Friendship in a world before Facebook

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


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.

Other nuggets include the bond between GH Lewes and George Eliot, who used the biographer as a sounding board for her drafts and wrote fiction only in the 20 years they lived together.

With academic language, a tendency to dwell on classic sources for argument, and the exclusion of popular culture, this is not a light read.

As Grayling points out in his introduction, the book is not intended as a self-help manual but as a broad philosophical study. It might not show you how to win friends, or how keep them, but it succeeds in opening up a discussion on the merits of having them. Friendship by AC Grayling is published by Yale University Press





Don Quixote (1605)

Miguel de Cervantes

The archetypal hero-sidekick bromance in Cervantes’s masterpiece sees Sancho’s uneducated but realist worldview acting as a foil for his employer’s delusions.


Sense and Sensibility (1811)

Jane Austen

Sisters and best friends: sensible and practical Elinor is yin to the younger Marianne’s artistic, romantic yang.


Of Mice and Men (1937)

John Steinbeck 

Steinbeck’s novella, a parable on the essence of humanity, tells the story of two displaced migrant workers, Lennie and George, who one day hope to have a farm of their own.


Rebecca (1938)

Daphne du Maurier 

Part master-servant relationship, part hero-worshipper, the impenetrable bond between housekeeper Mrs Danvers and her beloved Rebecca is nonetheless one of literature’s most unforgettable friendships. Strangers on a Train (1950) Patricia Highsmith Highsmith’s debut novel looks at the perverse friendship that develops between everyman architect Guy Haines and the psychopathic playboy killer Charles Bruno.


The Cay (1969)

Theodore Taylor 

It was written in less than a month, yet Taylor manages to create an entire world based around the relationship between two characters, an 11-year-old boy and an older African-American man named Timothy.


Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

Saul Bellows

At the heart of Bellows’s Pulitzer prize-winning roman-à clef is the relationship between burgeoning playwright Charles Citrine and an older poet friend.


Matilda (1988)

Roald Dahl

The evil powers of the Wormwoods and Principal Trunchbull appear insurmountable when contemplated alone, but joining forces in a bid to help each other allows Miss Honey and her genius pupil Matilda to triumph. 


The Secret History (1992)

Donna Tartt

College student Richard becomes obsessed with a close group of friends studying ancient Greek. Accepted as an outsider, he comes to rue the membership when the secrets of their Dionysian lifestyles become apparent. 


Skippy Dies (2010)

Paul Murray

If boarding schools are temporary homes, then the friendships formed there are like family. Skippy’s heartbreaking demise convinces his science-loving best friend, Ruprecht, that the universe is literally “built out of loneliness”.

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