You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

John Patrick Diggins, 1935-2009

On friendship and history and loss.

The death of my friend Jack Diggins has led me to look up my edition of Montaigne in search of the essay on friendship, and I am amazed to see what is there. The essay catalogues and describes the various types of intimate relationships that Montaigne notices in the old Greek and Roman authors--sexual relationships between men and women, and between men and boys; the family relationships of parents and children, and between siblings; the relationship of marriage. And among those several kinds of intimacy, friendship looms in Montaigne's eyes as the purest and best. He means friendship between two equals--or rather, between equal men, since Montaigne for some reason imagines that women are incapable of forming a proper friendship.

He makes a number of acute and touching observations about friendship. But what strikes me is that, in selecting an example of friendship at its finest, he has chosen his own friendship with Étienne de la Boétie, who was the author of a famous treatise on politics. La Boétie's treatise is called Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. It presents the case for liberty and against tyranny. And it proposes an immortal observation -- namely, that tyranny depends on ordinary people agreeing to submit. This observation has sufficed to keep la Boétie's treatise in print during the last 450 years. Montaigne's essay on friendship turns out to be, in short, a reflection on a very specific kind of friendship--a friendship between intellectuals: in this case, between a literary man and a political philosopher.

Montaigne does not specify how he and la Boétie whiled away their time. He does express a keen regret that la Boétie failed to write more than his one famous treatise and a few other things. Montaigne says that, if only la Boétie had committed some of his further thoughts to paper, the additional thoughts, in the form of essays, would have bestowed on their own era, which was the sixteenth century, a literary or philosophical glory nearly equal to that of ancient times. I do not think that, in expressing this regret, Montaigne meant to suggest that la Boétie had failed to realize his potential. Anyone who has made a permanent contribution to the history of political thought cannot be regarded as an under-achiever. I think that, in expressing his regret, Montaigne meant to do something else entirely, and this was to conjure an image of the friendship. What did he and la Boétie do together? They talked. Montaigne wants us to understand that conversation with la Boétie was no small affair, and remarks of permanent value were made.

Montaigne says that, if pressed to account for his friendship with la Boétie, he could only explain, "Because it was he, because it was I"--as if the friendship rested on ineffable affinities. But I think that, on the contrary, the regretful comment about la Boétie's unwritten works points to something more precise, a solid foundation for the friendship. I suppose it is true that, in conversation, la Boétie was a man of genius, but what matters, in regard to the friendship, was surely Montaigne's evaluation to that effect. And Montaigne plainly felt that he himself was a critic for the ages, fully qualified to make comparative remarks about his own century and ancient times. Here, I think, is the nub of the friendship. It was not just a matter of mutual intimacies and indefinable rapport. Friendship for Montaigne and la Boétie was an activity. They did something together. They exuded brilliance. They must have felt radiant, in the midst of those conversations. When you have concluded a visit with a friend of this kind, you go away saying, "He was great." And you say: "I, too, was great." You love your friend because he said brilliant things, and because his friendship has brought out your own most brilliant qualities. Or so you tell yourself, which is all that counts.  

Montaigne does not say what kinds of topics he and la Boétie talked about. It is easy to imagine, though. The essay quotes or refers to Horace, Catullus, Ariosto, Terence, Virgil and other writers. I would guess that, in conversation, those same names came up repeatedly for discussion and quotation -- doubtless with reference to the events of Montaigne and la Boétie's own era, which meant the religious wars. I picture the two friends chatting with satisfaction about the Roman writers, and with dread or anxiety about their own era, and oscillating between the admired past and the frightening modern age. And I imagine the two friends taking pleasure in the cleverness and profundities of their own literary and philosophical oscillations, exactly the way that athletic friends might take pleasure in how skillfully they have batted around a tennis ball.

By mentioning Montaigne and his friendship with la Boétie, I don't mean to suggest that, 450 years from now, Jack Diggins and I will likewise be remembered as immortal geniuses. Still, I can honestly report that Jack and I held our own conversations in high opinion, and sometimes in higher opinion yet. The conversations touched on many themes. One of those many topics somehow dominated our friendship, though -- a topic that we returned to repeatedly over the years, always with renewed insight and enjoyment. This one topic was an arcane event in the history of the American intellectuals--a philosophical dispute that took place in the 1920s and '30s between Max Eastman and Sidney Hook.

In 1928 Eastman published a book on Marxism, and Hook reviewed it. The review was less than enthusiastic. Hook accused Eastman of having fatefully misunderstood the meaning of Marx's dialectic. Eastman replied. Hook replied to Eastman's reply. And, in this fashion, the rebuttals and counter-rebuttals continued for five years, mostly in the pages of a left-wing magazine called, at first, the Modern Quarterly, and then, when the magazine began to prosper, the Modern Monthly. The entire back-and-forth added up to an immortal episode in the history of the reviewed and the reviewer. And, in the course of those prolonged volleys, Eastman and Hook managed to make a fair number of interesting remarks about Marx, Hegel, philosophical pragmatism, and what might be called the religious wars of the 1920s and '30s--the battles over totalitarianism and the left and the right.

