Friendship and the Self

Another essay by yours truly. Submitted 10 December 2012.

The subject of friendship has surfaced repeatedly under the titles of prominent philosophers from varying cultures and time periods. From Socrates’ day to C.S. Lewis’ contemporary milieu, friendship has been praised as a moral achievement of human virtue in multiple contexts. Emerson eloquently stated that the essence of friendship is “entireness, a total magnanimity and trust” (232). Seneca cited the “inherent attractiveness” of friendship as a reason for why all men seek it (123). Even Kant had some nice things to say about friendship after explaining his reservations. But my purpose here is not to simply restate what the philosophers have said. I wish to provide a persuasive argument for why and how friendship arises in the self. Ultimately, this discussion will be crucial to forming a theory of what friendship is on both the theoretical and practical level.

My objective at the start of this course was to identify and assess a common thread between the philosophers we studied, but over time, I realized that identifying my own idea of friendship and comparing my experiences to our selections was an equally important step toward arriving at a conclusion. After all, how could I expect to take anything away from our discussions if I did not fully engage myself in the theories? Without a point of reference, I would have been completely lost. And yet, before I even realized what I was doing, my mind was comparing the text against my own beliefs. It was not until I made a conscious effort to reconcile them, however, that I arrived at any truly illuminating discoveries. This is what I will argue: that friendship is the highest engagement of the self in the world and the most accurate meter of truth. My small victories in engaging the authors reflected a greater human trope, namely, that earnest friendliness encourages a dialogue unparalleled in depth and perception.

Whatever medium might come into play, friendship can be rudimentarily described as a conscious interaction for mutual benefit between two same-searching individuals. What I mean to say is that my interaction with the text was friendly in that I recognized the author’s intent and created a dialogue with it that opened my perspective to new avenues of understanding. But I did not have a friendship with the text because it was impassive and non-responsive to my reactions. I did not achieve a true dialogue with the text but a likeness of a dialogue with the author. For this reason primarily, people can only share friendship with other people and not objects or animals. A person also cannot be friends with someone that he has never directly interacted with, including the deceased. This does not exclude people who communicate through medium like letters and texts, however, since a genuine interaction is achievable as long as the two are aware of one another. Still, a relationship based on not-in-person interactions is likely to be quite strained.

As a resource in cooperation with my investigation, I would like to bring in an article from the Journal of Social Philosophy by Kristjan Kristjansson. His article, entitled Parents and Children as Friends, makes a strong case against the traditional philosophical argument that parents and children cannot be friends. Using Aristotle’s model of friendship, Kristjansson claims “well-ordered, loving parent-child relationships…contain with them friendships” and that the incommensurability of these relationships does not necessarily imply incompatibility, a reference to a previous article called Friends and Lovers by Johann A. Klaasen (259). Kristjansson’s article is relevant in my argument not specifically for its treatment of the parent-child relationship, but more importantly for the valuable claims it makes in regard to Aristotle’s account of friendship and this description of the friend as “another self.” The author demonstrates a keen understanding of the issues presented by the Nicomachean Ethics and engages them insightfully by deconstructing the concepts of self-sufficiency and inequality as moral barriers to friendship.

Kristjansson introduces his argument by challenging what philosophers mean when they describe “true” or “real” friendship. He asserts that the prevailing opinion among philosophers seems to be that parents and children cannot be friends in the strict sense of the term, but that this view is considered to be “counter-intuitive to many laypeople and at least some philosophers” (250). Assuming that “laypeople” means people outside of the professional and academic communities, this would appear to be a small nod to the practical concerns of individuals who seek to understand how friendship works in action and not just on the idealistic theoretical level. But is there really such a great need to pit the practical aspect against the theoretical aspect? It is of course very Aristotelian to consider abstract intellectual endeavors as higher than or superior to the common concerns of particular cases, but that does not mean we should dismiss practical claims as non-substantial.

