In the era of Facebook and “the friend zone,” are we forgetting the value of a true boon companion?

Book Review: ‘Friendship’ by A.C. Grayling

In the era of Facebook and “the friend zone,” are we forgetting the value of a true boon companion?


Jan. 3, 2014 4:50 p.m. ET

‘Friend’ is a much devalued word today. President Barack Obama recently referred to his “friends on the right”—with little apparent friendliness. The rest of us, thanks to Facebook, are “friends” with people we have never met. We speak of “friends with benefits” when we mean casual lovers, and of living in the “friend zone” when we mean being romantically frustrated. We refer to things and events as being “eco-friendly,” “user-friendly” or “business-friendly.”Friendship

B y A.C. Grayling
Yale, 229 pages, $26

In “Friendship,” the noted British scholar A.C. Grayling tries to restore some of the term’s richness. Beginning with Plato and Aristotle, Mr. Grayling traces the meaning of friendship in Western culture and the changing values and purposes we have attached to it.

What he finds is that, despite differing ideas about its nature, friendship until recently was considered one of the rarest, most demanding but also most rewarding kinds of human relationships. Indeed, for much of European history, the ideal of human companionship would have been a true friend rather than a romantic partner. No one is closer to Achilles in the “Iliad” than his childhood friend Patroclus, whom he loved, Achilles tells his mother, as his “own life.” In the Bible Jonathan loved David as “his own soul.” Hamlet tells Horatio that he is his “heart’s core.” John Keats expresses one of Western literature’s common refrains when, in a poem, he asks his friend Charles Cowden Clarke: “had I never seen, / Or known your kindness, what might I have been?”

Today we might form friendships at school, at work, at church, at the gym. But what attracts us to some people and not others? In the early Socratic dialogue “Lysis,” Plato suggests that we befriend people who are useful to us. “And shall we be friends,” Socrates asks rhetorically, “to others, and will any others love us, in matters where we are useless to them?” Mr. Grayling points out that being useful meant much more than helping someone move. It was assumed that friends had most things in common and were willing to suffer on each other’s behalf. Friends, furthermore, encouraged each other to become wise.

Aristotle, Mr. Grayling notes, recognized a wider range of relationships. In the “Nicomachean Ethics,” he describes three kinds of friendships: those founded on mutual utility, those founded on pleasure and those founded on virtue. Churchill’s friendship with King George VI, with whom he had little in common, developed out of working toward a mutually beneficial goal. Conversely, Nick Carraway’s friendship with Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s novel is all women, gin and cars.

It’s no surprise that friendships founded on shared virtue are of the highest order for Aristotle. Such friends, he writes, “resemble each other in excellence” and care for each other because of “what the other is.” One requirement of being a virtuous friend is a proper respect for oneself. Aristotle famously stated that a friend is “another self.” But in order for someone to love his other self properly—”wish what is good” for someone else—he must first wish what is good for ourselves. Only then can he love others rightly.

While Aristotle’s treatment of friendship is more convincing than Plato’s, Mr. Grayling finds a “residue of Plato’s influence” in the clash between Aristotle’s definition of friendship as an essential good and his view that a life well-lived is characterized by “solitary contemplation” of ultimate things. A life without friendship, Mr. Grayling argues, can hardly be characterized as good, though this is what Aristotle claims.

Cicero, more practically minded, saw man as a social creature and reliance upon friends as both necessary and good. A friend, Cicero writes, is “a second self, so that where a man’s friend is, he is; if his friend be rich, he is not poor; if he is weak, his friend’s strength is his. . . . If you should take the bond of friendship out of the world, no house or city could stand, nor would the soil even be tilled.” Of particular interest in Cicero, Mr. Grayling writes, is his treatment of the qualities of a good friend and a healthy relationship. In addition to an “unswerving constancy,” a friend should be sympathetic but also frank. (Oscar Wilde would later say: “A friend is someone who stabs you in the front.”) Friends, Cicero writes, should never lie to one another—though this doesn’t mean that they should always tell the whole truth.

Because friendships gone wrong can be painful or even disgraceful, Cicero writes, it is best to enter them cautiously. In fact, “one should not enter into friendships intended to be lasting and firm until one has a degree of maturity.” For Plutarch, it is uncommon, even undesirable, for a person to have more than one or two friends. The person who has too many is immature and of an “impressionable . . . pliant, and changeable” mind, with an inordinate love of novelty.

According to this analysis, our current habit of fickle friending creates too many shallow relationships and few substantial ones. While Twitter and Facebook provide a superficial sense of connection to other people, such relationships tend to be self-centered and offer little in terms of individual growth. What are the consequences of such trivial friendships? For Francis Bacon, Mr. Grayling observes, friends are a civilizing force, bringing order to our feelings, our thoughts and our life. A friend eases “the fullness and swellings of the heart,” sheds light on our “confessions,” cares for our loved ones and affairs after we have died. A man without friends, Bacon suggests, is “a wild beast.”

As the author traces the attitudes of various thinkers toward friendship, through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Romantic periods, most look back toward Plato and Aristotle. But a few differ. William Godwin breaks with the past in arguing that inequality, not equality, is a prerequisite for flourishing friendships. “As Godwin sees it,” Mr. Grayling writes, “the ‘grand secret’ of friendship . . . is that it consists in the repose of the loftier soul, its unbending or relaxation into the confidence and love of the inferior party.” Nietzsche sees a friend as one who strengthens an individual by struggling against him.

So what does Mr. Grayling think friendship consists of? Curiously, on one important point he is at odds with most of the thinkers he draws the reader’s attention to. One of the central arguments of “Friendship” is that views of friendship that subordinate it to some “putatively higher ethereal end” devalue it. Friendship is “a down-to-earth business, with laughter and food and wine,” Mr. Grayling argues, and it can’t be both this and otherworldly.

This is an odd and unnecessary position to take. If friendships aren’t related to some higher good, how can they be said to be nobler than relationships based on power and fear? Isn’t the friendship of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnányi, who both opposed the Third Reich, nobler than the bond that linked Hitler and his cronies?

Mr. Grayling’s position leads him to a rather skewed view of Christian friendship in particular. He praises Augustine’s lyrical passages on friendship in the “Confessions,” such as when Augustine calls Alypius of Thagaste “the brother of my heart” or writes that the “bond of human friendship has a sweetness of its own, binding many souls into one.” But Mr. Grayling finds that Augustine, with Plato and Aristotle, makes “the good” or God the ultimate goal of life. Thus, he “devalues” friendship. Mr. Grayling ignores Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine,” in which he argues that our love of others is neither utilitarian nor an end in its own right but a reflection of the love of God, in whose image, according to Augustine, we are created. Can this really be called “devalued”? Whether he agrees with Augustine or not, Mr. Grayling’s treatment of his position is overly simplistic.

The author is surely right when he concludes that friendships “are a large part of what gives meaning to our lives, just as our lives give meaning to them: without them we are less, and in danger of being too close to nothing.” A life without friends—real friends—is a paltry one indeed. As is a life, many people would argue, devoid of belief in some “higher ethereal end,” as Mr. Grayling puts it. Yet both true friendship and religious belief require a personal sacrifice that we today, for whatever reason, seem unwilling to make.

—Mr. Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and a senior contributor at The American Conservative.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: