The Nature of Friendship

There’s something happening that has made me examine the meaning of friendship again and I’ll write about it elsewhere but I thought I’d examine what it means to be a friend here.

One of the earliest mentions of friendship comes from Aristotle who distinguishes three different kinds of friendship. One he calls genuine friendship and the other two based on mutual usefulness and pleasure. It is the first which he says doesn’t dissolve whilst the other two are ephemeral and come and go according to need.

The first he says takes place between two good men –
‘each alike wish good for the other good, and they are good in themselves’. Aristotle continues, ‘And it is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality’ (Aristotle 1976: 263).

So what is the nature of the other two? Well Aristotle and others claim that they are based on utility which last only as long as the need for the friendship lasts. Once that is gone the frienship goes with it.

An article on Public Book Shelf states –

Friendships of this kind seem to occur most frequently between the elderly (because at their age what they want is not pleasure but utility) and those in middle or early life who are pursuing their own advantage. Such persons do not spend much time together, because sometimes they do not even like one another, and therefore feel no need of such an association unless they are mutually useful. For they take pleasure in each other’s company only in so far as they have hopes of advantage from it.
Aristotle in The Nichomachean Ethics, 1155a3, 1156a16-1156b23 states

Friendship based on pleasure. Friendship between the young is thought to be grounded on pleasure, because the lives of the young are regulated by their feelings, and their chief interest is in their own pleasure and the opportunity of the moment. With advancing years, however, their tastes change too, so that they are quick to make and to break friendships; because their affection changes just as the things that please them do and this sort of pleasure changes rapidly. Also the young are apt to fall in love, for erotic friendship is for the most part swayed by the feelings and based on pleasure. That is why they fall in and out of friendship quickly, changing their attitude often within the same day. But the young do like to spend the day and live together, because that is how they realize the object of their friendship.

Perfect friendship is based on goodness. Only the friendship of those who are good, and similar in their goodness, is perfect. For these people each alike wish good for the other…, and they are good in themselves. And it is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality. … Friendship of this kind is permanent, reasonably enough; because in it are united all the attributes that friends ought to possess. For all friendship has as its object something good or pleasant — either absolutely or relatively to the person who feels the affection — and is based on some similarity between the parties.
…The wish for friendship develops rapidly, but friendship does not.

True friends show sympathy, care and concern for their friends. If they judge, it is in the context of the shared experiences they had and with a desire that their friend is cared for and ultimately happy. Can a friend wish their friend ill, or hope that they are unhappy, I think not. Can they still be friends even if they think that their opinion is being ignored?

Cicero also follows this line of thinking –

Let this, then, be laid down as the first law of friendship, that we should ask from friends, and do for friends’, only what is good. But do not let us wait to be asked either: let there be ever an eager readiness, and an absence of hesitation. Let us have the courage to give advice with candour. In friendship, let the influence of friends who give good advice be paramount; and let this influence be used to enforce advice not only in plain-spoken terms, but sometimes, if the case demands it, with sharpness; and when so used, let it be obeyed. (section 13)

So what happens when relationships break down. What if a friend hurts another friend? Where do true friends stand?

Often in the case of separation and divorce friends take sides. There are all sorts of reasons for that – maybe they are more sympathetic to one side over the other, maybe one side inevitably has less contact and therefore less opportunity to present their own point of view. It is interesting that often one or the other sides, loses friends who had been very close. In some cases they find it harder to move on than the divorced couples, probably because they only knew them firstly as a couple, and probably only saw them in times when conviviality and shared experiences were positive rather than negative. It may also be that the person who appears to have caused the break up of the marriage is seen as a threat to their own relationship. Because if best friends can break up when everything from the outside seems good what may happen to them?

But the discussion for me raises more questions than it answers and I do believe that the answer is different for a man and a woman.

What does it mean when you say “friends are there for you”? Does it have to be a random call every now and then to see how you are? Does it mean physically getting together and spending time doing things that you mutually enjoy? Does mean anticipating when a friend may need your help even when they don’t ask for it? Is it enough for a man to say – call me if you feel like it and is that a different expectation to what a woman has for friends?

Does it mean that you should have the courage to offer an opinion even if the opinion may be rejected? Should the rejection of the opinion mean the end to the friendship?

What is a best friend? For me that would be someone who doesn’t judge.& Maybe a person who can imagine walking that mile in your shoes. Someone who at the very least tries to understand their friends decisions even if they believe them to have been wrong.

If I had to define a friend in a few simple words it would be this. A friend is someone who tries to understand your point of view, even if they disagree with it. A best friend would be someone who stands by you irrespective of that conflict in opinion, who does not judge, but who does attempt to walk in your shoes.

Aristotle says –

The dissolution of friendship is warranted when one party has become depraved, since he has changed from being the person who was the object of friendship. But he should not be given up while there is hope of restoring his character.

So when should one give up on a friend? If you valued the relationship then you should at the very least make an effort to attempt to understand what caused the friendship to decay. Should that happen by stealth so that time and distance simply allow it to fade away?

In researching the topic I came across these quotes and it is worth pondering each of them –

MARK TWAIN on Friendship wrote –

When we think of friends, and call their faces out of the shadows, and their voices out of the echoes that faint along the corridors of memory, and do it without knowing why save that we love to do it, we content ourselves that that friendship is a Reality, and not a Fancy–that it is builded upon a rock, and not upon the sands that dissolve away with the ebbing tides and carry their monuments with them.
– Letter to Mary Mason Fairbanks

The proper office of a friend is to side with you when you are in the wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are in the right.
– Notebook, 1898

Henry David Thoreau
True friendship can afford true knowledge. It does not depend on darkness and ignorance.
Robert Frost
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
Epicurus
It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us.
William Blake
It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.
Sir Francis Bacon
We read that we ought to forgive our enemies; but we do not read that we ought to forgive our friends.

I am hurting at the moment. Maybe I have no right to be hurt. I do understand that the break up of the marriage and therefore the break down in my friendships was my fault. But I have trouble understanding how some can move on and be happy, whilst others still seem hell bent on sheeting blame. So I am no closer to finding the nature of true friendship, maybe it actually lies in that unconditional companionship one gets from their pet dog. Those who do judge, maybe only do so because they don’t understand the other persons point of view. But shouldn’t true friends take the time to find out what that is?
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