Aristotle often warns about “the many” and their vulgar, common opinions yet he almost always starts his discussions with them. The first chapter of Book VIII, for example, is entitled Common Beliefs and Questions. He goes on to say “but in poverty also, and in the other misfortunes, people think friends are the only refuge” (1155a12). We have heard many philosophers scorn “fair-weather” friends this semester, including Seneca, who described how such a friendship would break down as easily as it started up: “The beginning and the end [of a friendship] cannot but harmonize. He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays” (121). In any case, a constructive account of friendship must take common public opinion for what it is. What we do not realize is that often these opinions are so ingrained in us that we take them for granted. Perhaps this is why Kristjansson thought that denying the possibility of parent-child friendship was “counter-intuitive” to some. After all, Aristotle did cite human beings as the species most inclined out of all others to have a “natural friendship” with one another, especially the parent and child (1155a20).

As he continues, Kristjansson explains that the great majority of contemporary philosophical voices involve some aspect of Aristotle’s account of friendship either explicitly or implicitly (250). I found this to be very true as the themes of virtue, community, justice, and equality (to name a few) resurfaced time and time again. He then begins to recite Aristotle’s account, starting with the distinction of three types of friendship: (1) friendship for pleasure (2) friendship for utility (3) and the friendship of virtue. Kristjansson characterizes the third as the only “complete” friendship, stating that in this kind, “friends love one another because of their respective virtuous characters and wish good for one another, each for the other’s sake” (250). He also says they are the most “stable” and “enduring” type of friendships which are, “to be sure, instrumentally and extrinsically valuable in many ways.”

Kristjansson closes in on his discussion of the friend as another self after he makes the distinction that the friendship for utility and friendship for pleasure are merely friendships by similarity and that this is why they are incomplete in comparison to what he calls character friendship (251). He insists that people in common opinion agree that although we may call certain acquaintances friendships, we all know the difference between someone we casually call a friend and a real friend, that is, a person who is truly deserving of the title. There are people who are friends to others and there are people who are friends of others. Here he offers an anecdote: “my neighbor, the electrician, was a real friend to me when the electricity went off in my flat; but although I hold him dear for that, he is not, therefore, necessarily a friend of mine” (251). The person who is a friend of someone else is the kind of person who is another self.

Kristjansson further makes his case of the friend as another self in an important passage where he combines his idea of the privileged parent-child relationship and his theory of moral (character) development. According to him, all identities of the self are gradually formed in late childhood (in general, children start thinking in complex terms of justice and fairness somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12). Hence the moral self and the social self arise together and are inseparable from the start. Furthermore, he argues that this formation of identity does not necessarily impair the child’s ability to become autonomous in regard to other people who have helped form their identity:

“It is only by taking the role of the other (in particular, at the beginning, the role of the parent) that the child’s self acquires its reflexive quality and attains self-consciousness. Our lives as human beings are, by necessity, intertwined…if my sense of myself requires me to seek recognition from others, and my social existence and social relations are essential rather than contingent parts of my personhood, it is unreasonable to insist that because someone else has helped me shape my identity, I cannot be fully autonomous with regard to that person” (255).

The self, then, is only defined by comparison to the other just as the other is only defined in comparison to the self. The two are like reflections of one another, mirror images that are complementary and not merely the exact same thing. In friendship, the self and the other both have their own intrinsic value but they appreciate what each brings to bear because they are equal in virtue. Being equal in virtue, however, does not mean that two people have the exact same kinds of virtue. A virtuous person with a correct desire of the good will recognize both what he has and what he lacks so that he will understand that the virtue of another person, his friend, is also desirable in itself.

