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by A. C. Grayling

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A central bond, a cherished value, a unique relationship, a profound human need, a type of love. What is the nature of friendship, and what is its significance in our lives? How has friendship changed since the ancient Greeks began to analyze it, and how has modern technology altered its very definition? In this fascinating exploration of friendship through the ages,…  See more details below


A central bond, a cherished value, a unique relationship, a profound human need, a type of love. What is the nature of friendship, and what is its significance in our lives? How has friendship changed since the ancient Greeks began to analyze it, and how has modern technology altered its very definition? In this fascinating exploration of friendship through the ages, one of the most thought-provoking philosophers of our time tracks historical ideas of friendship, gathers a diversity of friendship stories from the annals of myth and literature, and provides unexpected insights into our friends, ourselves, and the role of friendships in an ethical life. A. C. Grayling roves the rich traditions of friendship in literature, culture, art, and philosophy, bringing into his discussion familiar pairs as well as unfamiliar—Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Huck Finn and Jim. Grayling lays out major philosophical interpretations of friendship, then offers his own take, drawing on personal experiences and an acute awareness of vast cultural shifts that have occurred. With penetrating insight he addresses internet-based friendship, contemporary mixed gender friendships, how friendships may supersede family relationships, one’s duty within friendship, the idea of friendship to humanity, and many other topics of universal interest.

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Editorial Reviews

The Times - Iain Finlayson

'An intelligent, loving tribute to the virtues, values and varieties of friendship.'—Iain Finlayson, The Times
Psychology Today - Glenn Altschuler

“Precise and rigorous.”–Glenn Altschuler, Psychology Today website
Wall Street Journal - Micah Mattix

“‘Friend’ is a much devalued word today. . . .In Friendship the noted British scholar A.C. Grayling tries to restore some of the term's richness.” —Micah Mattix, The Wall Street Journal
Barron’s - Joe Queenan

“Elegant . . . Grayling has taken a subject that is hiding in plain sight and given it the loving attention it deserves.”—Joe Queenan, Barron’s
The Lady - Juanita Coulson
“Wearing his impressive intellect lightly, Grayling offers an accessible exploration of ideas about friendship through the ages, from Ancient Greek thinkers through to the present day – grounded in experiences from his own life. In a refreshing break from the tradition of analytical philosophy, he goes beyond abstract, logical arguments to offer valuable insights for our lives. With social media stretching the definition of ‘friend’ to near meaninglessness, this is a timely and thought-provoking read.”—Juanita Coulson, The Lady
Camden New Journal - Illtyd Harrington
“Grayling’s scholarship goes forward at a gallop, but his exuberance and commitment captures the reader.”—Illtyd Harrington, Camden New Journal
The Times

Praise for A. C. Grayling:

"If there is any such person in Britain today as The Thinking Man, it is A. C. Grayling. He provides generous help for the ethically challenged, the philosophically perplexed, and the culturally confused."—The Times

Sarah Bakewell

'A superb, enlightening tour - and a friendly one – through friendship's literary and philosophical landscape.' - Sarah Bakewell, author of
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
Simon May

"A masterly investigation into one of the supreme, though often neglected, virtues of the well-lived life. A.C. Grayling dazzlingly illuminates the richness of friendship as it has been conceived and practised in the Western world since antiquity."—Simon May, author of Love: A History
Kirkus Reviews
A philosophical inquiry into friendship with a historical perspective. The foreword to the first in the publisher's Vices and Virtues series describes the unifying principle as a "commitment to examine moral issues from a historical perspective, with attention to how the cultural understanding of each category has shifted over time." A prolific academic, philosopher and humanist--as well as founder and master of the New College of the Humanities, London--Grayling (The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism, 2013, etc.) brings more than enough intellectual breadth and depth to give this discussion a thorough airing. He takes issue with Aristotle (or at least the common understanding of Aristotle's views on friendship), showing how the religious embrace of universal love contrasts with the exclusivity of friendship, explaining why women hardly figured into the discussion of friendship until recently. He also explores how, historically, the distinction has blurred between close male friendship and homosexual desire (even pederasty). For all its provocative insight, the book might prove both dense and dry for a general readership--for those who think the value of friendship requires little explanation or academic justification. As Grayling makes plain, there is often an unbridgeable gap between the ideal (be it religious or philosophical) and the real: "The idea that one's love for others should be universal and should not single out any one person more than another would not merely be unacceptable but unlivable, exactly like the Gospel teaching that says if we really wish to follow Christ we must give away all our money and possessions." As an old English proverb puts it, "A friend to all is a friend to none." Some fresh ways of looking at and thinking about a very familiar topic.

