Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Growth and Prosperity by Friendship

Noa Lewis

February 16, 2018

Response Paper #1

Why do we Need Academic Studies of Friendship in Post-Modernity and how Revisiting Ancient Philosophers on Friendship Can Help these Studies?

The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca 2800 BCE) is a story about immortality, conquest, the Babylonian King Gilgamesh, and his best friend Enkidu. The story begins with the introduction of Gilgamesh, an unjust king who is ⅔ divine. Gilgamesh beats up his own subjects and rapes and terrorizes women. The Gods decide that the solution to Gilgamesh’s terror will be introducing a friend for Gilgamesh named Enkidu, a man equal to Gilgamesh in strength, and complimentary to his being. As Gilgamesh represents civilization and modernity (he is the King of an industrial city with tall walls and infrastructure), Enkidu represents nature. Enkidu lives in the forest and grazes with the animals, he is covered in hair and only gains reason, language and an understanding of the world around him once he sleeps with a woman (Shamhat). Once he sleeps with Shamhat Enkidu is rejected by his herd but only becomes dressed, fed and inducted into civilization when he then meets Gilgamesh. The two men brawl when Enkidu attempts to stop Gilgamesh from raping a newly wed bride, and from then until Enkidu’s death, the two men remain inseparable best friends. The two go on perilous adventures together, slaying Gods and embarking on a variety of heroic adventures. For the time being, Gilgamesh is distracted by his newfound friend and the Gods plans of keeping the townspeople safe from Gilgamesh’s terror proves successful. Enkidu does indeed die, and Gilgamesh is left heartbroken and with a sense of his own imminent mortality. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh “did weep bitterly as he wandered the wild,” exclaiming, “…sorrow has entered my heart!” (70). Gilgamesh actions and words speak to his relation with Enkidu and show how he’s grown and how his life is forever shaped by Enkidu. 

I find it incredibly interesting that out of everything the Gods could have done to keep Gilgamesh from further tormenting his subjects, they went with the idea of initiating a friendship. In this way, the Gods seem to have taken a generally Aristotelian understanding of friendship; Gilgamesh undergoes a lifestyle change upon becoming friends with Enkidu and his sense of morality and personhood is completely restored by Enkidu. Indeed, when Enkidu dies Gilgamesh is left feeling completely lost, as a life without his best friend seems purposeless. The companionship and mutual trust between Gilgamesh and Enkidu seem to be a perfect example of the type of friendship Aristotle would have condoned. Both men care deeply for each other, which is clearly seen in the actions throughout the story (for example, there is a scene in which Enkidu pins down a powerful God for Gilgamesh to slay, so that Gilgamesh may receive the glory of killing such a dangerous beast). Furthermore, it seems as though Enkidu and Gilgamesh both benefit from a sense of reciprocity in their relationship. Enkidu gains the wisdom and the tools to become assimilated into humanity, while Gilgamesh gains a friend who challenges and encourages him to become a better and more just person. Not to mention, Enkidu benefits from Gilgamesh’s kingly status.

Although the Epic of Gilgamesh is quite an old story, there are many aspects and principles that I believe can be applied to post-modernity. As Plato believed small groups of friends could aid readily in politics during his time, I believe friendship could certainly aid us in our modern climate now. I mean, friendship certainly seemed to aid Gilgamesh in his kingship in the epic (a famous story still popular and still studied in academia today). Friendship prompts discourse and maximizes conversation. It allows for the discussion of philosophy and gives a platform for the formation and execution of shared ideas. It seems only logical that the more people (friends) involved in making decisions and engaging in debate, the more ideas generated, thought through, and fully formed. Take the two-party system in American politics today. The government in the United States exists to serve its citizens to the best of its capability, but the fact that there is so much internal disagreement and a lack of communication between the parties often halts the process. Republicans and democrats and more often pinned against each other as enemies, when really they should be working together as friends. Friendship between the two parties would create a sense of camaraderie that Americans could very potentially benefit from immensely. Friendship would humanize opposing party members and allow for a more accessible forum. A liberal and a conservative who wanted only the best for each other not only for their country and their party is inconceivable to me, but the potential excites me. I can only imagine what would happen if opposing party members worked together to form some sort of proposal or bill that they could both stand behind.

Even though neither Plato or Aristotle give a definition of friendship, their ideas and philosophies on the matter provoke questioning and deep thought. As Rhodes puts it in his essay on Philia (and is sure to mention that some scholars, such as Carr for example, neglect), “Platonic dialogues are plays, not idiosyncratically ornamented treatises” (24). Plato does not intend to give the exact formula of the perfect friendship or explain its exact purpose, and neither does Aristotle. Their goal is to teach questioning as oppose to supplying definitive answers. Both philosophers in fact intend to provoke a discussion. (Hey! Isn’t that similar to part of the reason friendship is so important? To provoke thought and conversation? Aristotle and Plato are just like good friends as they contribute to our growth as people and encourage us to ponder and grow! Plato and Aristotle provide us with material in which to read and discuss and we in turn keep their craft alive in the cannon! What a reciprocal and mutually benefiting friendship we have.) I think it important that we read Aristotle and Plato for this reason. We do not have to take these ancient philosophers understanding on friendship word for word, for although both men were incredibly wise, they did live in a drastically different time and political climate than we live in today. However, it is still important to read their work and understand their positions because their ideas provoke thought and discussion that have the potential to benefit humanity.

  1. Rhodes, James. “Platonic Philia and Political Order.” In Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought, edited by John Von Heyking. University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.
  2. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” edited by Andrew George. Penguin Books.

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