Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alex Scheitinger: Contemporary Philosophy and the Return to Friendship

In his groundbreaking book Friendship: A Central Moral Value philosopher Michael H. Mitias traces a genealogy of paradigms which has left the value of friendship noticeably absent from modern philosophy, theology, and discourse in general. Paradigms, which Mitias describes as the conceptual frameworks which fundamentally guide the behaviors and attitudes of human beings, evolve over time in accordance with the changing value systems of the society at large. From the Hellenic to Hellenistic periods we witness a shift from the metaphysical to the rational — from a philosophy of relations to one of self-development. Still, the importance of friendship remained central in the ancient world as the intellectual legacies of Plato and Aristotle were carried on. With the spread of Christianity in the Early Medieval Period the paradigm shifts from the rational to the religious, coinciding with the triumph of agape (one-directional and unconditional love) over philia (two-directional love). For Christian theologians like St. Augustine of Hippo, conditional and preferential friendships were antithetical to the scriptural command to love one’s neighbor, hence friendship fell out of favor as charity took its place as the supreme moral virtue of the day. Friendship, however, suffered its most fatal blows in the modern period (sixteenth to mid-twentieth century) with the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the rise of global capitalism all playing significant roles in its demise.
Martin Luther rejected Aristotelian and early Islamic understandings of community which argued for the incompatibility of wickedness and friendship. As Aristotle believed that tyrants are incapable of having friends, the tenth century Persian philosopher Miskawayh likewise understood social relations as a necessary component of morality. Luther instead argued that anyone, just or unjust, may find friends regardless of one’s moral character, therefore friendship is nonessential to salvation; friendships exist merely for pleasure and utility, and the tension between particularity and a love of all continued to be a source of anxiety for Protestant and Catholic theologians alike. In the seventeenth century, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes applied the very same notion to political theory, considering the best monarch to be one who has no friends. In Hobbes’ view, the supremacy of the law eclipses friendship, as a king or queen’s preferential treatment of a subject would prevent the implementation of blind, impartial justice. Additionally, the utility-based view of friendship (i.e., friendships established with a specific end goal in mind) which was carried into the enlightenment has noticeable parallels in Hobbes’ justification for preemptive warfare. As the bonds between nations are built shakily upon fear, any potential misstep by one nation may be met with hostility in order to maintain a power balance. Unlike Hobbes’ vision for an ideal civic society, there is no justice in the community of nations, only back-and-forth exchanges of rewards and punishments. To the extent that order is maintained, self-serving behaviors are warranted both on the individual and international levels — an idea later espoused in Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism.
Moving into the latter part of the twentieth century, a number of contemporary postmodern philosophers have reexamined the role of friendship in political and personal relations, notably Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Jacques Derrida. Perhaps this radical reassessment amounts to the latest paradigm shift, with friendship no longer considered a sub or super ethic (that is to say, above or below the realms of ethics — friendship is now central). For one, Derrida stresses the intimate quality of friendship which allows for the exploration of new ideas and possibilities previously unknown, marking a return to the classical view of friendship. On Derrida, David Webb writes, “If it is anything, friendship is surely a relation to someone who is not me and whose difference from me is a necessary and insurmountable condition for the friendship between us. Turning to Aristotle, Derrida pursues the idea that friendship is a ‘way of loving’ and is ‘an act before being a situation,’” (121). As Hobbes uses fear to justify a preemptive attack, in a sense Derrida inverts this idea and presents friendship as an anticipatory gesture done purely out of love. Hobbes’ negative concept of friendship again crumbles as Derrida emphasizes the illuminating potential of a friendship of differences. As the presence of friendship in nepotism is problematic for Hobbes, it can be argued that his understanding of friendship is similarity-based, as human beings are motivated to help those most like themselves. Further, Derrida effectively injects a type of unconditional love comparable to agape into the philia-based social structure of antiquity to develop a theory of friendship for the world today.
Deleuze and Guattari adopt a more critical approach to friendship and analyze its relationship to the study and practice of philosophy more generally. At first it appears that the two men (who themselves shared a deep and lasting creative friendship) take on a decidedly negative tone particularly towards the classical tradition, as Irving Goh writes, “Deleuze and Guattari will in fact argue that such a history of friendship and philosophy from the Greeks is but mere fiction. They argue at the bottom, Greek friendship is actually devoid of notions of harmonious accord, intellectual conversation, and ‘social relation.’ In truth, according to Deleuze and Guattari, the philosopher cannot bear friendship very much. What the philosopher desires ultimately is solitude. The silence of solitude or solitariness is the condition for a lucidity of thinking,” (220). Since friendship is devoid violence, danger, and force (the conditions which lead to the creation of new concepts), philosophy essentially comes to a halt when these are absent. Assuming that each philosopher represents a particular and opposing school of thought, friendship between them would not amount to the production of new concepts, but in fact it would impede this process. However, this is only true to the degree that the philosopher’s friend exists only to counter the philosopher’s claims, as the friendship between Deleuze and Guattari serves as a counterpoint to their own initial claim. The two are deeply aware of this contradiction and apply a more nuanced way of looking at friendship, as they reject the sort of egalitarian, democratic convention in favor of something more collaborative and focused. Goh continues, “But it should be noted that the relation between friendship and philosophy in Deleuze and Guattari is not negated in an absolute manner, such that philosophy either proceeds or is redefined without friendship, or such that friendship will never bring about philosophy…In fact, Deleuze and Guattari will not fail to explicate that it always involves a certain apprenticeship in or pedagogy of relations in the creation and the future of concepts in philosophy,” (223-224). The emphasis on the relational and subjective nature of friendship as it proceeds from elder to younger (or generation to generation) reflects a paradigm which sufficiently addresses the shortcomings of past theories of friendship, ancient, medieval, and modern.


Works Cited

Goh, Irving. “The Question of Community in Deleuze and Guattari (II): After Friendship.” Symploke, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2008, pp. 218–243., doi:10.1353/sym.0.0019.

O’Hara, Daniel T., and Richard C. Newton. “Michel Foucault and the Fate of Friendship.” Boundary 2, vol. 18, no. 1, 1991, pp. 83–103., doi:10.2307/303383.

Webb, David. “On Friendship: Derrida, Foucault, and the Practice of Becoming.” Research in Phenomenology, vol. 33, no. 1, 2003, pp. 119–140., doi:10.1163/15691640360699636.

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