Have we taken friendship too far?

Imagine a time before friendship. Imagine being a human being in a world where friendship didn’t play a major role. I think that time probably existed. Not that there was no friendship at all, of course; the bond between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is at the heart of the oldest story we have from ancient Mesopotamia. That friendship was a rare and beautiful thing; it was the exception, whereas today, it’s just the water we swim in. Other sorts of relationships, especially familial and tribal relationships, have become much less important, and friendships have rushed in to fill the gap.

In the last hundred years or so sociologists have noted the emergence of two new “stages of life”. The “teenagers” and “young-adults” have emerged between childhood and (parental) adulthood. Peer relationships define both. And so it seems to me that modernity has not only invented two new “life-stages,” it’s also placed friendships much more centrally in our lives. Our technology reflects this. Social media tools are particularly well-suited to facilitating friendship; I often marvel at how easily I have remained in contact with high school or university friends, while my father grew apart from his friends as soon as he left the city.

That friendship has become so ubiquitous and so central to our lives is a pretty remarkable thing. For Aristotle and for Plato, friendship was the highest form of human relation. As Aristotle explained with typical eloquence, “without friends, no one would choose to live.” But highest does not mean most important. Just as Aristotle distinguished between “mere life” and the “good life,” so he distinguished friendship from those relationships, like parent-child, which are necessary to ensure our survival. These relationships are necessarily unequal, in Aristotle’s mind, because they always involve power imbalances, where stronger parents tend to the needs of more vulnerable children, or stronger masters guide the actions of weaker slave. Unlike these relationships of the workplace or the household (both of which are suggested by the Greek term oikos, where we get ‘economy’), friendship is characterized by genuine equality. And this equality frees friends to go beyond mere survival by together seeking the good life.

This two thousand year old vision of friendship, as equals jointly pursuing their highest vision of a good live, remains a powerful to this day. As economic progress freed first teenagers and then young adults from the labours of house-holding and reproduction, it’s no surprise that we started spending more and more time on our friends. Today, many of us have several hundred (!) “friends” on Facebook. Friend obviously means something different here than it did for Aristotle. But not that different, I think. Equals jointly pursuing the good life still describes the goal, if not the substance, of most of these relationships. Even romantic relationships have come to more and more closely resemble friendships; “[my partner] is my best friend,” says the bride or groom.

This transformation is no coincidence. The most remarkable things about the triumph of friendship is the way in which other relationships have been remade to be more like friendship. For Aristotle, friendship was rare; it was almost necessarily limited to male heads of households, since only they had the level of freedom required to pursue the finer things in life. In our modern world of economic abundance and leisure, by contrast, virtually every relationship is between independent, equal individuals. Or at least, we would like it to be.

Certainly, this is a major aspect of feminism. I think it’s fair to say feminists want marriage to be characterized by relations of friendship rather than dependency. Creating the conditions for that – by for example ensuring the economic independence and equality of women – has mobilized a great deal of feminist activism.

The modern world also insists on seeing economic relationships as equal partnerships between independent individuals. This stands in sharp contrast with the economic relations between a lord and his peasant, for instance. The capitalist, contractual understanding of economic relations insists that both sides are equal – as signatories to a contract. It leaves no room for the understood inequality that underpin feudal notions of reciprocity.

Our insistence on equality in all things means that we have a really hard time making sense of obvious inequalities when they confront us. The discomfort most of us feel around panhandlers, for example, reflects our sense that our deeply rooted notions of equality are somehow not being upheld. So too does the awkwardness some of us feel when talking to children, as does the lasting stigma around people with mental or physical handicaps.

Our inarticulacy in the face of these everyday situations is significant, I think. I don’t think its unreasonable to say that, at this point in our historical development, relationships between equals are so much the ideological norm that we have a hard time imagining other sorts of relationships. Or more specifically, we have a hard time imagining what a virtuous relationship between non-equals would look like.

The pre-modern world had ways of talking about these things. You could talk about duty, about fulfilling your station, about knowing your place. There was an idea of complementarity, that justice lies not in respecting the other’s autonomy but in somehow fitting together. There was a recognition that people depended on one another – that the noble depended on the farmer to eat, and the farmer depended on the monk to ensure his salvation. But dependency is precisely what friendships are not about. And so in the modern era, duty and complementarity are buzzwords for reactionary social movements. But they reflect a genuinely different, and not necessarily useless, way of thinking about how human beings relate to other human beings.