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Copyright © 2013 A. C. Grayling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-17535-6


The Lysis and Symposium

Friendships existed long before anyone thought to analyse them, and even longer again before anyone thought to write philosophical treatises about them. But when the first serious discussions of friendship appeared – and it is no surprise that they did so in that fountainhead of Western civilisation, the classical period of antiquity in Greece – they laid the ground for almost all the debate that followed.

As the first philosophical text directly to address the concept of friendship, Plato's dialogue Lysis has to stand at the head of the discussion. It must be introduced with a caveat, however; which is that it is a somewhat unsatisfying treatment, and not only for the reason common to much of Plato's earlier work, which is that it is inconclusive and leaves its subject in as much unclarity as it began, but also because it exemplifies too fully a characteristic of those dialogues: the sophistries which allow Socrates his too-easy victories over his interlocutors, who ought not to let him get away with them.

These reservations apart, there are two useful features of the Lysis discussion. One consists in the throwaway comments on friendship that Socrates and his interlocutors accept as truisms, illustrating what Greeks of their time thought about the matter. The other is the contrast between these truisms – along with the other points about friendship made in the Lysis – and the concepts of love discussed in Plato's more famous dialogue, the Symposium.

The commonplaces about friendship which Plato assumes in the Lysis were not accepted in their entirety by Aristotle, whose own much fuller and more detailed discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics is in part a reaction to the Lysis view, most especially in rejecting its casual commitment to friendship having a utilitarian aspect as part of its very essence – that is, as turning on the usefulness of friends to each other, or (which in Aristotle's view is worse) of one of them to the other.

The contrast between friendship in Plato's Lysis and love in his Symposium is intriguing, not least because the Lysis discussion proceeds as if the concept of one kind of love – that of an older male for a younger – at least largely overlaps with the concept of friendship, even though, as the dialogue acknowledges in passing, the latter is more extensive. The Symposium is a later and philosophically far more achieved work whose aim is very different: it serves the purpose of establishing that love of the Form of Beauty is an integral part of what constitutes the good life, an overarching ethical claim absent from the Lysis despite its (again passing) allusions to virtues and other non-virtue desiderata. In the Symposium the concept of friendship – philia, the subject of the Lysis – is subordinate to the eros discussed in the Symposium, and whose eventual refinement into 'Platonic love' is described to Socrates by (so he tells his companions) a priestess of Mantinea called Diotima.

The Lysis is ostensibly narrated by Socrates himself. He recounts being stopped one day by a group of boys as he walked back into Athens from the Academy, and being invited by them to join their talk. He asks one of them, a youth called Hippothales, if he has a 'favourite' – meaning, someone he is in love with – and is told that Hippothales' favourite is a boy named Lysis, son of a wealthy and patrician citizen called Democrates. We are to imagine that Hippothales is in his mid-teens, Lysis about twelve, which makes the pair much younger than is normally the case for relationships of the connoted kind. This is doubtless deliberate, because the dialogue is more concerned with the relationship between Lysis and a boy of his own age, Menexenus, which is straightforwardly a friendship and has no erotic overtones, thus contrasting it with the passion felt by Hippothales for Lysis, which we are given to understand is not requited.

It is accordingly a bit of byplay in which Socrates tells Hippothales that he is wooing Lysis in entirely the wrong way, by praising him and his family, writing poetry and songs in Lysis' honour, and singing them to him. Instead, says Socrates, Hippothales should remind Lysis that he is still an ignorant child, thus putting him down rather than buttering him up: 'That is the way, Hippothales, in which you should talk to your beloved, humbling and lowering him, and not as you do, puffing him up and spoiling him.'

