Films, television, novels and tabloids lay great emphasis on love, love-affairs, marriage and divorce, but friendship is much less discussed. What are the characteristics of friendship?
The earliest account of friendship known to me is by Aristotle. He has interesting points to make but I believe his analysis has serious weaknesses. One weakness is that he makes friendship a very wide idea which includes any mutual connection between two human beings. I think our contemporary idea of friendship is much narrower.
A second and more philosophical reason why Aristotle's analysis doesn't provide understanding of what friendship essentially is relates more generally to Aristotle's approach to understanding anything. Fundamentally, for Aristotle to understand is to classify. Aristotle was a biologist and his approach to philosophy is basically that of the biologist. In his discussion of friendship, he classifies what he thinks are its main types and then argues for the one he thinks is best.
This approach throws up interesting points but does not take us to the core philosophical question: what essentially is friendship? The limitation of Aristotle's approach was noted earlier by Plato. In his Dialogues
, Plato is concerned with questions such as: What is knowledge? or What is justice? The Dialogues
usually begin with the participants saying that the doctor has knowledge or the sea captain has knowledge. Plato points out that these are types of knowledge but what is knowledge in itself? That is the basic question for philosophy. So Aristotle classifies types of friendship and discusses some of their characteristics but he does not attempt to say what essentially friendship is. So what is it?
The Samaritans perform a most important service to suicidal or just lonely people, but that is not so much friendship as befriending. Or an elderly person living alone might say: 'My carer has been a real friend to me'. But that again is befriending rather than real friendship. What makes the difference between befriending and real friendship?
One difference is that befriending is a kind of quasi-professional relationship, whereas friendship proper is deeply personal. A more important reason is that befriending is not reciprocal – the carer is doing something for the elderly person whose only return can be to express gratitude. Friendship requires both the willingness to perform reciprocal services and some activities carried out together, even if they are simply the occasional conversation or meeting for coffee. We can therefore say that the first conditions which constitute friendship are personal relationships which involve sharing activities.
But there is more to friendship than sharing activities, for activities can be shared for assorted reasons. This brings up another of my disagreements with Aristotle. Aristotle claims that shared activities based on self-interest or based on pleasure constitute types of friendship. I think he is wrong on that. For example, two students might agree to meet together to discuss an essay topic. That would be a shared activity based on mutual self-interest but it would not in itself amount to friendship. Again, two people might share the activity of dancing and that would be a source of pleasure but does not make it a friendship. Perhaps this is true of some of the couples in Strictly Come Dancing
The ingredient which must be added to shared activities is some kind of mutual affection. Friends desire each other's company. This kind of affection must be distinguished from emotions such as erotic love. The latter emotion is notoriously irrational and unaccountable – Shakespeare makes fun of it when he speaks of the lover:
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow…
But in the case of the affection involved in friendship, it is usually possible to offer an explanation. The explanation may be shared experiences in the past: We were at school together and were both hopeless at gym so that brought us together. Or it may be that we cheer each other up: I always feel I can face life better after we have had a good laugh together.
Aristotle thinks that the highest form of friendship must be based on the friends seeing each other as virtuous. Again, I think he is wrong on that. We can share activities and have a deep affection for someone while being well aware of their faults. Of course, if the faults turn out to be really nasty then that will kill the friendship, but lesser faults can even be one of the factors in our affection: I know he/she is very gossipy but that is one of his/her characteristics that I like. Or I know he/she has a malicious wit but all the same I can't help laughing or seeing the truth in what is said. Despite Aristotle's view, I think that whereas morally good qualities can produce admiration or praise, they don't produce affection.
So far, I have suggested that friendship involves shared interests and affection based on the appreciation of the specific characteristics of a particular person. Does it also involve moral duties?
Occasionally, something may need to be said to the friend which needs saying. Affection may make us very reluctant to say it because it might produce anger, resentment or hurt feelings. Nevertheless, a true friend has to run that risk.
Readers of problem pages in magazines will remember that some of people's worries concern the most tactful way of conveying a hard truth. St Paul says somewhere: 'Tell the truth in kindness'. If a friend is not able to tell you it straight but with kindness, then who will? That is part of the value of friendship. We can therefore add to the features of friendship the moral duty to tell you the truth which others might not see as any of their business.
There is a different kind of issue which involves both friendship and morality. Situations can arise when there can be a conflict between friendship and duties to a wider social group. Such situations can involve a range of issues. One would arise if you came to realise that your friend had broken the criminal law. Something here might turn on the type of offence. Occasionally, the advice of a friend can lead to some sort of way out or restitution. But there can be more serious cases. A year or so ago, I read of a well-known politician who was aware of the paedophile activities of a friend in the same party, but did nothing about it because it wasn't a party matter. That seemed to me to be shocking.
A more general type of moral problem might be the conflict between spending time with a friend, as friendship requires, and spending it, say, working for a charity. A utilitarian would say that greater good would come from performing wider social duties than spending time with a friend. Here a balance must be struck, for friendship too has social values. What are its social values?
No doubt many people nowadays would recommend friendship because they would see it as promoting that supreme value of contemporary life – mental health. Well, perhaps it does, but I prefer to think that sharing activities makes them more alive, or just more fun. Sharing leads to more intense life experiences. That is certainly one important value of friendship.
Another value is what we can learn from our friends. Friendship enables us to explore points of view which differ from our own without the tensions which may be present in such conversations with others. In other words, friendships can widen and enrich our sympathies. This sort of value has benefits not just for friends but for society more generally. It promotes tolerance for a variety of views.
I have outlined what seem to me to be the core aspects of friendship but I have some qualifications to make. The term 'friendship' is used loosely in ordinary language and applied to relationships which have some but not all the characteristics of the core idea. Of course, other types of relationship – colleagues, neighbours etc – may develop into friendship. Finally, whereas friendships enrich our lives, we must remember that periods of solitude are also desirable.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow