Foolishness about Friendship


Heterosexual House of Cards

If all men knew what others say of them,
there would not be four friends in the world.

- Blaise Pascal

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The Buddy System

A Code of Honor: Never approach a friend's girlfriend or wife with mischief as your goal.
There are just too many women in the world to justify that sort of dishonorable behaviour -
unless she's really attractive.

- Bruce Friedman

More than any friend, we take ourselves to be friends, yet we are not - a husband may find himself saying this to his wife after 15 years of marriage; adult brothers might think this when looking back fondly upon their intimate childhood; a son may fear that such is true of him and his distant father.  Similarly, an intelligent man may awake in midlife and conclude that he has no real friends at all.

It is a common theme in contemporary writing about male friendship - the kind of thing you might encounter in discussions of the Book of Virtues - that once upon a time men made friends easily, and made lots of them, and that the best and most visible friendships in society were between men; but now men hardly make friends at all, and this makes for atomisation in society and unhappiness in private life.  Yet it is hardly plausible that friendship, though once flourishing, is now vanishing.

Friendship seems to be built into our nature, in the sense that we almost inevitably form bonds with one another.  Rather, if there has been a decline, we should expect it to find it in the deteriorating quality of those inevitable bonds.  Such deterioration would presumably go unnoticed across generations, just as it can go unnoticed within one person's life span.  And what we would need would be a jarring wake-up call, a summons to convert.

Not long ago I turned to Stephen Ambrose, the military historian and author of Comrades, a history of male friendship, hoping to hear such a reveille.  Friendship has to do with particulars: someone who has lived vicariously through the Civil War era, or the preparations for the Normandy invasion, as has Ambrose, should have far more to say about the richness of friendship in times past than any sociologist or "social critic."  If the men of Marathon who fought in World War II were better at making friends than we in these easier times, surely Ambrose could instruct us as to where things went wrong and how we might change.  But Ambrose's book is curiously ahistorical, filled largely with sketchy anecdotes about his brothers, father, schoolmates, and colleagues.  And when he does rely upon his historical expertise, to talk about Ike and Milton Eisenhower, or the men from Easy Company, or Lewis and Clark, his theme is not that of decline but rather of constancy.  Friendship has always been important for males, he thinks; it is so now, just as it was then.

So then why write a book on male friendship at all?  Because, Ambrose says, he only "discovered" male friendship in his 50s, and he wants his readers to make a similar discovery.  Yet, paradoxically, he also claims that he has had good friendships throughout his life, like other men, and that his friendships have been indispensable for his success and happiness.  This makes little sense.  How can something central and indispensable get discovered for the first time by an intelligent man in his late middle age?  How is it possible that a man have life-long friends without paying much attention to this fact?  To bring home the absurdity: imagine someone claiming that he had discovered pens only when he was 50, even though he had used a cherished pen each day for most of his life.  Such a person should either be ashamed of his foolishness in never noticing something so necessary and close to him, and not say a word about it, or, if he is to write, say something about how he could have been afflicted with such folly.

Foolishness about friendship has a long history.  It was apparently first noticed by Socrates, who would uncover it in his interlocutors with the very simple question, "How many friends do you have?"  Of course, most people, if posed the question, will fumble about without any good response, even though they would be able to say, without any hesitation, how many houses or cars they have.  Yet friends are infinitely more important than material possessions.  So Socrates would conclude that we are in the grip of some sort of folly: either we do not notice, or we notice but do not care, or, more probably, we are not even in a position to notice our friends.  We cannot notice them, he thought, if we cannot define what a "friend" is.  This seems correct: a person cannot begin to count a thing, if he does not know what it is he is counting - what "counts" as that thing, and what does not.

Surprisingly, then, to avoid foolishness about friendship, we need a theory of friendship, or at least enough of a theory to yield a definition.  This may seem odd: isn't friendship a topic that can only be handled by sharing feelings - cute anecdotes, memorable vignettes, and the like?  Yet without theory, we cannot know what we are trying to illustrate with stories and anecdotes.  Thus Ambrose has chapters about his brothers; his relationship to his father; fellow soldiers; the Custer brothers.  But he fails to explain why these relationships are appropriately called friendships.  Moreover, he excludes from his book any consideration of his relationship to his wife, not merely because his theme is male friendship solely, but also because he evidently considers that he does not have a friendship with her: "Loving a woman is wholly different.  It is intimate, all-encompassing, and I cannot do without it.  But friends bring much else I would not have otherwise."  Yet this is unexplained assertion: how precisely is his relationship to his wife "wholly different"?

