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Some considerations on the meaning of friendship, a social phenomenon I have avidly studied at length..


Does friendship still exist in today’s world?
At first glance one would be inclined to say ‘no.’

The business world is dominated by the market and the principle of economic utility. The political realm, on the other hand, is all about the struggle for power. In both cases, however, there is little room for sincere personal relationships.  The modern world in general forces upon us an on-going process of change. Whenever we change jobs and/or move elsewhere, we end up leaving behind old friends—no matter how much we promise otherwise. Inevitably, we get caught up with our new interests, new needs, new acquaintances, and new life.  No one can stand still in place and gaze continuously into the past.

Friendship, ah friendship. In Italy, the very word has come to carry a secondary, negative connotation of privileges and favours. Normal actions like finding a job, being admitted to the hospital, or renting an apartment require your having “a contact” –if not a friend—in the position to put in a good word. If you respect standard  bureaucratic procedures, you are likely to obtain nothing. “Friendship” here is a means of passing in front of the others in line, or of getting round the rules.

As a result the term now indicates the very specific way in which great and small privileges are to be had in a system which, in a fair world, would be instead characterized by universal standards and the principle of merit. The modern world (in the famous theory espoused by Talcott Parsons in The Social System  (Ital. ed. Il sistema sociale, Comunità, Milano, 1965) is characterized by the shift from particularistic, unwritten emotional roles to those that are universal, neutral, and learned. Viewed in this light, friendship becomes an anachronism—and moreover one that constitutes and perpetuates injustice. In a just society, positions are awarded not on the basis of friendship but on the basis of impartially-determined merit. Social agencies must by definition dispense their social services to all rather than to the happy few. The fact that there is an administrative system which, on the contrary, is “infiltrated” by the demands of friendship (le raccomendazioni) means that it is mafioso, unjust, and patronage-based.

This reality in part explains why for many people friendship is a relic of the past—to be lumped together with such aspects as feudal oaths, magic, or folklore. They feel that over time friendship has lost a significant amount of importance and is destined to vanish completely, whenever impersonal, objective relationships finally take its place. There is another group of individuals who affirm that while friendship will manage to survive as a form of human relations, it will be strictly confined to the private, intimate sphere, and have nothing to do with the business, governmental or political realms.

The theory outlined in this book is that such catastrophic impressions do not represent the truth about the way things stand and that friendship continues to be an important aspect of our life. In all probability it counts as much today as it did in ancient times (and the renewed interest even in Italy in this subject is borne out by the fact that the Fifth International Congress of Anthropological Sicilian Studies, which took place in Palermo in November 1983, was dedicated to the theme of “Friendship and Friendships”). Even the essential structure of friendship, i.e. what distinguishes it from other forms of interpersonal relationships, has not changed. Five centuries before Christ and in a completely different cultural context, Confucius in China formulated a list of the five fundamental types of interpersonal relationships. The first four types included the relationship between emperor and subject, between father and son, between man and woman, and between older brother and younger brother. Notice that all four are hierarchical in nature, and describe the relations between a superior figure and his inferior.  
Yet there is still another, fifth relationship to consider—one outside the scheme of any hierarchy. It is friendship: a relationship between equals.
Of course, friendship as a relationship type has taken on different forms in different eras and societies across the centuries. In a warlike society, it was essentially a fraternal relationship between soldiers, between “brothers-at-arms.” This is the image handed down to us by the poets of antiquity in regard to Patroclus and Achilles, Eurialus and Nisus, Aeneas and Pallantis. A number of centuries later, friendship took on cultural and political importance, as witnessed in the 13th- century Florentine works by Dante, Giudo Cavalcanti, and Lapo Gianni. Moving forward in time, we find the theme of friendship of paramount importance in the 16th-century works by Michel de Montaigne and Etienne de la Boétie. In periods still closer in time to our own, there are been such important friendships as that between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which so influenced the course of modern political theory and practice, or as that between Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, which was crucial to the development of sociological theory. While admitting that friendship takes many different tacks, we mustn’t forget that there is always a constant lying just under the surface. A study of friendship must necessarily focus on this/these common element/elements.

