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Posts Tagged ‘Nicomachean Ethics’

Just a follow-up from yesterday’s post about community: Robin Dunbar also writes about the kinds of friendships we form and the number of friends we typically have.

Don’t start over-analysing this and getting depressed about how many friends you don’t have – it’s not a competition or a test of psychological well-being!

On average, we have five intimate friends, 15 good friends (including the five intimate ones), 50 friends and 150 acquaintances. While it is not altogether clear why our relationships are constrained in this way, one possibility is time. A relationship’s quality seems to depend on how much time we devote to it, and since time is limited, we necessarily have to distribute what time we do have for social engagement unevenly. We focus most of it on our inner core of five intimates. Alternatively, it might just be a memory problem: we have a job keeping track of who’s doing what, and can only really keep serious tabs on the inner core of five.

The point about how difficult (and probably unwise) it is to have a large number of ‘intimate friends’ is not different from what Aristotle says about ‘perfect friendship’ in Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such people are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, people cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

Dunbar then connects the question of friendship with yesterday’s question about the ideal size for a community.

But there is one more serious problem lurking behind all this. In traditional small-scale societies, everyone shares the same 150 friends. This was true even in Europe until well into the 20th century, and probably still is true today of isolated rural communities. You might well fall out with them from time to time, but, like the Hutterites, you are bound together by mutual obligation and densely interwoven relationships. And of these, shared kinship was perhaps the most pervasive and important: offend Jim down the road, and you bring granny down on your back because Jim is her second-cousin-once-removed, and she’s got her own sister, Jim’s grandmother, on to her about it.

In the modern world of economic mobility, this simple balance has upset: we grow up here, go to university there, and move on to several elsewheres in a succession of job moves. The consequence is that our social networks become fragmented and distributed: we end up with small pockets of friends scattered around the country, most of whom don’t know each other and, perhaps more importantly, don’t know the family part of our networks. You can offend Jim, and almost no one will care. And if they do, you can afford to move on and leave that whole subset of friends behind. Networks are no longer self-policing.

Because modern geographical communities no longer have the social coherence they had up until the 1950s, it is perhaps inevitable that people become less willing to remonstrate with miscreants because others are unlikely to back them up. Bearing these factors in mind, is it any wonder that some inner-city communities fall victim to gang violence? Our real problem for the future is how to overcome this social fragmentation by recreating a sense of community in our increasingly urbanised and mobile world.

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Rent a Friend has just launched in the UK. You pay someone to keep you company, or to join you in some activity. It’s not a dating site; nor is it a front for an escort agency. There is a strict ‘no sex’ policy.

Haroon Siddique explains some more:

“You can rent a local friend to hang out with, go to a movie or restaurant with, someone to go with you to a party or event, someone to teach you a new skill or hobby, or someone to show you around an unfamiliar town,” explains the US website. It also suggests using its services for a friend “to help motivate and spot you during your workout”. Popular activities people are renting friends for, according to the website, include teaching manners, prom dates and “wingman/wingwoman”.

Subscribers pay up to $25 a month for access to a database of more than 200,000 “friends” who have profiles and photographs to enable browsers to make an informed choice. Once they have chosen a friend, they can negotiate an hourly fee with prices starting from $10 an hour. Rent a Friend founder Scott Rosenbaum, who lives in New Jersey, said he was moved to start his business because, amid all the websites offering every imaginable dating experience, there was a gap in the market.

“I wanted to go a step back,” he told the Times. “No one was offering friendship.”

There are two reactions to this. One is to take the high ground and dismiss it as a complete distortion of the meaning of friendship. Another is to shrug the shoulders and accept that all friendship is at root motivated by self-interest. Helen Rumbelow in the Times takes this latter route:

Show me a friendship of any duration and I will show you a balance sheet of who did what for who: the dance floors tackled, the shoulders cried on, the hair held back over the toilet, the boxes moved, the dark nights endured and the champagne breakfasts that followed.

Ruthless accounting is involved, and if one party goes even a little into the red – a certain someone who stayed just a little too long in someone else’s spare room, for example – then the emotional auditors may be called in. Bankruptcy can follow. Friendship is a gift, but it’s part of a gift economy. [July 19, p11]

Aristotle still gives the simplest and truest account of friendship in Book 8 of his Nicomachean Ethics. He recognises that not all friendships will be perfectly pure and altruistic, and that many will be based on the need to find support, help, companionship, pleasure, fun etc. But this doesn’t make him cynical. It’s part of human life, to be brought together with others for all sorts of mutual interests.

That’s the key to friendship, however – it has to be mutual. And that’s what’s missing from Rent a Friend, the mutuality. That’s why I feel, however worthwhile it may be, it’s not friendship. If people didn’t pay, and just met through a website because they wanted to meet others, that would be a different matter.

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I gave a talk about friendship recently to a group of young adults in London. At the beginning I forced them to sit in silence for five minutes and think about their closest friends: how they met, why they stayed in touch, what they like about each other, why the friendship works, what they receive from the friendship, etc. It’s good to reflect like this now and then, it makes you more appreciative and grateful – but don’t do it too often! Even if you are really together in yourself and secure in your relationships, you will start to get paranoid, obsessing about whether you have any true friends, and why the person sitting next to you has twice as many as you do.

Aristotle is still the best place to start. If you have a few minutes, read through the wonderful Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics. [The translation by W.D. Ross is here; scroll to page 127.] And here is his Facebook page, just to prove that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk:

Would you poke Aristotle? by Arbitrary.Marks.

Aristotle says that we have some friends because they are ‘useful’, and others because they are ‘pleasant’. This sounds a bit cold and calculating. But there is a simple truth here, behind the slightly stark language, which I think we all take for granted: That we enter into a friendship because we hope to receive something from it; we want to be with our friends for a reason; namely that there is some mutual benefit (we are ‘useful’ to each other’), or just the sheer joy of being with the other person (we ‘please’ each other). And in fact it would be a bit strange if I told you that I wasn’t better off for seeing you or had no desire to be with you.

‘Perfect friendship’, however, is between good people who seek what is truly good for each other. Yes, there will be much mutual gain, and much joy; but there is this extra element of selflessness, humility, and generosity – wanting what will truly help the other person to be who they are meant to be.

Aristotle draws the logical conclusions from this: It’s hard to be a good friend if you are not a good person yourself. To care for another person, to seek what is best for them, you have to have the inner resources to go beyond your own needs and desires and fears; you have to put them at the centre; you have to see them as someone worthy of love and kindness and not just as someone defined by what they bring to you. You have to see them, in other words, as a person in their own right and not just as a partner in a relationship. This isn’t possible if you are trapped in your own own selfishness. Or to put it more constructively, if you want to have good friends, and to be a good friend to others, then you should try to grow in goodness yourself. I’m not saying I am there yet; but I think Aristotle has the right idea.

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