Two Friendships: A Response

Earlier columns in The Stone have raised the question of what philosophy is. Surely among its tasks is to think about matters that are at once urgent, personal and of general significance. When one is lucky, one finds interlocutors who are willing to share that thought, add to it in one way or another, or suggest a different direction. In the comments from readers of my earlier post, “Friendship in an Age of Economics,” I have been fortunate.

I would like to linger over two friendships described in the comments. One, offered by Echo from Santa Cruz, describes a life-long friendship with someone from whom she was physically separated for many years, and who eventually died of cancer. (I am inferring from the context of her comment, that Echo, as in Greek mythology, is a woman, though she never says so explicitly.) The other is from E. Kelley Harris in Slovakia, who recounts the example of an intimidating seaman named Frank with whom, over the course of intense theological dispute, a moment of intimacy arose in an unexpected way. 

The friendship described by Echo is one that many of us will find examples of in our life. I am still close friends with the person who sat by my bedside 38 years ago, even though we live far from each other. Regarding her friendship, Echo comments that, “There was no work to that friendship. Our instincts told us what to do, in the same way as a new mother takes her child and holds it to her breast.” I am sure Echo would agree with me that a friendship without work is not something that is given; it is an achievement. Friendships take time. They must be cultivated, sometimes when one is in the mood, sometimes when one is not. That is part of its non-economic character. What Echo describes in personal language is an achieved friendship, one that likely started with a spark, but has been tended over the years and allowed the two friends to continue sharing with each other up to the end of one of their lives.

Several comments insisted that one would never become friends with someone unless there was something to be gained. This is certainly true. Close friendships are not simply exercises in altruism. Friendships that come to resemble relationships between donors and recipients begin to fray. Eventually they come to look like something other than friendships. The non-economic character of friendship does not lie in its altruism, but in its lack of accounting. We are friends not solely because you amuse me or assist me, but more deeply because we have rooted ourselves together in a soil we have both agreed to cultivate. Echo has provided an example of the fruit of that cultivation.

What E. Kelley depicts is a more unlikely friendship between someone who can best be described as a bully and another person, the author, who found himself in the unenviable position of bunk mate. Over time, passionate theological conversation developed between them, leading to a moment where the author put himself in a vulnerable position before the bully, who declined to play his expected role. As with Echo’s example, there is the accretion of shared time that is necessary for that moment to occur. It would hardly have happened the first night Frank stepped from the brig. But there is something else as well. There is the development of aspects of oneself that otherwise might have gone neglected or even unrecognized. E. Kelly displayed a kind of courage that seemed even to surprise him, and Frank lent himself to passionate discussion without having to overpower his conversational adversary. This is what I meant when I wrote in my column that in close friendships we step into the stream of another’s life.

One might say that there is, among seamen — as among military personnel and those facing collective harm generally — a motivation for a common bond that helped drive the two together. BlueGhost from Iowa says this explicitly in his discussion of his son’s decision to join the military. If so, this would be another example of the idea in the column that we are always creatures of our time and our circumstances. There were some who worried that in criticizing the consumer and entrepreneurial models of friendship, I might be suggesting that there was a previous period in which friendships were better or more pure. That would be, as the comments noted, naïve. Each age has its context, and people in that age — or in one specific aspect of it — cannot escape engaging with the themes of that context, its motifs and parameters. Consumerism and entrepreneurship are dominant themes of our age; if my column is right, they are a threat to our friendships. Other ages have had different themes and their friendships different dangers.

There is, of course, much more to be said about how consumerism and entrepreneurship endanger our friendships. I neglected to do so in the column because my goal in that short space was not so much critique as a description or a reminder of how we often still participate in relationships whose value is not the subject of most of our public discourse about them. To trace the development of consumerism and entrepreneurship in their particular character over the past 30 or 40 years, as well as their effects on our relationships, would require a much longer discussion as well as an engagement with many contemporary theorists and social scientists — basically, a book. What I counted on in the column was that there would be a resonance among readers for what was being suggested. If the comments are any indication, I was fortunate there as well.

A last note. Several comments suggested that there may be other ways to characterize friendship than by appeal to the Aristotelean distinctions I invoked. This is undoubtedly true. It is also true that there is a certain oversimplification to any categorization of friendship. There is more to Echo’s and E. Kelley’s friendships than the themes I have isolated here. What Aristotle offers us — and this over two millennia after his death — are tools that help us think about ourselves. It is not that there are three and only three types of friendships. Rather, in thinking about Aristotle’s categories of friendship in the context of our time we can begin to see ourselves and our relationships more clearly than we might otherwise. This is also true of many other philosophers, a number of whose names were invoked in the comments. It is what philosophers who stand the test of time offer us: not rigid categories to which we must conform, but instead ways of making sense of ourselves and our lives, of considering who we are, where we are, and what we might become.

Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He is the author 10 books, including “The Philosophy of Foucault” and “Death,” and is at work on a book about friendship in the contemporary period.


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