What is Friendship? Introduction and Part One

by Miles Raymer

Introduction: Why Friendship?

I am entering the phase of life in which I am supposed to “put away childish things,” as the Biblical saying goes (1 Corinthians 13:11). I’m in my early thirties, I’ve got a wife, a home, a good job and a dog. What comes next? Have a kid or two, build up your career. Shoot for the stars and stay ambitious, but be grateful and realistic, too. Look before you leap, but don’t look so long that you forget to leap. This chance may not come around again. Don’t screw this up, kiddo.

My past choices are beginning to have irreversible consequences, and the choices I make in the near future will greatly affect the rest of my life. This presents an opportunity to revisit my foundational assumptions about how best to approach the project of adulthood. If adulthood requires at least a partial abandonment of “childish things” (which I believe it does), I’d better figure out which activities and habits are childish and which aren’t. Among the many questions that arise in this moment, the one that feels most pressing is: What is the proper role of friendship in adult life?

If friendship is a childish thing––a schoolyard game meant to prepare us for adulthood but not carry us through it––then we should allow it to become less important than family and career. This is what I’ve begun to witness in my peer group, and to some extent in myself: An unplanned, subtle stroll away from friendly bonds and toward familial and professional ones. It’s not that we value friendship any less in principle, just that the demands of adult life leave less room for it. So we start to deprioritize friendship, accepting that there are only so many hours in the day, only so many moments to share. We tell ourselves, “I want security, I want legacy. Friendship’s fun and all, but it won’t ultimately bring me those higher (highest?) goods.”

I am skeptical of this common argument, at least insofar as it applies to my own life. I’m not convinced that friendship should take a backseat in order for me to healthily mature and construct a prosperous, meaningful adulthood. In fact, I suspect that reducing the importance of friendship at this juncture may seriously compromise that project.

Someone who wants to double down on the value of friendship had better make a case for it. This inquiry is my attempt to make that case.

Method and Purpose:

Drawing from books I’ve read over the last fifteen years, I’ve combed through notes, indices, reviews, and old school papers for references to friendship. During the hunt, I realized that while I never targeted friendship as a direct object of study, it was often present in the background of my explorations of philosophy, science and fiction.

In this essay, I will attempt to synthesize lessons from these fields and unite them under the banner of friendship. The purpose is twofold: (1) To formalize the intuitions and experiences I’ve had about friendship in my first few decades of life, and (2) to establish friendship’s place amidst the highest pursuits that contribute to human flourishing.


One can scarcely launch a successful exploration of friendship without first consulting the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who is responsible for the most influential theory of friendship in Western thought. In The Nicomachean EthicsAristotle posits three types of friendship: Friendships of utility, in which people “do not love each other in themselves, but only insofar as they come to have something good from one another”; friendships of pleasure, where people bond “not because they are of a certain sort, but because they are pleasant”; and friendships of virtue, shared by people who “are good and alike in point of virtue,” and who “wish for the good things for their friends, for their friends’ sake” (Book 8, Chapter 3).

Despite having the same problems of any theory that separates human relationships into distinct categories, Aristotle’s position has proven remarkably robust. It makes intuitive sense to almost everyone, and understanding friendships in terms of utility, pleasure, and virtue has brought insight and clarity to many generations.

A few points on how I interpret Aristotle’s theory of friendship: First, friendships are flexible, which means they can transition from one type to another over time (e.g. a friendship of utility can become a friendship of virtue, or vice versa). Second, friendships of virtue––those “which embody a shared recognition of a pursuit of a good”––take time to grow and energy to maintain, making it a practical impossibility to sustain many at one time (Alasdair MacIntyreAfter Virtue155). Aristotle explains:

Friendships of this sort are likely to be rare…There is…need of the passage of time and the habits formed by living together; for as the adage has it, it is not possible for people to know each other until they have eaten together the proverbial salt, nor is it possible, before this occurs, for them to accept each other and to be friends until each appears to each as lovable and is trusted.  Those who swiftly make proofs of friendship to each other wish to be friends but are not such unless they are also lovable and know this about each other. For a wish for friendship arises swiftly, but friendship itself does not. (Book 8, Chapter 3)

Third, while it is tempting to privilege friendships of virtue, we should not diminish the importance of the other two types. Friendships of utility and pleasure are not lesser, but rather different. They are also quite necessary, given that friendships of virtue are rare. Few people are capable of navigating social life in a rewarding fashion without active participation in all three types of friendship, and most of my subsequent arguments can be applied to more than one type, depending on the situation.


