Skip to content

Friendship, Part I: My friends, there are no friends.

Cross-posted from guest blogging appearance at Genetic Method.

My friend Ashley Vaught sent me a long inquisitive email about teaching Aristotle on friendship. Let me just say to start that I really don’t like thinking about, writing about or teaching Aristotle on friendship. When I teach the Nicomachean Ethics, I rarely teach the friendship bits. I have always wondered what the philosophical point was. And as someone interested in how political life is foundational for Aristotle, I have bristled at readings that maintain that Aristotle’s account of friendship implies a pre-political ethical life. Moreover, I’ve never understood what the purpose of this account was except just explaining more about friendship. And what is the point of that? Do people read this and start pursuing more complete friendship? I can just picture someone sitting down and graphing her friendships to judge which friendships are complete and which are for pleasure and which utilitarian, I don’t know, to keep things organized? I don’t think it makes me a bad friend to not enjoy theorizing about friendship. But I do think good friends respond to their friend’s serious inquiries, so when I got a long email from Ashley about friendship in Aristotle, I agreed to have some thoughts.

Two questions Ashley raises seemed worth considering further. One is the question of whether friendship requires living together and the other question is whether romantic friendships are instances of complete friendship. Since today people tend to organize their living together with romantic partners, the two questions are related, but I’m interpreting ‘living together’ more broadly, as Ashley did, to mean living in proximity and not at a distance.  I’m going to discuss the first point in this post and the second in another to follow shortly.

I moved to Texas in my early 30s and then to central Indiana in my late 30s so I have thought a lot about how to make friends as an adult and speculated about why and how it is harder to do the older one gets. Having lived in the same city as my parents and siblings for all but six years of my life up until I left for Texas for my first tenure-track job having just begun a romantic relationship with my now-husband (we were friends for years before), I was grateful for Facebook and Skype which made those who were quite far away seem close. Facebook and Skype, I came to realize, could only prolong and fill in friendships for the time that we could be together again. They didn’t themselves constitute the friendship. Aristotle says that complete friendships involve the concern for the other for their sake. Surely, we can do that from a distance. But he also says that complete friendships involve deliberating with one another, reflecting who the friend is back to them so that they can have a more complete view of themselves and of virtue. That last part is more difficult to do at a distance.

A couple weeks ago, a good friend, one of my best friends, a friend with whom I lived in the same city for about five years, I’ll call her Emily, called me for a long ruminative conversation. It was great to talk. We keep up on Facebook, but it’s not the same as a good long talk, working through the details of life, examining your feelings and thoughts, listening to one another. But the funny thing is our conversation actually made me miss just sitting around watching television or making dinner or going out on the town. Emily had begun by laying out an agenda of the questions and issues we needed to consider in the course of the conversation.  Amused, but also at home in the comfort of years of conversations, I gamely took up the topics with her, and I loved that she could begin a conversation with a story and an agenda.  This might be what long-distance conversations between friends sometimes require.  But I wonder whether friendships lived together need agendas. It’s not just that sitting around doing nothing fills in the spaces of a friendship between all the things that you can report about your life. It’s not just that the proximity makes life something you do in fact share together rather than just report. It’s that proximity allows you to perceive one another and reflect the friend back to herself, sharing what you see.

Adriel and Emily

At a distance, friends can report to us about their own lives and we can then reflect on what our friends say they see about themselves, but since the friends can’t see themselves fully, from a distance we can’t tell whether the friends see themselves as they are. From a distance, you have to accept the friend’s limited perception and think about the friend’s life on these terms. Close up, a friend can share what she sees in us. And this it seems is much of complete friendship, sharing a life and the perceptions of the other’s life. Aristotle tells us that we deliberate with others when considering the serious and difficult things. We need others because we cannot see the whole of things ourselves because of our habits of character.

To say that we cannot see the whole of things ourselves and that this is so because of our character is not to say that even those of complete virtue and capable of complete friendship are not entirely virtuous.  But rather that we cannot perceive the whole of the world from our position within it.  Someone could pursue living well and cultivate ethical perception, the capacity to see what a situation requires of her, but still not see that there are things in that situation she doesn’t see.  Studies on implicit bias show us this clearly–we may want to pursue diversity in hiring and promotion practices but because we cannot see the ways that we have become habituated to see the world, we need others to help us see.  One might even say that others who have different life experiences will help us better see what we do not see than those who have similar backgrounds.  That is, that we would be more complete if we took sameness in friendship to mean only sameness in virtue and allowed the differences to cultivate and provoke our ethical perception to see more.

This reading that I have presented then seems to make the friendship complete but it recognizes that the virtuous life is something that is always underway.  If that is not the case, if complete friendship is only possible when virtue is complete, the profound question of Aristotle’s account of friendship then seems to be whether it is possible.  It seems to require that which is beyond human capacity.  Shared life has the enjoyment of one another as its end and friends take pleasure in seeing virtue in their friend that they cannot see in themselves. Friends are glad to see their friends fulfill themselves because it allows the friends to see what they cannot see in themselves.  That much would seem to allow complete friendship in a virtuous life that is underway.  But if friends offer something more, and really, it seems that they must because could we get to complete virtue without a friend, then what are they before they and we are completely virtuous?  But surely our pleasure friends aren’t going to be the ones who get us there, only the friends who care about us for our own sake would.  But then what do we make of those on-the-way friendships?  Or are these last friendships always only on-the-way friendships?

In an article on friendship in which he discusses his friendships with Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben translates a passage from Nicomachean Ethics 1171a30-35 thus:

 But as we saw, the good manʼs existence is desirable because of his perceiving himself, that self being good; and such perceiving is pleasant in itself. In that case, he needs to be concurrently perceiving his friend – that he exists, too—and this will come about in their living together, conversing and sharing (koinonein) their talk and thoughts; for this is what would seem to be meant by “living together” where human beings are concerned, not feeding in the same location as with grazing animals.

The living together doubles the good of the existence of the virtuous life, because we come to see it more fully in the other and because the virtuous life is more virtuous, more full of the conversing and sharing of thoughts that comprises human life, when shared.  I think that’s why I tend to see friendship and political life as more integrated than distinct.  Friendship like political life is a concern with living together not just for the sake of living, but with the shared concern for living well.  But that also suggests that we can’t do this living well alone, which Aristotle claims early in Nicomachean Ethics I.  And if we can’t do it alone, we can’t become virtuous and then set out on our way to find a friend to share a complete friendship with.  We need friends to help us get there.  But if we aren’t there yet, then the friendships don’t seem to be virtuous friendships or complete friendships yet.  So then are they use friendships?  Use + on-the-way friendships = complete friendships?

Maybe this is what Derrida means when he draws on the claim attributed to Aristotle by Diogenes Laertius, “My friends, there are no friends.”

What's your Line on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: