David Bruce – USA

[As a young child, David Bruce learned about Theosophy from his mother, Vera Bruce. In 2003 he joined the staff of the Theosophical Society in America where he worked as the director of education until 2010, at which time he assumed the responsibilities of national secretary, a position he holds to this day.]

Aristotle, Facebook, and Friendship

I’ll begin with a question: “Who doesn’t need friends?” To pose that question is to beg the obvious, because the need for friendship is so deeply ingrained in human nature. The young need friends . . . and so do the elderly. The poor need friends . . . as do the prosperous. Ordinary people need friends . . . and so do celebrities. People in positions of power need friends . . . as do the rest of us. So, to rephrase the original question: Who needs friends? The answer, of course, is everybody.

It may be said that a life of wealth without friends would be a sad and lonely existence; but a life filled with the laughter and love of dear friends would be a life that is rich indeed. Throughout the ages, this has been one of those enduring truths of human existence. But what exactly is friendship? And who can define it? Ask ten people and you will likely get ten definitions, similar perhaps, but not identical. Even Plato, in his dialogue on friendship, Lysis, does not provide us with a conclusive definition.

The English writer Hugh Kingsmill once amusingly referred to friends as “God’s apology,” meaning that by allowing us to choose our friends, God was making amends for our families. So, what is a friend? Most of us would agree that a friend is different from an acquaintance. But that doesn’t get us very far. When it comes to friends, we talk of those who are “close,” “old,” “out-of-town,” “professional,” “male, “female,” “fair-weather,” and sometimes “high-maintenance.” In regard to the last, Oscar Wilde once said of a certain individual, “He has no enemies, but he is intensely disliked by his friends.”

We might also consider whether the nature of friendship has changed in recent times. For example, has it been permanently altered by the Internet and social media? Will traditional friends eventually be replaced by the new “virtual friend”? I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, but I do suggest that we start our inquiry by looking at what some of the great intellects have said on the subject.

With friendship being such an essential part of human happiness, you would think there would be an abundance of literature on the subject. Oddly enough, there isn’t. But there are some thoughtful comments, and we can begin with Aristotle. Why Aristotle, you might ask? Because more than most other thinkers, Aristotle had a profound and lasting influence on Western culture. Moreover, he wrote an in-depth treatise on friendship, which, after more than 2300 years, still bears examination.

Aristotle said that a person who took delight in solitude, who did not feel the need for human companionship or friendship, was either a wild beast or a god. That may be a slight exaggeration, but he had a point. You and I are social creatures and very few of us could do without human contact for a prolonged period of time. If Aristotle had gone to the Oracle of Delphi, and asked her to look into the twenty-first century, no doubt he would have been amazed at today’s Internet technology, which has brought us a host of social networking sites, making it easier than ever to have more friends. Take Facebook, for example. Do any of you know how many users it has?  The number is one billion (as of October 2012 and doubtless rising).

Before the Internet, landline or cell phones, e-mail — how did friends communicate in those days? If you had been living in sixteenth-century Europe, how would you have stayed in touch with your friends? Well, the way most people did so then was simple. They got together and talked, face-to-face. If your friend lived far away, you wrote letters. Of course, then it took longer to deliver mail; communication generally was much slower. But letters were written by hand and therefore were very personal, each person’s handwriting being unique.

Today, people still talk to one another, but you have to wonder if our reliance on technology is not causing us to lose some of the skills that go into making artful conversation. You have to wonder if we are not sacrificing quality for quantity, thoughtfulness for speed. Today, instead of talking face-to-face, we resort more and more to texting or postings on social media sites. That enables us to stay in touch with a greater number of people than was possible twenty or thirty years ago and to do so much more quickly. As one writer pointed out in the Wall Street Journal: “Texting is all about speed and convenience . . . It’s about making brief comments . . .  It’s about getting quick answers (“Love Is a Many-Splintered Thing,” by Jim Sollisch, 8/21/12). OK. That may be a good thing. We’re all busy and we appreciate the efficiency that technology brings. But what happens if all, or most, of our communications take this form? As the Wall Street Journal writer pointed out: “In all this hurry, there isn’t time to explore emotions, and the end result is often a deep-seated feeling of loneliness.”