The first thing that strikes one’s attention is the fact that the word for “friendship” never has one single meaning but always multiple ones—and this has been true for centuries. Already back two thousand years ago, Aristotle attempted to distinguish between the various types of friendship with the aim of coming up with an exact definition for “true” friendship. The most important distinction that he found is that between friendships of utility and friendships of the good, the latter being what we today would call ‘true friendship’ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books 8 and 9, Italian ed., Etica Nicomachea, Laterza, Bari, 1979, p. 195 et al).This goes to show that even in Ancient Greece, what united two business partners was not friendship but rather their common interest in seeing their business prosper. Friendships between politicians were also often just a form of political utility.

A look at the most common meanings attributed to the word “friendship” provides further evidence that it usually has very little to do with those aspects and qualities that we associate with a true friend. Here is a list of those usual meanings.

First meaning: acquaintances.

Most of the people that we consider as friends are in reality only acquaintances, who are only partly distinguishable from the non-descript mass of others surrounding us. We know how they think and what problems they have; we consider them allies, and we are for this reason ready to ask them for help if need be and willing to offer them help if asked in return. We have a good relationship with them; we get on well with them. However, we don’t confide important things to them; we don’t recount to them our most secret worries and cares. When we see them, we don’t light up with happiness or suddenly start to smile. If they are successful at something, receive a prize or award, or meet with a stroke of luck, we are not thrilled for them as we would be for ourselves. In many friendships of this sort, there is envy, back-stabbing, and competition. The relationship is ostentatiously cordial, but all this is oftentimes a cover for conflictual relations or profound ambivalence. Paradoxically, we don’t keep these people at a certain distance but rather allow them to get close to us. And yet, why should we call this sort of emotional relationship ‘friendship’ when it is not? The term becomes a misnomer. And the funny thing is that this misuse or misinterpretation of ‘friendship’ is as true today as it was in the past.

Second meaning: collective solidarity.

Just as in ancient times, it is necessary today to keep track of the difference between friendship and solidarity (and already on this subject there is the brilliant analysis made by Luigi Lombardi Vallauri in his book, Amicizia, carità, diritto, Giuffrè, Milano 1974, p, 15 et al). When we use the word friendship, we are calling our friends all those who we feel are on our side, as in the case in war, where if you are not our friend you are our enemy. This sort of solidarity, however, is not at all personal. The man wearing my same uniform is my friend but I in fact know nothing about him. In this same category we can group the forms of solidarity that become the raison d’être for religious sects, political parties, and institutionalized churches. Don’t Christians call each other ‘brothers’ or ‘friends’?  Aren’t socialists ‘comrades’ to each other? Weren’t the Fascists  all ‘comerati’? There is never a strictly personal relationship at stake, but rather it is always a question of collective bonds.

Third meaning: role-related relationships.

This is definitely a personal type of relationship, and yet it is in essence based on the social role that the two individuals play. These are friendships of utility, whether between business partners or between politicians. There is very little emotional investment in these relationships, and they last as long as the utility remains safely intact.
Also to be included in this category are the majority of professional  relationships, as well as those between work colleagues or neighbours.

Fourth meaning: friendliness and good feeling.

There is, lastly, the category made up of those individuals we get on swimmingly well with—in other words, those whom we are drawn to and admire. Even in this case, however, it would be best to use the term “ friendship” sparingly. Oftentimes this rapport is a temporary, rather superficial emotional state destined to change.

What do we mean, then, by friendship?
Intuitively, this word conjures up a peaceful, pure feeling of trust and confidence. Not surprisingly, a number of empirical studies have demonstrated that people really do conceive of the relationship in this way (see P. Babin, Friendship, Herder and Herder, New York, 1967; also see M. Brenton, Friendship, Stein and Day, New York, 1974; in addition to G.A. Allan, A Sociology of Friendship and Kinship, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1979).

