Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Finding commonalities between six different traditions

In any collection of six philosophies on friendship — or any subject, for that matter — there are sure to be varying ideas. There is even dissent within each perspective. Take Confucianism, for example: The three major texts (Mengzi, Xunzi, and Kongzi) disagree on the fundamental characteristics of human nature. However, ancient cultures often borrowed from one another, so there are several common threads between them. In this essay, I will provide a brief summary of each ancient philosophy and identify the commonalities shared between different groupings of them. I will also attempt to determine underlying similarities between all six.

When trying to make sense of the extensive teachings on friendship that each of these cultures has to offer, it is helpful to recall the questions we’ve been considering in class and apply them to each philosophy. Some of those questions are as follows: Does [the teaching] understand friendship as a virtue, or as a means of attaining virtue? Does [the teaching] understand friendship as necessary for religion, or religion necessary for friendship? Does [the teaching] understand friendship as duty-based, role-based, virtue-based, law-based, or something else? What is the role of friendship in politics, and politics in friendship? This list is not complete, but it addresses many of the themes we’ve covered in class so far.

The question of ethics — law-based, duty-based, etc. — is especially relevant to Confucianism, as Confucians believe in the importance of roles with regard to friendship. The five role-relationships that Confucianism recognizes are parent-child, husband-wife, rulers-ministers, older sibling-younger sibling, and friend-friend. Maintaining good relationships in each of these categories is essential for practitioners of Confucianism; without good friendships, one cannot function well in the political sphere, which leads to a lack of order. In that sense, Confucians see friendship as a necessary component of society. Cottine also talks about dependency in relation to Confucianism, quoting Erin Cline’s words: In Confucianism, “dependency is not something to be overcome at all, but a reality of life that is to be embraced and that gives us good reasons to cultivate ourselves” (Cottine 9). The idea of self-cultivation relates to virtue building, in that through these different role-relationships, Confucians can increase their virtuousness.

Similar to Confucian beliefs, Hinduism believed in social order based on hierarchy and defining duties in regard to tradition. The story of Arjuna and Krsna illustrates the Hindus’ focus on duty; Hinduism definitely seems to rely on a duty-based ethics system. This applies to friendship — one has a duty to one’s friend just as one has a duty to one’s family and community. The general requirements of a good friend are “freedom from malice, good conduct, uprightness, purity of mind, continence, sacrifice, forgiveness and compassion to all living beings” (Mahalingam). These qualities are very similar to those listed or alluded to in the other texts.

Also similar to Confucian teachings, Zoroastrianism centers the importance of relationships, specifically the human-god and human-human relationships. Zoroaster famously said, in 2000 B.C., “Oh God, let us eternally be close friends.” Zoroastrians believe that maintaining good relationships with one’s friends will lead to a friendship with God, which is very desirable. So in that sense, they see friendship as a means to an end (closer relationship to God), but like Confucians, they recognize it as necessary for order and virtue. Zoroastrians even go a step further, acknowledging friendship as the highest level of peace, and its powers for health (physical and mental).

Some of the famous Romans also believed in the necessity of friendship for virtue. The Stoic idea, for example, thought that friends helped us actualize our virtues. Cicero stressed the importance of negotiating between virtue and friendship. One of my biggest takeaways from the Roman ideals of friendship is that, unlike the Confucians, Romans (at least the ones in question) believed that friendship should arise from self-sufficiency. Long-term friends could only be solid and self-sufficient people, not “weak” people who were “at war with themselves.” Therefore, friendship in Roman culture can be understood as an end in itself, since good friends were expected to be completely independent.

The logical next step in this discussion is to address St. Augustine, who got most of his ideas from Cicero — though he most likely would have agreed more with Aristotle, had he been aware of Aristotle’s works. St. Augustine offers a perspective on friendship through the lens of Christianity. It is evident from his early writings on the subject that he believed good friendship was only possible through Christianity; without the religious aspect, “friends” would never achieve the same level of trust and love. St. Augustine even believed that friendship was more likely to cause evil, because someone is more likely to do evil if their friend is also doing evil. In other words, friends encourage one another, and sometimes that manifests in bad things. This is a rather controversial view of friendship, but I see where he’s coming from. In some ways, St. Augustine’s view of friendship “needing Christianity” is the opposite of the Zoroastrian view: The former states that religion is necessary for relationships, and the latter states that relationships are necessary for religion.

Muslim teachings about friendship echo those in Confucianism and Zoroastrianism. They also derived much from Aristotle’s ideas on friendship, believing that humans are social beings and need to congregate in groups. One quote from class that stood out to me was the idea that “through interacting with others, we change and create ourselves.” This reminds me of the Confucian belief that dependency is necessary for friendship, and that by learning how to be dependent and dependable, we can “cultivate ourselves.” The Zoroastrians saw friendship as an ideal form of relationship with God, so in that sense, both traditions (Zoroastrian and Muslim) consider friendship necessary for actualizing our humanity.

Among all these different philosophies, I’ve identified two common threads. The first is rather obvious, but still worth mentioning: All of them felt friendship was important enough to devote scholarship to. Friendship is therefore a significant aspect of these philosophies, regardless of whatever stances they take. Secondly, all of these cultural traditions recognize that to be a true friend, you must want good things for your friend for their own sake, not yours. This principle seems to be the only unifying factor between the six cultures, but in my opinion, it is the most important for universal friendship.

Something I’ve been thinking about while reading these texts is the idea of the over-soul, which Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about in his essay, “The Over-Soul.” Emerson is famous for having lots of contradictions in his writings, but some believe that was intentional, to provoke his audience. So, although I don’t know if he actually believed in it, this quote in particular stands out to me: “Persons are supplementary to the primary teachings of the soul” (Emerson). Few, if any, of the texts on friendship we’ve read so far have mentioned the soul. However, this quote seems to be in line with Confucian, Muslim (Aristotelian), and Zoroastrian beliefs, in that it recognizes the necessity of relationships with others to our humanity. I will be interested to see if any of our class readings discuss the soul with regard to friendship — though perhaps it’s been implied in all of our readings so far.


I affirm that I have adhered to the honor code in this assignment.

Giselle Glaspie


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