In Friendship: A Central Moral Value, Michael Mitias traces friendship across ancient and contemporary cultures through the lens of moral paradigm. In the second half of the book, he discusses the shift that occurred during the Renaissance that lay the groundwork for the moral and cultural paradigm of modern times. Mitias explains the reasons why friendship is not considered a “central moral value” today by comparing the dominant modern philosophies with those of ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, arguing that friendship’s omission from the moral paradigm of today is unjustifiable. He further argues, in his thesis, that friendship is a necessary component of “the good life” and therefore should be a moral demand as well as a “central moral value.”
However, there are barriers to achieving this. Modern society has brought with it changes to the approaches to and philosophies around each field, including science and technology, art, politics, and others. For example, Kant’s philosophy contributed to the modern idea that “the scientific method is the proper means of knowing the world,” which functioned as a way to leave friendship out of the equation. Another major hurdles to friendship in today’s society is that it is not considered a virtue. Furthermore, the “three prominent philosophical approaches, pragmatism, philosophy of existence, and analytic philosophy, dismissed friendship as a central moral value from moral theory.” All of these facets of modern philosophy — along with several others — have contributed to the lack of emphasis on friendship as part of morality or the “good life.” That being said, there are numerous modern philosophers and thinkers that offer new (or re-imagined) perspectives on the importance of friendship in the moral paradigm.
Schall brings up an interesting point that could be seen as a counter-argument to friendship’s exclusion from the other virtues. He writes that “the distance between God and man was too great to expect any communication between them in terms meaningful to human beings,” but that that distance was surmountable by God becoming man. Schall also notes that Jesus’ disciples are called friends rather than servants, because “the highest things are communicated to them.” The high esteem of friendship in Christianity indicates two things: one, that modern moral theory has strayed from Christian values (of course, this is a Western-centric idea and is not qualitatively good or bad), and two, that by recalling these facets of the Bible and Christianity, we can integrate friendship back into the other virtues and establish it as a central moral value. However, reinvigorating Christian values could have negative impacts, because the Bible is often interpreted to be more exclusive than inclusive. It would therefore be important to distinguish between different ideas and re-imagine modern day religion more comprehensively than it’s been in the past.
Wadell also provides insight into Mitias’ goal of integrating friendship. He writes about his own insight after reading ancient philosophers: “The moral life is the seeking of and growing in the good in the company of friends who also want to be good.” This approach takes a much more social and collaborative view of the moral paradigm than the modern philosophies that Mitias examines in his book, which tend to emphasize individualism and personal freedom. As such, Wadell offers a fresh take on Aristotle’s ideas of sociality and re-introduces them to modern society. Because we are so shaped by our friends, and much of our lives is a history of friendships, it doesn’t make sense to exclude friendship from the study of moral life. Wadell further suggests that the absence of friends constitutes a moral problem. Most importantly, Wadell calls for a revamping of morality, as modern day has pushed it into irrelevance — he writes that “the notion of the good life has been forgotten.” It seems that friendship could provide the most successful framework for re-contextualizing morality, given its universality.
Jeanrond focuses on love, which, interestingly, is largely left out of Mitias’ discussion of modern philosophy. Jeanrond talks about the cultural shift in conceptions of truth from an “existential pursuit” to “logical correctness,” which relates to what Mitias discusses regarding the emphasis on the scientific method in modern society. He subsequently identifies a more holistic approach to truth — religious truth, specifically — that is “not primarily concerned with an increased knowledge of objects … but with insights into the transformative relationships that allow a deeper awareness of the human and the divine other involved in these dynamic relationships.” Jeanrond thus draws attention to the necessity of friendship in seeking religious truth, which echoes what Schall talks about regarding friendship in Christianity. Additionally, Jeanrond discusses the practice of attempting to relate to “otherness,” saying that it involves “acts of desire, respect, recognition, will, and care.” All of these are “dimensions of the praxis of love,” which, in turn, is the means by which truth should be sought. In other words, love is necessary for truth, and because love requires others, others are necessary for finding truth.
These three modern-day thinkers — Schall, Wadell, and Jeanrond — all offer fresh takes on how we can incorporate friendship into the moral paradigm of today. Their writings are important in that they suggest ways of thinking about friendship and morality that are relevant to today’s society, yet also incorporate ideas from ancient philosophies. So it’s not that they are advocating for a return to the ideals of ancient societies, but they are proposing a re-imagined version of those ideals that fits with modern times. I agree with Mitias that friendship must be brought back as a central moral value. Its exclusion from other virtues and the “good life” seems to be part of the explanation for the deep rifts we see in society today, which manifest themselves in nationalism, racism, xenophobia, to name a few. While it will not be an easy task, it is absolutely vital for the future of the planet that we bring back friendship as a central moral value.
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