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Friendship and society

| Monday, April 24, 2017

Thoreau had three chairs in his cabin by Walden Pond: “One for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

I wonder if there are diminishing returns after two? If six or seven might be too many cooks in the kitchen. Especially when you’re trying to have a conversation. But then again, this would be far too few for a party big enough that any one is not too shy to dance.

And the modern economy is the biggest party of them all. Ever since specialization, there are enough machines to require many men for the benefits of scale. Even in primal tribes, strength in numbers afforded protection to each individual.

Also the orchestra benefits from a diversity of instrument, and the scientific community from a diversity of opinion — instances, it seems, where the best way to serve the individual is to serve the society, to become a part of something greater.

Why then, of the third chair, does Thoreau say: “When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up.”

Not random, I think, that Thoreau uses the word “economized.” Diminishing, he might agree, are his returns from visitors beyond three. So sudden is the diminishing, he thought it not worth the space to have a fourth chair.

Because friendship is one thing, and production — scientific, musical, economic or otherwise — is another. For the latter, we discovered we were better together. We invented trade, specialized and the togetherness became irreversible. We say, “The more the merrier.”

But for the friendly former, might we prefer less, even so few as two? More might be merrier for power and production but for trust and loyalty it seems there are diminishing returns after so many.

In conversation, for example. With two, always a listener and a speaker. The listener empathic and the speaker expressive. Each speaking in the other’s language. With three, two listeners and a speaker. The speaker averaging his language for the listening two. And the averaging increases with number of listeners.

In lecture, the professor averages for a hundred students. The style of teaching increasingly mismatched with any one student’s individual style of learning. One student’s question is simultaneously wasting the time of the other ninety-nine, or at least of those who already know the answer. So we don’t ask questions.

Might we learn better from conversations? From back-and-forth dialogue rather than one direction slide-reading. But professors are too expensive. So we economized education.

So too with empathy, how to look out to the mass and discern an emotion other than what has been democratically agreed upon? Versus to see the dilation in one pair of eyes. To hear the tone of one voice rather than a mass-formed unison that blends all diversity into one pitch.

Keep two chairs, three at most, lest your home become a factory.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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