Friendship in a world before Facebook

The philosopher AC Grayling gives friendship down through the ages the serious treatment

Fri, Aug 1, 2014, 11:33

This week the UN marked its fourth International Day of Friendship. International days of anything are often met with cynicism, and this one arguably deserves the scepticism: its roots are in a holiday invented by Hallmark. As violence continues in Gaza and Ukraine, celebrations of peace and friendship seem far from reality.

AC Grayling’s latest book, Friendship, does not lend itself to frothy celebrations. From Aristotle and Aquinas to Kant, friendship is given the serious treatment in this short volume. Beginning with the ancient Greeks and moving through Augustine’s Christianity into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Grayling offers a weighty philosophical exploration of what friendship has meant to various societies down through the ages.

Most classical recordings of friendship are of those between men, and often depict homoerotic relationships, which Grayling addresses in an interesting segment on how conceived notions of friendship become complicated when attraction is added to the mix.

Aristotle’s “first truly classic statement” holds that friendship is an essential part of a worthwhile existence, and he notes that that true friends are those “who resemble each other in excellence and love each other because of what the other is”.

This view of a friend as “another self” is repeated from Cicero through to the Renaissance period, when Montaigne, writing on the death of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, proclaims: “If anyone urges me to tell why I loved him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by answering: Because it was he, because it was myself.”

Grayling takes issue with the term “another self”, arguing that it should “least define what friends are to each other”. He uses various sources to support this, finding one of the most persuasive in Francis Bacon: “Friends are more than another self because they multiply one into several selves by their aid.” Bacon’s astute theories on the differences between loneliness and solitude also give context to the psychological necessity of friendship.


The influence of social media

These are important discussions for today’s world where emigration, travel and technology continue to change our assumptions about friendships and how we maintain them. Social networking has redefined the term “friend”. Lifelong friends, friends of friends, unidentifiable “friends” are lumped together under the one term. Facebook members have thousands of friends; commercial pages boast of millions. The word has become a verb.

In such a culture, what becomes of Kant’s definition that proper friendship should be based on moral community and a reciprocity of respect and affection? Or Plutarch’s pleas to be selective: “One major obstacle to acquiring a really good friend is the desire for many friends, which is the product of our love of novelty and our fickleness and inconstancy.”

The tone of the book lightens in later sections as Grayling gives examples of mutually beneficial relationships in literature, including Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades, Diomedes and Sthenelus, and Naomi and Ruth. Addiction and illness upset the friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth.

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