On The Threshold | Theodore Thornton Munger on Friendship

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast. Coming up this weekend on Our Sunday Talks, we’ll be discussing that age old question, “What is the aim of Life? Why are we here?” To gain access to this exclusive series, join our community of patrons at Patreon.com. To learn more, visit LivingHour.org/Sunday.

Now, on to today’s reading, which was edited and adapted from “On the Threshold” by Theodore Thornton Munger, published in 1908.

Without a doubt, home and companions are the chief external influences that determine character. One is nearly always good, because it is charged with maternal and fatherly instincts; the other is uncertain in its character, because it springs out of the chances of the world. The main feature of a good home is love which (quote) “works no ill,” hence its natural influence is favorable to good character.

Good parents for the most part inculcate truth, purity, honesty, and kindness. With abundant allowance for mistake and neglect, the influence of parents and brother and sister is ordinarily good, but outside of the home there is no such certainty.  When the child bids father and mother good-bye and goes to make their way in the world, their future depends with almost mathematical certainty upon the character of his or her companions and associates.

The young adult may have good principles and high purposes; tender words of advice are in their ears; but they will do well or ill as they fall amongst good or bad companions. Education, embedded principles and tastes, remembered love, ambition, conscience — all these will do much for the child, but they will not avail against this later influence.

There are many turning-points when the question of success or failure is decided again and again. Life is a campaign, in which a series of fortresses are to be taken; all previous victories and advances may be thrown away by failure in the next. Nearly the last of these is companionship; if one wins the victory here, the reward of a prosperous life of character is within his reach.

At the risk of logically inverting my subject, I will speak first of friendship; and I must beg your patience while I put a foundation under my suggestions. If there were but one general truth that I could lodge in the mind of anyone or all men and women, it would be this: that true life consists in the fulfillment of relations. We are born into relations; we never get out of them; all duty consists in meeting them. The family, the community, the humanity at large — these are the sources of our primary and abiding duties, as well as of our happiness — the sum-total of ethics and spirituality.

The relation of friends, though not so sharply defined as that of the family or country, is as real and as essential to a full life. Bacon goes so far as to say that “a principal fruit of friendship is the ease and discharge of the fullness of the heart.” He goes on in his noble and wise way to name its main points, and nothing on the subject is better than his threefold statement of its uses: “Peace in the affections, support of the judgment, and bearing a part in all actions and occasions.”

It is not enough to love only our own family. Love is a great and wide passion, demanding various food and broad fields to range in. When one is only “all about family” they may have a sound nature, but it will not be a large or generous one; and they will shrink rather than expand with years, and sink into the inevitable sadness that attends old age.

Nor is Bacon’s second point of less importance — to aid one’s judgment. Advice can hardly come from any other than a friend when the question involves grave issues. A stranger is not sufficiently interested, a relative is blinded by excess of love, but a friend’s advice is tempered by affection, while it is not overruled by the imperativeness of natural instinct.

There is much wisdom in the every-day words, “As a friend I advise vou,” for no other can advise so well.

Bacon’s third point — friends as helpers on all occasions — does not have its full weight until we learn that late lesson that the individual is not equal to life. There is more to do than one can do alone, and an unfriended life will be poor and meagre. Happy is the person who wins friends in early life by true affinities. They multiply themselves; they have more hands and feet than their own, and other fortresses to flee into when their own are dismantled by evil fortune, and other hearts to throb with their joy.

Friendship is of such a nature that it is difficult to name rules for it; it is its own law and method. So ethereal a thing cannot be brought under choice or rule. It is rather a matter of destiny. If one is born to have friends, you will have them. Emerson says that one need not seek for friends; they come of themselves. But Solomon goes deeper in his proverb “to have friends, you must show yourself friendly.”  In other words, let one offer to the world a large, generous, true, sympathetic nature, and, rich or poor, you will have friends, and you will never be friendless whatever catastrophes befall you.

Not as giving rules, but rather touching the matter in the way of suggestion, I will name a few additional points that it is well to think of:

Number 1. Cultivate the friendly spirit. If one would have friends, you must be worthy of them. The bright plumage and the songs of birds are designed to win their mates. It is in vain for one to say, I want friends; I will go seek them. Go within rather, and establish yourself in friendly sympathy with your fellow citizens; learn to love; get the helpful spirit, and above all the responsive temper, and friends will come to you as birds fly to their beautiful singing mates.  (

Number 2. Make friends early in life, else you will never have them. Youth is often moody, and keeps by itself. The very intensity with which it wakes up to individuality drives it into solitariness, where it morbidly feasts on the wonderful fact of selfhood. It is only in the first third of our three-score and ten that life-long friends are made. Agreeable associations may be formed later, and now and then a friendship when there is great congeniality and freshness of spirit; but friendship is a union and mingling, a shaping of plastic substances to each other that cannot be effected after the mould of life has hardened. We may touch here- after, but not mingle.

