Book Review: AC Grayling’s Friendship

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It is striking that the great thinkers, from Aristotle to Augustine and Mencius to Montaigne, devoted so much of their time and thought to friendship, but almost none of either to marriage. Grayling’s timely treatise reacquaints us with a great but forgotten good that promises to fulfil so many of our practical, intellectual, emotional, and metaphysical needs. The book principally consists of a history of the philosophy of friendship capped by an account of canonical, often homosexual or homosocial friendships such as that of Achilles and Patroclus and Jonathan and David, who, in the Bible, describes the love of Jonathan as “better even than that of women”. Throughout, Grayling seeks to define friendship and, in so doing, explores its many forms, facets, charms, and consolations.

Perhaps in a desire to be modern, relevant, or politic, Grayling seems to reject the classical notion that, at its best and most meaningful, friendship is a highly elitist good. For the greats, only virtuous men can be ideal friends. Aristotle famously says that, while there are many ways for men to be bad, there is only one way for them to be good, and it is precisely in this sense that an ideal friend is ‘another self’—a historically important notion that Grayling severally dismisses. Because they are all one and the same, virtuous men are predictable, reliable, and therefore worthy of one another’s friendship. In contrast, bad people are in some way unlike themselves, and just as likely to hate other bad people as anyone else.

In my opinion, Plato, whom Grayling underrates, advances by far the most subtle and sophisticated of all theories of friendship, one far superior even to that of Aristotle. Despite the extravagant praise that he lavishes upon friendship, Aristotle is quite clear that the best and happiest life is not that spent in friendship, but in the contemplation of those things that are most true and therefore most beautiful and most dependable. There is a contradiction here: if the best life is a life of contemplation, then friendship is either superfluous or inimical to the best life, and therefore undeserving of the high praise that Aristotle lavishes upon it. It may be, as Aristotle tentatively suggests, that friendship is needed because it promotes contemplation, or that contemplation is only possible some of the time and friendship is needed the rest of the time, or even that a life of friendship is just as good as a life of contemplation. So much for Aristotle, one might say.

Plato’s Lysis may seem to fail in its task of defining friendship, but one should never take Plato or his mouthpiece Socrates at face value. There is far more to the Lysis than a couple of interesting but misguided thoughts on friendship. By discussing friendship with Lysis and Menexenus as he does, Socrates is not only discussing friendship, but also demonstrating to the youths that, even though they count each other as close friends, they do not really know what friendship is, and that, whatever friendship is, it is something far deeper and far more meaningful than the puerile ‘friendship’ that they share. In contrast to the youths, Socrates knows perfectly well what friendship is, and is only feigning ignorance so as to teach the youths: ‘…and I, an old boy, who would fain be one of you…’ More than that, by discussing friendship with Lysis and Menexenus as he does, Socrates is himself in the process of befriending them. He befriends them not with pleasant banter or gossipy chitchat, as most people ‘befriend’ one another, but with the kind of philosophical conversation that is the hallmark of the deepest and most meaningful of friendships. In the course of this philosophical conversation, he tells the youths that he should ‘greatly prefer a real friend to all the gold of Darius’, thereby signifying not only that he places friendship on the same high pedestal as philosophy, to which he has devoted (and will sacrifice) his life, but also that the kind of friendship that he has in mind is so rare and uncommon that even he does not possess it. If friendship ultimately escapes definition, then this is because, like philosophy, friendship is not so much a thing-in-itself as it is a process for becoming. True friends seek together to live truer, fuller lives by relating to each other authentically and by teaching each other about the limitations of their beliefs and the defects in their character, which are a far greater source of error than mere rational confusion. For Plato, friendship and philosophy are aspects of one and the same impulse, one and the same love: the love that seeks to know.

Just as philosophy leads to friendship, so friendship leads to philosophy. In the Phaedrus, Plato’s most important work on friendship (although not generally recognized as such—Grayling fails to mention it), Socrates and Phaedrus go out into the idyllic countryside just outside Athens and have a long conversation about the anatomy of the soul, the nature of true love, the art of persuasion, and the merits of the spoken over the written word. At the end of this conversation, Socrates offers a prayer to the local deities. This is the famous Socratic Prayer, which is notable both in itself and for the response that it elicits from Phaedrus.

Socrates: Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry. —Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me.

Phaedrus: Ask the same for me, for friends should have all things in common.

Plato may fail to define friendship in the Lysis, but in the Phaedrus he gives us its living embodiment. Socrates and Phaedrus spend their time together enjoying the beautiful Attic countryside while engaging in honest and open philosophical conversation. By exercising and building upon reason, they are not only furthering each other’s understanding, but also transforming a life of friendship into a life of joint contemplation of those things that are most true and hence most beautiful and most dependable. If only on the basis of his response to the Socratic Prayer, it is obvious that Phaedrus is another self to Socrates, since he makes the same choices as Socrates and even justifies making those choices on the grounds that their friendship requires it. Whereas Aristotle and Grayling try to tell us what friendship is, Plato lets us feel it in all its allure and transformative power.

