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.

Guilt

I was reminded of one of my own ‘mottos at work’ this week – don’t start with an apology. We often start an encounter by excusing ourselves for things that aren’t really our fault. That, or making an unduly self-deprecating comment. Why?

Well when it comes to a big ballsy idea you can’t beat Nietzsche. What say you to this: all our animal instincts that don’t get let out into the real world get turned inside. This is Nietzsche’s idea that our ‘will to power’ is either expressed externally or turned in our ourselves – often as guilt.

Nietzsche is an interesting chap. Unashamedly elitist, cultured, a fine writer. But also discomforting and highly speculative. His punt – based on no particular evidence it must be said – is that there was a time when we were cruel but cheerful. Guilt didn’t exist. Just debts to repay and retribution to enact.

Depending on whether you were owed to or in debt, you were either cheerfully duffing someone up or being duffed up. But there were no hard feelings – even if it was painful and cruel. The nobly savage, jolly, barbarian life.

This reminds me of the Viking laws someone gave me a copy of a couple of years ago:

Be direct, brave and aggressive, grab all opportunities, use varying methods of attack, be versatile and agile, attack one target at a time, don’t plan everything in detail, use top quality weapons, keep weapons in good shape, keep yourself in good shape, find good battle comrades, agree on important points, choose one chief.

Not much introspection there. Sensible organisation, plenty of ‘flow’ potential and a good deal of what we would consider cruelty. I also suspect not much guilt… And by the sounds of it a fair bit of cheerfulness.

And this is what I find interesting in Nietzsche’s thesis. The barbarism and cruelty of dominance and power led to vivid, guilt free lives – nasty brutish and short no doubt, but vivid and guilt free. For Nietzsche, guilt is simply energy we can’t expend elsewhere. So why do we all feel guilty all the time?

Because we can never do enough (Kierkegaard) if anyone could view what we’re doing as wrong then it is wrong (Kant) and even when we do do the ‘right’ things they may turn out wrong (Mill).

Nietzsche asks a perfectly good question; why do we feel so guilty for everything? These days I’m feeling less guilty about spending that energy better elsewhere.