On Friendship

Pontormo Friendship Crop

Friendship, opines the odious gangster Johnny Caspar in the Coen brothers’ classic gangster film Miller’s Crossing, “is a mental state.” The joke, of course, is that Caspar, like nearly everyone else in the film — the only exception being Gabriel Byrne’s brooding loner, Tom Regan — has no idea whatsoever what the nature of friendship is. In his mind it is merely a reciprocal business arrangement, and the worst sort of business at that: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours — and when it’s convenient to do so, I’ll stick a knife in your back instead. There is little affection and no love in Caspar’s conception of friendship; it is a conception more suitable for jackals than humans. It is also, sadly, a conception that is becoming increasingly prominent in modern political and economic life, and, it is difficult to avoid feeling, in the culture as a whole.

So is friendship, then, “a mental state’? Yes; but as Alexander Nehamas’s charming and perceptive On Friendship reminds us, it is also a great deal more than that. Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, has become my go-to guy when people ask me the question, “Why don’t philosophers write about things that matter to human beings?” His first book was on Nietzsche — it was and remains one of the best books on Nietzsche — a thinker whose tendency to treat every idea as if it were a matter of life and death has always made him attractive to those who have repudiated the notion that philosophy should consist of abstract theorizing about arcane matters. Nietzsche was also, of course, a wonderful writer, explosively metaphoric, never dry or dull. Nehamas’s more recent books range widely, delving into Foucault, Proust, and the ancient Greek philosophers and also investigating television and popular media, for which he has shown a somewhat surprising and admirable appreciation. In 2007 he published Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, a model for philosophers who want to reach beyond the confines of the narrowly academic audience, and On Friendship pursues that same vital goal.

Part of what interests Nehamas about friendship is how difficult it is to talk about it; and, more interestingly still, how difficult it is to talk meaningfully about our friends. Although we feel that we know our friends better than we know anyone, we seem quite unable to provide a complete or satisfying answer to the question of what it is we like about them. Every attempt to explain or justify the love we feel for a friend feels inconclusive, vague, and somewhat banal: it seems to miss the point. “I could tell you that I like [my friend] because he is kind, entertaining, or interesting, and so on,” he writes, “but such attempts at explanation can only go so far. They are disappointingly vague and they explain much less than we might think.” A key text, here, is the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, which include an essay on friendship dedicated to Montaigne’s friend Étienne de la Boétie:

It is a strange essay and also, apparently, a failure. It hardly touches La Boétie’s life, character, and accomplishments, as we might naturally have expected, and nowhere else in the Essays do we find a concrete picture of the man. Never at a loss for words on any subject, Montaigne seems to have almost nothing to say about the person who was by far the most important in his life.

What explains this? Part of what one senses, in reading Montaigne’s “On Friendship,” is the author’s deep ambivalence about treating the subject in an essay at all; as if to write in too much detail about one’s friend risks violating the intimacy that binds friends together. But Nehamas is more interested in a different idea: that a friendship, by its very nature, can never be adequately captured in the general terms provided by language, in part because it is essential to the relation that we cannot, in advance, say what is or what it will bring us. Indeed, the publication history of the Essays shows Montaigne struggling with the question of how to represent his friend. He had first intended to include a treatise by La Boétie, so that his readers could appreciate his genius for themselves. For political reasons — but also, in Nehamas’s view, because he had come to see this as a bad strategy (what if the essay did not strike his readers as forcefully as it had struck him?) — he revised the plan, intending instead to include a selection of La Boétie’s sonnets. But this idea, too, came to seem naïve and was dropped.

Ultimately Montaigne rejected the attempt to explain his friendship and instead left us with an essay that centers on the very impossibility of providing such an explanation — the impossibility, that is, of capturing in general terms something as unique and singular as a particular love that connects two unique, particular individuals. “What Montaigne does emphasize, again and again, is the private nature of their relationship, a friendship that is theirs and theirs alone: it ‘has no other model than itself, and can be compared only with itself.'” This leads to Montaigne’s famous statement about La Boétie, which Nehamas calls “the most moving statement about friendship ever made”: “If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering: ‘Because it was he, because it was I.’ ”

