‘Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies’
Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)
Who Would Have Thought It?
Did you anticipate the extent to which the EU Referendum would cleave into families and friendships in the way that it did, threatening relationships almost to destruction? Indeed, in some cases, destruction occurred. To take just one example in the public eye, apparently the close friendship between the Cameron and Gove families is shot; they haven’t spoken to each other since Michael Gove declared his hand for the Leave campaign. Two men who, it seems, couldn’t distinguish between the man and the ball.
There were times in the run up to the Referendum, and since, when I was reluctant to engage in the EU debate for fear of, if not destroying, then fracturing a friendship, perhaps irreparably. That’s not healthy in a democracy where freedom of speech is paramount and where, without full and frank discussion about how we organise ourselves and live our lives, the alternative is Orwellian.
Keeping Debate Alive
I remain emphatically in favour of robust debate, not least as we get to grips with shaping our renewed role as a self-governing nation, casting off 40 years of political slovenliness. Our politicians now need to discover, or re-discover what it means both to govern and to hold government to account; they’ve been playing at it in Westminster for a generation. Our role as citizens in a revitalised democracy is to keep our elected representatives on their toes, reminding them ceaselessly that their role is to serve us, and not vice versa. Free and open discussion is critical both for holding politicians to account, and for ensuring that our democracy is vibrant. Incidentally, withdrawing from the debate because the counter-view offends you is no excuse for then railing against the end result. In other words, being offended is not an argument, it’s a cop out.
Keeping the ball rolling and maintaining friendships as we go will be the challenge, particularly given the profound nature of the matter in hand. I had no idea that the question of how we, as a nation, should be governed would be so terribly divisive. I assumed post-Referendum would be a slam-dunk: we voted to leave the EU; we would leave the EU; thank you and good-bye. How wrong I was. So, it struck me that as we now start looking to the year ahead, it might be an idea to reflect for a moment on what really matters. For me, happiness flowers from a stem with three roots: the first of those roots is good health, the second root is to live in freedom and the third root is to love and be loved by family and friends. Since maintaining friendships could become the leitmotif of the year, or even years ahead, I decided to have a deeper look at what friendship means, and how important it is.
A C Grayling
I shall paraphrase for a moment the philosopher A C Grayling on the subject of friendship. We human beings are social animals. Relationships are vital to both our well-being and our identities. Friendships have the most significant impact on determining who we are. One good way to know what sort of person someone really is, is to examine the friendships they’ve maintained over time.
The key to friendship lies in who we talk to, and who we listen to, about what really concerns us. What we discuss with friends stays alive in the relationship thereafter, affecting its course and influencing the characters of the friends. This is perhaps why the EU Referendum debate has been so challenging for so many friendships.
Aristotle described a friend as ‘another self’: perhaps sometimes the deceiver we need when we wish to be deceived, and the absolver we need when we desire absolution. Friends are the ‘others’ we need, and who need us, for the sake of the connectedness which gives us the feedback, the challenges and the support that together condition us as friends – and the companionship and merriment that keep us sane.
Aristotle said that true friendship is ‘grounded in good’, in the sense that you wish for your friend what is best for them. Aristotle calls this friendship ‘perfected’ or ‘completed’ because its aim lies wholly within the relationship itself; it doesn’t treat the relationship as merely instrumental for some other, or further end. The ideal friendship is personal and mutual, and the very highest friendships are exclusive.
The key is that the overriding point of friendship is the relationship itself. Friendship is, by its nature, particular; its focus is on individual things, on confidences and on the security provided by mutual understanding.
Epicurus said that friendship has intrinsic value, being in itself one of life’s supreme pleasures. A friendship’s pleasures derive not only from what friends can do for each other and give to each other, but also from disinterested and altruistic actions. Friendship is among the highest of things that make a good life.
One could list any number of attributes that one might use to characterise friendship; indeed, there are plenty of such lists out there. For me, I would focus on the following as being what it means in practice to be a true friend. A true friend is emotionally generous; understanding; reliable; kind; trustworthy; honest; and, above all – almost by definition – loyal. The most important part is being there – and not just for the good times. A true friend also makes the innocent and proper assumption that all the claims, expectations, rights and duties of this vital and valuable human bond called friendship are reciprocal. The idea is to be the friend you would most like to have.
Keeping It Alive
Aristotle (again) said fine friendship requires duration rather than fitful intensity. James Boswell, the Scottish lawyer best known for his biography of Samuel Johnson wrote that, ‘we cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is a last drop which makes it run over; so, in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.’ Boswell advises that we should fill our lives with friendships both old and new. Once formed, friendships must be replenished from time to time so that they remain in constant repair. Friendships need tending. Nothing can replace time together, ideally in circumstances where other pressures are lifted so that the gates of communication can swing open, allowing free trade to pass between.
Happy New Year
Finally, back to the beginning. We seem to be entering some new era or other; an era of political and social disruption and fierce debate; better that than us killing each other, I guess. Friendships have been tested to the limits this past year or so. The purpose of this post was to make the point that however fiery the debate, however at odds you are with your friends on this topic or that, bear in mind that friendship is one of the most precious elements of a good life. If push comes to shove, by all means be true to your ideas, but above all be true to your friendships. Never was the cry ‘Happy New Year!’ more apposite.
Addendum: Looking Ahead
Hopefully you’ll take a moment or two to reflect on my post above. Then, when you’re ready to look ahead at practical details for the coming year, may I recommend you pay a visit to my fellow blogger Dr Tim Morgan’s place over at Surplus Energy Economics where Dr Tim is, indeed, looking ahead.