Monday, April 28, 2014

Andrew Sullivan on Friendship

Andrew Sullivan’s 1998 book on friendship, Love Undetectable, is somewhat dated, but it is still worth mention and notice.

Maria Popova has recently done so on her Brain Pickings blog, and, if her rendering is correct, Sullivan wrote an important book on a topic that is often ignored.

Popova summarizes Sullivan:

He argues that our world has failed to give friendship its due as “a critical social institution, as an ennobling moral experience, as an immensely delicate but essential interplay of the virtues required to sustain a fully realized human being.” 

Of course, friendship is the centerpiece of Aristotle’s ethics. For the philosopher, friendship, as a voluntary social tie, requires good character. After all, the Greek word ethos means character.

Aristotle’s book is a guide to building character. To get along with other people, to develop and sustain a friendship you need to have good character. It is far more important than emotional authenticity.

Sullivan summarizes Aristotle well:

In Aristotle’s hermetically sane universe, the instinct for human connection is so common and so self-evidently good that there is little compunction to rule certain friendships out of the arc of human friendliness. There is merely an attempt to understand and categorize each instance of phila and to place each instance of the instinct in its natural and ennobling place. Everything is true, Aristotle seems to say, so long as it is never taken for anything more than it is. And so friendship belongs to the nod of daily passengers on a commuter train, to the regular business client, and to the ornery neighbor. It encompasses the social climber and the social butterfly, the childhood crush and the lifelong soulmate. It comprises the relationship between a boss and his employees, a husband and his wife, a one-night stand and a longtime philanderer, a public official and his dubious contributor.

Most importantly, Sullivan wants to distinguish friendship from romantic love. He will eventually make the very important point that our current cult to romantic love has militated against friendships.

For the purposes of this blog, what Sullivan calls a cult to romantic love bears the stamp of Freudian theory. It also recalls Socrates’ remarks, channeling Diotima, in Plato's Symposium, to the effect that Eros is not a god, but a daimon. Surely, it is not an accident that the word is the forebear of our word, demon. Doesn't this tell us that Eros is a demonic force?

Sullivan explains that friendship requires activity and that it must be reciprocal:

Unlike a variety of other relationships, friendship requires an acknowledgement by both parties that they are involved or it fails to exist. One can admire someone who is completely unaware of our admiration, and the integrity of that admiration is not lost; one may even employ someone without knowing who it is specifically one employs; one may be related to a great-aunt whom one has never met (and may fail ever to meet). And one may, of course, fall in love with someone without the beloved being aware of it or reciprocating the love at all. And in all these cases, the relationships are still what they are, whatever the attitude of the other person in them: they are relationships of admiration, business, family, or love.

Moreover, you cannot force someone to be your friend:

But friendship is different. Friendship uniquely requires mutual self-knowledge and will. It takes two competent, willing people to be friends. You cannot impose a friendship on someone, although you can impose a crush, a lawsuit, or an obsession. If friendship is not reciprocated, it simply ceases to exist or, rather, it never existed in the first place.

Friendship’s greatest enemy has been the modern version of romantic love. Here Sullivan’s analysis is brilliant:

The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship [but] love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture, the love that is institutionalized in marriage and instilled as a primary and ultimate good in every Western child. I mean eros, which is more than sex but is bound up with sex. I mean the longing for union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human, and deter the march of time that threatens to trivialize our very existence….

We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired the hallmarks of a cult.

He continues:

Of course, the impossibility of love is partly its attraction. It is an irrational act, a concession to the passions, a willing renunciation of reason and moderation — and that’s why we believe in it. It is also why, in part, the sober writers and thinkers of the ancient and medieval worlds found it a self-evidently inferior, if bewitching, experience. But their confidence in this regard was based not simply on a shrewd analysis of love but on a deeper appreciation of friendship. Without the possibility of friendship, after all, love might seem worth the price. If the promise of union, of an abatement to loneliness, of finding a soulmate, was only available through the vagaries of eros, then it might be worth all the heartbreak and insanity for a glimpse, however brief, of what makes life worth living. But if all these things were available in a human relationship that is not inherently self-destructive, then why, after all, should one choose the riskier and weaker option?

Where our therapy culture suggests that when people are depressed they need to fall in love, Sullivan, following Aristotle, suggests that it is far better to make a friend.

In his words:

And in almost every regard, friendship delivers what love promises but fails to provide. The contrast between the two are, in fact, many, and largely damning to love’s reputation. Where love is swift, for example, friendship is slow. Love comes quickly, as the song has it, but friendship ripens with time. If love is at its most perfect in its infancy, friendship is most treasured as the years go by.

And also:

If love is sudden, friendship is steady. At the moment of meeting a friend for the first time, we might be aware of an immediate “click” or a sudden mutual interest. But we don’t “fall in friendship.” And where love is often at its most intense in the period before the lover is possessed, in the exquisite suspense of the chase, and the stomach-fluttering nervousness of the capture, friendship can only really be experienced when both friends are fully used to each other. For friendship is based on knowledge, and love can be based on mere hope… You can love someone more than you know him, and he can be perfectly loved without being perfectly known. But the more you know a friend, the more a friend he is.

Romantic love is a passion. It consumes those who get too close to it. It makes more and more imperious demands, to the point where it appears to be insatiable:

Love affairs need immense energy, they demand a total commitment and a capacity for pain. Friendship, in contrast, merely needs tending. Although it is alive, a living, breathing thing, and can suffer from neglect, friendship can be left for a while without terrible consequences. Because it is built on the accumulation of past experiences, and not the fickle and vulnerable promise of future ones, it has a sturdiness that love may often lack, and an undemonstrative beauty that love would walk heedlessly past.

In a culture where passionate intensity is the hallmark for authentic experience, friendship has unfortunately been relegated to the shadows. All manner of relationships suffer for as much.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

Much like marriage, a friendship takes two people working on it.