Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Importance of Virtue

Friendship is something that transcends people’s labels and conceptions of identity in ways that many relationships are not able to do. This can be attributed, in part, to the similar ways in which friendship has been theorized by philosophers of various cultural backgrounds. Looking at how friendship has been theorized specifically in Confucian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Roman, Christian, and Muslim cultures, one can conclude then, that an ideal and ‘good’ friendship, is one that is rooted in virtue and duty to one’s friends—and in Zoroastrian, Christian, and Muslim traditions, virtuous friendships can also be seen as paths to/reflections of one’s relationship with God or “the immortal”.

In That’s What Friends Are For: A Confucian Perspective on the Moral Significance of Friendship, Cheryl Cottine analyzes Confucian perspectives on friendship, looking particularly at the philosophies of Confucius—or, Kongzi—Mengzi, and Xunzi. In looking at the work of Mengzi, who believed in the natural virtue of human beings, Cottine writes that “class and age are unimportant, Mengzi suggests in his response to a disciple’s inquiry about the nature of friendship; what matters is that one befriends the virtue of another.”[1] This theme of virtue being central to having pure, long-lasting friendships is common in the theories of philosophers we have studied in this class. In “Cicero’s Stoic Friend as Resolution to the Paradoxes of Platonic Love,” Robin Weiss speaks about the conceptions that philosophers like Cicero and Laelius had on love and friendship, and they are very similar to Confucian views in that they are rooted in virtue. In fact, Laelius himself said “but this I do feel first of all—that friendship cannot exist except among the virtuous.”[2] And the focus of this virtue is, specifically as it pertains to ‘self’. The idea of having a richness in one’s self is very important in Roman conceptions of friendship, because friendship is viewed as a way to share that richness with others while also receiving their own richness. So rather than being completely independent or completely dependent, friends can be interdependent. In class, we talked about the Roman idea that the more self-sufficient one becomes, and the less they need friends, the better friend they become to others. Perhaps this is because self-sufficiency reduces one’s dependency on others, while still allowing space for one to learn from and share with others (unlike, for example, self-reliance).

The importance of virtue within friendships is seen again when we turn to the Christian tradition, looking at the theories of philosophers such as St. Augustine who believed that virtue is directly tied to God and Jesus. St. Augustine believed that if one does not believe in Jesus, then it is impossible for them to be a good friend, and, in fact, that friendship is toxic when it is with someone who is not a Christian. Knowing this while also understanding the role that Jesus had in regards to virtue in the eyes of St. Augustin, one can then begin to comprehend his sayings a bit differently. On page 199 of Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, Tamer Nawar quotes St. Augustine who said that “[friendship is] a desire for good things for someone for his own sake, along with an equal desire on his part.”[3] These good things, in the eyes of St. Augustine, are things that entail growing closer to God. And while the details of what the outcomes of friendships ought to be may vary throughout cultures, the means through which ultimate goodness is to be achieved remains the same across the spectrum: virtue.

In class, the question of whether friendship is the goal of religion, or religion is the goal of friendship gets brought up quite often. Well for Muslim philosopher Miskawayh, the ultimate goal of religion is friendship—both friendship with God and friendship with other humans. And this friendship should be rooted in virtue, because unlike pleasure or utility, virtue, according to Miskawayh and al-Ghazali, does not change.[4] Friendships in Muslim thought should not be used as a means to an end, but rather as an ends in and of itself. Similarly, in Hindu thought, friendship is thought of in terms of duty, and duty could also be considered a virtue. For example, on page 267 of Friendship East and West, Indira Mahalingam writes that:

“the Indian philosophical tradition would view perfect friendship as one where friends do their duty towards each other without looking to the consequences. In other words… friendship based on utility—i.e. where individuals are friends for what each can get from the other, e.g. monetary gain, professional advancement etc.—could not be a perfect friendship. Similarly, friendship based on pleasure—e.g. where friendship is formed in the pursuit of an activity that gives pleasure such as chess, trekking and bridge, or where a befriender derives pleasure from the befriended—would not constitute a perfect friendship.”[5]

Mahalingam references the Aristotelian conceptions of friendship, addressing the many parallels they have with Hindu conceptions of friendship. And through this all, we can see that the importance of virtue in friendship is something that has been noted by philosophers for thousands of years. And alongside this virtue, is the importance of trust between friends. This has been stressed many ways by philosophers in the past, but to end, I would like to quote Mengzi who said that, “between [parents] and children there is affection; between ruler and ministers there is righteousness; between husband and wife there is distinction; between elder and younger there is precedence; and between friends there is faithfulness.”[6]

[1] Cheryl Cottine, “That’s What Friends Are For: A Confucian Perspective on the Moral Significance of Friendship,” 2019, p. 17.

[2] Robin Weiss, “Cicero’s Stoic Friend as Resolution to the Paradoxes of Platonic Love,” in Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, ed Suzanne Stern-Gillet and Gary M. Gurtler, SJ, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014) p. 151.

[3] Tamer Nawar, “Adiutrix Virtutum?” in Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, ed Suzanne Stern-Gillet and Gary M. Gurtler, SJ, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014) p. 199.

[4] Lenn E. Goodman, “Friendship in Aristotle, Miskawayh, and al-Ghazali,” in Friendship East and West ed. Oliver Leaman, (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1996).

[5] Indira Mahalingam, “Friendship in Indian Philosophy,” in Friendship East and West ed. Oliver Leaman, (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1996) p. 267.

[6] Cheryl Cottine, “That’s What Friends Are For: A Confucian Perspective on the Moral Significance of Friendship,” p. 5.

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