Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

What is Friendship?

by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Last week I wrote about the decline of friendship in America and mused on why that spelled trouble for civic life. In some ways, that’s an audacious claim. E.M. Forster once wrote that if he had to choose between a friend and his country he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country. Jonathan lied to his father, the king, in order to save his friend David. Our political allegiances and our allegiances to our friends can often be in conflict with one another, and I suggested this is one reason why totalitarian regimes are deeply suspicious of the intimacy of friendship and get the traction they need by figuring out ways to get friends to turn on one another.

The love of friends for one another is somewhat different than erotic love, but it has a similar nature in that it is particular, exclusive, discriminatory, and jealous (in the proper sense). Well-formed people are more interested in the quality of friendships than the quantity. In a world where we have a lot of friends, we probably have very few, if any.

Why is this so? It seems worth our while to provide a brief meditation on friendship, and I mean by this something quite different than what Aristotle meant by “civic friendship,” which he thought was essential to the harmonious functioning of society. Civic friendship requires of us a particular set of virtues: toleration, good will, shared interests, benevolence, a desire for the minimum amount of order needed to keep things peaceful, an agreed upon set of rules, a commitment to keeping our noses out of one another’s business, and the ability to cooperate when required.

This is not a high bar for human comity, and to understand the difference between civic friendship and real friendship it is worthwhile to think about how strange it sounds to us to say things such as “My friends and I stay out of one another’s business” or “I tolerate my friends” or “My friends and I have maintained a peaceful coexistence” or “Our friendship is regulated and maintained by a strict set of rules.” None of these things sound attractive to us, and since these define a reasonably well-ordered polity it indicates to us the limits of politics and why we should never expect from politics more than it can deliver.

Civic friendship arises from shared interests determined by the accidents of time and place. No one can really describe why personal friendships happen. Our argot captures this when we say that we “make friends.” No one would say we make neighbors or make fellow citizens (although we do make enemies), so this idea of making suggests a much more serious process for a much more serious business. Like any craft, the ability to make friends seems to be a gift some people have more than others; even though everyone has a need for music, some people are better at making it than others. And just as a true musician understands and masters the elements of rhythm and harmony and melody that make up music, so a friend masters the elements that make for a good friendship.

What are these? For one thing, friendship requires proximity. We have to have the capacity to meet with our friends, to share time and space with them, and to take upon ourselves one another’s burdens. Distance is deadly to friendship, for it makes our continual sharpening of one another a fitful enterprise. Personality has to be honed constantly and finely; distance creates neglect, and that makes things dull and rusty.

Writers have commented on how friendship operates as a mirror in which, in no small part because of our own distorted vision of ourselves, we finally come to see ourselves clearly. Genuine friends offer resistance as well as aid and in the process not only show us what we are but what we might become.

Friendship is thus intimate. We have to know one another well in order to determine what’s genuinely best. We know that what might be the best thing for one person might not be for another, and strategies that work well with one might not with another. We become attuned to one another and know when dissonance and when resolution are called for. To desire what is best for our friend brings into play the risky business of correcting one another, and inviting their anger and perhaps resentment in return.

Here, too, is a difference from civic friendship. Without sounding too callous, let me point out that we lose some of our fellow citizens every day, and those losses leave us typically unmoved. But the loss of a friend is about as deep and profound a loss as we can imagine. The most moving passage in Saint Augustine’s Confessions occurs when he describes his friend’s death:

Black grief closed over my heart and wherever I looked I saw only death. My native land was a torment to me and my father’s house unbelievable misery. Everything I shared with my friend turned into hideous anguish without him. My eyes sought him everywhere, but he was missing. I hated all things because they held him not, and could no more say to me ‘Look, here he comes!’ as they had been wont to do in his lifetime when he had been away. I had become an enigma to myself, and I questioned my soul, demanding why it was sorrowful and why it so disquieted me, but it had no answer….Weeping alone brought me solace, and took my friend’s place as the only comfort of my soul.

Given our finitude, we simply don’t have the time or energy, much less the greatness of spirt required, to engage in too many friendships of this type. One thing we know for sure is they can’t be duplicated electronically.

Another aspect of proximity and a reason why it can’t be electronically duplicated is because friends can provide immediate help in times of crisis. If I break my leg and can’t mow my lawn, no government or philanthropic agency will do that for me. But a friend will. If I have a serious health alteration and find myself in a hospital, it is the friend who visits me, who tends to me, who cares for things on the home front, who comforts my family. Accepting such gestures from a friend requires accepting my own vulnerability and dependency on others. Such swallowing of one’s pride helps to make a person more grateful, and thus more human. It seems we have the misfortune of living in an age that values a pretend invulnerability over a risk-filled intimacy. But we will never become anything other than a truncated version of our full potential.