The point is not simply that human individuals are complex and unique, and therefore hard to describe. For Nehamas, friends, like other things we care deeply about, including works of art, are to be valued in part because their value, and the possibilities they open up for us, cannot be fully understood or predicted. A purely instrumental relationship — say, my relationship with the mechanic who fixes my car — will not involve love nor count as friendship, at least not as long as I know precisely what I am getting out of the relationship and am uninterested in anything beyond that. So long as that remains the case, I will regard “my” mechanic as essentially replaceable; if, one day, he stays home and his equally competent partner shows up to replace my fan belt, I have suffered no loss. “In an impersonal relationship all that matters is how well the job is done.” And because this is all that matters, the value of instrumental relationships can be fully captured in language; there is no mysterious further mysterious element that resists articulation. A relationship becomes personal — and the difficulty Montaigne experienced with respect to his friend arises — precisely at the point when one begins to value, not just the particular and definable salutary consequences of an arrangement reached with a certain other person but the person herself, who possesses virtues one has not yet discerned and who will open up possibilities one cannot as yet predict. And this is what is crucial: at this point, when one comes to like a person for herself, it is no longer clear just what one expects or hopes for from the relationship. Following in Montaigne’s footsteps, Nehamas explores the point with reference to one of his own friends:

“And why do you like him?” . . . Although I had no problem with [this] question before, once my relationship with Tomas became personal, I no longer know how to answer it. Once I came to like Tomas himself and not just what he could do for me, I could no longer explain exactly why that was so . . . When our relationship is entirely instrumental, I know exactly what I want from you in advance, and anyone who can provide it for me will do . . . When our relationship, though, is not instrumental, when love is involved, I actually don’t know what I want from you, and it isn’t clear which features of yours account for my love.

This, according to Nehamas, explains the deep power of friendship: to be someone’s friend is to commit oneself to a kind of openness to being moved and altered in ways one cannot predict and so cannot control:

When I become your friend, I don’t take my desires for granted. I submit myself to you, and I am willing to want new things, to acquire new desires, perhaps even to adopt new values as a result of our relationship. I can’t know in advance what any of these will be, especially since you, too, are going to change through our friendship in ways neither one of us can anticipate. Our friendship promises — and continues to promise, as long as it lasts — a better future, but all that I can know about that future is that I can’t approach it with anyone but you.

This account of friendship’s transformative power is a useful and insightful corrective to an all-too-influential picture of human agency that pictures human beings as knowledgeable, rational agents in possession of fixed desires and goals, whose behavior consists mostly in seeking to satisfy those desires and achieve those goals in the most efficient way possible. Things are, in fact, far more complex than this, and the fact that they are is to be celebrated. In a world in which we always knew what we were doing — if we could even imagine such a thing — life would be static and stagnant, a bland, repetitive game played according to rigid, unalterable rules.

The account of friendship contained in On Friendship bears significant similarity to the account of beauty and art offered in Only a Promise of Happiness. This is no accident, for Nehamas frequently draws comparisons between our relations to the people we love and our relations to the things, particularly artworks, that we love. “Our reactions to art can model our friendships. Most centrally, of course, we love both art and our friends, and in the same way,” he writes. In a fascinating discussion of Yasmina Reza’s play Art — a play in which three friends find themselves at odds when one purchases an expensive minimalist painting — he notes that “After the fight, Marc confesses that what has really hurt him is that he feels that a white painting has replaced him in Serge’s affections (a reminder that friends and works of art can play similar roles in our lives).” Nehamas sees Art as dramatizing the way in which our relationships with other persons (and with art!) involve the constant interpretation and reinterpretation of the people about whom we care, the constant posing and re-posing of the question, Who is this person, anyway? (Which leads irresistibly to the fundamental question of philosophy: Who am I?) As he points out, the three friends in the play cannot even agree on what the painting Serge has purchased looks like; the painting, as he says, manifests an “indeterminacy” that is metaphoric for the relations between the characters, and for the uncertainty which, while a necessary element of genuine friendship, can under the wrong circumstances turn quickly to hostility and distrust.

