On making friends

Nothing sinks more heavily in your stomach than the realization that someone who you thought liked you really hates you.

More and more, i’m inclined to think that making friends isn’t a matter of chance, or even of preference; it’s a matter of knowing what you want to learn, and recognizing who can help you learn those things.  Does that make friendship utilitarian?  I don’t know, but let’s take a look what Aristotle had to say on the matter:

It seems that not everything is loved, but only what is worthy of love, and this is what is good, pleasant, or useful. What is useful, however, would seem to be what is instrumental to some good or pleasure, so that what are worthy of love as ends are the good and the pleasant.  —Nicomachean Ethics, VIII. ii. p.145

So even if you’re friends with someone because he or she is “instrumental to some good or pleasure,” the end you ultimately strive for is that good or pleasure.  The bottom line is, there is some good or pleasure we desire, and we become friends with those who provide us with it.

Let’s start with the goods.  What kinds of goods do we seek?  Well, obviously they vary from individual to individual, but the one most commonly identified and discussed by philosophers is happiness.  It seems that the “small” goods we seek add up to the “big,” self-sufficient good of happiness.

Then let’s assume that we make friends because they help us attain that good of happiness.  How do my friends make me happy?  Personally, i’m happy when my friends care for me and teach me new things.  Some of my friends don’t do either of these things, and yet i call them “friends.”

There are situations that force us to choose one friend to turn to.  These situations vary, and in each one, you pick a different friend for a different reason.  “She’s the most dependable,” “He’s the most honest,” and so on.  But most of the time, you find yourself gravitating towards particular friends, and it’s not a reasoned decision.  Something keeps drawing you to them for no apparent reason.

Judging from my experience, the “small” goods i gain from friendship are well-being and knowledge.  I think i prefer to befriend those who can give me new knowledge (and i use that term in the broadest sense possible, to denote anything knowable), because i’ve got the well-being good covered by other things.  Besides, once you become close friends with someone, the care usually follows; that’s just how humans work.  This might explain why i consistently seek out those with experiences and interests vastly different from mine.  At the same time, i wish to build upon my knowledge of things that matter to me, so i also befriend those who share my interests.

There’s one other thing that my friends do that makes me happy, and that’s making me laugh.  I would say that’s a pleasure, not a good, as i find laughing to be a pleasurable experience as opposed to something to be actively sought.  Hedonists would argue, however, that pleasure is a self-sufficient good, an end in itself.  But i’m not a hedonist, and i can’t live on laughter alone.

Let’s consider Heidegger’s concept of “idle talk.”  Discourse is a way of sharing involvements, of communicating particular concerns.  It is always in danger of becoming idle talk, in which “what is said-in-the-talk gets understood; but what the talk is about is understood only approximately and superficially” (Being and Time, I. 5 p.212).  Idle talk reflects an ability to speak, but not an ability to do.  Wit and humor are like caricatures of idle talk; they survive on skillful wordsmithing and a nonchalant disregard for the action.  As pleasurable as they are, they hinder the attainment of the good of “primordial understanding” of the subject at hand.  Discourse is often our only means of access to worlds not personally experienced by us, and idle talk impedes that access:

The fact that something has been said groundlessly, and then gets passed along in further retelling, amounts to perverting the act of disclosing [Erschliessen] into an act of closing off [Verschliessen]. For what is said is always understood proximally as ‘saying’ something–that is, an uncovering something. Thus, by its very nature, idle talk is a closing-off, since to go back to the ground of what is talked about is something which it leaves undone.  –I. 5 p.213

As much as i enjoy idle chatter with my friends, what i need at the end of the day is a committed engagement with issues that matter to us or pique our interest.  If not that, i always appreciate different ways of thinking and seeing; that’s one more thing learned.  In addition to this, friends need to do things together, not just talk about them.  As Heidegger claims, too much idle talk and not enough discourse makes for an unfulfilled Being-in-the-world.

I need friends who can help me discover the things i crave to know, not by my prompting, but by simply being who they are.  And in order for the friendship to last, i need to be able to collaborate with them and enjoy their company.  These are the friends i would love the most.  Regrettably, not all of them would love me in return, because even if they did enjoy my company, i may not be able to provide the goods they seek.

Point is, friendship is a tricky business, because we don’t always recognize what we need most, and whatever hedonistic streak we might have in us clouds that judgment further.  We need to sober up and ask ourselves, is it a good or a pleasure that i seek, and do the people around me provide it?  Do i provide the good or pleasure they seek?  In other words, what do i live for, and what do they live for?

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Filed under ethics, philosophy

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