Ancient or especially mediaeval justifications of complementary, co-dependent relationships typically regard the individual as a part of some greater whole. Like limbs on a body or gears in a machine, individuals do their part to ensure some outcome which exceeds their individual contribution. This way of talking denies the adequacy of any individual’s project; it says that your life and only be made sense of within a broader context. No, working the land all day is not the most humanly satisfying endeavor, a lord might explain to his peasant, but it is nevertheless essential to the functioning of this community. It is in recognized dependence, rather than in independence, that these lives and these roles find their meaning. The community is not a joint project, freely pursued by consenting individuals, any more than the body is a joint project freely pursued by the toes and the liver. The whole comes first; and the individuals who compose it are not themselves whole, and cannot be understood as such.

Although it is certainly foreign to our way of thinking and living, we can learn something from this way of thinking about things. As a society, we are not very good at figuring out how to relate to those who are manifestly not our equals. On a small scale, this manifests in our discomfort and moral uncertainty around panhandlers. On a grand scale, we talk about things like the “white savior complex”. The feminist and queer communities talk about things like “problematic allies” – who are problematic precisely because they occupy a very different social position that those with whom they are “allying”. When assumptions of equality and autonomy break down, we have a really hard time figuring out what the heck we are supposed to do.

As a bearer of a great deal of privilege myself, this is a problem of which I am acutely aware. My positioning in the social hierarchy means that my relationships are distorted in certain ways. In meetings and in classrooms, people listen to me without interrupting – even if I interrupt them. I am given the benefit of the doubt by cops or authority figures – even if I don’t deserve it. Crossing those gaps to have authentic relationships with the people on the other side is a genuine problem – one that is not solved by declaring that all men are created equal (nor would it be resolved by declaring that all persons are created equal). But from Aristotle, and the tradition of thinking that followed him, I take two ideas that I find useful.

The first is that we are participating in a shared project, and that project is very big and very important even though all individual contributions are very small and unimportant. Virtue cannot be found in tipping the scales, in doing that one great thing which was yours. Virtue lies in making a contribution; playing a part.

The second is the notion of friendship as something rare and precious, requiring many conditions to be met. This requires acknowledging that many of our relationships are not friendships, Facebook status notwithstanding. But this does not make us less open; just the opposite. It forces us to acknowledge that real openness, the kind of mutual respect and shared living that characterizes true friendship, takes real work. It encourages us to cultivate these relationships, confident (if we trust Aristotle) that this is the essence of the good life.

We especially need to be reminded that friendship takes work when we are attempting to be with those who are different from us. Solidarity is a beautiful and politically indispensable thing, but it’s got nothing on friendship. Solidarity requires the acknowledgement of an abstract equality; friendship requires living that equality.

I’m not saying that Aristotle is the answer. By talking about the ideal of equality in terms of universal friendship, I’m trying to resist a common conservative narrative. That narrative sees the problems with a modern, liberal idea of “universal equality,” which it views as shallow, inadequate, and unrealistic, and so harkens back to older ideals. But friendship is not an empty or abstract notion the way “universal equality” can be, and the triumph of friendship is probably the single best thing of the modern world. Without it, who would choose to live (here, now)? It is the realization, not the undoing, of the ideals of Aristotle, of Plato, of Christ. Our economics have changed, and we are not bound by the physical and biological necessities that Aristotle used to justify the master-slave, husband-wife relations. Of course these should be transformed into relationship of friendship.

But recognizing the moral force behind this transformation does not eliminate its weaknesses.

When Aristotle names friendship as the highest form of human relation, he makes it obvious that this is something to be striven for, not something to be assumed. He retains a moral vocabulary for characterizing good relations with our unequals. One does not have to endorse these ethics to see the utility of that, especially as we become increasingly aware of the deep structural inequalities, which shape us all. Not all relationships are friendships, and there’s a real danger that this triumph has been too complete, and that we’ve lost the ability to really think about other kinds of relationships, to subject them to moral scrutiny in a coherent way.