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Aristotle on Friendship (Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics)

After what we have said, a discussion of friendship would naturally follow, since it is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends?

Other than this, friendship protects prosperity, is a refuge in poverty and misfortune, keeps the young from error, assists the elderly, and stimulates to noble actions those in the prime of life. Friendship deepens thought and reinforces action. Parent feels it for offspring and offspring for parent, not only among men but also among most animals. It holds states together, and lawgivers care more for it than for justice. People who are friends have no need for justice, but people who are just need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is a friendly quality. Friendship is not only necessary but noble, and it is those with the greatest virtue who are friends most of all. Some philosophers say that friendship is a kind of likeness, others say the opposite. But is there only one type of friendship?

This question may be cleared up by identifying the object of love. There are three grounds upon which a person might wish another well, who, to be truly a friend, must both recognise and reciprocate this well-wishing: that he is useful, that he is pleasant, or that he is good. These reasons differ from one another in kind, and it follows that so do the corresponding forms of love and friendship. Yet, only those who love each other because they are good love each other for themselves, whereas friendships that are founded on usefulness or pleasure are only incidental, and are easily dissolved if one or both parties ceases to be useful or pleasant. These break ups are made more difficult if one or both parties has misrepresented himself or has been misled into thinking that he is loved for himself rather than for some incidental attribute. After a break up, each party should retain some consideration for the other in honour of their former friendship. Friendships that are founded on usefulness are particularly frequent in the elderly, and those on pleasure in the young. As the young are both pleasure seeking and dominated by their emotions, they quickly fall in and out of love, changing often within a single day.

Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good – and goodness is an enduring thing.

The good are not only good to each other, but also useful and pleasant, and this without qualification. It follows that love and friendship are to be found most and in their best form between such virtuous people. Unfortunately, such perfect friendships are as rare as virtuous people themselves, and require a lot of time and familiarity, for people cannot know and trust each other until, as the proverb says, they have eaten salt together. A wish for friendship may arise quickly, but perfect friendship itself does not, and then only in those who are loveable and who are conscious of this fact. In loving his friend, a person loves both the friend and that which is good for him personally, and this need not involve any contradiction. Thus, the person wishes the same things for himself and for his friend, and shares in the same joys and sorrows. He makes an equal return in goodwill and pleasantness, in accordance with the saying that friendship is equality.

There are some relationships, such as those between older and younger or ruler and subject, in which there is a clear inequality between the parties. In such unequal relationships, each party makes a different return according to the nature of the relationship. For instance, a father renders one thing to his son, and the son renders another, equally appropriate, thing to his father. At the same time, the son should love his father more than his father loves him, and in proportion to his superior merit – thereby re-establishing a sort of equality. If, however, persons are vastly unequal in virtue or in wealth or in anything else, then they cannot be friends, and men of no account do not expect to be friends with the best or wisest men.

Most people prefer to be loved rather than to love because they are avid of flattery. However, friendship depends more on loving than on being loved, and an enduring friendship requires due measures of loving. Like loves like, and this is especially true in the case of virtue, for virtuous people hold fast to each other, and neither go wrong nor let their friend go wrong. Wicked people on the other hand do not even remain like to themselves, let alone to each other, and become friends only for a short time so as to delight in each other’s wickedness.

Just as friendship binds together individuals, so justice binds together communities. Friendship is closely related to justice, and the demands of justice increase with the strength of a friendship. For this reason, it is more terrible to defraud a friend than a citizen, more terrible not to help a brother than a stranger, and more terrible to wound a father than anyone else. At the same time, the friendship of kindred and that of citizens should be marked off from the rest on the grounds that they rely on a sort of compact and are therefore more like mere friendships of association.

There are three kinds of constitution, monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy or polity, monarchy being the best kind and timocracy the worst. Their respective perversions are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, in which privileges are not extended according to merit and rulers look after their own interest rather than the common interest. Of the perversions, tyranny is the worst and democracy is the least bad, with the result that the perversion of the best is the worst and that of the worst is the best. The relationship between father and son is analogous to monarchy, that between man and wife to aristocracy, and that between brothers to timocracy. If these relationships become devoid of friendship or justice, they descend into the perversions of the constitutions to which they are analogous.