The meat of the discussion of friendship occurs not in this demonstration itself but in its framing. Socrates asks Lysis' friend Menexenus which of the two of them is older.

'That is a matter of dispute between us,' he said.

'And which is the nobler? Is that also a matter of dispute?'

'Yes, certainly.'

'And do you also dispute which is the more beautiful?'

The two boys laughed.

'I shall not ask which is the richer of the two,' I said; 'for you are friends, are you not?'

'Certainly,' they replied.

'And friends have all things in common, so that one of you can be no richer than the other, if you say truly that you are friends.'

They assented. I was about to ask which was the juster and which the wiser of the two; but at this moment Menexenus was called away ...

Justice, wisdom and nobility are virtues, beauty – physical beauty – and wealth are not; in quizzing the boys Socrates is exploring the question that, on the evidence of the Charmides, he always liked to have answered: whether this or that notable youth has the characteristic which is greater than physical beauty, namely, nobility of soul. Of interest to us is the throwaway remark, ' "I shall not ask which is the richer of the two," I said; "for you are friends, are you not? ... And friends have all things in common, so that one of you can be no richer than the other, if you say truly that you are friends".'

The next assumption appears near the end of Socrates' 'lowering and humbling' attack on Lysis, where he asks him, '"... shall we be friends to others, and will any others love us, in matters where we are useless to them? ... And therefore my boy, if you become wise, all men will be your friends and kindred, for you will be useful and good; but if you are not wise, neither father, nor mother, nor kindred, nor anyone else, will be your friends."'

We thus learn that friends are those who hold all things in common, and are useful to each other. This is the picture we have in mind when we read Socrates' passionate asseveration that the one thing he has always, with all his heart, longed for more than anything else, is friends: ' "I must tell you that I am one who from my childhood upward have set my heart upon a certain possession ... I have a passion for friends ... Yea, by the dog of Egypt, I should greatly prefer a real friend to all the gold of Darius ..."' He tells Menexenus how he envies the perfect friendship that he and Lysis seem so easily to have established, and wishes to quiz him on how they managed it. But then the dialogue collapses into a sophistical exercise of tying Menexenus in knots over whether a pair can be mutual friends if only one loves the other, and how one can determine in that case which is the friend, for if the friend is he who loves another then it might turn out that people can be loved by their enemies, who are therefore their friends ... and so on into paradox.

This part of the discussion might have been short-circuited by Menexenus if he had refused to accept that there can be true friendship which is not mutual, and that although one person can unrequitedly love (the dialogue still speaks of philia not eros) another and therefore be a friend to him, the relationship itself would need to be qualified accordingly; for whatever it is, it does not deserve the name of friendship as such.

More to the point is the discussion in which Socrates and Lysis agree that there is something to the idea that like attracts like, but that since evil men are like each other but might well not be good friends to each other because of their evilness, friendship should only be seen as the mutuality of good people who are alike. But Socrates slides from this to the generalisation that 'the good are friends' (permitted by the idea that those who are alike in being good are otherwise alike: a fallacy) and then declares that he is not satisfied with it – as indeed he should not be, for those who are alike in some respects might be very different in other respects, and their being alike in goodness might be the only respect in which they are alike. His reason is that if two people are alike, they can only get from one another what they can get from themselves: 'And if neither can be of any use to the other, how can they feel affection for one another?' Since Lysis feebly agrees both to this sophistical reasoning and to the instrumental view of friendship it supports, Socrates is able to conclude that 'the like is not the friend of the like in so far as he is like', thus apparently denying what we instinctively know to be true, namely, that shared interests and outlook, a similar sense of humour and a shared past make potent cement in relationships, and is surely what we mean in talking of people being 'like' one another.

Socrates then finds a way of refuting the thought that 'the good may be the friend of the good in so far as he is good' by arguing that because good people, in virtue of being so, are self-sufficient and have no need of anyone else, and because 'he who wants nothing will feel affection for nothing ... and he who loves not is not a lover or a friend', it follows that the good will not be the friend of the good. This is a classic example of early Platonic sophistry ('the good are self-sufficient, therefore they lack nothing, therefore they will feel no affection for anything'; these transitions are obviously spurious).