In chapter four of Book IX, Aristotle discusses what he means by self love and how it is an important part of friendship. He calls “the defining features of friendship that are found in friendships to one’s neighbors (others) would seem to be derived from features of friendship toward oneself. For a friend is taken to be someone who wishes and does goods or apparent goods to his friend for friends own sake” (1166a). The same can be said of how the person who is a friend treats himself. He wants to be virtuous and achieve great things, so he is kind to himself and wishes goods to himself for his own sake. The virtuous person finds pleasure in his own company because he finds himself not only tolerable but also pleasant in himself. Thus the decent person “is related to his friend as he is to himself, since the friend is another himself” (1166a30).

Kristjansson interprets Aristotle’s argument to mean that the virtues of self-love and love of friends develop at the same time and are inseparable: “It is not as if we first learn to love ourselves and then incorporate others under the same umbrella; rather the capacity to love ourselves and the capacity to love others (family members, friends) arise together ‘in the same way as he is related to himself, since a friend is another self’” (256). Moreover, according to Aristotle, “if someone is always eager above all to do just or temperate actions or any other actions in accord with the virtues, and in general always gains for himself what is fine, no one will call him a self-lover (in the morally shameful manner) or blame him for it” (1168b25-27). This is because friendship with oneself is an outpouring of virtue in the same way that friendship with another self is an outpouring of virtue. Self-love is not selfish if a person is virtuous, since he will go to great lengths for the sake of another self just as he does for himself.

Kristjansson concludes his article by stating that Kupfer’s claim (parents and children cannot be friends because children are “incapable of full-blown friendships, even when the children have reached adulthood,” 253) did not live up to its goal. It failed to prove that parents and children are completely unable to form anything that resembles a “true” or “real” friendship because his structural and moral arguments were too weak—his points did not hold together very tightly. For example, his claim that inequality based on the superiority of parents to children was not entirely refuted by Aristotle, who “states explicitly that within each of the three types of friendship are some that rest on equality and others superiority” (254). In the end, Kupfer’s argument produced an “overly restrictive conception of friendship…that did not bar parent-child friendships for moral reasons, as it is commonly taken to do” (263).

Ultimately, I agree with Aristotle’s account of friendship more thoroughly than any other philosopher we have studied. As a consciously reciprocated goodwill and love of another, friendship should be seen as self looking in on itself, virtue for the end of virtue. Friendship is the “highest external good” because it does not praise the accidental or coincidental qualities in man but instead fosters and nurtures virtuous behaviors in the self and in the other. Two people who posses what Kristjansson refers to as the “character virtue,” Aristotle’s most complete and most desirable type of friendship, posses one another fully and most intimately. A true friend is a friend of someone else’s instead of a friend to someone else. A real friend treats his other as the treats himself, for such a person is a self that has grown with and alongside another to the extent that the two have become indistinguishable.

I agree with Kristjansson that the role of parents is crucial in the moral development of children, and I wonder if the successes or failures of the parent-child relationships set the stage for the child’s future adult relationships. But proving the viability of this kind of relationship in Aristotle’s account was not my focus. The purpose of Kristjansson’s article was to bring a new voice to the discussion of friendship in regard to the self. Kristjansson’s argument was valuable because his interpretation of Aristotle’s account showed how the self is defined by and defines the other. He took this a step further by claiming that the concepts of self-love and love of others arise in the individual at the same time so that they are indistinguishable from one another. He emphasized the parent-child relationship because it is in this relationship primarily that we first form the idea of the self and the idea of the other as well as the concept of love, justice, and equality.

Kristjansson cited that Aristotle gave more space to his discussion of friendship than any other particular intellectual or moral virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics (251). As such, the significance of friendship in our lives can never be too greatly praised or exaggerated. Out of every account, Aristotle’s phrase “a friend is another self” best describes the condition created in the unity of two virtuous individuals. We can say that someone is another self to the extent that we love this person like we love ourselves. Friendship is a model for itself without comparison, an engagement of the self in the world, and a great outpouring of virtue. As Emerson explained, “[he] who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine—a possession for all time” (221). We transform the opposition of the self and the other in friendship for when we are friends with another, “the not mine is mine” (219).

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