There are many ways one might legitimately define friendship, but for my purposes I will focus on friendship as the primary method by which we organize our social loyalties. This approach stems from Josiah Royce‘s The Philosophy of Loyaltywhere he defines loyalty as “The willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause” (9, emphasis his). Since this definitional language begs to be hijacked, I will hereafter refer to friendship as “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to extra-familial social relations.”

Though less elegant than Royce’s original formulation, this definition accomplishes for friendship what Royce does so successfully for loyalty, which is to establish it not as a thing but rather an activity. Or, as psychologist Steve Duck puts it, we should view “relationshipping” as a skill “that can be improved, refined, polished (even coached and practised) like any other skill, trained like any other, and made more fluent” (Friends, for Life3).

But why is this particular type of social activity so important? What are the possible consequences of undertaking it in better or worse ways? How is friendship different from other types of relationships, such as familial, romantic and professional? And does friendship have a unique role to play in humanity’s future? To answer these questions, I will explore a series of four assertions. Each seeks to elucidate a different element of friendship and demonstrate how it makes an indispensable contribution to human flourishing.

Part One: The cultivation of friendship is an ethical imperative

It’s neither controversial nor novel to observe that friendships influence the development of each participant’s personality. However, I don’t think many people realize the extent to which this is true, and I’ve come to believe that strong, abiding friendships create and maintain features of one’s personality that are otherwise inaccessible.

This belief gestated during my high school and college years, and then revealed itself more distinctly over the following decade. After college, I began to see my closest friends much less frequently than I had while in school. But each time we were reunited, I felt parts of myself “wake up” and begin to animate me in ways I could neither explain nor control. Eventually, I realized that, through myriad alterations in my thought processing, emotional responses, body language and speech, the physical presence of certain people would reliably change me into a better or worse person. Sometimes the changes were marginal, and occasionally they felt outright transformative. Once I identified this aspect of my personality, I learned that I had much less control over my thoughts and actions than I’d previously believed, and also that much of my ability to be a good person was dependent on being around people who elicited the better angels of my nature. Massimo Pigliucci explains:

Friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons. (Answers for Aristotle179)

Thus, I began to see the cultivation of friendship not just as a pleasurable way of navigating the social world, but as an ethical imperative.

To establish the viability of this position, we should interrogate our relationship with the fact that other people exist and share the world with us. Philosophers sometimes refer to “the Other” with a capital “O,” or use terms like “radical alterity” and “otherness” to capture the strange feeling of knowing (1) that we share the world with other humans, (2) that these other humans are both fundamentally similar and surprisingly different from us, and (3) that we don’t have and will never have direct access to anyone else’s personal experience.

For ethicist Martin Buber, the project of becoming a person hinges on one’s willingness to enter into relationship with others. Those incapable of entering into relationship fail to achieve personhood and remain mere egos:

Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons…Whoever stands in relation, participates in an actuality; that is, in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely outside of him. (I and Thou112-3)

Muriel Barbery articulates a similar state of affairs in her novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog:

We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors…As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone. (144-5)

Notice that both authors stake a metaphysical claim: When we authentically “stand in relation,” we “see beyond” ourselves and “participate in an actuality.” This implies that access to reality is dependent on one’s ability to enter into relationship with others. It follows, then, that if we wish to be grounded in the real world, we should want our personalities to be at least as much a product of our interactions with others as they are a product of our internal desires, goals, memories and imaginings.

Complementary to Buber and Barbery, philosopher Mark Johnson argues that entering into relationship with others isn’t something we have to actively engage in, but rather the default state in which we experience ourselves as social animals:

Most of the time, we are not egos trying to “figure out” what is going on in the minds of others, as if we observed their behaviors and then theoretically explained those to ourselves. Nor are we merely simulating a behavior in ourselves and assuming, by analogical projection, that another person’s behavior must be like ours. Rather, we are simply intersubjectively co-active with others in creating a shared communicative and performative situation. It might be said that, at this level, we exist immediately in and through others, via a nuanced interplay of our intentions and points of view. Yes, there is simulation, and, yes, there is even primitive theorizing on occasion, but mostly there is our dwelling with and through others in a mutual interplay of shared intentionality and coordinated behavior. (Morality for Humans57-8, emphasis his)

If sociality is fundamentally a matter of being “intersubjectively co-active” and “existing immediately in and through others,” then those with whom we share a social sphere play a central role in determining how our personalities develop and express themselves. Further, viewing this situation as an opportunity to help others grow may be our surest route to self-actualization, as Milton Mayeroff suggests: “I do not try to help the other grow in order to actualize myself, but by helping the other grow I do actualize myself“ (On Caring40, emphasis his).

