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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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…