Number 3. Hold fast to your friends. It is one of the commonest regrets in later-life that early friendships were not kept up. Change of residence, neglect of correspondence or of holiday courtesies, some divergence of taste or belief or outward condition — for some such cause a true friendship is often suffered to languish and die out. Shakespeare well says:  “I count myself in nothing else so happy As in a soul rememb’ring my good friends.”

Number 4. Make a point of having friends amongst your elders. Friendship between those of the same age is sweeter, but friendship with elders is more useful, or, rather, they supplement each other. One is the wine of life; the other is its food. The latter balances life, and brings the good of all periods down into one. It is one of the divinest features of human life that in this way there is no such thing as solitary youth or solitary age. Youth may get the value, if not the reality, of the wisdom of age, and age keep forever young.

Theology and poetry assert eternal youth; it is neither a dogma of one nor a dream of the other, but a logical realization of human sympathy and love.

(5.) Avoid having many confidants. It is weak; it breeds trouble. Secrets are not in themselves good things, but when of necessity they exist their nature should be respected. Having them, it is well to keep them. Avoid also the effusive habit. It is   pitiable to see a person pouring themselves out into every listening ear — mind and heart and body inverted, the girdle of selfhood thrown aside, and all the secret ways of the being laid open for the common foot. It is a violation of identity, a squandering of personality.

The secretive temper is to be criticized; but it is not so fatal to character and dignity as its opposite. There may be times when one must speak all one’s thought and emotion — self is too small to hold the joy or grief; but, having done it, get back into your citadel of self-hood. We never quite respect the person who tells us everything. Take your friends into your heart, but not into your heart of hearts; reserve that for yourself, and for duty.

Number 6. Avoid absorbing and exclusive friendships. They are not wise; they are selfish, and not of the nature of true friendship — forming a sort of common selfhood that is but a double selfishness. They commonly breed trouble, and end in quarrel and heartbreak.

Number 7. Friendship is often regarded slightingly, as a mere accessory of life, a happy chance if one falls into it, but not as entering into the substance of life. No mistake could be greater. Friendship is no idle thing. Happiness, success, character, destiny, largely turn upon it. I will know more about you from knowing of your friendships, than I can gain from any other single source. Tell me if they are few or many, good or bad, warm or indifferent, and I will give a reliable measure of you as a person.

Lastly, I would like to say something about companionship. Companionship logically goes before friendship, but I put it last, as the larger and more important relation for you to consider. Choose your companions wisely, and your friendships will come about naturally.

Resolutely avoid all companionship that falls below your taste and standard of right. If something is said that offends you, reject it with instant decision; a second look is dangerous. Get at the temper of your associates, before you make a friend of them. On the first show of meanness or lack of honor, let them go. If they are without a high ambition, beware of them. If they are cruel or negligent of duty to their family, if they are quick to take undue advantage, if they deride the good, if they are skeptical of virtue, if they are scornful of good manners, you cannot afford to class yourself with them.

Companionship must be on a level morally, though it need not be intellectually. We may associate, and waive almost all other differences but that of character. The ethical line reaches up to heaven and down into eternal depths. It cannot be passed and repassed. If you make companions of the bad, you will end in being bad. “Live with wolves,” says the Spanish proverb, “and you will learn to howl.”

But let us turn to the positive and better side of our subject. I make as a last suggestion that you associate as much as possible with persons of true worth and nobility of character. The main use of a great person is to inspire others. The succession of all high and noble life is through personality. Seek always the superior individual.

You are already in a profession, a “calling” — get amongst those who excel in it. Every professional of character will tell you that you cannot meet one of low ethics in their calling without injury, nor one high up without fresh stimulus. It is well to get near those of reputed energy and worth. The fascination that draws us to the great is deep and divine; it is a call to share their greatness — the divine way of distributing it to all.

Get close to men and women of energy, and see how they work — to professionals of thought, and catch their spirit and method; get near the refined and cultivated in mind and manners, and feel their charm.

If you are cut off from this world of inspiring influence, if those about you are dry and dull and commonplace, seek the companionship you need in books: fellow- ship with the great spirits of history; dream with the poets; think with the philosophers; exult with martyrs; triumph with heroes; overcome with saints. Indeed, books are among the best of companions.

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