What does it mean when, out of the seeming blue, an old forgotten topic (friendship) towers up and bares a crack? Recently there has been article upon article about broken friendships, unreciprocated friendships, qualities conducive to friendship, and so on. Alexander Nehamas’s book On Friendship came out fairly recently. (I will read it; it looks promising.) Could it be that friendship overall is in bad shape?
The articles point to some kind of friendship mismatch or misunderstanding. With the prevalence of Facebook, people aren’t sure how to define friendship or where to set its limits. It’s hard to tell whether your friendships are nonexistent, circumstantial, or enduring, especially when so much communication takes place online and people are so frazzled. To have good friendship, you need a place that isn’t shifting under your feet.
Also, despite all this friendship press, many people don’t want to take up the subject in the first place. If you talk about friendship, you get cast as touchy-feely. Yet friendship is one of the ancient subjects of poetry and philosophy, one of the oldest subjects in literature. Gilgamesh goes out beyond the land of the living to search for his friend who has died. “Ze dodi veze re’ei” (“This is my beloved and this is my friend”), says the Song of Songs. Aristotle wrote of friendship as reciprocal goodwill, where both people want what is good for the other. It must be based on virtue, he argues, because nothing else will sustain itself.
I am fortunate to have a few friends in my life—friends I have known for decades, and friends I made in the past few years. We may not see each other often, but the friendships exist in person and persist. I do not talk about them in detail online (or offline, for that matter), but at least I don’t worry about becoming friendless, even though it could happen to me as well as anyone.
I worry more about a general harshness in the air. People are quick to reject difference, quirkiness, and things they don’t understand. The topic of friendship needs attention—but without personality quizzes, confessional sessions, or anything reductive.
If there’s unspoken damage done by this election campaign, it’s the extreme glorification of celebrities, the turning of all heads toward these candidates and their every move. Yes, the election has this country on a precipice, but Clinton and Trump themselves are unknown to me, except as public figures and possible leaders, and merit my attention in that regard only.
A friend and colleague reminded me today of the Enchiridion of Epictetus. I started rereading it.This was a favorite passage:
These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.
Epictetus was wise to separate property and talent from the person; instead of saying “you are more than your possessions,” he says something even stronger: “But you, after all, are neither property nor style.” In other words, a person is both bare and vast, not a sum of things, but an entity beyond them.
Note: I made a few minor changes and an addition to this piece after posting it.