“I am not your friend!” Thomas Edison tells Henry Ford early on in Camping with Henry and Tom
“Of course we’re friends,” Ford protests. “Why else would we spend time together?”
“Because we each enjoy being in the company of someone who’s not afraid of us,” Edison replies.
Friendship among the powerful.
Aristotle defines frienship as reciprocated goodwill. He says perfect friendship occurs when two good people who are similar in virtue desiring each other’s good. Seems right.
But most friendships aren’t like that. We’re lucky if we get one in a lifetime. That doesn’t mean all the other things we call friendship aren’t worthwhile, of course. Aristotle calls these less-than-ideal relationships “friendships of utility.” Imperfect friends enjoy the benefits they get from the friendship: It’s useful or pleasant to them, and the friendship lasts as long as the usefulness or pleasantness lasts.
It seems like that’s what Edison is describing, and it’s easy to see why two titans such as Edison and Ford would find their friendship both pleasant and useful. Then we get President Warren G. Harding thrown in for good measure. Henry wants to get the president alone to make a deal. The president just wants to escape from being president for a few hours. Edison simply wants to be with men who aren’t intimidated by him. The impression left is that, for Edison and Ford, their very imperfect friendship is as good as it gets for either of them. This is sad especially for Ford, who so desperately wants to be a good man as well as a great man. And what man can be good who lacks a true friend?
There are certainly historical precedents: Achilles and Patroclus, King David and Jonathan, Ruth the Moabite and her mother-in-law, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. American founding parents John and Abigail Adams were good friends with Thomas Jefferson and Mercy Otis Warren, respectively. These were all high-achievers who were able to develop true friendships.
So, why doesn’t Ford have true friends? The first clue is that he can’t stop being the industrialist, even on a camping trip. He uses the occasion first to try to persuade and then to blackmail the president — for the sake of one of his great causes, of course. The second clue is a barb from Edison: “You talk about loving humankind all the time, but I’ve never heard you say a kind word about your son.” Ouch.
Maybe being a friend is too hard for most people. Aristotle says most of us prefer to be loved rather to love, because loving is hard and being flattered is easy. To do it, you have to take the long view, rather than settling for instant gratification.
Camping with Henry and Tom runs at Lamb’s Players through March 25.