The Art of Friendship

I listened to a Philosophy Bites podcast this week on the topic of ‘friendship’. It made me think afresh about the balance of ‘duties to all’ versus special treatment for a ‘selected few’ – i.e. our friends.

Alexander Nehamas’ argument is, post Immanuel Kant, many of us have come to believe that privileging our friends over others is less ‘moral’ than treating everyone the same – even strangers and people we’ll never meet. This is Kant’s Categorical Imperative, act in ways you would ‘will’ to be universal laws.

But friends are different than everyone else in our lives. For Aristotle – although he might not recognise the modern version – friends are the purpose of life and our virtue revolves around them.

Nehemas’ suggestion is we should think of friends on different plane than ethics. We should think of them more as we think of art and artists. We are interested in our friends for their ‘specialness’, what is individual and distinctive about them, not for their commonalities. We are friends to co-create distinctive, memorable, pages in our life stories.

And this is why drifting apart from friends hurts them so much. Not only do we reject them as people, we turn over – even tear out – the pages of life we created with them; in favour of new friends and new pages.

This is a very different take on friends – friends as narrative growth, not past history. Is what makes us different and how we are growing what matters most in friendship; more even than what we have in common or did together in the past?

Friends as bringers of difference, individuality and new embroidery in life’s rich tapestry, is a very different way of thinking of them. ‘Individuation’, creativity and art are very different registers from ethics, equivalence and fairness. Friends as ‘works of art’ we have a hand in creating, is a nice way of looking at each other.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Friendship

  1. I’ve also been thinking about discriminatory treatment but through the lens of affiliation. Reading around a bit, there’s not much on the topic – other than an interesting aside that those with a high affiliation need may be less effective leaders. Having initially rejected it out of hand, I think it’s an interesting point (depending on the definition of leadership).

    To build on the concept of affiliation which is not egalitarian and taking the prism of the lunch invitation, I’ve come up with my own taxonomy of affiliation:

    Eudaimonic affiliation: where the affiliation enhances significantly my life experience and I proactively pursue the lunch date, disappointed if it doesn’t come to pass

    Satisfying affiliation: where the relationship will contribute to my general well-being and I accept readily or initiate a lunch date

    Exploratory affiliation: where there may be the possibility of either of the above emerging from a relationship and a lunch will help to confirm

    Instrumental affiliation: where greater affiliation can improve a situation in work or outside and result in greater effectiveness, and lunch may push that forward.

    Zero affiliation need: it’s good enough for what is needed and so lunch would be mutually unproductive and unnecessary.

    Too harsh? Or just pragmatic?

    One other thing that I’ve computed is that affiliation can only really work if the motivations are mutual. Maybe when it isn’t is where it is such hard work?

    1. I think you’ve hit a sizeable nail smack on the head here. The absolute requirement for reciprocity deserves a debate though.

      As for your taxonomy, it does it for me. The only thing missing perhaps is the element of surprise. No-one is entirely what we see on first encounter and people have lots of peculiarities so maybe a punt on those we know less well is more worthwhile than sober analysis always suggests.

      All depends on the available free time – which is running out for us all – so that argues for your taxonomy in it’s pure form. Nice work I’d say.

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