Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Are Reciprocal Friendships Better Building Blocks than Equality-based Ones?

In Brian Carr’s definition, friendship is reciprocal and symmetrical, that is, if I am friends with you, you are necessarily friends with me.  Carr finds Socrates lamentably invested in the criterion of utility.  He insistently refutes Socrates’ definition of friendship as an association predicated on the utility of the friend.  In this refutation, he relies heavily on the support of Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics also seems to make the case for reciprocity and symmetry.1  Aristotle does not entirely stay away from arguments about utility, however.  By his definition, a friend fundamentally “wishes good things to the other [friend] for the sake of the other himself,” and so it is imperative that friends be able to supply good things of which their friends are in need.  One having too much (no need) or too little (no ability to give) of something good compared to the other may make two people incompatible as friends: “if friends come to be separated by some wide gap in virtue, vice, wealth, or something else…then they are friends no more, and do not even expect to be.”2  While modern scholars like Carr continue to resist the notion that friendship has need of utility, what has picked up on ideas about relative equivalence of means like Aristotle’s, is the idea that friends must be equals in some sense.  The words “equal” and “equality” are staples of common parlance in Dr. Jafar Mahallati’s course “Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art.”  The purpose of this essay is to observe where the equality/utility duality might be making it hard to recognize the friendship-building merit of religious and secular traditions of reciprocity, and encourage readers not to implicitly supplant the well-argued criterion of reciprocity with the attractive but less-well-evidenced and much more exclusive bar of total equality.

While most religious and secular societies subscribe to systems of hierarchy, whether for teaching and training or bureaucratic purposes, scholarly examinations demonstrate a propensity toward reciprocal social interaction even within, and at times mandated by, such hierarchical frameworks.  Can we uncover a common seed for friendship-based society in the reciprocal and symmetrical social and religious practices of Christian, Islamic, and secular societies?

One place where we see reciprocity arise in Islam and Christianity is in the conception of human sin.  A Sufi saying exhorts, “Do not make friends with anyone unless he will repent when you sin.”3  Being something for which a friend takes responsibility, one’s sinfulness is an opportunity in the practice friendship; a friend’s sin allows you to practice repentance.  The reciprocity of this is that the sinner receives friendship and the other friend receives religious merit for their benevolence.  We should note that this relationship as I have framed it is unabashedly interested in utility, but this does not preclude its participants from being just as interested in doing good for each other.  A variation on this idea is at play in early Christian letter-writing practices commented on by David Konstan, such as the address, “To his lord, deserving and honored and most blessed, father Alypius, from the sinners Paulinus and Therasia.”  Konstan argues that this marks a departure from Aristotelean values in its prioritizing of humility over friendship: “Christians writing in this vein present themselves to one another not as friends and equals, but as brothers united in the body of Christ, thanks to their common faith.”4  However, Paulinus’ sentiment suggests a reciprocal exchange via religious benevolence similar to the Sufi instruction.  It may be less about humbling oneself for one’s own sake than about taking on the part of the humble so that the “lord” can practice his good Christianity in pitying and being kind to the humble, as his religion encourages.  If this is not a self-concerned practice of humility, then it may again be said that it is concerned with seeking good for the other.  In these examples, something akin to a patronage system almost seems to emerge, with someone with more religious merit, and perhaps more social and religious power, building their merit further by giving aid to someone with more need.

This is certainly not a friendship among equals, if it is a friendship.  It is partly but not entirely symmetric, in that the manner in which I am a friend to you is notably different from the manner in which you are a friend to me.  This is a good moment to revisit Aristotle, who is responsible for a certain amount of tension between the disagreeing camps of “equality is necessary” and “equality is not necessary.”  Both can cherry-pick support from the Nicomachean Ethics.  On the one side: “complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue”5  Alternately, referring to “friendship” between parents and children: “each does not get the same thing from each other, and must not seek it; but whenever children accord to their parents what they must accord to those who gave them birth, and parents accord what they must do to their children, their friendship is enduring and decent.”6  What is clear above all else is that, from Aristotle’s time the present day, and almost undoubtedly before his time and after ours, the need for equality among true friends and the ability of plenty of friendships to be “enduring and decent” without it are the both of them, paradoxically, a gold standard for philosophers and everyday practitioners of friendship.  What is more, both of these “contrasting” ideas from Aristotle apply to Paulinus’ letter-writing: on the one hand, it nods to an unequal relationship; on the other, as Konstan’s assessment points out, it assumes equality as “good people similar in virtue” in its appeal to “[a brother] united in the body of Christ, thanks to their common faith.”  In this practice, in which the individualistic virtue of humility appears to supplant friendship, two types of friendship often read as being at odds with one another in fact are rendered one and the same.  Can this reconciliation in a single instance be found or attained in larger social and religious structures?

I used the word “patronage” a moment ago, and I would like to pick up again on the notion that macro social structures may be well-suited to mirror a kind of unequal-but-reciprocal friendship.  As pointed out by Dr. Mahallati in his lecture “Friendship in Muslim Thought,” calendars promote togetherness, that is, communal friendship.7  Holiday calendars are a unifying shared object across religious and secular societies—even secular cultures have robust holiday traditions from the cobbling together of secularized religious holidays and originally civic holidays.  The institution of providing simultaneously days off for individuals weary with modern-world overwork and days of celebration for communities, nation-states, and religions in need of a renewal of spirit, enables a reciprocal relationship between individuals and larger groups, religious and secular alike.  When we hold onto the word “equal,” it is impossible to see this system as a practice of friendship, and this in turn makes it difficult for us to improve civic and religious institutions’ work with the tools of friendship, since we fail to see the foundation already standing before us.  Perhaps, if we focus on reciprocity, the contracts of state and individual, religious community and individual, will be better able to help us improve them and build further “macro-level friendships” between religious and secular institutions.  Moreover, the existing models of civic and religious reciprocal-though-not-strictly-equal friendships may assist us in envisioning actually equalizing friendships as they endeavor to bring nominally unequal neighbors to each other’s aid and to celebrate side by side.


1Brian Carr, “Friendship in Plato’s Lysis,” in Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives, ed. Oliver Leaman (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1996), 13-31.

2Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999), 127.

3Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, “Friendship in Muslim Thought” (lecture in course Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics and Art, Oberlin, OH, March 1, 2018).

4Jeanne Heffernan Schindler, “A Companionship of Caritas: Friendship in St. Thomas Aquinas,” in Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, eds. John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 144.

5Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999), 122.

6Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999), 127

7Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, “Friendship in Muslim Thought” (lecture in course Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics and Art, Oberlin, OH, March 1, 2018).

Leave a Reply