Moreover, are all the people on our Facebook page really our friends? Or is the Facebook “friend” a clever marketing euphemism, which we apply indiscriminately to all those who fall within our ever-expanding circle of contacts? You sometimes hear people boast that they have 100 or 200 friends on Facebook. That may be a good thing . . . or not. As social psychologists have recently discovered, there is a profound sense of loneliness among people who spend inordinate amounts of time on social media sites. The apparent irony is this: “How can you be lonely with 200 friends?” In her book Alone Together, clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle says: “Research portrays Americans as increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”

When I mentioned the apparent irony of increasing loneliness despite an abundance of Facebook friends, I chose the word “apparent” deliberately. Because any intelligent person, upon reflection, will realize that all those contacts on social media sites do not constitute true friends. Some may be, but many are not. In light of all this, social networking technology (despite its obvious benefits) has a potential downside, which consists of (1) A watering down of traditional friendship to a fragmented relationship of convenience; (2) A blurring of the lines between casual acquaintances and real friends; and (3) An erosion of the virtues that traditionally have made friendship special, to be replaced by the trivial, artificial, and superficial. As a result, many people have deluded themselves into thinking they have more friends than they really do. They’ve confused quantity with quality, popularity with durability, and grandstanding with intimacy. Therefore, it is time to revisit the idea of what constitutes a friend — for which the best way is to begin with Aristotle.

Aristotle wrote a detailed treatise on friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics. The fact that it is still read today, some 2300 years later, is a testament to his enduring insights into human nature. Aristotle viewed friendship as a necessity. Unless one is a god or a wild beast, one is going to be in need of friends for various reasons: The young need friends to guide them and help them from making mistakes. The elderly need friends to help them with things they can no longer do for themselves. The poor need friends for assistance and as a refuge from their troubles. The prosperous need friends with whom they can share their prosperity. People in positions of power and influence need friends to help protect their status and to bestow favors and beneficence.

Another prominent writer from antiquity was Cicero. Three centuries after Aristotle wrote his treatise on friendship, Cicero wrote an essay entitled “De Amicita” (On Friendship), in which he expanded upon the thoughts of Aristotle. Cicero said that with the exception of wisdom, the greatest of all possible gifts was friendship.

A millennium and a half later, the English Renaissance writer Francis Bacon said this in his essay on friendship: “When we share our joys with our friends, we rejoice all the more; and when we share our troubles with our friends, the burden becomes less.” About the same time, the French philosopher Montaigne also wrote an essay on friendship in which he noted that “our free will has no product more properly its own than affection and friendship.” In other words, we have the ability to pick and choose our friends. As Hugh Kingsmill remarked, friends are “God’s apology” for our families.

What constitutes friendship? Aristotle listed two qualifications: (1) Friends must be well-disposed towards each other: goodwill and (2) This feeling must be recognized and returned: reciprocity. He pointed out that sometimes people confuse a feeling of good will with friendship. For example, we can have a feeling of good will for people we don’t know personally, but whom we admire or respect from a distance. Or we may confuse friendliness with friendship. For example, you may project congeniality in all of your social interactions. But mere good will and congeniality do not constitute friendship. These qualities, rather, provide the basis upon which a friendship may be built. Cicero added another qualification for friendship: the willingness to give and receive advice. Everybody likes to give advice. How many enjoy receiving it? If there is a feeling of mutual goodwill, as Aristotle stipulated, then such an exchange of advice is possible. Being the astute observer of human behavior that he was, Aristotle listed three basic types of friendship according to their basis: (1) utility, (2) pleasure, and (3) goodness.

Friendships based on utility are relationships in which each party hopes to gain something from the other: a case of quid pro quo. They’re often based on business or professional relationships. In friendships of this type, the people involved tend not to spend a lot of time together. They may not even like each other very much. But even if they do have a positive and warm feeling toward each other, these friendships are temporary and often come to an end when that relationship is no longer useful to one or the other. For example, when I worked in electronic distribution, we had a number of manufacturer’s sales reps call on us. They’d take us out to lunch, give sales presentations on their newest products, and sometimes go golfing with the boss. However, if our company decided for some reason to drop their product from our line card, that relationship quickly came to an end.

Another characteristic of friendships based on utility is that they can easily give way to complaints if either party thinks he’s not getting what he should out of the relationship. I experienced that with our sales reps. Difficulties often arose if they felt that we weren’t promoting their product line, or if we added one of their competitors to our line card. Aristotle would call these types of friendship incidental because those involved are not loved for their actual qualities of character, but for whatever benefit each party derives. This view is echoed by the philosopher Montaigne who said: “What we ordinarily call friendships are nothing but acquaintances and familiarities, which are formed by chance or convenience.” The philosopher Seneca, who lived a hundred years after Cicero, called these “fair-weather friendships”: “This explains the crowd of friends that clusters about successful people and the lonely atmosphere about the ruined — their friends running away when it comes to the testing point.”

On a lighter note, the Chicago writer Joseph Epstein, in his book Friendship — An Expose, speaks affectionately of “foul-weather friends.” They meet only in the winter, or when it is raining, because on all other days one friend is out on the golf course. Seneca also talked about the temporary nature of friendships not grounded in anything beyond convenience: “The ending inevitably matches the beginning: a person who begins to be your friend because it pays will similarly cease to be your friend when it pays him not to be a friend.”

Friendships based on pleasure are pointed to by Aristotle as friendships formed between young people, because their lives are largely regulated by their feelings. And, since feelings are prone to change, these types of friendships are often ephemeral and short-lived. But adults also enjoy friendships of this type: Some examples might be your tennis partner, the members of your local hiking club, the guys you play poker with on Friday nights. And there is nothing wrong with these relationships, for we all need time for fun and relaxation in our busy lives. But we should remember that such friendships can quickly come to an end when one or the other party no longer derives pleasure from the association. And that, in fact, is often what happens.

Friendships based on goodness, according to Aristotle, are the ideal type of friendship. They are based not on utility or pleasure, but on mutual goodness. And by goodness, Aristotle is referring to the classical virtues of character: courage, compassion, generosity, steadfastness, loyalty, sympathy, and so forth. Friendships of this type tend to last a long time. As Theosophists, we might say for lifetimes. This is the type Cicero was talking about when he referred to friendship as “the greatest of all possible gifts.”

At this point, a skeptic might ask if it is even possible in this day and age to find a friendship that lives up to ideals set forth by philosophers such as Emerson, Montaigne, and Aristotle. In this increasingly fragmented world, is such a friendship possible? Is it realistic? Perhaps the best we can hope for are specialized but limited types of friendship, such as your workout partner at the gym, a co-worker with whom you often go out to lunch, your friend on the softball team, your neighbor from the local PTA.

Maybe a friendship based on noble qualities of character is no longer feasible in these fast-paced times. But this much is certain. You cannot create a friend simply by adding another contact to your Facebook page. You cannot maintain and nurture a friendship by simply “texting” at your convenience, while expecting the other person to drop everything and respond immediately. And you cannot develop intimacy and trust when your every casual remark is posted online to be read by scores of people. But why is this? Why can’t we simply use modern technology to have all the friends we want? We depend on technology to solve all our other problems — or so it seems.

Aristotle has already given us the answer. It takes time to develop the trust needed for friendship to develop. It takes time to really get to know a person, to get beyond the surface façade that we often project on social media sites. As clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle says in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other: “The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.” Remember Aristotle’s two qualifications of friendship: (1) mutual good-will and (2) reciprocity. Without either of these two conditions, you don’t have a friendship.

Another point is that true friendship touches us deeply. Kahlil Gibran says in his book The Prophet: “Let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.” There is nothing wrong with friendships based on utility. Nor is there anything wrong with those based on pleasure. Chances are, many of our relationships fall into those two categories. But while these are useful and necessary, they rarely touch the core of our being.         Furthermore, problems sometimes occur when we confuse those secondary types with friendships based on goodness. That happens when one or the other partner in a friendship fails or forgets to remember the basis of their relationship. Aristotle observed that most quarrels between friends arise when that happens. And it sometimes occurs when one person deliberately misrepresents his motives to the other.

Comparing true friendship with the secondary types, Montaigne said: “Let not these other, common friendships be placed in this rank.” “I advise you not to confuse the rules of the two. You must walk in those other friendships bridle in hand, with prudence and caution. The knot is not so well tied that there is no cause to mistrust it.”

Finally, we can end with a question raised by Aristotle in his Ethics: What is the optimum number of friends one should have? The answer depends on the type of friendship involved. (1) Utilitarian: Some are necessary, but not too many. Life is too short for us to be obligated to return favors to a large number of people. (2) Pleasure: Again, a few are sufficient, just like a pinch of seasoning in our food. (3) Goodness: Because of the requirements of time and intimacy, there is a limit. Generally, a small circle of intimate friends is sufficient. In this case, less is more.

As we make use of today’s Internet technology, let us not mistake the “virtual friend” for the genuine article. Although we may find it helpful to use social media sites to network with others for reasons of job or career or to use those sites as a convenient and efficient way of staying in touch with family and other acquaintances . . . if we are looking for something of value, something timeless, something more precious than any gift, then . . . in the end . . . all we need is a few good friends.



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