Sir Thomas Browne on the Transcendent Torture of Romantic Friendship
By Maria Popova
Navigating the various types of platonic relationships can be challenging enough. But few things are more existentially disorienting than trying to moor oneself within a relationship that floats back and forth across the porous boundary between the platonic and the erotic — one rooted in a deep friendship but magnetized with undeniable romantic intensity, like the relationships between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann in the nineteenth century and Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman in the twentieth.
But as beautiful and vitalizing as such more-than-friendships can be, they tend to be inevitably dampened by an undercurrent of disappointment, a quiet undulating heartache that comes from the disconnect between the enormity one or both persons long for and the lesser-than reality permitted by the other person’s nature or the circumstances of one or both of their lives.
Four centuries ago, the English polymath Sir Thomas Browne (October 19, 1605–October 19, 1682) captured the divine heartbreak of romantic friendship with enduring insight in a passage from his first literary work, Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician) (public library), penned the year of his thirtieth birthday.
Browne, whose enchanting and lyrical writing inspired many of the Romantics, celebrates romantic friendship as a love that, in transcending regular friendship, approaches the divine:
I hope I do not break the fifth commandment, if I conceive I may love my friend before the nearest of my blood, even those to whom I owe the principles of life. I never yet cast a true affection on a woman; but I have loved my friend as I do virtue, my soul, my God. From hence, methinks, I do conceive how God loves man.
He then presents a taxonomy of the “three most mystical unions”:
1. two natures in one person; 2. three persons in one nature; 3. one soul in two bodies. For though indeed they be really divided, yet are they so united, as they seem but one, and make rather a duality in two distinct souls.
There are wonders in true affection; it is a body of enigmas, mysteries, and riddles, wherein two so become one, as they both become two.
But Browne’s most poignant insight deals with the paradoxical nature of such intense connections. When we seek for another to be our everything, he suggests, we doom ourselves to continual despair and disappointment, because the most anyone can ever give us is still less-than-everything, which to the heart that longs for everything — for a complete merging of natures — feels like a sorrowing incompleteness next to nothing. He writes:
I love my friend before myself, and yet methinks I do not love him enough: some few months hence my multiplied affection will make me believe I have not loved him at all. When I am [apart] from him, I am dead till I be with him; when I am with him, I am not satisfied but would still be nearer him. United souls are not satisfied with embraces, but desire to be truly each other; which being impossible, their desires are infinite, and must proceed without a possibility of satisfaction.
And yet the redemption of this perennial dissatisfaction, Browne argues, is that by so intensely throwing ourselves into a love that can never be fully requited, we master the difficult art of unselfish love — a love we can then direct at anyone, free of expectation of return, perhaps more akin to the Ancient Greek notion of agape, which inspired Dr. King’s “experiment in love.” Browne puts it simply:
He that can love his friend with this noble ardor will, in a competent degree, affect all.
Complement with Van Gogh on unrequited love as fuel for creative work and David Whyte on reclaiming heartbreak, then revisit the stunning epistolary record of Kahlil Gibran’s rich and nuanced relationship with Mary Haskell.
Published July 31, 2017