In On Friendship, Alexander Nehamas seeks to define the nature and characteristics of what constitutes friendship and why it should be considered central to the good life. These lectures attempt to examine ‘one of life’s greatest gifts’ in all of its multi-faceted variance, including the oft-neglected negative aspects of friendship that can lead to danger, immorality and loss. As a result, Nehamas provides a historical inquiry into what has been expressed in philosophy and represented in the arts to make the case that this form of relationship performs an essential role in the formation of individual lives.
In this exploration of friendship, Nehamas separates his lectures into two distinct areas of analysis. The first part (chapters 1-3) attempts to provide a definition of friendship by investigating its historical understanding in philosophy, literature and the arts, while the second part (chapters 4-6) seeks to come to terms with what he calls, friendship’s ‘double face’ of pleasure and pain, while establishing its inherent value.
Permeating these two parts are various themes that Nehamas interweaves carefully for emphasis. The first theme involves the elusive nature of providing an adequate definition of friendship. Perhaps the reason for the inability of philosophy and the arts to define friendship is due to its ability to develop and thrive in the mundane, ordinary activities that two individuals engage in on a daily basis. Friendship is established and deepened in the little incidents of life, where desires, ideas and hope are often expressed, only to be noticed during life’s most urgent moments.
Moreover, a fundamental component within friendship is the presence and function of individuals, whose virtue resides in making distinctions and seceding from society-at-large. Nehamas highlights the early-modern shift from a benefit-based philia situated within the public sphere to a symbiotic transaction between individuals of common interest within the private realm. In the midst of this interaction, friends are able to mold and form one another in ways no else is able to do. As a result, he emphasizes the exclusive, selective and partial nature of friendship in which a person becomes friends with a particular individual to the exclusion of everyone else. Thus, he concludes, friendship cannot survive nor thrive without making a preference for some individuals over others.
Finally, Nehamas reiterates the difficulty of explaining the individual reasons why one becomes a friend to any particular person. Similar to the ineffability of the beautiful, there is always something that is left out when one attempts to thinly explain that it is the friend themself that proves fundamental, rather than any particular quality or trait. Nehamas contends that an individual is no longer attracted to that person when this open end or ellipses disappears. Thus, he confronts an area of friendship that is often neglected in historical writings on the topic: the loss of friendship and its detrimental effects in every area of life. In the end, Nehamas’ endeavor into this elusive area is a desired contribution for both philosophical and theological enquiry.