In a seminal book entitled Anatomy of Friendship, , J.M. Reisman not only examines the immense literature on the topic but goes on to offer the following definition of friendship: “A friend is he who likes and wants to do good in regards to another person and who believes that this feeling is reciprocal.” (John M. Reisman, Anatomy of Friendship, Irvington Publishers, New York, 1979). Defining friendship in such a way means that Reisman holds that  this relationship has to do with altruistic, sincere emotions. There can be no confusing it for a manifestation of self-interest, astute calculation, or power. That said,  Reisman’s definition is ultimately a bit too broad and generic. After all, a mother also wants the best for her child and believes that this feeling is reciprocal. The same thing is true in a relationship between two people in love, or between a husband and wife who love each other, or even between siblings, when there is mutual caring. In short, Reisman’s definition regards love in general.  And according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, love is the desire to render another person happy.

The multi-faceted nature of the concept of “friendship” can be traced down through history, and this is important to keep in mind. In contemporary speech, for instance, the word ‘friendship’ may indicate a business partner, an acquaintance, an affable person, a neighbour, a colleague, or any other person with whom we are in close contact. Nevertheless, today as was true centuries ago, there is another meaning for friendship that we must never lose sight of—that which relates to the personal friend whom we care so much about and who cares so much about us.
This last sort of friendship belongs to a very tight restricted circle of relationship types: those involving love.  When we think of our closest friends and about true friendship, we conceive of it as a form of love between individuals. It’s easy to distinguish friendship from more superficial social relationships based on utilitarian needs or having to do with one’s professional identity.

