You are here

"Because it was he, because it was I": Friendship and Its Place in Life

University of Edinburgh

The basis of moral engagement in modernity has been the realization that human beings are importantly similar to one another; its aim is to act toward others in ways these similarities support and justify. That has made the aspirations of modern moral philosophy impartial and universal. The values of morality bind us together. Emblems of our commonalities, they urge us to expand our range of concern. But there are other values as well. Badges of our particularities, these values favour imposing limits on our solicitude. They direct us to treat different individuals differently, exactly because of their individual differences. They are, among others, the values of art, country and - the subject of this series of lectures - friendship.

However great and important its role in life, friendship has played at best a minor and accidental role in modern philosophical thought. That is partly due to the conflict between the impartiality of morality and the selectivity that seems essential to friendship - a conflict raised by Augustine’s devaluation of friendship in comparison to the love of God and a major issue for Christian thinkers since then. Among secular thinkers, that conflict creates a deep tension in those who take friendship seriously, as Adam Smith did, or renders friendship irrelevant to those who, like Kant, give absolute precedence to impartiality. And although recent philosophy has returned to the topic, mostly in order to show (unsuccessfully in my opinion) that the conflict is only apparent, not even authors like Montaigne or Nietzsche, whose sympathy for morality is limited, seem to have given friendship detailed attention.

Could it be that there is, in fact, little to say about friendship? That seems to be belied by the practice of the ancient philosophers, for whom ethics, the effort to live as well as it is possible for a human being to do, included much more then obedience to impartial rules.

Aristotle devoted to philia fully one fifth of the Nicomachean Ethics - more than to any other issue while Cicero composed a long and famous dialogue on amicitia. But the matter is complicated. Philia includes a large variety of human relationships, many of which (like the relations between business associates or fellow citizens) have nothing to do with friendship as we understand it. When we consider that most of the Nicomachean Ethics concerns the development of virtue in an individual, it becomes plausible to think of Aristotle’s discussion of philia as his account of interpersonal relations as a whole. That is at least part of the reason he has so much to say about it.

When it comes to friendship proper - the relationship Aristotle describes as ‘philia of the virtuous’ - even someone like Montaigne, who is both a gifted writer and takes friendship most seriously, seems abandoned by language. Asked to explain why he loved Etienne de la Boétie, he can only reply, ‘Because it was he, because it was I’.

But the problem is not peculiar to philosophy. The novel has not done much better: we don’t have a great novel of friendship as we have great novels of love, marriage and adultery, war and peace or education. And part of the reason surely is that friendship - even when it involves extraordinary actions - consists mostly of small everyday activities quite unimportant in themselves. What friends do together matters less than the fact that they do it together. But a narrative of insignificant events is likely to be an insignificant narrative. In the end, we will see, Montaigne can depict friendship only by indirection. Friendship finds its place not in narration but in drama (which includes theatre, film and television). We will have to ask why and try to determine what it is, say, that a television serial can accomplish that a novel can not.

We shall see that what counts as friendship, what it authorizes and what it forbids, what rights it bestows and what obligations it imposes, has undergone radical changes over time. Still, Aristotle’s emphasis on the fact that ‘the virtuous’ love each other for themselves’ or ‘for their own sake’ leads to an examination of the sense and function of this crucial qualification and connects his thought to contemporary concerns. I reject, however, his limitation of friendship to the virtuous and I will resist the more modest view that friendship is morally benign: friendship cannot be justified on moral grounds. I will rely on the idea that friends love each other for themselves in order to claim that friendship is valuable because the activities in which friends are engaged together are crucial in establishing - they both construct and reveal - who one is, the self on account of which friends love each other. To that extent, the activities of friendship may be as close as we can come to acting as free agents, at least according to a conception of intention, action and freedom that owes much to Plotinus, Spinoza and Nietzsche.

Friendship promotes authenticity and freedom. But since it is possible to be authentic and vicious, free and ferocious, its value is independent of morality. Like art, friendship can be both admirable and immoral. We are left with a question: is there a principled way of deciding where our allegiance should lie when, inevitably, the values of connection come into conflict with those of distinction?


On Friendship

Basic Books
  • University of Edinburgh