Thursday, November 18, 2010

Friends

Following, is the meat of an essay by Daniel Akst, titled "America: Land of Loners" in the Summer 2010 issue of Wilson Quarterly:

… today “friends” are everywhere in our culture—the average Facebook user has 130—and friendship, of a diluted kind, is our most characteristic relationship: voluntary, flexible, a “lite” alternative to the caloric meshugaas of family life.

But in restricting ourselves to the thin gruel of modern friendships, we miss out on the more nourishing fare that deeper ones have to offer. Aristotle, who saw friendship as essential to human flourishing, shrewdly observed that it comes in three distinct flavors: those based on usefulness (contacts), on pleasure (drinking buddies), and on a shared pursuit of virtue—the highest form of all. True friends, he contended, are simply drawn to the goodness in one another, goodness that today we might define in terms of common passions and sensibilities.

It’s possible that Aristotle took all this too seriously, but today the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and in our culture we take friendship—a state of strong mutual affection in which sex or kinship isn’t primary—far too lightly. We’re good at currying contacts and we may have lots of pals, but by falling short on Aristotle’s third and most important category of friendship, we’ve left a hole in our lives. Now that family life is in turmoil, reinvigorating our notion of friendship—to mean something more than mere familiarity—could help fill some of the void left by disintegrating household arrangements and social connections frayed by the stubborn individualism of our times.

Friendship is uniquely suited to fill this void because, unlike matrimony or parenthood, it’s available to everyone, offering concord and even intimacy without aspiring to be all-consuming. Friends do things for us that hardly anybody else can, yet ask nothing more than friendship in return (though this can be a steep price if we take friendship as seriously as we should). The genius of friendship rests firmly on its limitations, which are better understood as boundaries.

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