If Ambrose drew lines in what appeared to be the right places, then perhaps it would be well enough: his readers could try to articulate the implicit theory.  But his various discussions make one suspect that, indeed, Ambrose does not know what he is talking about.  Eisenhower and Patton, we are told, were friends in the sense of "peers": yet Eisenhower was suspicious of Patton's extremes, and Patton never shared his deepest ambitions with anyone, and certainly not Eisenhower.  To be sure, each respected the other, but why was there a friendship?  The little bits of historical evidence that Ambrose supplies count against it: for instance, when Patton was on his deathbed, Eisenhower writes him a letter which begins, "The real purpose of this note is simply to assure you that you will always have a job and not to worry about this accident closing out any of them for your selection."  Yes, we might call such minimal shared regard a "friendship", but then nearly all relationships that have a professional and cordial character would be friendships, and it becomes unclear why someone might think that friendship is so vitally important.

For all we can tell, Eisenhower was hardly closer to his own brother, Milton.  Each helped the other advance his career over a span of decades.  Although this arrangement was very useful for each, something more should be claimed of a friend.  Eisenhower's last words to Milton were, "I want you to know how much you have always meant to me, how much I have valued your counsel," which sounds more like a remark from a distinguished guest at a hosted dinner, rather than intimate words of affection between friends.  Ambrose's gloss concedes this, "Of all the tributes Milton received, this was the one he treasured the most."  But no real friend would be concerned with gleaning tributes from his dying friend.

Ambrose is not, at least, unlike a friend to his reader in writing directly about himself and his own friendships.  But what he says in this regard points to a real deficiency in his experience of friendship.  And perhaps it must be this way - that writing about friendship proceeds from one's own case and goes outwards by analogous reasoning.  Thus, Ambrose describes a childhood marked by intense competition between his brothers, under the supervision of a demanding and unemotional father.  It is difficult not to attribute the drive for success that marks the lives of all the brothers to a yearning to win their father's approval.  This approval, it seems, finally comes when the brothers are in their 50s, at a family reunion in Wisconsin, a formal dinner honoring the father.  Each brother says something in praise of their father: "It was the kind of thing we could never say to him in private, as it would have been far too embarrassing."  An odd friendship, where the deepest affections of the friends can only be voiced in public!  But Ambrose's father, for his part, never praised his sons: "He had always let us know when he was dissatisfied.  None of us had ever done our assigned tasks to his standard."  So, then, what is it that the father says after having received his sons' praise and honor?  This formal dinner, it should be noted, was the event which caused Ambrose finally to "discover" male friendship and write a book in praise of it.  What was this great turning point?

The father says one thing only.  "I want you to know," he allows, "that if my boys are proud of me, no one will ever know how proud I am of them."  How perverse this is: he is proud of them, but prouder still that he'll never express that affection.  Yet this merest crumb of affection moves Ambrose tremendously.  It marks a turning point in his life: he now sees that his relationship to his father and brothers has an aspect that transcends competition.

It is appropriate to explain a book psychologically, rather than understand it on its own terms, when the book would otherwise be unaccountably unsatisfactory, and a psychological account is near to hand.  Thus it is with Ambrose's inept and superficial book.  How does a skilled historian write so poorly on a theme very close to his heart?  It seems obvious that Ambrose has spent most of his life striving to please a demanding father: that is why he is drawn to military virtue and sacrifice in his work as an historian.  Late in life, his father's small sign of affection helps him to see that there is something higher than the discipline and competitiveness that marks military achievement.  He thinks that his father's unconditional affection for him was always present but hidden, and he reasons similarly that it was present, but hidden, in the bonds between the military heroes he admires.

But no friendship can be based on hidden affection.  As Aristotle astutely observes, a friendship can exist only if you are aware that another person wishes good for you unconditionally, for your own sake, and the other is aware that you feel the same way about him, and each regards his affection as somehow reciprocating, or being equivalent to, the affection of the other.  Friendship, whatever else it is, is a bond of mutual awareness.  The deeper it is that we see, and the more articulate we are in sharing what we see with another, the richer the friendship.  Friendship, then, will be superficial and unsatisfactory unless those who practice it have interiority and can arrive at shared understandings of things through conversation.  Thus, the better expressions of friendship will centre, not around battlefield heroics, however glorious someone might take these to be, but rather around intimate and delicate expressions of thought.

It might in fact be true that today the best instances of such relationships are ones that involve women: close marriages; lifelong bonds between sisters; female friendships.  But if that is so, then we might expect that a far more useful book, for guiding men in the matter of male friendship, would be one which took its chief orientation from the love of a woman.

