Season of Friends

January 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The successful TV sitcom “Friends” may be coming to an end this season, but the subject of friendship is on a roll, more so than lovers. I wonder why. In a recent number of movies, friendship is the principal theme.

ACTOR: I’m your friend, remember?

ACTOR: Then act like a friend! Stop judging me and stop judging her!

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The “Human Stain” shows the friendship between the writer and the tormented classics professor.

What the two men are to each other is more important than the professor’s last-gasp love affair. “Master and Commander,” for all its battles royal at sea, is essentially about the friendship between the captain and the ship’s doctor.

ACTOR: As a friend, I would say that I have never once doubted your abilities as a captain.

ACTOR: Speak plainly, Stephen.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The beautiful little movie “Station Agent” is about a dwarf reluctant to make friends for fear of ridicule, who finds in a group of attractive misfits and oddballs, a loving companionship.

ACTOR: I haven’t said anything in, like, 20 minutes.

ACTOR: Nine.

ACTOR: You timed me?

ACTOR: Mm-hmm.

ACTOR: That’s cold, bro.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: And a splendid new book by historian David Donald is about Abraham Lincoln and his friends, and how the acquisition of friends shaped Lincoln’s presidency.

MUSIC: Old friends…

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Simon and Garfunkel, old friends, are on a tour. Why friends? Why now? And why does friendship seem more important than love these days? It’s hard to define. Sociologists generally stay clear of it. Poets rarely take it up.

Essayists, bless them, have given it a go, but the essay that Emerson wrote on friendship sounds insincere, and Bacon calls friendship a “Hazard,” and the essay Montaigne wrote was more of a personal tribute. The variety of forms it takes makes it hard to pin down.

MUSIC: Old friends sat on their park bench like bookends…

ROGER ROSENBLATT: There are friendships based on passion, on pity, on companionship, on professional advantage, on camaraderie in arms, intellectual agreement, on protection, fear, on hero worship. Not all friendships are equal, even between close friends.

Boswell attached himself to Dr. Johnson, Sancho Panza to Don Quixote. What all friendships have in common is that they are voluntary. But so is love.

What’s the difference between them? Ideally, they should be similar, but one difference nowadays is that love is not expected to last.

The entire cast of “Friends” romances one another at one time or another; then each moves on. But their overall friendship endures. Perhaps the reason that friends are replacing lovers these days is that love is arrived at too easily, without judgment. A pickup in a bar, and love is suddenly in bloom.

No, not love; it’s a “relationship” — heartless, thoughtless … a relationship, a small business transaction. Whoopee. We’re making whoopee, without pause, without judgment. But friendship requires judgment, and a shared sense of values.

In a way, it is more difficult than love because it makes moral demands that love often overlooks. This may be why it’s so difficult for countries to be friends, because self-interest and national principles affect the temper of the alliances.

America is sore at France because America is always sore at France, because France insists on being itself. Yet France was our revolutionary war buddy; and Britain, our new best friend, the hated enemy. Marc Antony began his praise of Caesar with “friends” cited before “Romans” and “countrymen,” because he knew that the heart melts at the faintest sign of brotherhood. Romans are institutional; countrymen are people.

If friends are harder to find than lovers, they’re also harder to lose, which may be the real reason that friends are overtaking lovers these days. And judgment, which true love also requires, need not always be harsh.

ACTOR: ( Growls )

ACTOR: Who is it? You’re welcome, my friend, whoever you are.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: In the movie “The Bride of Frankenstein,” there is a touching scene in which the escaped monster comes upon the cottage of a blind hermit. The hermit, thinking his visitor merely inarticulate and impetuous, calls him “friend,” which the monster repeats and comprehends.

ACTOR: Friends good.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Their idyll is disrupted by the pursuing villagers. But until they arrive, the hermit exhibits the essence of friendship. He sees only the man within the monster, and he loves him plain.

ACTOR: What are you doing? This is my friend.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I’m Roger Rosenblatt.