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Hoops of Steel

Chris Lawn

Friendship, by AC Grayling, Yale University Press, 248 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0300175356

It is very easy to feel like a person with no mates when one looks at the Facebook pages of others. My modest double figures are as nothing to those with a thousand and more “friends”. Is it possible to be so intimate with so many? Surely, many of this vast number are no more than acquaintances, colleagues, neighbours, or “casual friends” as opposed to “real friends”. Is the category of friend a misnomer here? The apparent closeness made possible by the new technologies mixed in with the competing social isolation of modernity makes the question “Who is my friend?” all the more perplexing and in need of clarification. Who better to confront this question than a philosopher; the very word refers to the philos, friends, of sophia, wisdom. But not only is philosophy predicated upon a kind of friendship, it has also, throughout its long history, examined its puzzling nature. AC Grayling’s book, by a practising professional philosopher, seeks to answer the many questions about the character and meaning of friendship from a variety of perspectives.

Grayling, the author of more than thirty book-length philosophical studies, believes philosophy should take an active, useful role in society. As a public intellectual he is a regular contributor to the press and a frequent contributor to radio and television, where his trenchant views on secularism and humanism are well known. Friendship is divided into three sections. In the first, Grayling offers an exhaustive account of the main thinkers in the history of philosophy who have speculated about friendship. This is followed by what one might term case studies on notable associations, fictional and actual, throughout the course of western culture. The study concludes with an amalgam of philosophical speculation and the author’s autobiographical reflections on friendships past and present.

The first chapter, “Ideas”, is by far the most detailed and informative. Grayling offers a catalogue of the thoughts of the great and the good from the classical period through to the nineteenth century. In the ancient world there were significant contributions. Plato’s dialogue Lysis is important, not for the depth of its insight but because it is the first sustained account of friendship. The principal idea is of “mutual utility”; friendships are built upon one’s usefulness to individuals and the community at large. In another of Plato’s dialogues, Symposium, friendship is taken to be inferior to love, whether it be the divine or of the erotic variety. As influential in the history of philosophy is Aristotle’s famous meditation on friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics. The Ethics takes friendship to be one of the central civic virtues without which ordered social life would be impossible. But more than this it is one of the key ingredients of the good life: having fine friends contributes to one’s own eudaimonia or happiness. Without friends we would be unable to express our sociability. Our natural propensities for generosity, charity, and other such virtues would be undeveloped if they could not be demonstrated to those closest to us.

Subsequent philosophers made much of Aristotle’s observation that a person “is to his friend as he is to himself, for his friend is another self”. On this view there is something essentially complete about a virtuous person treating another virtuous person virtuously although this is something of an ideal to which one strives but rarely, if ever, fully achieves. Perhaps the impossibility of reaching this ideal is what lies behind Aristotle’s exclamation: “Friends, there is no friend!” In passing, it should also be noted that not only is complete friendship an impossible goal but there is something paradoxical about equating self-love with love for another. Aristotle is haunted by the teachings of his master Plato and try as he might he never fully escapes his influence. So for all Aristotle’s fine words about the importance of friendship as a civic virtue, the Platonic view advocating the solitary, monastic, life of contemplation appears in the final chapter of Aristotle’s Ethics, serving to undercut, or even contradict, the insights of the earlier part of the work.

Cicero’s De Amicitia (On Friendship) draws heavily upon the insights of Aristotle but the vagaries of circumstance and the changes in character and personality demand, in the eyes of Cicero, a more pragmatic, less idealised, description of friendship. Even more pragmatic is Plutarch, who seems more of a dispenser of practical advice than a purveyor of philosophical insight. Grayling compares Plutarch’s worldly wisdom to that of Hamlet’s Polonius. Instead of a host of friends we should cultivate just one, we are told. Cultivation, as in nurture and treat with solicitude, is of the essence here. To acquire a multitude of friends is, according to Plutarch, to be “impressionable, and versatile, pliant, and changeable” whereas “[true] friendship requires a steady, constant and unchangeable character, a person that is uniform in his intimacy”.

From the Christian period focus is upon Augustine and Aquinas. In discussing Augustine Grayling has little regard for his theology but shows real admiration for the description of the loss of a very close friend as recounted in the Confessions. Despite Augustine’s deep sadness on the passing of his comrade Grayling detects an “obvious difficulty for Christians in thinking about friendship, given that their religion’s founder enjoins them to agape, indiscriminate love for their fellow human beings”. The question is: can one ever square the universality of Christian love with the deeply personal intimacy of personal friendships? There is clearly a difficulty here.

In the Renaissance period two figures loom large in Grayling’s historical narrative: Montaigne and Bacon. The French essayist Montaigne had much to say on friendship, having analysed in detail his intense relationship with Étienne de La Boétie. But there is no one thing one can identify and proclaim as the heart of true friendship; its basis is not one particular factor but a “mysterious quintessence”. When asked why he loved his friend, Montaigne could only reply, in an oft-quoted phrase, “Because it was he, because it was myself.” The contribution of Francis Bacon, the English essayist and scientist, was to observe, with remarkable common sense, the virtues of friendship and more importantly the comforts and delights one misses out on if forced to remain friendless.