Complaints and reproaches tend to arise in the friendship of utility, since those who are friends on the ground of pleasure both get at the same time that which they desire, and those who are friends on the ground of virtue are anxious to do well by each other. Differences also tend to arise in friendships of superior and inferior, for each expects to get more out of the other, and the friendship ends up being dissolved. The better or more useful person expects that he should get more, or else he feels less like he is being a friend and more like he is performing an act of public service. The more needy or inferior person also thinks that he should get more, reasoning that there is otherwise no use in being the friend of a good or powerful person. Each party is justified in his claim, and each should get more out of the friendship than the other – but not of the same thing. The superior person should get more honour, and the inferior person more gain. However, it is often the case that a benefactor loves his beneficiary more than his beneficiary loves him in return because it is more pleasurable to give than to receive and because the benefactor is in some sense responsible for ‘creating’ the beneficiary, much like an artist creates a work of art. It is preferable to have a small number of meaningful friendships than many superficial ones. A virtuous person may be self-sufficient, yet he will seek out friends, for friendship is one of the greatest goods in life.

The Socratic Prayer

Yesterday, I prepared a dinner for some friends, and we recited the Socratic Prayer from the Phaedrus in lieu of grace, with someone reading the lines of Socrates and someone else that of Phaedrus.

I think I will be sticking with the Socratic Prayer, it is absolutely perfect for a dinner amongst friends.

Socrates: Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry. – Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me.
Phaedrus: Ask the same for me, for friends should have all things in common.
Socrates: Let us go [eat].

What is a Friend? – Part 1 of 3

Plato and Aristotle both gave an important place to friendship in the good life; Plato devoted the major part of three books (the Lysis, Phaedrus, and Symposium) to friendship and to love, and in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle lavished extravagant praise upon the Greek concept of friendship or philia, which included not only voluntary relationships but also those relationships that hold between the members of a family. Friendship, says Aristotle, is a virtue which is ‘most necessary with a view to living … for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods’.

Plato and Aristotle both gave an important place to friendship in the good life; Plato devoted the major part of three books (the Lysis, Phaedrus, and Symposium) to friendship and to love, and in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle lavished extravagant praise upon the Greek concept of friendship or philia, which included not only voluntary relationships but also those relationships that hold between the members of a family. Friendship, says Aristotle, is a virtue which is ‘most necessary with a view to living … for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods’.

If friendship is so important to the good life, then it is important to ask the question, what is friendship? According to Aristotle, for a person to be friends with another ‘it is necessary that [they] bear good will to each other and wish good things for each other, without this escaping their notice’. A person may bear good will to another for one of three reasons, that he is good (that is, rational and virtuous), that he is pleasant, or that he is useful. While Aristotle leaves room for the idea that relationships based on advantage alone or pleasure alone can give rise to friendships, he believes that such relationships have a smaller claim to be called friendships than those that are based partly or wholly on virtue. ‘Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, not coincidentally.’ Friendships that are based partly or wholly on virtue are desirable not only because they are associated with a high degree of mutual benefit, but also because they are associated with companionship, dependability, and trust. More important still, to be in such a friendship and to seek out the good of one’s friend is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness.

For Aristotle, an act of friendship is undertaken both for the good of one’s friend and for the good of oneself, and there is no reason to think that the one precludes the other. In any case, to have a perfect friend is like to have ‘another self’, since perfect friends make the same choices as each other and each one’s happiness adds to that of the other. Unfortunately, the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for example, in young people, who are not yet wise enough to be virtuous), and, second, because a perfect friendship can only be created and sustained if a pair of friends spend a great deal of exclusive quality time together. Thus, even if one lived entirely surrounded by virtuous people, one would only ever have the time for at most a small handful of perfect friends.

The ideal of perfect friendship may strike the modern reader as being somewhat elitist, but Aristotle is surely right in holding that the best kinds of friendship are both rare and demanding. If the best kinds of friendship are those that are based on virtue, then this is above all because such friendships call upon the exercise of reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness. However, it could be that the distinctive function of human beings is not the exercise of reason and virtue, but the capacity to form loving and meaningful relationships. If this is the case, then friendships that are based on virtue are even more important to the good life than Aristotle thinks.

Despite the extravagant praise that he lavishes upon friendship, Aristotle is quite clear that the best and happiest life is not the life spent in friendship, but the life spent in the contemplation of those things that are most true and therefore most beautiful and most dependable. There is a contradiction here: if the best life is a life of contemplation, then friendship is either superfluous or inimical to the best life, and therefore undeserving of the high praise that Aristotle lavishes upon it. It may be, as Aristotle tentatively suggests, that friendship is needed because it leads to contemplation, or that contemplation is only possible some of the time and friendship is needed the rest of the time, or even that a life of friendship is just as good as a life of contemplation. So much for Aristotle, one might say. Plato also gives an important place to friendship in the good life…