Friendship is one of the, if not indeed the, most important types of relationships to the human experience. It is one of the main benefits living in a society provides to most people, allowing them a support group to help them overcome adversity in other areas, while also complementing and amplifying the good times in life. One’s quality and quantity of friendships is undoubtedly an effective proxy for their overall happiness in life. Yet, for all its positives, our lives are ultimately not receiving the highest level of benefits from friendship for various reasons. Due to the importance it has on life, the overall concept of friendship has been written about by a great deal of authors throughout time. People as diverse as ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, nineteenth century poets such a Ralph Waldo Emerson, theologians such as Gilbert Meilaender, and countless have put their perspectives on friendships to paper. Ultimately, they share similar views about the potential of friendship while all agreeing that it falls short due to individual flaws. Emerson’s contention was mainly that humans expected too much of friendship, while the other saw the flaw with friendship per se.
Ralph Waldo Emerson took a rather optimistic view of friendship itself, yet because of the way it is often viewed by the people engaging in it, he felt that humanity was not experiencing it as it fully could be. This view was encapsulated and embodied in his writings. “The higher the style we demand of friendship, of course the less easy to establish it with flesh and blood.” He begins the essay appropriately entitled “Friendship” with a commendation on human beings and their selflessness. He continues to write about the positives of humans and the benefits friendship can have, showing how people welcome strangers, excitedly write to friends, and just generally bring good will. Of strangers, Emerson notes that there is no one held in higher esteem than a stranger who is highly praised by friends. The friends report almost exclusively the most positive traits of a stranger, and for this reason he is held in the highest esteem. These examples show the potential for friendship due to the amount of love humans can show towards one another.
Yet ultimately, there are issues that spoil the ability to have friendships reach their full potential. Once a stranger has become known the human begins to see him in a different light that can spoil friendship. While the reports one is given about a stranger usually contain only the most positive details about that person, our actual observations of the stranger once he becomes a friend invariably will begin to turn more negative. The flaws will be noticed, and the friend will be seen with a more negative perspective. Emerson suggests that this is caused by a human habit to disbelieve in anything as good as friendship. While this perhaps is a useful and beneficial psychological trait in certain realms, for matters such as friendship it is overly cynical and damages the amount of utility humans can derive from the relationship.
This is where the human view of friendship becomes a strict limitation on the capacity of it to positively influence human lives. Due to the idealization of strangers, the urge is to measure friendship against these impossibly high standard, which nothing actual can maintain.
“Friendship may be said to require natures so rare and costly, each so well tempered and so happily adapted, and withal so circumstanced… that its satisfaction can very seldom be assured. It cannot subsist in its perfection, say some of those who are learned in this warm lore of the heart, betwixt more than two (Emerson).”
For this reason, Emerson says that human beings naturally get less out of friendship than they would if they could hold it to lower standards. The inherent potential of friendship is always to be squandered by the irrationally high expectations we demand from it. This is unfortunate as he sees affectionate companionship as an important method of achieving increased happiness in life.
Aristotle also wrote about friendship in his work Ethics. Due to the different language and culture he wrote in, he was defining a word not entirely similar to the one Emerson was discussing, but still analogous enough to be worth comparing. One of the overarching theories of his writings in Ethic, is that humans being achieve happiness through acting virtuously, which is defined as acting with accordance to ones defined purpose in life. Since happiness is a result of friendship, this means that friendship is the kind of activity one is supposed to participate in, while also influencing people into other areas of virtue. Those friendships in which two people of similar virtue interact are the most natural, while other kinds are referred to as imperfect friendships (Aristotle).
It is these imperfect relationships where the feelings of Aristotle and those of Emerson on the topic of friendship begin to look similar to one another. If one friend is more virtuous than the other, it stands that the other, less virtuous, friend will be the one to gain more from the relationship. At this point the friendship is not symmetrically mutually beneficial and therefore it is not functioning in the proper way. He seems to concede that most friendships are of this sort, since he admits there are very few people one will contact in life capable of being with in a perfect friendship.
Gilbert Meilaender was another writer who offered his opinion on friendship. To him, friendship was a result of similarities and ways that companies managed to complement one another. However, since humans beings are constantly in a state of change, the characteristics that make them compatible are only temporary. This made friendship only a temporary relationship for the parties involved in most cases. The one kind of affection he saw that could overcome temporally caused demise was that rooted in Christian love. His idea states that the feelings for God must be stronger than the feeling for the friend. This makes the friends worthy of one another and rooted in similar values.
“We cannot resolve the tension between friendship and fidelity; we can only state that some of the truths to wish reflection on this tension gives rise. Life s a journey…in which friends love one another in God and time no longer inflicts its wounds on friendship (Meilaender). ”
Perhaps the main difference between this view and those held by Aristotle and Emerson is the level of optimism. Emerson seems to see perfect friendship as unattainable, Aristotle finds it very rare, while Meilaender sees it as often established and requiring just a belief in God to hold it together.
Bhikhu Parekh gives a view of friendship coming from a different perspective, one that is rooted largely in ancient Indian writings. Similar to Aristotle, the vastly different setting in which these accounts of friendship were first produced means that there is not a complete similarity between them and those expressed by more modern day thinkers. The first main difference is that friendship of western thinkers is less anthropocentric than that conceived of in India. The Indian view was that the universe was comprised entirely of beings that should be in good willed relationships towards each other.
The specific view of friendship in this case was that it was simply a special type of relationship with another being, similar to the ones between seen in love or those of familial bonds. Those friends ultimately become co affectionate for one another, holding positive wishes towards the fate of their friend. For the best type of friends, they begin to blur the distinction between being separate entities and one common soul. The result is a set of friends who are loyal and permanent to each other. He explains possible issues from friendship in the Indian perspectives that come from such loyalty to each other. For this reason, he takes a view similar to that of Aristotle, in that both feel a need for friends to be of similar moral stature in comparison with the other companion (Bikkhu).
The writers coming from Western cultures share basic views of friendship that can be seen in each of the writings discussed in this paper. For one, they hold the ideal version of friendship to be one of the highest goods one can have in life. Yet unfortunately there is for each of them a fatal flaw in the way friendship usually works that means it will rarely achieve such a lofty status. For Emerson, it is the revelation of flaws that comes with increased familiarity that means our view of friends is lower than when we first met them. This constantly decreasing view means that friendship is always compared against a standard it can never reach again. For Aristotle, it was seen as too difficult to find the friends who could provide the highest level of companionship, although he saw it possible for some to do so. The others saw their own fatal flaw in friendship either in its fleeting nature or by the level of devotion it inspires, which can ultimately force some friends into inadvisable actions.
Aristotle. “Friendship.” Nichomachean Ethics, Book VIII. Trans. W. D. Ross. Online Text: http://philosophy.eserver.org/aristotle/nicomachean-ethics.txt.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Friendship.” Essays 1841. Online text: RWE.org—The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Established: December 8, 1997-XML redesign, February 5, 2005).
Meilaender, Gilbert. “Friendship and Fidelity.” Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics, Chapter 3. Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 1981. 53-67.
Parekh, Bhikhu. “An Indian View of Friendship.” The Changing Face of Friendship. Ed. Leroy S. Rouner. Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 1994. 95-113.