Michael Pakaluk is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Clark University.  He has published widely on the history of philosophy, analytic philosophy, and ancient philosophy. His most recent book is Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Books VIII and IX, with Oxford University Press (1998).

Source: Feed magazine Sept 99

No Tag Team

Source: Funny Times October 2000 

Looking for a Friend

by Jan Thomas

The deepest captivation by reality for me, is in friends.  The friendship of teenage bush walking trips, and of long drives across the continent remains strong in my memory.  Commuting frustrations fade beside the talking of deep things with a friend.  The babble of the pub is walled out by the bubble of our own friendship at the bar.

There is a nasty two edged knife in all of this.  I am most alive, and most deeply involved in friendship with my wife.  She is my friend.  I have few other friends, none remotely as intimate.  I think this is quite common for Australian men who seek more in life than "comfort for their gut and what hangs under it" as one man put it.  It's also unhealthy.

We long for the intimacy of friendship.  We long for someone we can trust and with whom we can be open, someone who will know our faults and fears, and yet still like us!  And we long for that peculiar honour of knowing another's secret fears - not for gossip or voyeurism, and not because they want us to do something - simply because they honour us with trust.  They are our friend.  The thing is, men don't usually have real friends.  We have "mates" and acquaintances and members of the team but not friends in the real sense of the word.  Intimacy - the mark of friendship - is usually excluded from our relationships.

Little girls, as they grow to womanhood, go through stages of bitchiness that are brutal and often despised by men and boys.  However, that bitchiness is a stage in the development of friendship.  They learn how to be friends and intimate.  Take two couples who have tea together - by the end of the evening the men will have talked about footy, politics, cars, the stock market...  The women, elsewhere in the house, will talk about their children, period problems, coping with their husbands, their fear of breast cancer and getting old.  They may well have wept together and embraced.  The women are friends, the men are mates.  This is so because boys growing up have a physical brutality and cultural bias against intimacy.  As a child I knew, and bitterly experienced, that any sign of weakness (which intimacy inherently involves) would be exploited.  I walled my feelings in.  I did not risk friendship - it was not to be had.  But of course, I longed for friendship and intimacy.

I gained some as the acculturated "ockerism" and brutality of a group of us was overridden by awe of the vast Australian bush on our bush walking trips.  Campfires warm the soul of an Australian man in a most unusual way.  Those who would not be seen dead in church, will talk religion around a fire.  This intimacy was not enough, so I took a mate in the other sense - I married a woman.  Here I found uncomfortable intimacy.  It was uncomfortable because I did not know how to be intimate - I was a poor listener, I could "feel" only a little.  When it came to being a friend, I was a toddler still!  It was real, it was good - it is better now, after years of learning.  But it is still unhealthy.  This is because of two unfortunate linkages.  The first is sex.  This friendship is bound up with a deep 20-year sexual relationship - so, like most men, I have trouble separating intimacy and sex.  I am at risk of affairs if I am intimate with a person other than my wife: I look for intimacy in sex.  And as a typical male I would avoid intimacy with men because of a fear of homosexuality, or being thought homosexual.

Yet it is with men that I need friendship.  This is the other unfortunate linkage.  Male friendship breaks the bondage that comes from having a wife or female partner as our primary (read "really only") friend.  For not only does sex get confused with intimacy and friendship, but so does Mother.  My first experience of intimacy was Mother, and perhaps this is why I am so breast fixated!  She was primarily my healer when I was brutalised at school.  She provided some balm of intimacy to the wounds of my soul while Dad was still out working.  So I learned at an early age that Mother = Friend = Carer = Woman.  With this I learned that men (that is, Father) are absent, distant, and cruel.  The problem, of course, is that Mother is cruel too.  Some mothers are outright abusive.  But the best of all Mothers held absolute power over us, yet got cross, and lost their tempers at times.

Thus there is a great confusion.  When life is hard and stressed, to whom do I relate - mother, or wife?  We know of boys who "never leave home," even the married ones.  When I regress to earlier behaviour in my pain, who am I asking my partner to be - friend, or mother?  And when she is stressed and goes ape and all my insecurities rise up, the fear of angry Mother, and the desire to please Mother, can stop me being a friend for her.  I begin to need her to help me in that stress, when she was the one calling for help!  The only way out of this loneliness has been to seek friends who are not women - to become intimate with men.  This I am finding hard.  My whole cultural baggage stands in the way of it.  The fear of friendship struggles against the hatred of loneliness.

Source: © Jan Thomas

See also:

bulletOn the Subject of Friends: I'd Rather Play Hockey (earlier in this section) - for a funny clip on the subject of men and friends.  (Flash plugin required) 2.5 meg

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