- Friendship and the Female Moralist
Reflection on the nature of friendship and its significance for one's own sense of self, intersubjective relations, and the body politic has been part of the Western philosophical tradition since its beginnings. Eclipsed by the epistemological and scientific concerns of modern philosophy in the wake of Cartesianism, friendship remains a central preoccupation of seventeenth and eighteenth-century moralists. "Friendship" is both the name of a relationship and an articulation of feeling. The understanding of friendship in a given period is inflected by social and political theory, by notions of selfhood, and by the affective regime. It is thus hardly surprising that friendship should surface as a key theme at a time when the fundamental principles of the social order are being subjected to critical analysis, and when European culture is about to experience what William Reddy termed the "affective revolution" of the eighteenth century.1
The texts I examine here do not explicitly address politics per se, but they bear a profound relationship to the evolving public sphere and the sense of self of those who participated in it. One's ability to discern the contours, the limits, the privileges and the responsibilities of friendship takes on a special significance in the rigidly hierarchical world of the Old Regime, an environment in which, as Jerrold Seigel has argued, "interactions with others were often experienced as laced with intrigue and a wounding struggle for preeminence."2 In such a world, according to William Reddy, [End Page 171] forms of association outside the dangerous confines of court intrigue, such as friendship—true friendship—would be revalorized as an emotional refuge.3 The personal is very much the political, especially in a context where the political is still seeking the discourse in which its goals may be articulated. As Jacques Derrida points out, affectivity, family relations, and gender are intimately connected to the classical language of politics.4 Thus, the world of the moralists intersects with broader concerns, which it subtends and by which it is affected.
Certain themes from the classical discourse on friendship continue to resonate strongly in the modern period.5 In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes among friendships based on utility, pleasure, and virtue—the last, of course, being the truest form—and reflects on the link between friendship and justice. In a famous passage, he tells us that the friend is "another self." Cicero argues that friendship is based in our nature, rather than in any need for the other person, hence securing freedom and equality as key to friendship. In his Moral Epistles, Seneca also seeks to reconcile our need of friendship with Stoic self-sufficiency. Lastly, Montaigne provides a key reference point for meditation on the personal experience of friendship in his moving evocation of his late friend Etienne de la Boétie. These texts echo and re-echo throughout the writings of the moralists.
I am interested specifically in the contributions of women writers, femmes moralistes, to the discourse on friendship. As historians of philosophy such as Eileen O'Neill and John Conley have pointed out, the recovery of women philosophers and writers for intellectual and cultural history has frequently been at the expense of their writings.6 We need a better understanding of their response to, and engagement in, ongoing philosophical debates. Friendship must have been a particularly attractive topic to early female commentators on the human condition: as an important component of sociability and hence of the salons that nourished women's intellectual ambitions, it appeared to offer an account of intimacy and affection between the sexes that provided a salutary alternative to the "dangers" of love and passion. To add one's voice to a centuries-old conversation that included Cicero, Seneca, and Montaigne would also have been part of the appeal of this particular subject. Evolving concepts of gender in the new public discourse called for a retheorizing of gender within the framework of traditional moral philosophy.
Two issues arising from the classical discourse hold a particular interest for these women. The concern with need versus self-sufficiency becomes reformulated as a concern with the dynamics of reciprocity and obligation. Second...