Friendship: An Interview with Philosopher A. C. Grayling

A central bond, a cherished value, a unique relationship, a profound human need, a type of love. What is the nature of friendship, and what is its significance in our lives? How has friendship changed since the ancient Greeks began to analyse it, and how has modern technology altered its very definition? In this fascinating exploration of friendship through the ages, one of the most thought-provoking philosophers of our time tracks historical ideas of friendship, gathers a diversity of friendship stories from the annals of myth and literature, and provides unexpected insights into our friends, ourselves, and the role of friendships in an ethical life.

In his latest book, philosopher A. C. Grayling roves the rich traditions of friendship in literature, culture, art and philosophy, bringing into his discussion familiar pairs as well as unfamiliar – Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Huck Finn and Jim. Grayling lays out major philosophical interpretations of friendship, then offers his own take, drawing on personal experiences and an acute awareness of vast cultural shifts that have occurred. With penetrating insight he addresses internet-based friendship, contemporary mixed gender friendships, how friendships may supersede family relationships, one’s duty within friendship, the idea of friendship to humanity and ultimately the universal value of friendship. 

Achilles bandages the arm of his friend, Patroclus

Achilles bandages the arm of his friend, Patroclus

Interviewer

Has friendship changed over the ages? / is it a universal?

Grayling

Human beings are social animals, and the various kinds of links and bonds that exist among them spring from this fact. Friendships in all their variety are among the chief of them, and although there have been many varieties of view about friendship shaped by cultural circumstances, the underlying nature of friendship – the bond of affection, comradeship and mutuality – is a constant of human experience.

Interviewer

Can only humans be friends?

Grayling

There is empirical evidence of connections very like friendships among chimpanzees; many people regard their pets, especially dogs, as friends – though here ‘companion’ is a more accurate term; in general it would seem that the focal case of friendship is the conscious, chosen, self-aware human relationship that implies a rich network of factors about trust, obligation, pleasure and mutual concern.

Interviewer

Can friendship ever be bad for us?

Grayling

It is all too possible to have toxic friends; it too often happens that people can do unwise or bad things in the name of friendship; having the wrong people as friends can be destructive; so yes – friendship can be bad for us. But it is far more often good for us, because we could not even begin to flourish fully unless we had friends.

Interviewer

How important is friendship in the twenty first century?

Grayling

Friendship has always been central to human existence, and although it is no longer a matter of leaguing together to bring down a woolly mammoth, it remains an indispensable psychological and social platform for good lives. In some ways the new media of communication and social networking has over-extended the notion of ‘friendship’ to a shallow simulacrum to that relationship, but they also make it possible for people to be together in new ways, and to nourish the bonds in which friendship consists.

Interviewer

What lead you to write about it?

Grayling

Ethics is the enquiry into how we should live and act, and asks what are the great goods whose possession would make life meaningful and valuable. Philosophical debate about these matters from Plato and Aristotle onwards has identified the centrality of human relationships, and very significantly among them friendship, as essential components of the good. As a result there is a major tradition of thought about friendship, which I describe and examine in this book, as a contribution to ethical enquiry itself.

Interviewer

Who are the greatest historical models?

Grayling

Everyone cites Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Nisus and Euryalus, and their stories have shaped the debate about friendship in philosophy, art and literature ever since. I recount the great stories and discuss them, asking whether they give us the essence of this fundamental human relationship, or whether they have distorted the debate about it.

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Grayling 11-7-13

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