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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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.