Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nehamas’s On Friendship

Alexander Nehamas’s On Friendship is a compelling modern analysis of Aristotelian concepts of friendship and applies such analyses to current artistic works of multiple disciplines including film and theater. He also uses the ideas of Michel de Montaigne asserting the presence of the phenomenon of friendship as a human necessity. Through applying traditional philosophical concepts to modern works, Nehamas develops a captivating analysis of friendship across various states of existence. Further, through having a dialogue with philosopher’s texts, Nehamas encourages others to also elaborate upon his work to develop better understandings of friendship as understandings of morality and humanity change. Nehamas’s work could be applied to the musical world, as many songs are inspired by and/or discuss love, friendship, and other close human relationships.

Nehamas uses Aristotle’s views on friendship as a starting point from which to develop his own ideas. As we have previously learned, Aristotle argued that there are three types of friendship: that based on utility, pleasure, and virtue. Nehamas argues, however, that there is no such thing as a virtuous friendship because there is no such thing as a truly virtuous person. Expanding upon this idea, he also argues that friendship doesn’t need to be based on morality. He goes even further to question friendships based on utility and pleasure, as these types of friendships aren’t deemed genuine by him in the modern era. Nehamas instead argues that the best type of friendship is one which prioritizes closeness, which does not have to necessarily include a person’s morality. Nehamas argues that friendships based on utility and pleasure (philia) are unhealthily self-serving, while also asserting that friendships should inspire us, “to hope that we will love what we ourselves will become because of our relationship” (138).

Music is a discipline that uses friendship in a very unique way, as in my experience friendship is the major underpinning to most of my friends’ musical projects and collaborations. Music groups, or bands, are inherently based on friendships except in instances where groups are created by an external force, like a record company. These groups, however, tend to reflect their disingenuousness in their performances because they are not socially dynamic and therefore don’t promote a familiar form of friendship. Most musical groups, however, do hold a unique dynamic that promotes the creative collaboration of friends, and therefore reflects Nehamas’s concept of closeness as a central element of friendship as it is necessary for frequent practice and communication for musical groups to succeed.

Although friendship is something that can seem simply to discuss, it is quite hard to define when analyzed closely, saying it “is a unique combination of two souls, impossible to duplicate” (121). Nehamas uses the works of philosopher Michel de Montaigne to expand upon this notion “Because it was he, because it was I.” (119). This idea of being unable to define friendship seems to go against much of what philosophers seek to achieve, which is to apply words to concepts that don’t automatically have given definitions. Nehamas also discusses the heartbreak of severing friendships, specifically through the analysis of Yasmina Reza’s play Art which is about three people who face the potential end of a friendship. Nehamas draws from this work to argue that the loss of a friend is also a loss of a part of oneself and that friends help us to continually shape ourselves and our values. Through analyzing Montaigne and Reza’s works, Nehamas expands upon Aristotelean notions of friendship and develops a more modern definition.

Nehamas’s On Friendship is a modern analysis of Aristotelian philosophy, an expansion upon morality and friendship, and a theorization that friendship cannot be strictly defined. He goes against many of Aristotle’s arguments about virtuosity and utility while expanding upon his notion of genuine friendship stemming from mutual pleasure rather than for an external purpose. Music is a field of discipline that encompasses friendship in a unique way, as musical collaboration almost always results from friendship, or at the very least a mutual respect for one another’s work. Nehamas also acknowledges in his work that friendship is hard to define, using Montaigne’s work to support this notion. Nehamas successfully develops a more modern and widely applicable definition of friendship in his book and still manages to pay respect to older philosophical ideas as well.


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