Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nehamas: Friendship in the Arts

Through a lens of friendship, Nehamas has browsed many genres of art and literature to see where friendship concepts have thrived most. By summarizing his main arguments, can you identify one specific field in art or literature or even institutions where you can identify the presence of friendship insights or practices? Imagine if you wanted to extend Nehamas’ approach to similar or new fields, how would you extend or give further depth to his work?

In Chapter 3 of On Friendship, Alexander Nehamas outlines friendship in the arts, specifically Epics, Painting, and Literature. Each medium finds different ways to express the values and importance of friendship, and each explores the subtleties of this complex yet essential part of human life. Additionally, though not discussed in On Friendship, I believe friendship practices and insights feature very prominently in orchestral music as well as playing – both for the performer and the listener.

The first art-form Nehamas details is that of the epic: the classic Greek story told in poetic form. Stories of myth and monsters, heroes and legends, they also prominently feature friendship in a form we do not often see today. “Heroic narratives generally unfold against a specific political or military background that was obvious to their original audience…in Achilles and Patroclus, we can see ‘a specific cultural formation, a type of heroic friendship which is better captured by terms like comrades-in-arms, boon companions, and the like.’…such relationships may be possible only within a particular context, which is not available today, and we shouldn’t think of them as paradigms of every kind of friendship.”1

The first part of this quote is what I mean when I say that this form of friendship is not something we see today. Any individual will rarely be presented with the choice to sacrifice themselves for their friend, or show their devotion through combat or war. Friendship is often simpler, more mundane than is presented in the Epics. Additionally, Nehamas notes that not much else is revealed. “None of their stories has very much to say about the history of their friendships…”2 glossing over one of the essential elements mentioned by Nehamas and Todd May in Friendship in an Age of Economics.

Next, he focuses on painting, and the capturing of a single frame of friendship in a single moment in time. Paintings, and all still imagery in extension, is interesting to Nehamas because of the inherent ambiguity of the relationship presented. “But no gesture, look, or bodily disposition, no attitude, feeling, or emotion, no action and no situation is associated with friendship firmly enough to make its representation a matter for the eye…in painting, friends can be of any age or gender, passionate or cool, affectionate or reserved, absorbed in each other or in their own interests: friends can be doing just about anything together…and as in painting, so in life…this may seem like a trivial point, but it represents a deep truth.”3

This ambiguity makes paintings, in my opinion, an excellent representation of friendship when viewed with an inquisitive lens. All of the art pieces Nehamas brings up have some relation to “friend” or “friendship” in the title, yet none are explicitly recognizable as showing friendship. This stands in contrast to the Epics and their fanciful depictions of noble sacrifice and camaraderie between men as the ultimate show of friendship – friends can be doing anything, and their relationships can be just as complex.

Finally, Nehamas focuses on Literature. For Nehamas, there are very few books actually focusing on literature, and many leave it by the wayside. “Ordinarily, friendship is manifested in the most, well, ordinary situations – situations that all but the friends themselves are likely to find almost always inconsequential and often irredeemably boring.”4 This also runs directly counter to the Epic depiction of friendship (which is quite literally epic), and often it is hard to write page after page of engaging friendly activities without becoming dull.

One book Nehamas finds that does express friendship well, however, is Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. “There is no virtue in these men [Frederick and Deslaurier], nor has there been any for a long time. They are simply two trivial characters who reveal and revel in the banalities that sustained their friendship…through all their adventures, their errors, and their changes of fortune.”5 “The banality of friendship” might seem like a negative term at first, but for the everyday, common friendship that Nehamas dives into, and that most of us experience, it rings true.

Playing in an orchestra is my absolute favorite musical experience, and one I believe involves a great deal of friendship, both in the performers and the audience. Playing a symphony requires dedication, commitment, and time, but most importantly it requires cooperation. Everyone must be in tune, everyone must know their parts, and everyone must work together to complete this musical journey.

Thinking of a symphony on two levels can help illustrate this point. There is the level of the individual player: what they experience, and hear directly around them. There is also the piece in its entirety: how each line and instrument weaves back and forth to create a conversation.

Friendship can most certainly be expressed by a musical piece – just think of a symphony where above the violins and violas, a flute and clarinet play a bright duet. This is pure friendship. The musicians must have an intimate knowledge of not only themselves, but each other, and must work together to play correctly and beautifully. In my opinion, the sound of friendship is a harmony where both instruments can be heard, but complement each other as well – a good allegory for how real friendship should work. Music can express a myriad of emotions, and though simple emotions may be easier to understand (like sadness or joy), friendship can be inferred through music as well.

There is also a personal level to the friendship of the orchestra. In a section, each musician might be playing the same notes (and be indistinguishable to the audience), but each individual must keep on time, in pitch, and with the same tone. I’ve found the best people to play music with are my friends, as we know how the other plays so well that it is almost effortless to “lock in” to the correct sound.

Friendship can be expressed through all mediums and artforms, and Alexander Nehamas’ On Friendship illustrates this perfectly. Additionally, though not mentioned, the orchestra, through the symphony, is a very effective expression of the most important values of friendship: cooperation, trust, and “otherness”. You cannot have a symphony without many others, and you cannot have a friendship without the other as well. Art can be made for friendship, but it can also be made of friendship – the stuff our society is founded upon.6

Works Cited

  1. Nehamas, Alexander. On Friendship. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2016. Pages 68-69.
  2. Nehamas. Page 69.
  3. Nehamas. Pages 78-79.
  4. Nehamas. Page 84.
  5. Nehamas. Page 97.
  6. Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art. Lectures. Mahallati, M. Jafar.


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