Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Friendship in Religious Philosophy

Ella Donnelly-Wright

RELG 274


Friendship in political philosophy is most commonly discussed in the framework of determining whether it is a utility or a virtue. In religious philosophy this is also a common debate, with the addition of analyzing friendship and how it plays into one’s role in the spiritual world. Some religions frame friendship as a means to appreciate a higher being, while others outline friendship as a form of self preservation. Confucian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Roman, Christian, and Muslim cultures each have distinct values regarding friendship that contribute to their spiritual belief systems, but they all hold a shared core value in friendship as a method to strengthen one’s relationship with a higher power.
Social class is a large factor in spiritual belief systems such as Confucianism and Hinduism in philosophical conversations surrounding friendship. Cheryl Cottine’s essay “That’s What Friends Are For: A Confucian Perspective on the Moral Significance of Friendship” outlines this pressure to conform, arguing that Confucianism maintains social divisions as a “necessity to maintain community” (50). This role-governed structure of human relationships acts as a way to improve societal structures. In Confucianism, governance seems to be the primary structure that maintains the community, rather than a spiritual figure. Friendship is seen as a mediating role, and the three core Confucian-era texts (Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi) each take unique approaches to analyzing intentions behind friendship. Hindu perspectives of friendship are slightly more difficult to extract, but also emphasize the role of social status. Indira Mahalingam’s “Friendship in Indian Philosophy” uses the Bhagavad Gita as a foundation to talk about Indian perspectives of friendship, stating that there are “community directed social obligations” (267) which are derived from one’s caste. Mahalingam also points to the argument that friendship cannot be solely based on utility or pleasure, but rather a balance of the two.
Something that stuck out to me in our class discussion of Roman perspectives of friendship was Cicero’s paradox, which states that the better self-sufficiency one has, the better friend one is. This has been difficult for me to agree with, as I find it hard to call someone a good friend purely based on how they are able to take care of themselves. I also think it places unfair expectations on friendship as a means to achieve social wealth. Coming from a non-religious background it is slightly difficult for me to resonate with the idea of maintaining friendship for the sake of improving one’s relationship with a higher power. But, that does not mean that I don’t see the value in communities using religion as a framework to define and understand friendship.
Robin Weiss’s essay “Cicero’s Stoic Friend” discusses Roman philosophical views of friendship such as Cicero as well as Socrates and Aristophanes. Weiss argues that Socrates and Aristophanes “rest on the assumption that love and desire are born of a kind of lack that the object of attachment is supposed to fill” (162) which is inherently flawed. I would agree with Weiss that this outlook is flawed because it places friendship in the category of a social tool rather than a source of enrichment.
Zoroastrian perspectives of friendship greatly emphasize the importance of personal reputation to prevent dishonoring one’s friends, which seems to be a parallel to Roman perspectives of self-sufficiency. This is outlined in Jamsheed K. Choksy’s piece “Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal” where he states “Acquisition of learning, knowledge, and wisdom cannot occur without societal and confessional frameworks nor without the amity that permits sharing of ideas and institutions.”(254) Friendship seems to be a core value of Zoroastrian beliefs, as we discussed in class that “amity” was one of the major goals to attain order in one’s life. I also found the sacred text Yazata from 1000 BC to be particularly interesting, as it said that any Iranian who promoted and protected friendship deserved to receive God’s “charismatic power”. This seems to indicate that maintaining friendships helps improve upon a person’s ability to navigate social interactions, which I would agree with to a certain degree.
Muslim and Christian outlooks on friendship hold similar values in how it is used as a tool to improve upon one’s personal relationship with God. Lenn Goodman outlines Muslim philosophical views in “Friendship in Aristotle, Miskawayh and al-Ghazali” saying that friendship is a “kind of surrogate or stepping stone to the mystic’s passionate love of God” (180). Ghazali also discusses how friendship is a means to observe one’s own faults, which I would say I agree with. Differences will undoubtedly come up in friendships, whether it be in opinion, background, or ideology. Genuine friendships have the potential to show what one person is potentially lacking in their life, although I don’t believe this is a requirement for all friendships. Christian outlooks on friendship are particularly menacing in my opinion, as they rely heavily on dedication to a Christian God to determine if one can maintain healthy friendships. Our discussion in class surrounding the scripture, particularly John 15:15 when Jesus says “I will not now call you servants…but my friends” was very indicative to me of Christian outlooks on friendship assigning strict power dynamics. Although it may be slightly better to have people serving them be called “friends”, it still does not take away from the fact that there is a continuously present hierarchy.
The concept of friendship in religious philosophy ranges widely in its definitions of friendship, but many of them share a common goal in ascertaining a better relationship with a higher power. Confucian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Roman, Christian, and Muslim outlooks on friendship are each unique in their own way, with some emphasizing social class while others focus on the importance of friendship to help serve one’s community. They all, however, argue that friendship in some way can be utilized as a way to develop a closer and more beneficial relationship with God. This points to religious philosophical views on friendship as being more aligned with Plato’s outlook on friendship which also asserted the importance of developing stronger spiritual relationships through friendship.

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