The real problem, which has not been fully dealt with up to now, is how to distinguish friendship from other forms of love between individuals. In what lies the difference between friendship and the falling-in-love process, for instance? There are a number of writers who believe that this difference is negligible and in any case minimal. It’s far easier to distinguish friendship from maternal or paternal love, or from that between siblings. Yet there are certain shared characteristics even here. We say, don’t we?, that someone is our ‘fraternal friend.’ And then there’s the fact that sometimes in a friendship one or the other will act in a paternal or filial way. A famous case in point is Friedrich Nietzsche, who sought a father figure in Richard Wagner.
There is then the issue of whether friendship by definition must always be reciprocal. After all, there are many ambivalent love relationships wherein each person tries to dominate the other and so keep this other bound to him or her. Daily life is full of such sordid things. Might the same thing be true of the love termed ‘friendship’? Can we try to manipulate a friend like this? Or, rather, is friendship a special type of love relationship, one that must be completely transparent and above board, because when this is no longer the case the friendship ends?
These are the questions which we have to try to answer in order to determine exactly what kind of love constitutes friendship.
It would seem, naturally enough, that only by making a close and careful reading of details and particulars will we be able to bring off what we are aiming at.
Let me begin with a pertinent comparison between friendship and the form of love with which it is frequently confused (as discussed by J.M. Reisman and, even more at length by A. Douglas in his book Friends: a true story of male love, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, New York, 1973, as well as by Robert Brain in his Friends and Lovers, Basic Books, New York, 1976)—which is to say, the relationship we call ‘falling in love.’
One thing is absolutely clear from the start: the two are extremely different, if not opposing, experiences. Falling-in-love is an event, a happening with a definite beginning. There is at its start an ignition phase—a ‘nascent state’ (see Francesco Alberoni, Falling in Love and Loving) which can be compared to a divine revelation or the experience of being struck by lightning. Friendship, by contrast, does not stem from some initial, singular revelation, but rather comes to existence over time, following a series of encounters and successive, mutual confidences.
Another difference between falling in love and friendship is that there is no “total” (i.e. real) versus “ partial” experience of falling in love. There are no degrees here—no ranking of “incredibly a lot,” “a lot”, “somewhat,” or “a bit.” If I say that I am in love, I have said everything. The falling-in-love experience follows the law of ‘all or nothing.’ Friendship, on the other hand, has many forms and can be rated on a scale from one (a minimum) to ten (perfection). Friendship may be a faint inkling of kinship or else an immense bond. Our relationship when we fall in love, on the other hand, is perfect from the start. There’s no feeling that it is evolving in the direction of something better, the way there is with friendship. And with friendship we often have the notion that there is an ideal, a utopia, which we may with luck reach or find.
Let’s continue with our analysis. The experience of falling in love is passion in its purest form. In passion, in fact, there is always pain and suffering. To fall in love means to experience ecstasy but also torment. Friendship, on the other hand, implies a horror of pain and suffering. Friends do all they can to avoid it, to try to have a good time together. If they fail to do so, they tend to stop seeing each other, or put a bit of distance between them. Another fundamental difference is that I can fall in love with someone but not be loved in return. This fact does not stop me from being in love with that person. The experience of falling in love begins without there being any sense of being loved in return…and the one who is in love simply then goes in search of that love. Friendship, on the other hand, always requires, in my opinion, some sort of reciprocal feeling straight from the beginning—i.e. I don’t stay friends with someone who isn’t my friend. When I am in love, however, it is terribly hard to put into act the decision to leave the other—even in the case of unrequited love, I have to be brutal with myself—I have come to hate the other person. And even this hatred for the person I love is a source of pain and suffering—of the most atrocious sort. In friendship, by contrast, there is no place for hatred. If I hate my friend, I am no longer his friend, and our friendship is finished.
A further difference concerns how the other person changes in our eyes; in the falling-in-love process, the other person is transformed, or mystically transfigured in a way. In the case of a man in love, this woman is both herself and something-more-than-herself. She has a double self; she is both the flesh-and-blood woman standing in front of him and the divine being who contains within herself all that is fine and possible in the world as he conceives it.  Love is the revelation of whatever it is that transcends us. When we implore our beloved, we are expressing our desperation out loud.
Our friends, even our best friend, are not transformed or transfigured in this way.  
What I do expect from my friend is that he believes in the image I have of myself, or at the very least his idea of how I am isn’t too different from mine. And if he has a positive opinion of me, I expect it not to be exaggeratedly high—because that would give me the impression of being worshipped. Should his opinion be rather negative, on the other hand, there is the risk that this unflattering perception will make me feel that he is not being fair and right by me, which is a fundamental requisite in a friendship. Two friends, therefore, really have to have similar—though not identical—ideas regarding their reciprocal self-images. They mustn’t be identical because in that case there would be naturally nothing to discover about each other. In short, what one believes should be in harmony with what the other believes—nothing more and nothing less. I expect that my friend will not misinterpret my words or actions. Whereas I fully expect such a thing from people in general, I trust my friend to be different.  If he or she does misconstrue my words or deeds, it’s all over between us. It’s absolutely true that we can remain for years on end in love with someone without knowing if he or she ever loved us or told  us lies, and without knowing if he or she was good or bad as a person, or even if he or she was noble-spirited or petty. The fact that we wonder about such things is itself a sign of love. Even after countless years, love continues to lead one to ask such questions, and to pull off the daisy petals in a ceaseless round of ‘she-loves-me, she-loves-me-not.’  The reason for this is that as of the first moment love appears, it generates the question that finds its answer only in the presence and reassurances of the person that one loves. When that presence is withdrawn, the answer vanishes as well, and so the question returns obsessively over and over again, filling us with anguish. It’s useless to try to shake yourself out of it with a bit of logical thinking, on the order of: “what does it matter in the end?” or “what do you care?” This is simply a demonstration of how obtuse and blind love is, in this persistent craving for an ungraspable object…which is nothing but a ‘becoming together’ or a ‘necessary being-together.’

This is the misery we experience in love—feeling compelled as we do to ask and never stop asking, even when the other person is indifferent or hostile. This is the injustice in love—the fact that there are no extra points for merit or points off for demerit, no prizes for the good and punishment for the bad. Love is at once sublime and miserable, heroic and stupid, and never never fair or just…What is fair and just is to be found not in love but in friendship.

Excerpted from Friendship by Francesco Alberoni, Ital. ed. L’Amicizia, Garzanti, Milano.

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