His consideration of Art also provides Nehamas with the opportunity to advance the surprising claim that, of the various art forms, theater is best suited to take friendship as its subject. This is because, in his view, friendship depends on and is manifested in small actions and gestures that need to be seen (a description won’t do, since we might disagree on the correct interpretation — so the novel is out) and that can only be understood as acts of friendship within the context of a sequence of actions that take place over time (so painting, too, is out — as Nehamas points out, “no gesture, look, or bodily disposition, no attitude, feeling, or emotion, no action and no situation is associated with friendship firmly enough to make its representation a matter for the eye”):

Friendship is an embodied relationship, and its depictions require embodiment as well: they must include the looks, the gestures, the tones of voice, and the bodily dispositions that are essential to textured communication and on which so much of our understanding of our intimates is based. But no description of looks, gestures and tones of voice can ever be complete, and so no description can communicate whether these belong to can act of friendship or not. Many aspects of the behavior of friends are irreducibly visual, and that is another reason that friendship is a difficult subject for narrative, to which description is essential. But, as we have seen, it is inherently temporal, and that makes friendship a subject unsuitable to painting. Looks, gestures, tones of voice, and bodily dispositions are the stuff of drama, which is, accordingly, the medium in which friendship is best represented.

If, like me, you find such claims both surprising and, on reflection, surprisingly plausible, you may find yourself wondering about their implications for the increasingly common phenomenon of technologically mediated friendships. More and more people claim to have close friends, and in some cases lovers, with whom they communicate mostly or even entirely online. Can such relationships be genuine friendships if, as Nehamas says, many elements of friendship are “irreducibly visual”? It could be suggested, of course, that such technologies as Skype and FaceTime provide us with visual access to physically distant friends, but I have doubts about this; the technology is not yet at the point where Skypeing with a friend is anything like talking to one face to face, and I would not be at all surprised if Nehamas, confronted with the question, were to insist that a visual connection of this sort would still not really be enough. There is a reason, I suspect, that Nehamas focuses on theater, an art form in which the performers are not only visible to the audience but physically present. Some will object that this overemphasizes the physical (and I am not certain that Nehamas would disagree); some, too, will complain that Nehamas’s account over-emphasizes the visual. One must be careful, at any rate, not to overstate the case: Nehamas does not himself explicitly claim that the “irreducibly visual” aspects of friendship are necessary, in the sense that a friendship could not exist without them, and there are reasons to resist this view. Blind people, after all, are surely capable of friendship! (For that matter, one might ask: what does Nehamas’s view imply about the possibility of purely epistolary relationships?)

A book as rich and provocative as this one is bound to open up as many questions as it answers, and to say that it does so is no criticism; it is, indeed, a compliment. Friendship is, after all, a complex phenomenon. It is also — as Nehamas reminds us by highlighting the lack of knowledge and control we manifest in entering into friendships — a potentially dangerous one. “A new friendship always brings with it the prospect of serious and unpredictable change,” and there is no guarantee that the change it brings will take the form of moral improvement:

Among the most remarkable features of friendship is that even a good friendship, valuable as it is, can involve base, even abhorrent behavior: friendship transformed Achilles into a raging beast, and Pylades helped Orestes murder his own mother. And sometimes immoral behavior can actually provoke our admiration: that’s what we feel for Silien, the hero of Jean-Pierre Melville’s stunning film, Le Doulos (1962), a gangster who lies, cheats, beats, kills, and eventually dies tragically in what turns out to have been all along a vain effort to save his only friend in the world.

That Silien is capable of such dedication to another person shows how far he is from the pathologically self-interested Jonny Caspar. Aristotle tells us that a friend is “another self,” but the morally stunted gangsters of Miller’s Crossing seem to be capable of friendship only with themselves. Still, neither Silien nor Caspar are straightforwardly commendable from a moral point of view; if there is any coincidence between the virtues of friendship and those of morality, it is a highly imperfect one. It is to Nehamas’s credit that he recognizes and forces us to contemplate the fact that friendship, which in our culture is all too often the subject of easy praise as a simple, unadulterated good, reveals itself on closer inspection to be a complex, mysterious, and troubling phenomenon. And also, of course, a fundamental one: no matter how ambivalent one might feel about it — and I experienced many moments of uncertainty and ambivalence while reading this wise, admirable, and highly pleasurable book — I, for one, must confess that I can’t imagine human life without it.