In Confucian Role EthicsRoger Ames describes these dynamics in a discussion of Alfred North Whitehead‘s theory of friendship:

Whitehead uses friendship as an example of a relationship that is constituted by the unique character of the two persons involved, where the continuity of a real meaningful friendship is a matter of vibrant disclosure in which two persons “appreciate” each other in the most concrete sense of this term. That is, in their friendship they substantially enlarge and increase the weight and measure of each other. Importantly, the realization of this vital relationship is not at the expense of their personal uniqueness and integrity, but indeed a consequence of it. Integrity, as it applies here, means both the persistent particularity of each friend, and their “becoming one together” in the friendship. And such integrity is at once the substance of a real relationship and a source of cosmic meaning. In the growth of this achieved friendship, it is ultimately the dynamic configuration of a living friendship that has become what is most concrete, and it is persons taken as discrete individuals that has become the abstraction. (11)

In this tangible sense, friends create one another, even to the point where the “living friendship” can feel more substantive than the “discrete individuals” involved in it. This bestows huge significance on how we initiate, manage and terminate our personal relationships. And given the uniquely volitional nature of friendship, we can exert more agency in this regard than we can in familial or professional relationships (more on this in Parts Three and Four).

Situating friendship within this framework highlights how our friends ground us in reality and break down our delusions––or the opposite. Steve Duck explains:

Each of us needs to be assured regularly that our thought-worlds or symbolic spaces are sound and reliable. A friend can help us see that we are wrong and how we can change, or that we are right about some part of our thinking…The more of these ‘thought-ways’ that we share with someone, the easier it is to communicate with that person: we can assume that our words and presumptions will be understood more easily by someone who is ‘our type’ than by someone who is not. (Friends, for Life, 24-5)

This passage reveals the powerful potential of friendship, both positive and negative. The positive potential is that friends can reinforce the aspects of our personalities and worldviews that are worth reinforcing, and can also critique and help us revise aspects that are errant. Additionally, being with friends who are “our type” is comforting, allowing us to safely relax and gather the energy we need to survive and flourish. This is how we build up social capital, “the collective quantity of resources such as trust, reciprocity, and cooperation” (Robert SapolskyBehave, 292).

Friendship’s negative potential is the exact opposite of this, where friends reinforce us in ways we ought not to be reinforced, or unfairly criticize our qualities that are virtuous or benign. Most people have, at one point or another, faced the unpleasant revelation that one or more of our “friends” isn’t invested in our betterment or growth at all, but is rather engaged in the relationship for less laudable reasons. When we continue to identify such people as “our type,” we end up stuck in social swamps that neither support us nor urge us to improve ourselves. Over time, our ability to recognize and accrue social capital becomes impaired.

Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan Novels demonstrate this dynamic masterfully. The series follows two women––Elena and Lila––through a lifetime of friendship. The first volume of the quartet chronicles Elena and Lila’s childhood in post-fascist Naples, and each subsequent volume covers another life-stage as they mature: young adulthood, middle age, and old age.

Elena narrates the story in the first person, divulging early on that, despite being closer to Lila than anyone else, Elena feels intellectually inferior to her. As she ages, Elena develops a keen, poetic understanding of how the experiences and achievements of both women cannot escape the contextual force of their friendship:

I was blind, she a falcon; I had an opaque pupil, she narrowed her eyes, with darting glances that saw more; I clung to her arm, among the shadows, she guided me with a stern gaze. (My Brilliant Friend, 257)

Her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture from hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less. (The Story of a New Name337, emphasis hers)

We had maintained the bond between our two stories, but by subtraction. We had become for each other abstract entities…We both needed new depth, body, and yet were distant and couldn’t give it to each other. (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay315)

In just a handful of sentences, Ferrante illustrates the emotional landscape of a fraught friendship, showing how we can love a friend so much that they become an inalienable part of our identity, while simultaneously feeling that their existence somehow does violence to us. This powerful message teaches us that friendship, while sometimes arduous, is one of our most profound methods for understanding ourselves and our world.

In a crucial moment when her tensions with Lila fall away, Elena observes:

I had arrived there full of pride and realized that––in good faith, certainly, with affection––I had made the whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now…she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other. (The Story of a New Name466)

This revelatory flash illuminates how friendship can dispel our social insecurities and lift us into a higher plane of mutual appreciation, understanding and compassion. Elena realizes something that is true for everyone: The narrative of our lives––the “mad sound of the brain” that tells us who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going––is not an autonomous project, but one that is inherently intersubjective. Whether we realize it or not, our own story echoes within the story of our friends, and vice versa. This will be the topic of Part Two.