Monday, 11 January 2021

Friendship Part 1


While rummaging among old papers I chanced on a battered typewritten piece, probably belonging to my father (I recognised his handwriting in the corrections that were added to the text). It was a discourse on friendship which he might have copied, in translation, for reasons known to him alone, from one of the ancient philosophers who wrote on friendship. I tried to make out who it could have been, but it was hard, there was no frame of reference. There was a passage that struck me, in which the author claimed that no friendship was possible between a man and a woman because friendship is based on a physiological affinity and among people of different sex the physiological element gives rise to fusions or clashes which are typical of love. If you recognise the argument, please let me know. 

My view is that only an ancient philosopher would have written that,  for friendship in the ancient world was something that pertained to men and men alone. Also 'physiological affinities' strikes me as being connected to the theory of body humors, which is associated with Hippocrates.

As I said, I could not identify the source but this reflection on friendship sent me straight to the great writings on friendship by Plato and Aristotle. Let's deal immediately with the elephant in the room: in the ancient world, women had virtually no status, thus these discussions of friendship are about men. This, however, does not mean that we should dismiss the writings of these philosophers, for indeed there is much we can derive by mining the ancients and applying their thinking to our contemporary world, with due changes. 

Friendship is a slippery concept in the day and age of social media friends, who could not be further from the φιλοι of the time of Plato and Aristotle.  Friendship ( or φιλια)  is discussed by Plato in the Lysis .  Friendship and love have much in common, says Plato, but then in the dialogue Socrates (Plato often discusses his ideas using Socrates as his main character and narrator) raises the fiollowing points:

Friendship occurs between people who are similar, interpreted by Socrates as friendship between good men.
Friendship may arise  between men who are dissimilar.
Friendship arises between men who are neither good nor bad and good men.
Friendship arises between those who are related (οἰκεῖοι "not kindred") by the nature of their souls.

The Lysis  is an early Platonic dialogue and much of what is put forward will then be elaborated further in the Symposium.  Nevertheless the Lysis is important in suggesting that desire, in itself neither good nor evil, is the primary cause of friendship, and  that desire may only occur  when there is 'congeniality'.

Aristotle, on the other hand, distinguishes between  genuine friendships and friendships based on mutual usefulness, and on  pleasure. Friendship based on pleasure or usefulness has a  limited shelf life whereas genuine friendship is long lasting. Friendship  takes place between good men: ‘each alike wish good for the other qua good, and they are good in themselves...and it is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality’ (Aristotle 1976, The Nicomachen Ethics: 263).

These theorizations of friendship have provided the blueprint for further discussion and conceptualizations, down to  our days. For us today, friendship remains an individual rather than civic tie - a dimension that was explored by Aristotle.  But as Doyle and Smith write, quoting Allan, "through friendship we gain practical and emotional support, and an important contribution to our personal identities. Friendship also helps us to integrate us into the public realm and acts as a resource for managing some of the mundane and exceptional events that confront us in our lives"

We all need friends, genuine friends. Friendship needs to be cultivated, it can die if neglected, like a beautiful plant it needs tending to. Love is always part of friendship, a disinterested kind of love and it is often the case that couple relationships begin as friendships and then change into love. 
Friends are precious, let's not forget that.

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