Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Catherine Lytle: But the classics are dead anyway

I live with the belief that there is no concept in contemporary society that would not also be evident in Ancient civilizations in some shape or another. Selfishness and egocentricity may seem hyperbolized in today’s age, however, that does not insinuate that such issues arose solely in our Post-Modern society. Rather such weaknesses become highlighted as a result of the technological advances of the Post-Modern age, leading to the misconstrued conclusion that vices such as egocentricity and greed have impelled the corrosion only of the modern person. On the contrary, treatises and oeuvres written by ancient scholars were about same issues and are still salient today. Could those intellectuals then be also psychic? If we accept the premise that human interactions are deeply embedded within culture specific practices then it should not come to surprise us that thousands of years ago, authors were describing emotions and relationships that we may come to recognize to be embodied within ourselves. Moreover, if we envision the concept of friendship to be a constant which metamorphoses according to the influences of time, region, gender-specific factors, among others, then surely looking to ancient philosophers who lived under conditions, very similar to ours, except without the blinding dazzle of technology, would not be counterproductive.

Stephen Salkever summarizes that Aristotle views on friendship (philia) as a path “however indirect and complex [leading] to a variety of contingent truths about ourselves and our world, truths that lead beyond us toward a more adequate and accurate theoretical sense of the beings.”1 Thinking back to out debate concerning what we mean by ‘truth’2 I cannot help but associate Slakever’s statement with Wadell’s argument that in order to be a moral person you must be in a relationship because you cannot be moral in isolation.3 While friendship is the end itself, we find truth through our interaction with other people. In this age where confusion and miscommunication is a fact, it is through the relationships with people, and listening and conversing with friends, that helps us declutter the quotidian noise. Moreover, on days when news about mass shootings in high schools in the US4 no longer surprises people, friendship, more than ever before is important. This all comes back to Aristotle who claims that, “complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue, for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they wish goods to each other for each other’s own sake”5 Friendship should not be a means for us to stop gun violence. If friendship is the end, the only end, then there would be no need for justice, there would be no gun control. However, while we can look to ancient philosophy for inspiration, however, as aforementioned, friendship, while retaining many transcendental universal core values, is also contingent upon time and science. Looking at any headline in any newspaper on any given day, we can see that there is still no justice, whatever that may mean. Therefore, there is still need for friendship.

In times of greatest darkness, we must be reminded that a ‘perfect friendship’ can exist. Socrates asked if “the good man, in so far as he is good, be to that extent, sufficient for himself?… And the man who is sufficient needs nothing because of his being sufficient… And the man who needs nothing would not feel affection for anything either… And what he doesn’t feel affection for he wouldn’t love either… And the man who doesn’t love is no friend.”6 How is one to reconcile this though? Does not this allude to the ‘lone gunman’ ideé fixe that permeates through our lives? Aristotle offers the following resolution: “it is only between those who are good, and resemble one another in their goodness, that friendship is perfect. Such friends are both good in themselves and, so far as they are good desire the good of one another.”7 ‘Perfect Friendship’ is something few people have ever experienced and to this note it is that utopia that people spend their whole lives looking for. Parallel to this is Aristotle’s idea that “if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship.”8

It is here that I would like to offer an anecdote. Aristotle wrote that, “distance does not dissolve the friendship without qualification, but only its activity. But if the absence is long, it also seems to cause the friendship to be forgotten.”9 I met my best friend Min-Jung in 2006 and we were inseparable until August of 2009, when she moved back to her native country, South Korea. However, quite understandably, Aristotle could not predict the revolutionary impact that applications such as Facebook and Skype would have on friendship. They have ensued the possibility of transcontinental conversations to never cease and for my friendship with Min-Jung to be possible until today. Moreover, Facebook and other social media users will often encountered memes such as the following:

Memes allow for the friends to take pleasure from and find meaning in their long distance friendship. On the other hand, these social media applications have also given rise to the creation of fake friendship that are only based on utility, such as demonstrating social status, rather than pleasure and goodness. Yes, Ancient philosophers must be read through the lens of their time (affectionately called philosophic anthropology), and their impact should not recede over time. As life becomes more complex, more dimensions of Friendship become revealed.10 As humanity becomes more complex, and the world becomes more intertwined, the need for true friendship that is based on goodness and mutual love becomes evermore important. I may be naive and young, but the 21 year old me believes Aristotle because I believe in the friendship I share with Min Jung, and the three of us have never met.



  1. Salkever, pg. 75
  2.  Class notes, Thursday 8 February
  3. ibid
  4.  Wednesday, 14 February
  5.  Aristotle, pg. 122
  6.  Carr pg. 21
  7.  Carr pg. 27
  8.  Aristotle, pg. 120
  9.  Aristotle, pg. 124
  10.  Mahallati, class lecture, 13 February




Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Oxford:OxfordWorldClassics.

Leaman, Oliver ed. 1996. Friendship East and West: A Philosophical Perspective. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press.

Von Heyking, John and Avramenko, Richard, eds. 2008. Friendship and Politics,

Essays in Political Philosophy. Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Wadell, Paul J. Friendship and the Moral Life. 1989. Notre Dame, Indiana:University of Notre Dame Press


I have adhered to the honor code in this assignment

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