One of the most famous statements of wisdom comes from Dr. Johnson, the eminent man of letters of the eighteenth century England who wrote Dictionary of the English Language, Lives of the Poets, Rasselas, and the Rambler essays. Known as a sociable, “clubbable” man who relished friendship as “the wine of life,” Johnson cultivated a large circle of friends from every walk of life and of every age. James Boswell’s biography The Life of Samuel Johnson records Johnson’s friendships with people as diverse as Edmund Burke the statesman, Sir Joshua Reynolds the portrait painter, Oliver Goldsmith the poet, James Boswell the lawyer, and Henry Thrale the brewer. In famous words of wisdom Johnson said to Sir Joshua Reynolds, “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship always in constant repair.”
Johnson devoted every Monday, “clean shirt day,” to the cultivation of his friendships that endured in the course of a long lifetime. Johnson regularly visited his friends in London to enjoy their company and initiated a weekly gathering for dinner and conversation that came to be known as The Literary Club—a natural occasion for keeping friendships “in repair.”
The art of friendship, then, is to keep in touch often by visits, correspondence, and social occasions. Engaged and active, the art of friendship preserves old relationships while welcoming new acquaintances and avoiding stagnation. Friendship does not just happen, evolve, or grow without efforts to maintain lively, ongoing, mutual communication.
In a letter to Captain Langton, Johnson laments the decline of friendship that suffers from a failure to correspond: “It is now long since we saw one another; and whatever has been the reason, neither you have written to me, nor I to you. To let friendship die away by negligence and silence, is certainly not wise. It is voluntarily to throw away one of the greatest comforts of this weary pilgrimage….Do not forget me; you see that I could not forget you.” This neglect of keeping friendships always in repair easily resorts to busyness as an excuse whereas sloth may be the cause. However, as Johnson’s advice and example illustrate, if one is too busy for friendship and cannot find the time or occasion for a visit or a letter, then one is not living a truly human or charitable life. One can always imagine he never has any time for sociability as Chaucer’s famous comment on the constant activity of the sergeant at law illustrates: “Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas; / And yet he semed bisier than he was.” One can never be too busy for the kindness of friendship.
Johnson recognized that the art of friendship was one of those liberal pursuits like the enjoyment of play, the delight in beauty, and the love of learning that are ends in themselves that are loved and enjoyed for their own sake because they are inherently desirable. These activities, while not utilitarian, are always “reproductive of good” as in an “overflow” to use Cardinal Newman’s phrase. While it is tempting to allege busyness as the reason for the neglect of friendship or to imagine that friendship lacks priority or importance in the hierarchy of duties, Johnson’s life demonstrates the centrality of friendship in the pursuit of happiness and shows the utility, practicality, and multitude of benefits that accrue from this natural pleasure.
Johnson’s practice of friendship always expressed the personal touch of social visits, letter writing, and extended conversation that show good will. He made the effort. He extended himself. He did not forget or ignore his friends. A man who attempted Herculean literary labors such as a dictionary, an edited version of Shakespeare’s plays, and a comprehensive literary history of the English poets and a writer with deadlines every week for his Rambler and Idler essays never used the excuse of busyness to justify his neglect of friendship. To Johnson paying social obligations and keeping friendships in repair are a priority, not an afterthought.
If virtue is a habit as Aristotle taught, then the habit of friendship grows from the practices Johnson followed on a constant basis. He not only cared for his old friendships but also welcomed new friendships like his relationship with his biographer James Boswell, a man young enough to be Johnson’s son. Johnson said, “Sir, I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance.” He never settled for a limited number of friends or only a select group of one kind of friend from a particular profession or background.
In Johnson’s short novel Rasselas the wise sage Imlac explains the secret of happiness as the ability to keep life “always in motion,” to keep the mind “replete with images,” that is, to provide new interests, new stimulation, and greater variety to combat the tedium of life that settles on all people if they do not add to the resources of their mind or enlarge their circle of old friends with new acquaintances that often broaden one’s education.
In Rasselas a hermit who has spent fifteen years in solitude after an earlier military career and much travel laments his decision: “In solitude, if I escape the example of bad men, I want likewise the counsel and conversation of the good.” Thus to keep friendships in repair is not only a social obligation that is welcomed and appreciated but also a form of education, a taste of happiness, and the art of living well.