Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nehamas on Art and Friendship

Nehamas argues that there has been a misconception that there is a separation between art and the world. In this way he asserts that the disconnect has extended through to friendship and the arts. He writes of the ways in which art and literature have engaged with concepts of friendship best. It is depicting friendship through the arts that Nehamas argues we can re-center the de-valued practice of friendship in our larger lives. I will start this reading response outlining the ways in which Nehamas explains how the concepts of friendship can manifest in art/literature to varying degrees based on the medium. After this analysis I conclude that dance is an art form that is imbued with friendship insights and practices.

Nehamas believes it’s more that the structural features of certain arts that make them unsuited for representing friendship. However, he believes that one certainly can see friendship well-represented in drama, in theatre, in movies, and TV. Their superior representation is due to the fact that they don’t just describe things the ways that literature does. They show the facial expressions, and bodily expressions, things that are involved in friendly behavior. Nehamas believes that in order to be a friendly action you have to do it out of friendship, for your friend’s sake. So I can go visit you in the hospital and do it because I have an obligation to do so, or because I want to get something out of you, or I can do it because I’m your friend. The action will be the same in all three cases. It’s in the motive, in the intentions, where friendship is located, rather than the content of your behavior. in this way the visual information of expression and gestures that are captured in art such as movies makes these forms superior at capturing dimensions of beyond the simple act friendship. Dance being so visual, and usually in person, allows for a bigger opportunity for the true determination of an actions motivation.

Nehamas describes the similarities in attraction based on beauty that informs the love of friends, art and lovers. He describes how one may like another not only for what they have noticed about the other, but because they hope, think or expect that there are other things about the person that they will be pleased by. In this way he says that friendship and art require “a commitment to the future, a sense that there is more to know here, and a promise that what I still don’t know will be worth learning” (133) This initial act on one’s attraction, Nehamas argues, creates a commitment to the future every time that we love somebody or that we find something beautiful.

Nehamas goes on to claim that since we don’t know what the future will bring we can’t give all the reasons why we love somebody. In this way he likens the commitment that is espoused from beauty that both friendship and art share. Sometimes the beauty of art is not apparent until time is invested in thinking or observing it.  Beauty found in art and literature mirrors that in friendship and can be utilized in their representation of it. Because of this Nehamas thinks poetry is better than other literature forms because of its capacity to grasp friendship through its beautiful lines that draw the reader in but may require the commitment of contemplation to unveil its beauty.

Beauty, for example is a value like friendship to Nehamas. A thing is beautiful if it is different from everything else around it, if it stands out, if it does something that other things don’t. Friendship is seen to be a value like that. Nehamas discovers that there’s a whole family of values that do not belong to morality and that are sometimes incompatible with morality. A very beautiful work of art can be quite immoral in content, suggesting that there must be two different kinds of values in the world.

Contrary to morality, Nehamas argues that friendship is a kind of value that is absolutely partial and preferential. In other words, it’s essential that I treat my friends differently from the way I treat everyone else. In addition, acts of friendship are not inherently moral. Nehamas argues that while one can’t hurt anybody by acting morally, in friendship someone can be harmful to you and still be a good friend. In this way friendship is messy and human. So while Nehamas previously argues that beauty draws friends together, like a viewer to a painting, the beauty is imperfect. Thus only art forms that do not seek perfection in their beauty can accurately represent concepts of friendship.

A common refrain of Nehamas’ book is that there is no one, settled self that we discover over time. Rather, we continually shape each other and ourselves through our friendships, and who we are in one friendship is not who we are in another: different aspects of our persona are salient in different friendships. In this way art and literature that have the capacity to show this change are particularly appropriate at representing friendship. This explains why plays and movies that entail visuals with narratives over time are believed by Nehamas to be better at representing friendship.

Considering Nehamas’ outlined reasons of what makes various art forms able to capture the values of friendship, I believe that partner and group dance clearly (literally) embodies friendship. Dance incorporates beauty, relation, gestures and friendly physical contact. Often in dance the people participating in it have a shared goal of accomplishing a series of movements together. The movements are not complete, and sometimes impossible, without the other/s. In this way there is an element of friendship in which the dancers have a mutual dependence on each other.

Additionally, the dance is partial to those who know it. In other words only those who know and can perform the steps can engage in it. This makes group/partner dance an exclusive relationship like friendship is. There is also the requirement in dance that dancers’ movement is similar and dissimilar enough to complement each-other. Without having similar movements the dancers will not look coordinated together, however if they were doing the exact same movement (think partner dances in which one leads and follows) they would not be able to perform the dance. Because dance is always live and with human who are inherently imperfect, dance also is flawed like any friendship. The accidents of one person effect the others ability to perform their steps and the live navigation of the dancers to work around this together is friendship in action. The commitment required in dance to accomplish the complete series of movements for the sake of creating a meaningful/beautiful performance is similar to the commitment Nehamas states as being required for friendship.



Nehamas, Alexander. On friendship. Basic Books, 2016.

Mahallati, Jafar. Class lectures. 4/23, 4/2/25.

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