And so the argument proceeds, with Socrates considering whether opposites are most likely to establish friendships, and the degree to which friendship is a matter of need ('medicine is a friend to health' because sickness needs medicine), and whether it is congeniality that makes for friendship – though he acknowledges that the distinction between congeniality and likeness is unclear. 'If neither the beloved, nor the lover, nor the like, nor the unlike, nor the good, nor the congenial, nor any other of whom we spoke – for there were such a number of them that I cannot remember all – if none of these are friends, I know not what remains to be said.' And at that point the bodyguards of the boys arrive to take them home, leaving the discussion in an unfinished state. That it is left in such a state is no surprise; it was not moving towards a conclusion anyway.

Nevertheless, Plato appears to be sure about two things in the Lysis. One is that mutual utility is a founding principle of friendship, and the other is that in the catechising of Menexenus early in the dialogue he has Socrates make it clear that the usefulness of an individual to another, and to his family and community, is a condition of his being regarded as a friend both to him and to them. The unremarked slippage from the personal to the social – it equivocates to treat 'friend' in 'friend to his community' and 'friend to Lysis' – does not however affect the point that, for Plato, mutual utility underlies friendship and is constitutive of its very nature. This is the point with which Aristotle so trenchantly disagreed.

An oddity in the account is how much Plato under-appreciates the persuasiveness of the 'congeniality' point, which we in our modern understanding of friendship take for granted as essential. He is right to be troubled about whether there is much difference between congeniality and likeness, though he should be more troubled by the spurious argument that if two people are alike they can find no use in each other. On the contrary, mutual re inforcement of attitudes and the easiness which arises from sharing beliefs, practices and tastes is taken to be a profound reason for friendship, and would undoubtedly have been as obvious a source of bonding between Lysis and Menexenus as any other.

Indeed the assumption that friends will, if true friends, share their wealth in common says that sharing things other than wealth – confidences, opportunities, interests, tastes – is likewise a principle of friendship.

And there is the datum that whatever complex of reasons can be adduced for people liking one another, the simple truth is that people can and do take a liking to each other: and that this can be enough to start a friendship, even if it is in the end not enough to sustain it. So when Socrates says what he does at the end, he should have taken a hint from it: 'O Menexenus and Lysis, how ridiculous that you two boys, and I, as an old man, who venture to range myself with you, should imagine ourselves to be friends – this is what the bystanders will go away and say – and as yet we have not been able to discover what is a friend!'

Obviously enough, Lysis, Menexenus and Socrates would not be described by bystanders as lovers of one another. The sentiment they share is philia, not eros. The Lysis's exploration of philia stands at a considerable remove from the terminus of the Symposium's discussion of love. At one point in the Lysis there is a possible hint of things to come, where Socrates gets his young interlocutors to agree that friendship is caused by desire, and desire is for something lacked by the desirer, and that what is lacked and is therefore dear to the desirer is what is congenial to him. This result is a declension from where the argument seems to be going at first, namely, that the sentiments constitutive of friendship are in fact intimations of a desire for, and a lack of, congress in body or mind with something that the immediate object of those sentiments merely represents – something metaphysically higher. In the Symposium we meet this thought in full. There we learn that love in the more exigent sense of eros is desire for what lies beyond and above all the instances or instantiations of what is desired, which in the sublunary sense is the beauty of the beloved: and this far further thing is the Form of Beauty itself.

The Symposium is a great piece of art, and its serious metaphysical aspect is only part of a work whose geniality and good humour are a window into the Athens we know as the cradle of our thought. We see Socrates at a drinking party hosted by the dramatist Agathon, along with a number of other distinguished guests, and it ends after the late drunken arrival of Alcibiades, the celebrated but controversial statesman and soldier who loved Socrates and claimed to have made several unsuccessful attempts on his virtue. When he gatecrashes Agathon's party near the end of the Symposium he gives an amusing account of crawling into Socrates' bed only to be rebuffed.

