Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

RELG 274 Reflection #1 (Cat Potts)

“Why do we Need Academic Studies of Friendship in Post-Modernity and how Revisiting Ancient Philosophers on Friendship Can Help these Studies?”


In post-modernity, there is an element of life that, no matter who we are or where we come from, we all experience: loneliness. An individual may experience loneliness in passing, perhaps when travelling on a bus on a rainy day after having a fight with a friend. Loneliness may also manifest itself in a longer-term form, with an individual feeling as though no one understands them or that no one can help them achieve their goals and that happiness is a solo pursuit. The universality of loneliness is something which has grown significantly over the years, especially over the last few decades. According to the former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, “rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s”[i] There is no room in a competitive market for unified success, and we aim to promote ourselves over anyone else. As the world becomes more technologically advanced and as the capitalist market expands, we grow increasingly isolated in our need to fend for ourselves and make our own way without the assistance of others. As a result, we bury ourselves into our own competitive holes, and see asking for help as a point of weakness rather than a point of strength. Capitalism, then, is a main proponent of our universalized isolation; we cannot feel united if we are constantly at odds with one another. As a society, we have forgotten the benefits of friendship and the power of a companion. In studying friendship through the writings of ancient philosophers, we are able to see how the particular relationship dynamic composed between friends is not only a necessity for our well being, but also an inevitability, and therefore should be actively pursued rather than passively experienced.

In James Rhodes’ essay, “Platonic Philia and Political Order,”[ii] he notes the necessity of paying attention to the political similarities between Plato’s environment and ours in Modern America. The mindset behind the militarism of the Peloponnesian War can be equated to nationalism in the United States today, thus drawing together these two societal circumstances that might otherwise come off as entirely separate. Philia, then, as a societal bandage for Plato’s time, is also a bandage for ours. The small circles of people we gather with that we might call friends help us to round ourselves out as individuals. They are a mirror to ourselves; when we look at them, talk to them, and listen to them, they show us the good and bad parts of ourselves, and help us to develop our empathy. Through them, we can make new connections in our thoughts regarding the world and its problems. By exposing ourselves to others and developing reciprocal relationships with them, we reframe how we see both the world around us and the ways we perform within it. Empathy is how we escape the holes we are stuck inside, the holes filled with isolation and loneliness.

In class, Professor Mahallati noted that our current (atrocious) president won as a result of individualism. When every person is out for themselves because they believe they have to be, we cause destruction. When we act with individualistic motivations, we are not considering the consequences for those around us. Our actions are without empathy and therefore friendless. We then feed into the destructive cycle of loneliness and isolation, convinced that the only way to success is through the fulfillment of our individual needs. According to Aristotle, we become incapable of philia, a foundation of friendship, when we are fearful and impulsive. He does, however, equate these traits with age. Yet, it could be said that his connection between age and behavior has a certain amount of substance to it; the fear older generations have of change is partly what led to the election of Trump, as well as the fear that they have been forgotten in the eyes of our government and our nation. The impulsivity that supposedly manifests itself in youth can be seen in the idea that young people voted for Trump with the idea that their vote didn’t matter, that it was a joke, or simply because they did not understand the severity of the outcome of a Trump presidency.

Nationalism is also what drove President Trump’s campaign; the slogan “Make America Great Again” and the promotion of putting America first being some of its building blocks. Per the class lecture on February 15th, Professor Mahallati referenced Hannah Arendt, indicating her notion that friendship and citizenship live in tension. Citizenship by definition means to be an assimilated part of a group of people, while friendship is individuals brought together within difference. Within citizenship, there is little room for individuality, whereas in friendship there is no limit to the amount as differences between to people (so long as they continue to get along).
In our holes of loneliness with the cloud of nationalism hovering over us, we grow increasingly separate and unempathetic toward each other. It is when we crawl out of the holes, reach out to each other, and form friendships, that we are able to heal society. The ancient philosophers Aristotle and Plato, while having different ideas of what it means to be a friend and maintain a friendship, both offer valuable insight to how we handle our friendships today. We must consider the cultural context of both of the philosophers, notice the similarities between their cultures and our own, and then draw what we can from them. These philosophers sought to raise questions, not provide answers. By raising questions, they spark conversations. The sparks of the conversations then draw us up and out of our isolation, toward the glimmering light of another person in search of interaction, and generate the kindling of the great warmth of friendship.



I affirm I have adhered to the Honor Code on this assignment. (Cat Potts)


[i] McGregor, Jena. “This former surgeon general says there’s a ‘loneliness epidemic’ and work is partly to blame.” The Washington Post. October 04, 2017. Accessed February 2018.

[ii] Rhodes, James. “Platonic Philia and Political Order.” In Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought, edited by John Von Heyking. University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.


Leave a Reply