Likewise, one reason I’m willing to swallow my pride is because I know that over time our positions are likely to be reversed, and then I can show the generosity to my friend that he had shown to me. Friendship thus requires both reciprocity and perpetuity. Friends don’t keep ledgers; they understand there is a give and take to the relationship. Sometimes you pick up the check and sometimes your friend does. This give and take extends to the conversations you have with one another – sometimes you are the source of enlightenment or correction and other times the recipient. In friendship, our accounts are always full.

Friendship places you in a relationship where you share the center with another and do not occupy it alone. It chips away at your natural narcissism. It helps you become a better version of yourself, and does this slowly over time. This is why loyalty is such a central virtue of friendship: it holds things together even when our natural human tendencies might threaten to blow them apart. Friends abide (in virtually every meaning of that word). A genuine friendship can survive the ups and downs, the verdant and the arid times that mark our affairs. But they are not accomplished without effort.

Likewise, it is only in friendship that we are truly known. In a mass and deracinated society we are often displaying masks, creating images of ourselves. But our friends know what is behind the mask because they have been where we are and seen who we are over a long period of time. We may fool others, but we can’t fool them. As a result, they help heal the fractured identities that often set a private self against a public one. I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention another factor that relates to time and space: you never really get to know another person unless you’ve met that person’s parents. Such encounters bring an understanding that begets forgiveness.

Friendship also requires a relative equality among human beings. In book 3 of his Politics, Aristotle discusses how “an excess of the goods of this world” violates the principles of reason, and this in part because it makes friendship (civic or otherwise) difficult. Only with great effort can friends negotiate massive differentials in wealth or ability (which is why people tend to cluster around those with similar IQs and incomes; it’s also why the newly rich tend to stay closest to those who knew them before they became rich). It requires no small amount of self-awareness, for example, for the poorer friend not to take the other’s largesse for granted, or for the richer friend to appreciate the financial constraints that limit the poorer friend’s options. A frequent and uncomfortable honesty, which human beings do not excel at, is required to manage such affairs. A friend is a person who makes such discomfort an acceptable cost.

Even though I have made a pretty hard and fast distinction between civic and personal friendship, there is still a lesson we can draw from the intimate mode that has public significance. If social life is to be any kind of civic friendship the requisites of proximity, perpetuity, reciprocity, equality, dependency, and wanting what is genuinely good for the other based on our intimate knowledge of him or her would have to be attended to. The absence of such requirements cannot be compensated for by trying to build good systems.

One way to think of that is as follows: In many relationships there is a flow of action from one party upon the other. This is part of the “give and take” of human affairs. If I am the “giver” in a large scale and mostly anonymous social enterprise (especially true if a government agency acts as an intermediary) I am typically in a position where the recipient is in no position to refuse my charity; and if the recipient does refuse it, it does me no harm. If a homeless person rejects the dollar I offer I might find that strange, but not offensive.

But both of those things are manifestly not the case in friendship, where a friend can refuse my charity, and such refusal would be deeply hurtful to me. Friendships require vulnerability and the willingness to take risks in the middle of all the ways we can psychically harm one another. Still, for the friendship to survive the parties must maintain an equilibrium that balances need and aid. That equilibrium can be thrown off if our charity is either not offered or not accepted.* The potential for these disruptions testifies to the fact that friendship does not deal well with enormous power differentials with their potential to dehumanize both parties.

Civic friendship does not scale well in part because it creates anonymity, and anonymity in turn creates power differentials, and those differentials will always be disruptive of good order. If that’s the case, then democratic processes alone cannot contain the potential for civic unrest that results from the loss of the underlying conditions that make friendship possible. Without recovering those conditions and accepting the risks and responsibilities and rewards that friendship entails, no political system can last long. And maintaining those conditions is a nearly impossible task in an age of centralization, hypermobility, mass media, and the decline of civil society. Most systems of government fear the development of friendships, but democracy alone requires them.


*One of the most compelling moments in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It occurs when Rev. Maclean preaches a sermon reflecting back on the son who preceded him in death: “Each one of us here today will, at one time in our lives, look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: ‘We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?’ It is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us…but we can still love them.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do most Americans find friendship so difficult because they are not willing to take the risks involved? Why does friendship seem to be an increasingly risky venture?
  2. Can the whole idea of friendship survive in an age marked by hyper mobility and technology?
  3. How have electronic technologies affected our capacity for friendship?

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1 thought on “What is Friendship?”

  1. Gregory Dykhouse

    I enjoyed considering the reflections on friendship, thoughts that are connected and defined by practices out of tradition. As I read the essay, I anticipated coming across “friendship today,” co-opted by social media, which allows us to “friend” anything. “Friend” in today’s usage may mean a more empty connection to others (it’s not even really a connection). How has our understanding of “friendship” changed over time? I imagine in pre-agrarian societies, it had a specific understanding; similarly, it meant something specific, likely different, during agrarian practices. The industrial age ushered in new understandings of the term. And today, a “friend” is a quick acknowledgement by a click on the computer. I think replies to the third question you pose would be interesting to consider: to what extent does technology and its mode of communication foster “friendship,” as it reflects deepening our love and support of others, as it distinguishes humanity from other species?

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