As Clement Akran put it in his piece on Martin Buber’s I-Thou theory, “A Critical Review of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, in light of Christian theology and Capitalism,” the nature of human existence is relational. As a species, we rely upon and are naturally drawn towards relationships with each other. But Michael Mitias, a professor of philosophy and author of the book Friendship: A Central Moral Value (Ethical Theory and Practice), argues that with the end of the Hellenic and Hellenistic ages came the end of the significance of friendship as a defining paradigm. Today, we live in an increasingly individualist society – just look at the motto of the President of the United States (“America First”). While there is something to be said for being independent and having the ability to think for yourself, we must not let that impede upon the importance of community and friendship in private, social and political life.
To begin, friendship is important on a personal level. As Timothy Fuller states, friendship helps us realize our true humanity. He points out that both Plato and Montaigne considered friendship as a key to understanding the human situation1. Friendship is necessary, therefore, because it is how we understand ourselves and the world we are in.
If that is not enough, though, look at the pure science of friendship. It is vital not only for general happiness but also – rather surprisingly – in terms of our health. A study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that friendship can prevent depression. The researchers surveyed more than 2,000 high school students about their depression symptoms and their friends. Those who were found to be clinically depressed but had friends who were not were two times more likely to recover. And those who were not depressed and had mentally healthy friends halved their chances of developing depression.2
Depression, the study notes, does not spread from person to person, but a healthy mood does. With strong, positive friendships, one is less likely to become depressed. This study proves not just the power of personal friendships but also the importance of them. Mentally healthy friends need to be there to support their mentally unhealthy friends. Only the truest of friends will do this without asking for anything in return, because supporting someone with depression is an incredibly taxing and difficult task; when you care enough about a person, though, you will help them no matter what.
Friendships between the elderly seem to have the same effect. Those who are older have more health issues, but if they have strong friendships, they seem to be healthier. This is proved in a study done by Personal Relationships, in which they concluded this:
“In Study 1, a cross-sectional survey of 271,053 adults, valuing friendships was related to better functioning, particularly among older adults, whereas valuing familial relationships exerted a static influence on health and well-being across the lifespan. In Study 2, a longitudinal study of 7,481 older adults, only strain from friendships predicted more chronic illnesses over a 6-year period; support from spouses, children, and friends predicted higher subjective well-being over an 8-year period.”3
Friendship as a paradigm is important on a larger social and political scale as well. As Daniel Goleman wrote in his New York Times article, “The Group and the Self: New Focus on a Cultural Rift,” Western societies, specifically the United States, rely on individualism, while it is almost the exact opposite in non-Western societies. There are positive and negative aspects to both. Individualism has been shown to go hand in hand with economic growth, but collectivism (which comprises about 70 percent of the world’s cultures) leads to stronger community values and collaboration. Goleman writes:
“The late Raoul Narrol, a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, found in a 1983 study that such societies have among the lowest rates of homicide, suicide, juvenile delinquency, divorce, child abuse and alcoholism. They also tend to have lower economic productivity, though as countries like Japan become more affluent, they also tend to become more individualistic.”
The United States, which Goleman identifies as the nation that rank the highest in terms of individualism, is one of the most powerful countries in the world, but “some social scientists say the American focus on individualism has gone overboard” (Goleman). Goleman quotes Dr. Bellah, a Berkeley sociologist, who states that, “In earlier days, the individualism in America was one that also honored community values. Today we have an ideology of individualism that simply encourages people to maximize personal advantage… considerations of the common good are increasingly irrelevant.”
If we were to look at the current state of American individualism in terms of Buber’s theory, we would realize that American relationships tend more towards the “I-It” than the “I-Thou.” Buber identifies “I-It” relationships as less authentic, non-mutual and non-reciprocated. As Clement Akran writes in his piece about this theory:
“Evidently capitalism has brought some gains to humanity, but sometimes I worry if its woes outweigh these gains. For instance in present times in Europe, those at the fringes of society are literally falling off the cliff, as we see the rise of food banks, stagnation in social mobility, youth unemployment, right wing activism, drug and alcohol abuse, terrorism, and poverty of aspiration.”
Another tenant that prevails not only in America but all over the world is that of justice. It is highly valued throughout most nations, and for the most part has been held up as a greatly positive aspect of society. But as James Schall writes in Friendship and Political Philosophy, “In a perfectly just world, we would be intrinsically lonely”4. Justice is based on the balance between this and that; it is built upon, and creates, divisiveness. In the same way that over-extensive individuality leads to more harm than good, justice leads us to divide people into sections, to separate the good from the bad in a black-and-white, shallow way that convinces people to focus on themselves rather than the good of everyone.
If we want to improve our lives both in terms of the personal and political, we must acknowledge the importance of friendship. It is integral to our happiness and health, the strength of our communities, and well-functioning, universally-beneficial governments. There are very few things from 200 BCE that we should return to, but friendship as a defining paradigm is one of them.
- Fuller, Timothy. “Plato and Montaigne: Ancient and Modern Ideas of Friendship.” Friendship & Politics Essays in Political Thought, by John von. Heyking and Richard Avramenko, University of Notre Dame Press, 2008, pp. 197–213.
- Hill, E. M., et al. “Spreading of Healthy Mood in Adolescent Social Networks.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 22 Aug. 2015, rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1813/20151180.
- Chopik, William J. “Associations among Relational Values, Support, Health, and Well-Being across the Adult Lifespan.” Personal Relationships, vol. 24, no. 2, 1 June 2017, pp. 408–422., scholars.opb.msu.edu/en/publications/associations-among-relational-values-support-health-and-well-bein.
- “Friendship and Justice.” Friendship and Political Philosophy, by James V. Schall, Catholic University of America Press, 1996, pp. 226.
Akran, Clement. “‘A Critical Review of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, in Light of Christian Theology and Capitalism.’” LinkedIn, 26 Nov. 2015, www.linkedin.com/pulse/critical-review-martin-bubers-i-thou-light-christian-theology-akran-1/.
Blosser, Philip, and Marshell Carl Bradley, editors. “Either/or,” Soren Kierkegaard. Philosophic Reflections on Perennial Concerns, 2nd ed., University Press of America.
Chopik, William J. “Associations among Relational Values, Support, Health, and Well-Being across the Adult Lifespan.” Personal Relationships, vol. 24, no. 2, 1 June 2017, pp. 408–422., scholars.opb.msu.edu/en/publications/associations-among-relational-values-support-health-and-well-bein.
Fuller, Timothy. “Plato and Montaigne: Ancient and Modern Ideas of Friendship.” Friendship & Politics Essays in Political Thought, by John von. Heyking and Richard Avramenko, University of Notre Dame Press, 2008, pp. 197–213.
Hill, E. M., et al. “Spreading of Healthy Mood in Adolescent Social Networks.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 22 Aug. 2015, rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1813/20151180.
Mitias, Michael H. Friendship: a Central Moral Value. Rodopi, 2012.
Schall, James V. “Friendship and Justice.” Friendship and Political Philosophy, Catholic University of America Press, 1996, pp. 225-227.
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