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again.” Because of this close bond, Montaigne believed it was impossible to have more than one friend of this kind; doing so would divide one’s loyalties and energy to an unsatisfactory degree.
Montaigne’s views on friendship may sound familiar to introverts, who are often known for cultivating only a few close friendships, and who may consider other relationships as “acquaintances and familiarities.” This could be the case for the reason Montaigne mentions; introverts have only so much energy to give to others. I also think it’s because introverts thrive on the one-on-one conversations that fuel deep friendships, and are less likely to feel close to people with whom they feel they cannot share this type of conversation. In my own case, I know it takes a long time for me to make friends because I need to be able to trust someone before I reveal what’s really on my mind. It’s too difficult and frustrating to make that effort if I know I don’t have someone’s full attention.
I think this tendency has made me feel lonely at times, like there weren’t enough people in the world who knew what I was like on the inside. But, when I think about this rationally, I realize that having scores of friends might never fulfill this need for true connection; if I can find it in even one person, it’s a gift worthy of celebration.
(Quotations above are from “The Complete Essays of Montaigne,” translated by Donald M. Frame)