Did the five-year debate signify that Sidney Hook and Max Eastman were likewise friends? In his autobiography, Hook glances back on the debate and makes plain that he would have liked to have considered Eastman a friend. He expresses puzzlement that Eastman did not seem to return the feeling. This is a curious remark on Hook's part, given that he had devoted a significant amount of energy over the course of five years to maligning Eastman's intellectual prestige, and had managed at one point even to suggest that Eastman's philosophical incompetence might prove to be of service to Benito Mussolini. Eastman's failure to gaze upon Sidney Hook with loving affection is easy to understand. Still, Eastman and Hook did respect one another, and they had reason to do so.

Their debate was a tour de force. It educated a generation of Americans to ask pertinent questions about Marxism. Edmund Wilson was a student of that debate. You can see its influence in Wilson's To the Finland Station.And there is no question that, several decades later, when Jack set about reading the Eastman-Hook controversy in the crumbling forgotten issues of the Modern Quarterly and Monthly, he found the entire discussion to be hugely stimulating. Jack devoted some of his finest pages to recounting that debate, in his book Up From Communism. I, too, was greatly stimulated by the Eastman-Hook debate, when I eventually had the occasion to read through it for myself--not that I have ever written about it as skillfully as Jack did. And, as I say, Jack and I found a keen and recurring pleasure in speaking about that one debate with each other during the quarter century of our own friendship.

Why did we turn so often to that single topic? We did it out of admiration for the protagonists. We especially admired Hook--his qualities of hard reasoning, sharpness, clarity and logic. We admired Hook's bravery, too--his indifference to popularity and fashion. We admired his intellectual brutality--his willingness to dismiss someone's argument as entirely wrong, if he judged it to be so. In pausing to reflect on some argument of Hook's, we thought about two things, not one--the logical force of Hook's arguments, but also the force of his character, even if his ferocity sometimes seemed to us a little worrisome. And so, Jack and I ended up speaking about personal moral qualities in connection to abstract philosophical principles. The link between personal moral qualities and abstract principles was Jack's greatest theme, in his writings. History is biography, said Emerson. For Jack, philosophy was biography.

Lately I have been thinking about Eastman--about his own strength of character, which was no less firm than Hook's. Eastman was subjected, all in all, to greater tests even than Hook ever knew, partly because Eastman was more dashing and adventurous, which got him into trouble (the government put him on trial for subversion when he was young, and later on Stalin himself denounced him as a "gangster of the pen"). And Eastman, unlike Hook, could never rely on the protections of university tenure. Eastman was a popular writer who, out of principle, risked unpopularity, and achieved it. And yet, through some magical strength of character, he always managed to retain the quality that had made him popular to begin with--the charm and buoyancy of his essays. A humorous sense of himself. The ability to laugh, even when he wasn't laughing. Eastman was a master of a certain kind of feather-light American prose--one of the greatest masters we have had.

Hook is still remembered today, and rightly so. A younger generation today studies Hook's writings--thanks in significant part to Jack's efforts. Eastman, though, has been forgotten. No one studies Eastman. No one reprints his most substantial books. And yet they should. I find that right now I have a lot to say about Eastman and his virtues, and the more I reflect on how much I have to say, the sadder I become, because I realize I no longer have the friend to whom I would say these things.

A last thought: In February 2006, Theodore Draper died. Draper was a hero of Jack's, and I know that Jack had wanted to organize a public commemoration, though the event he had in mind never did take place. Draper was the supreme and original expert on the history of the Communist movement in America. In that same month, my friend Paul Avrich also died. Avrich was the supreme expert on the history of America's classic proletarian anarchist movement. Or more than the supreme expert: Avrich was the founder of serious historical inquiry into anarchism's history, on a broad scale. He was the Herodotus of this particular field. In Paul's case, Jack did put together a memorial meeting. The meeting took place at CUNY on Fifth Avenue. Jack and I both spoke at it. And now we have lost Jack, too--Jack, who knew so intimately the history of yet another wing of the American left in its classic age, the intellectual left in the early and middle twentieth century: the political and cultural left of the little magazines and of Greenwich Village.

Other people are going to come along and write about the classic left of those decades--the Communists and anarchists and other factions, and the intellectuals and bohemians. But no one from a later generation will ever bring to that history the kind of knowledge that Theodore Draper, Paul Avrich, and John Patrick Diggins commanded at their fingertips. The death of anyone is a vast event, and every death as vast as all the others. Still, something is especially terrible about the death of the modern historians--the historians who have set out to chronicle the recent past. The passing of the historians is like an afterwave of the passing of history itself. An epoch has come and gone, and now even the memory of the epoch begins to subside, and this is bound to be the case no matter how much talent and prolific energy the historians may have brought to their task. Montaigne was right to observe, in connection to la Boétie, that even the greatest of intellects succeed in writing only a portion, and maybe not even the largest portion, of what they know. The historians leave behind their scholarly writings, but what are those writings, in comparison to the immensity of what the historians knew? So the historians pass from the scene, and we grieve for them as individuals, and for ourselves who have suffered a personal loss, and for the passing of time.  

Paul Berman is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a writer in residence at New York University.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.