Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Friendship

"Because it was he.  Because it was I." - Montaigne on how he chose his one true friend.

It's curious to me how we qualify what counts as a friend. Since the invention of Facebook, this has been discussed at length, mostly focusing on the inauthenticity of the one-click relationship. This actually has a long history of being a topic of debate.

Seneca (pictured here) advised that "a wise man should be so good at making new friends that he can replace an old one without skipping a beat" (Bakewell, 107).  But Montaigne spent half his life looking for a friend that could match the connection he had with La Boetie, who died of the plague with Montaigne at his bedside when he was only 30.

In "Of Friendship," Montaigne compares Seneca's notion of easy friendship with what he once had and finds it lacking,
"For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined."
Montaigne had one friend his whole life, and only for a short time, yet he talks of lengthy conversations with many people throughout his essays. None of those people count.

I can relate to that, yet I question the wisdom of it. Years ago, I had a group of three friends that I did everything with for about a decade. We laughed at the same things and could talk and debate into the wee hours regularly. From time to time a few of us lived together. We could support one another when needed, and never ran into Montaigne’s concern with having more than one true friend: that one friend might need something that harms another.

Unlike La Boetie, they didn’t die; we all just changed and grew apart. We let romantic relationships get in the way of our friendship I suppose. And if we try to reconnect, it’s not the same. The people we were don’t exist anymore.

Any friendship since pales by comparison. But it seems foolish to compare at all. If we say someone’s not a friend unless our souls are entwined, then many of us will live our lives friendless. This is where, I think, philosophy does itself a disservice. It may be more accurate to think that friendship is a rare occurrence, but is it useful?

There’s a different perspective discussed by James Conlon a few years back (in an essay that, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be on-line): perhaps all friendships, instead of lying on a hierarchy from completely entwined to completely utility-driven, lie in a mosaic of different but equal. Perhaps comparing relationships is more like comparing a poem with an essay than it is comparing $50 with $100.

The demarcation of friendship is useful only to honour what once was, to clarify to self and others that it was special. Beyond that, comparing a potential friend to another person or to a set standard is offensive and just closes us off to new experiences. Not to harp on Happy Days, but remember when Fonzie had a list of all the qualities a girlfriend should have, and he ditched the perfect girl because she was a stripper? The hope of an ideal made his life worse, not better.  (The sound's a bit rough, and deconstructing the sexism needs a post of its own, but I still laughed!)

It’s not to say we should have no standards for burgeoning friendships, but that it’s better for us if our standards are less rigid and more encompassing. We can connect briefly over a shared interest without the necessity of merging souls. Every connection has some value.

I do agree, however, that if a friendship is utility-driven, then it’s something else altogether. We all sense that, but don’t always name it when it happens. Friends see us as an end, not a means. People who use us as a means to an end are opportunists or ladder-climbers or slimebags or just plain lazy.

Although I disagree with Montaigne on the wisdom of elevating one friend above all others, I also disagree with Seneca. There has to be some significant connection to call someone a friend. Just anyone won’t do.

Perhaps it's the case that these relationships made expediently aren't superficial, for utility or for the status of having lots of friends, but that people like Seneca are capable of developing substantial connections with myriad people. That seems beneficial to all if it's possible.

But is it possible? What's the number of friends we can have before they're not really worthy of the title?

Aristotle tackled this one too. He suggests there is a range of the number of friends we can have with a maximum set at the number of people we can comfortably live with. He points out similar problems of too many friends: we're pulled in too many directions, and that it can be tricky if one is sad and the other happy. How do you share both emotions at once? Furthermore, "those who have many friends... are thought to be no one's friend." So, a few is a good guess.

Aristotle's last line is a good point. The more friends someone has, the more we believe each relationship to be watered down as if our capacity for loving and caring for others is finite. Practically, if someone has 1,000 friends, they could only meet for a meal once a year if they're treating all friends equally. But, that assumes they have to meet one-on-one. Facebook is actually the ultimate friendship-equalizer. We can talk to all friends at once now and share the same information and pictures and links we like to everyone simultaneously. So, maybe it's the case that back in the day it was only possible to have one or a few real friends, but now we can have a limitless number.

A recent study suggested that 150 is the perfect number of friends. However, the article discusses the benefits of friends including a rise in income with an increase in friends in university. Now we're back to utility, not the kind of friendship Montaigne's on about. And I think what we have on Facebook doesn't fit the bill either. So I'm back to: Is it impossible to have a profound connection with more than a handful of people?

I think it’s possible for some people, those who can always fine a way to connect to almost anyone they meet. But I’m not one of them.  

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