In the final section of the historical excursion, entitled “From Enlightenment back to the Roman Republic”, Grayling surveys ideas from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Kant, Voltaire, and Adam Smith all made contributions to the definition of friendship but the philosopher given most prominence is the English anarchist thinker William Godwin. In a neglected essay, Godwin argued against the grain, asserting that true friendship thrived not amongst equals but unequals. For Grayling, Godwin sees that friendship consists in “the repose of the loftier soul, its unbending or relaxation into the confidence and love of the inferior party”. The nineteenth century reflections are brief and come mainly from the novelists, the emphasis being upon the treatment of friendships in the works of Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell.

In a dramatic change of gear Grayling’s next chapter examines in detail notorious friendships from the canon of Western literature. Much is made of Homer’s description, in The Iliad, of the grief of Achilles on the death of Patroclus. This friendship is characterised as “Godwinian”, given the nobility of one and the social inferiority of the other. The relationship between David and Jonathan, as described in the Books of Samuel, is also dealt with in detail. Once again the relationship is “Godwinian”, Jonathan being high-born and David “a commoner”. Much has been made about the nature of this friendship and the degree of its intimacy the object of much speculation. Other friendships mentioned in this chapter are those between Nisus and Euryalus in Virgil’s Aeneid and, from more recent periods, those between Boswell and Johnson and Tennyson and Hallam.

The final section, entitled “Experiences”, is a mixture of Grayling’s own first-hand observations and aperçus, followed by a series of personal reflections on friendships past and present, from those in childhood and school to the solace of friendships with couples in later life. This chapter is certainly the most interesting (although not necessarily the most philosophical). Many tantalising questions, largely to do with sex and sexuality, are raised in this section, although they tend to the rhetorical since Grayling refrains from giving definitive responses to his own questions. A dominant theme here concerns the possibility – or impossibility – of maintaining a friendship with members of the opposite sex without it turning into something more passionate and libidinal. Is a friendship with the opposite sex always and only just that or is it invariably a precursor to a sexual relationship? More specifically, is there symmetry here between male-male, female-female friendships on the one hand and male-female on the other? Many friendships are enhanced and deepened when they turn into intimate relationships or romantic love but sex can be the ruination of a friendship if the desire for it is purely on one side. Grayling offers many insights into the origins, development and demise of friendships as well as enumerating qualities we expect from our friends, principal among them being loyalty and trust. On the other hand, we owe other things to our friends, a sharing in their grief and misfortune, for example.

There is much to commend in this study. It is written with clarity in a breezy no-nonsense style. The erudition, especially in the earlier chapters describing the views of the various philosophers, is impressive. The elucidation of largely forgotten ideas on friendship by those thinkers better known for their metaphysics and other areas of philosophical labour is useful and the author has performed a valuable service by bringing those ideas to light. Having said all this, however, one is ultimately left with a feeling of dissatisfaction, for a variety of reasons. There is an evident structural weakness in the work as the three main sections do not readily fit together and the overall impression is of a study that is disjointed and unevenly stitched together. The first section, the history of philosophical thoughts on the nature of friendship is a simple doxographical chronology and catalogue of ideas with little in the way of the construction of a coherent narrative linking the changing fortunes of views about friendship.

By far the weakest section is the series of case studies of notorious friendships. With largely descriptive accounts of canonical texts we are offered what are more exercises in literary exegesis than a sustained meditation on the central topic of the book. Mystifying also is the decision to terminate the historical study with the Victorian era. Many interesting studies of friendship have been written since this time but are singularly ignored, notably works in the so-called “continental” tradition in philosophy. One thinks here of such recent works as that of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida with his deconstructive study of Aristotle and subsequent thinkers in The Politics of Friendship. Also one might instance an essay on a similar topic by the increasingly influential Italian Giorgio Agamben. Perhaps Grayling’s clear identification with the more Anglo-American “analytic” idiom in philosophy has directed him away from alternative traditions.

There were other minor irritations, the first of these being connected to the point above about the author’s philosophical commitment to analysis. There are constant references to the so-called “no true Scotsman fallacy” which did seem out of place in a sweeping historical study. This solecism of informal logic, “resides in so defining a ‘true X’ that if some putative X fails to fit the desired definition, it can be excluded from the class of Xs by moving the goal posts so that they only compass ‘true’ Xs”. Apparently Cicero and many other luminaries are guilty of this crime but, to my mind, it would be more appropriate to include this example of allegedly poor reasoning in a logic primer than in a brief historical survey. Criticisms aside, this is a useful study of an often neglected topic. To ask, “who is my friend?” is, as the Greeks realised, a burning question at the heart of politics and morality. The centrality of this question needs to be reinstated in a culture where the difference between friends and Facebook “friends” is ripe for serious investigation. Perhaps this little study is too general to be of any real value to specialist scholars but it is a well-written and well-researched contribution to the topic and would serve well as a basic introduction.

Chris Lawn teaches philosophy at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. His publications include Wittgenstein and Gadamer: Towards a Post-analytic Philosophy of Language and Gadamer: A Guide for the Perplexed. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Hermeneutics.