The great modern enemy of friendship is…love?
I suppose that sounds kind of counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?
Andrew Sullivan wrote a long chapter about friendship in his book Love Undetectable and says our modern fixation on eros/romantic love is such that “it has acquired all the hallmarks of a cult. It has become our civil religion.”
This means, of course, that friendship no longer has the exalted status it once did, when friendship was viewed as equal to married love. Thus, love (eros) is the great modern enemy of friendship.
Interestingly, Sullivan (a Catholic) partially blames churches for the idolatry of eros in today’s culture:
“[the church] is now our culture’s primary and obsessive propagandists for the marital unit and its capacity to resolve all human ills and satisfy all human needs.
Far from seeing divorce and abortion and sexual disease as reasons to question our society’s apotheosis of eros, these churches see them merely as opportunities to intensify the idolatry of eros.
Friendship is an antidote to this idolatry because, at least according to Aristotle and Augustine, friendship is bound up with the notion of virtue.
Now, I’ve heard this a lot before, that virtue is central to friendship, and I always get a little perplexed. I can’t say I’ve ever entered into a friendship with the specific intent that the friend would help me become more virtuous.
Sullivan expands on this in a helpful way by quoting Aristotle:
And the best works done and those which deserve the highest praise are those that are done to one’s friends.
Sullivan also says:
Someone is not a true friend because it’s useful for him; he is a friend in order that he might be useful for someone else.
That’s pretty cool. Although this is something of a paradox because Sullivan also makes the point that friendship is a reciprocal relationship between equals and friendship isn’t at all about the mutual fulfillment of needs:
A friend will only rarely ask a friend for money, or for lodging or for a favor. He will not want to strain the relationship…this is why a true friend is relieved when a friend no longer has to stay in his house or owes him money or is best by sickness. For then the friendship can begin again…liberated to breathe the oxygen of independence.
This is a relief to me because I’m the queen of “I don’t want to be a bother.”
Maybe I’m not so off base after all (although writing these posts on friendship makes me see how I so need to get my act together as a friend. Ahem). The key, I guess, is reciprocity, which maintains the oxygen of independence rather than polluting it with neediness.
This independence leads to a second way that friendship counter-balances the fixation on eros…it makes possible an honesty that can’t flourish to the same extent in marriage or in a romantic relationship:
We are constantly told how happy marriages and successful love affairs are built on complete honesty, but that is obviously bad advice. All love requires something of an illusion about the other person…
Friendships, in contrast, have enough space that bracing honesty can be a tonic. They are places where the trust is so great, and the distance sufficient, that nothing is out of bounds for discussion, even the most intimate secrets and humiliating truths. For in love, humiliation is a real and constant threat; in a true friendship, humiliation is an impossibility.
What do we tell our friends? We tell them everything. And we are not afraid of embarrassing ourselves or boring each other.
I’ve said before that communication is overrated in marriage. When it comes to friendship, however, this is not the case.
I’ll close with a quote from Cicero:
And this is what we mean by friends: even when they are absent, they are with us; even when they lack some things, they have an abundance of others; even when they are weak, they are strong; and, harder still to say, even when they are dead, they are alive.
Filed under: Friendship
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