Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alex Scheitinger: Embracing Classical Friendship in an Era of Loneliness

The meaning of friendship espoused by Plato and Aristotle warrants a reanalysis in the twenty-first century. It can be said with some confidence that both philosophers would be appalled at the rejection of friendship throughout the modern world under the guises of national security, economic development, and most ironic, individual freedom. Indeed, the principle of personal autonomy has been expropriated by both far-right authoritarianism and neoliberal bureaucracy to more or less mean the freedom to detach, to exploit, and to isolate — a far cry from the concept of freedom promoted by these thinkers of the classical age. In truth, friendship and freedom are much more compatible than it is now common to believe; if freedom is understood as the freedom to associate and interact, social mobility is impossible without some degree of friendship on the interpersonal and global scale.
Plato’s Symposium is compositionally distinct in that its form consists of a series of speeches given by various characters attending a banquet. Through and through, it is a work of philosophy but the dialogue form used by Plato here, as well as in more than thirty of his other works, allows for a greater exploration of ideas than a traditional, singular perspective approach would. Everyone at the banquet is given a voice, so friendship is democratic and egalitarian, and through verbal engagement, individual participation is required for the development of the conversation as each member has ideas of their own to present. Even if one voice is particularly persuasive, each side must be represented to understand the complete picture. Frisbee C.C. Sheffield writes, “The participants are, after all, the καλοὶ κἀγαθοί of the day, representatives of a wide variety of Greek wisdom…But we shall also see that their speeches bring to light puzzles and inconsistencies that stand in need of resolution by the next speaker(s),” (16). Just as each response forms an individual component of a larger conversation in Plato’s dialogues, communal friendship on the whole likewise amounts to something greater than simply the sum of its individual parts; human beings, like puzzles, are problems themselves in need of solving, and find solutions in one another. To apply this notion to civic friendship, the city or community attains a level of cohesiveness which, for Aristotle as well as Plato, is entirely dependent on the small associations between its citizens necessary for prosperity.
Two chapters of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics are devoted to friendship and the philosopher presents three basic types: friendship based on pleasure, on utility, and on virtue (i.e., philia). The small associations civic life depends so heavily upon ideally fall under the last category, as friendships based on pleasure are emotion-driven and fleeting, and friendships based on utility are superficial and needs-driven. Only philia allows members of society to view one another on an equal plane, wishing each other well not so much out of convenience or practicality but out of the goodness of their hearts. This benevolence is recognized in the friend, and the resemblance of virtue is celebrated as the foundation of all lasting friendships. Regrettably, the plight of economic inequality on the world has meant disaster for the philia order, discouraging virtue-based friendships which are deemed counterproductive to the capitalist mode of production. Certainly it seems that friendships which are not established to benefit one party or the other have no place in today’s political moment as self-serving, opportunistic behavior has become the norm. It permeates into the mundane interactions of daily life, exchanging altruism for egotism. Just as a feudal lord is incapable of friendship with a lowly serf, how can a millionaire see the poverty-stricken as anything other than inferior? The well-to-do interact with those of lower economic standing only on the monetary level (restaurant patrons and servers, shoppers and cashiers, etc.) and lack the ability to see those below them as equals on the moral level. Inversely, the decline of philia from its former place of prominence has lead to a crisis of utility and pleasure-based friendships. The facade of utility-based friendships begins to slip away and the true character of these artificial associations is revealed, while mindless pleasure-seeking has degraded to the point to which the individual is driven to escape loneliness at whatever the cost.
What could potentially reverse the erosion of philia is a radical integration of egalitarian friendship into the freedom-confused society of the present. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the philosophical forebear of Karl Marx and a true descendent of Plato and Aristotle stressed the importance of friendship in personal growth, writing in the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, “Since freedom consists in my identity with the other, I am truly free only when the other is also free and recognized as such by me. This freedom of the one in the other unites [vereinigt] human beings in an inner way,” (81). Additionally, Al-Ghazali’s metaphor of the heart as a mirror may be relevant in the endeavor of uniting friendship and freedom if the notion of struggle is reframed as the struggle against social conditions. He writes, “The heart is a mirror which may be polished by struggling against the appetites and working to acquire good character traits, and holding to actions, such as the remembrance of God, ‘until the true nature of that matter which is sought in religion is revealed in it’,” (13). None of the aforementioned philosophers would deny the inevitability of conflicts arising from personal differences, but if the community is to be understood as a positive, motivating force in the development of the individual, then each point of disagreement is instead an opportunity to mature. In depriving oneself of social challenges, the chance to struggle is eliminated and thus freedom in the highest sense of the word is unattainable. A return to the classical concept of friendship would place the collective over the individual, alleviating the symptoms of alienation as the human being finds purpose and belonging within the communal space. The idea that freedom is best understood as one’s separation from the masses fails to account for the permissive nature of friendship, as each friend grants the other access (or freedom) into the deepest part of the soul. Intimacy, the defining character of friendship, is a freedom in itself which unites friends in togetherness; while the world today is more interconnected than it has ever been, there has never been so great a need for both intimacy and friendship, but with the guidance of Plato, Aristotle, and their students, the tide may very well turn.


Works Cited

Ġazzālī, Abū-Ḥāmid Muḥammad Ibn-Muḥammad al-. The Mysteries of Purification: The Revival of the Religious Sciences ; Book 3 of the Iḥyā Ulūm Al-Dīn = Kitāb Asrār Al-Ṭahāra. Fons Vitae, 2017.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline, and Other Critical Writings. Continuum, 1990.
Sheffield, Frisbee C. C. Plato’s Symposium: The Ethics of Desire. Oxford University Press, 2009.

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