Books Essay - Winter 2023

The Friend Zone

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Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas on what makes a marriage tick were downright radical for their time

By Robert Zaretsky | December 1, 2022
Mary Wollstonecraft, as captured by artist John Opie, c. 1797. She died shortly after this portrait was completed. (Wikimedia Commons)
Mary Wollstonecraft, as captured by artist John Opie, c. 1797. She died shortly after this portrait was completed. (Wikimedia Commons)

The three words most closely identified with the French revolutionary tradition must surely be liberté, égalité, and fraternité. And though the ideas of liberty and equality have inspired countless individuals to take up muskets or pens, not so with the idea of fraternity, which tends to inspire little more than indifference. Of the three elements in France’s national motto, fraternité is more like the poor relation that, as the political theorist John Rawls remarks in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, “has had a lesser place in democratic theory.” In most school textbooks, life, liberty, equality, and property feature prominently in chapters about human rights, but fraternity merits not even a footnote. Rawls nevertheless argues that although friendship is not a democratic right, a democracy worthy of the name is impossible without it. The ideal of fraternity, he writes, implies “certain attitudes of mind and forms of conduct” without which liberty and equality would shrivel.

For Rawls to have espoused this view in the 20th century is one thing. But Mary Wollstonecraft—who died 225 years ago, after the difficult birth of her second child, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley—had similar ideas about friendship, ideas that remain as revolutionary in our age as they were in her own. In an era when political divisions harden, gender divisions weaken, and new technologies chip away at our understanding of older values, we might lend an ear to Wollstonecraft’s vindication of friendship.

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