Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Catherine Lytle: The Return of Friendship

The Return of Friendship. That sounds like a good movie title that would probably attract millions in box office revenue. But what does that mean? “The Return of Friendship” Has it ever gone anywhere? Was there a time where there was no friendship? It is true that if we quantify how much philosophers since Aristotle wrote about friendship then perhaps it can be argued that friendship may have gone somewhere. Michael Mitias wrote in his chapter “Friendship as an Ontological Need” that friendship lost its paradigmatic status since the medieval era. He believes that since the Medieval Era philosophers “failed to take into account friendship as a value implicit in the moral paradigms.”1 He gives reasons why philosophers since then were limited to writing about friendship but does that necessarily mean that friendship on all paradigms was lost? Does that mean that I am to imagine that people in the Middle Ages didn’t believe in friendship and did not practice it all? Chaucer writes extensively of friendship and companionship in The Canterbury Tales, specifically in ‘The Knight’s Tale.’ Shakespeare too believed that friendship exists because we need not look far in his plays to find an abundance of characters who are friends:

“I count myself in nothing else so happy

As in a soul remembering my good friends;

And, as my fortune ripens with thy love,

It shall be still thy true love’s recompense” (Act 2, Scene 3, Richard II)

What then are the markers for the disappearance of friendship as a defining paradigm? While it can be argued that friendship may have disappeared from philosophical discourse it cannot be argued that even then it had disappeared as a paradigm because it definitely did not disappear from art, literature or music. Friendship has always been. Friendship is, as we have been saying in class, timeless.

Say we take philosophers to be the indicators for the visibility of friendship as a paradigm. Why are we so invested in their opinions of philosophers rather than intellectuals who, broadly speaking, are not necessarily associated with philosophy as a discipline? Even though Kant only dedicated a couple pages to ruminating ‘On the Intimate Union of Love and Respect in Friendship’ should we really take Kant as a marker of the presence or absence of friendship? Who elected him to be the Philosopher King?

Kant believed that we can never attain a perfect friendship in practice and that, “friendship conceived as attainable in its purity or completeness is the hobby horse of writers of romance.”2 Yes, while friendship that exists in fiction may be hyperbolized and even idealized, I believe that because of those friendships people are compelled to act in a manner that would reflect their desire to become more like the depicted characters.

No friendship is perfect, that is true, however, to marginalize attainable pure friendship into the realm of literature is going too far. Literature too can evoke a following and inspire people to lead their lives based on principles that they teach. This too has been true since pre-philosophy, however, maybe Kant never read any stories about friendship which he truly envied.

Kant continues by saying that “it is a heavy burden to feel chained to another’s fate and encumbered with his needs — friendship cannot be a union aimed at mutual advantage… need must not be regarded as the end and motive of friendship… but as an outward benevolence, which should not be put to the test.”3 Hannah Arendt on the other hand, would argue that “friends become partners in a common world — that they together constitute a community… the political element in friendship is that in truthful dialogue each friend can understand the truth inherent in the other’s opinion.”4 Time and time again it has been demonstrated that through friends do we not only understand ourselves but we are able to understand a greater community and live in truth.  St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas thought that through knowing our friends we come to know ourselves and through knowing ourselves we come to know God. Translating this into a modern perspective, we come to know ourselves through the truth in our friendships. It is therefore only through knowing ourselves that we are able to become valuable to the community and to the world.

Hannah Arendt raises an important point saying that “[truth] is virtually impossible in solitude; it belongs to an area in which there are many voices and where the annoucement of what each “deems truth” both links and separates men, establishing in fact those distances between men which together comprise the world.”5 Going off of this can we instead say that yes, friendship has existed, however in each case it might not be in the form we most expect. I believe that friendship in the paradigm of literature is as important as is understanding where it lies on the moral structure of virtue ethics and politics. It is also important to understand where it lies today.

There have been authors writing about beautiful friendships since the beginning of time and just because philosophers did not concern themselves with friendship does that mean it has only just again returned? No. It means that philosophers and intellectuals have begun taking friendship into consideration again and it is no longer just in the arts paradigm. This could be a paradigm shift no? It is coming back into the public. Looking at chronology of main works on friendship and politics we can see an exponential rise since the 1970s.6 After the horrors of the 20th century perhaps people have come to understand that perhaps we need to talk less about destruction and more about friendship. Moreover, Michael Mitias advanced the idea of a moral paradigm that analyzed the reasons for “the dismissal of friendship from the moral theories of the medieval, modern, and contemporary periods” and the “source of friendship, its place in human nature, and its relation to the good” so that we can determine “whether its inclusion, or exclusion, from moral theory is justifiable.”7 While that is a noble cause indeed I do not believe that friendship has never left. If anything it those, like Hobbes and Kant, who left friendship that we should be sorry for.


  1. Mitias 216
  2. Blosser 215
  3. Blosser 216
  4. von Heyking 336
  5. Arendt 351
  6. Devere appendix 1
  7. Mitias 197


Blosser, Philip and Bradley, Marshall Carl, eds. 1997. Friendship, Philosophic Reflections on Perennial Concerns. Lanham, New York, London: University Press of America.

Devere, Heather.. “Amity update: the academic debate on friendship and politics.” Paper for Presentation to the International Political Science Association XXII World Congress of Political Science. Political Philosophy Research Workshop on Articulations of Justice, Part III’ Justice and Fraternity’, Madrid, 5-7 July 2012.

Mitias, Michael H. 2012. Friendship: A Central Moral Value. Amsterdam: New York: Rodopi.

Von Heyking, John and Avramenko, Richard, eds. 2008. Friendship and Politics, Essays in Political Philosophy. Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

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