The opening speeches by Phaedrus and Agathon are admirable for their literary qualities, but do not contribute much to the question of the nature of love. After Phaedrus' literary allusions to that noble aspect of eros which makes the lover lay down his life for his beloved – he cites Achilles and Patroclus – we have Pausanias describing the situation in contemporary Athens in which it is accepted that men will love boys, but that boys must be guarded from the attentions of men, a double standard that Pausanias decries on the grounds that if the man's attitude is honourable and his aim is to educate his beloved in prudence and wisdom, the relationship ought to be encouraged. This is a higher form of love than the 'vulgar' love which has its focus on physical satisfaction. It is implicit in the tale that two of those present at the party, Eryximachus and Phaedrus, had begun their long-standing relationship in just that way.

In contrasting ways Eryximachus and Aristophanes reprise the familiar ideas that love arises between opposites or between incomplete halves. In replying to Agathon's poetic invocation of love as a juvenile deity, Socrates rejects the idea that love can be divine, for it involves desire, and desire is for what one lacks, and therefore the love is not felt by one who is rich or wise, but by one who seeks wealth and wisdom. A person who is aware of being ignorant strives for wisdom, unlike either the god who is already wise or the foolish person who is unaware of being ignorant.

And then Socrates claims to be rehearsing what he learned from the priestess Diotima: that the beauty represented in an individual – for example in the body of a beautiful youth – is an instance of what is present in the beauty of bodies in general, and which makes them beautiful. Realisation of this leads on to thoughts of the beauty of minds, and thence of moral nobility and knowledge, and by these gradations finally to Beauty itself, the imperishable, perfect and eternal Form of Beauty.

Excerpted from FRIENDSHIP by A. C. GRAYLING. Copyright © 2013 A. C. Grayling. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

A. C. Grayling is founder and master, New College of the Humanities, London. A multitalented and prolific author, he has written over thirty books on philosophy and other subjects while regularly contributing to The Times, Financial Times, Observer, Literary Review, and other publications. He lives in London.

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Friendship 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There were sisters. Actually, 4 sisters. One of them had a twin nopony knew about. But that crap comes later. One day, Princcess Celestia coul not raise the sun, and everypony blamed it on Luna. Sigh. But Luna couldnt set the moon, and a voice let evil into her heart. After she was defeated, the same thing happened again, this time to Megania. Evil was let into her heart, and once she was defeated, we had another problem on our hands. Sunshinia. It was said the evil alicorn wanted to take over the Kingdom of friends! But it wasnt true. After she was defeated and blah blah, everypony was like Whew, all good! But it was not good. The same thing happened. AGAIN. And nopony knew who it was. It was Sunshinias evil twin and her friends, which are the Trix. Swagger turned Neon and Reflection against their friend and made them evil. So now we had technical difficulties. But Misty had a hidden element. You see, when she was a little pony, she was a unicorn. She met a male pegasus named lucky when she was 7, and 7 was always her lucky number. Lucky was sad one day because of bullying. Misty made him smile and he got friends. Since then Misty has been the element of friendship. She felt a sharp injection in her sides. She always dreamed of flying. Thats what the injection was. Misty got bullied for the past years. Eveen in kindergarten. And preschool by different ponies. Anyway, she found other elements and is still working on defeating The Trix. Oh yeah, and her friends. Blackhoof,Sandstorm, Sequin, Sunset, and Sky Streak. Oh and misty is the 7th element. Cool huh? This is based on real life. I am getting hullied and by the Trix. Please pray for me. Please. Massachusetts mean girls are NOT easy to fight. Fight with words, not violence please. Sequin is anna, blackhoof is natalie, sunset is sydney, sky is allison, misty is naomi, sandstorm is kayla, swagger is abby neon is nina and reflection is rachel. Have a nice day and dont play in traffic. May gid bless your day.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi its Anne what do you want?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im nit mad im happy for you as i said i have no feelings for you bye
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Where is sje we can tlk there
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*a red shecat with a white heart on her belly pads in* May i join?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Her eyes go frekishly wide.IS THAT A UNICORN!!!!!!!!#!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He padded in. "Hullo!"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Omg love mlp movie EG is awesome
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*Folds her wings.* Stupid cable. Hulu Plus does NOTHING to give me season 4.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You need some guys all up in here!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Adopt a kit from Brightmoon Orphange at simivi res one. Thank you!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im bac
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just watched the mlp movie...