Social commentator Daniel Akst takes a different approach than Eric Klinenberg on the state of friendship in the west. I do not read much Akst, though he is a prolific writer, but I do see some strength in what I know of his arguments about friendship. One thing I like about him is his Aristotelian understanding of different types of friendship, these being the utilitarian, pleasurable, and virtuous. He rightfully makes the last the highest form of friendship and I really think this is where the Gospel concept of friendship and O’Donohue’s anan cara reside. More on that later.
Akst’s greatest strength in his proposition of friendship is that it can easily become endangered, mostly because the truest type of friends are ignored. In part, he blames the digital world for this, but he also cites the role of spouse as confidante as a reason for the waning of friendship. It is on that point I take exception and which allows me to get a diversion out of the way right now, because I think this criticism is a societal weakness more than a weakness of friendship
Askt proposes the eroticization of society has made friendship difficult which is true, but he also equates this too closely with failing to understand eros as the place that strives to ascend to higher things. As we no longer live in a world where marriages are arranged (never big in the west to begin with), we do attain the bond of marriage through the ascending beauty and need of eros we see in another person that makes another person a spouse and best friend. Granted marriage is a broken bond for a huge part of society, but having a spouse can hardly be blamed for not having friends. It is true marriage will lessen the impact of friendship, but it only totally negates them when necessary. Besides the marriage bond is at its most proper the greatest ascendancy of friendship, for a thing will always strive to realize itself as completely as possible. Tragically, our world is seeing this ascendancy broken as sacrifice and fortitude give way to selfishness and fright. But it is not friendship, but the lack of it that has brought us there. That we can concentrate on friendship (and the modern world does this a lot) is a good thing.
This brings me back to Klinenberg and O’Donohue. They do not see the breakdown of friendship in the same way Akst does. Klinenberg notes an expanding circle of friendship in a new world paradigm and O’Donohue places certain friendships in a place where friends exist in the truest ways. Both would argue against isolation and both do not see isolation and the lack of friendship as the inevitable outcome of the modern world. With all the questions as to what a true friend is and the desire to have these, the nature of friendship and our friends are hardly ignored by the modern world. Akst is right that the culture does not value this, especially in the deepest meaning of the word friend, but individuals also have a remarkable proclivity to revolt against culture. It may be hardly practiced, but inside the individual is that spark which informs us when culture may be wrong and we must strive to the higher things. Besides, it is not friendship, but family that is more assailed by culture.
That we now live in a world with more leisure and the families born of marriage are not a given or waited upon, we are well suited for looking at what makes for a friend. This brings us to look at what a friend truly is and where we can find the models. Here is where we can be informed by the Gospel account as well as the examples of friendship reaching the soul. I will not recount those examples as the accounts of anam cara are prevalent enough in writing and as for the example of Jesus….it does not take long to read the Gospels. What I will say is that friendship on its deepest level wants to be realized and most often will be. Destiny, with always wants to happen.
In our day we often find ourselves in the place of wanting friendship and not always knowing the meaning. We want to go to the open and vulnerable place knowing that it is really a place that can only be shared with a few, for an individuated and emotive agape does take considerable work. We also have more time to do so than ever before in history and we have pondered on it more than we ever had. Hopefully this invites us to take seriously what the thing means. In reality what is beautiful about this is that the definition is so dynamic. Even if we cannot give friendship a precise definition we know who our truest friends are. We would do well to be informed by the best examples of this and then strive to live it.
In spite of my digression on the thought of Akst, his notes of friendship and modern life are noteworthy. See America, Land of Loners? for this. I should add that Akst never said family and viable friendships are a matter of either/or, though the modern era can make this more likely.
Much has been said of “soul friendship” since John O’Donohe published Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. Unfortunately I have not read the book, but I know it addresses a variety of relationships and concerns an ancient Celtic wisdom that allowed itself to be informed by Catholicism. I also know the term may involve exclusivity (not sure if it understood this way in the ancient way) as evidenced in the words “anam cara” often being inscribed on the claddagh. Those who use the term today may or may not make it exclusive. Those preferring an exclusive meaning tend to make a soul friend the person in community that the spouse is in the place of marriage. I also know the term has been one offed as being a little “pagan,” but its use is very prevalent in Christian (particularly Irish Catholic) circles.
Biblical friendship: There is too much to write about here, but I did want to point out two examples that get at how friendship is understood, one from the Hebrew Canon and the other from the Christian Testament. First from Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” I selected this because it shows the demarcation between families and friends. The words mean that brothers are meant to be comrades against adversity and that while friendship does not rule out facing adversity with another, it is also not the same place of obligation that comes from family. Next John 15:12-15 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. These words inform the teacher-disciple dichotomy that can prevent friendship. It calls us to the place of a radical egalitarianism (so much so it involves God) in friendship and does not place one person over another. It also shows that friendship is to involve agape love (the word used here) and be radical enough that a friend would give everything up for the other (as Christ did on the Cross.)