Pop Culture
May 24, 2010, 06:50AM

The importance of friendship

Classical and otherwise...

A little less than two centuries ago the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville warned us of the dangers of fragmentation. Despots, he explained, do not mind if you do not love them, as long as you do not love others. Isolation from others, from specialized communities or groups, voluntary associations as Tocqueville put it, breeds weakness. Despots then exploit this weakness by filling the authority gap. Authority, like energy, is not created or destroyed. It simply is transferred to new areas, or acted out in different forms. Anarchy, for example, is not the absence of authority but the ultimate expression of individual autonomous authority.

Americans have long had this individualistic tendency, and the democratic age in which we live only compounds the problem. Equality defines our society. And since we are all equal, we tend to align our affections and trusts horizontally, to ourselves, rather than vertically, to our spiritual, philosophical, or political authorities. Looking to ourselves for truth eliminates the need for a body of councilors or advisors, and (especially) God. It is inward focused. You hear it all the time: “I feel,” or “I think.” The first of these is purely subjective. The second allows objectivity in principle, but both are categorized by their existential tendencies. The “I,” the “ego,” is not only at, but is the center.

We proudly proclaim we have more means of communication than ever in the history of the human race. We can telephone, email, mail, text, radio, fax and chat. But communication is now banal, so devoid of content. We are only a few Facebook messages away from the total failure of substance in communication. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, because of the information age, communication—the primary form by which people interact—has been cheapened. Personal interaction increases fragmentation. No longer do we write letters on politics, religion, philosophy, theology—more importantly, no longer do we think—rather, we see our friend pop online and we quickly, hardly thinking, send him an IM: “What’s up?”

I want to propose a solution, at least part of one.

Solomon praised its merits. Aristotle called it a virtue. Cicero wrote a book on it: Friendship.

What unites Solomon’s praise, Aristotle’s Philia and Cicero’s Amicitia is an understanding that friendship is a good, and ought to be sought. “Two are better than one . . . a threefold cord is not quickly broken,” Solomon tells us (Ecc 4: 9, 11). Friendship is the, or at least a, counter to fragmentation, and thus despotism.

We all have “friends.” I want to challenge this notion. Sure we all have affections, likings, but what about friendship as a love? There are four loves: storge or affection, philia or friendship, eros or love of the Beloved (mind you, not simply brute sexual desire), and agape or the unconditional love of an omnipotent God.

The love of friendship transcends personal desire; it is defined by shared desire. But friendship is also the highest form of individuality—men freely relating with one another, apart from the herd (if you will). Friendship is intrinsically not equal. You are my friend, I say pointing forward. You are not my friend, jerking a thumb toward the left. Friendship excludes.

Reflect on friendship, cultivate your friendships, and truly, in the bond of friendship, love. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

Back again on the sociological level, he states:

•    Men who have real Friends are less easy to manage or ‘get at’; harder for good Authorities to correct or for bad Authorities to corrupt. Hence if our masters, by force or by propaganda . . . ever succeed in producing a world where all are Companions and none are Friends, they will have removed certain dangers, and will also have taken from us what is almost our strongest safeguard against complete servitude. 

Friendship can be a virtue, but it can also be a vice. “It makes good men better and bad men worse,” Lewis tells us. So, choose your friends wisely, according to the standards of morality and prudence. Cultivate the philia love of friendship. Doing so increases the worth of your relations, defeats sociological fragmentation, and might indirectly stop the next despot.


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