Little Bit ‘o Philosophy: The Centrality of Friendship

Something to keep in mind: The foundation of Greek philosophy, that unsurpassed shining moment of human brilliance that was essential to the establishment of Western Culture and still permeates our lives, is –

Greeks. Hanging with friends. Having a drink. Yakking about something. 


The importance of friendship as the basis of philosophy can hardly be overemphasized. Because philosophy took place in discussions among friends, certain decadent tendencies of modern philosophy were avoided.  While there are very few material issues and problems in modern philosophy that the Greeks were not aware of, the simple fact that I would be discussing them among friends put a limit on any non-crank seriously holding positions that, if true, made it impossible or unreal to believe that you could talk over the such ideas with your friends.

A solipsist has no friends by definition – out. A radical materialist can’t give an account of what, exactly, is going on in a discussion between friends. Same goes for a determinist, Oh, sure, you could bat those ideas around – the pre-Socratics did that and worse –  but, at the end of the day, the friendship of the men gathered was of higher importance and more basic than any positions held. The immediate, tangible reality of a good friend was more real than any speculation.

Scholars mention an oddity: that, due to the vagaries of chance and the biases of copyists, the texts we have had handed down to us may give a much too cool and analytic view of the Greeks. The philosophical and mathematical works are comparatively plentiful and held in high esteem – only Homer, the two great historians Thucydides and Herodotus and the great playwrights seem to be held in as much honor as Plato and Aristotle and Euclid. For the centuries that Westerners have studied the ancient Greeks, it was traditional to start with Homer and the playwrights, to keep things balanced. Homer in particular, builds the bulk of the Iliad around the great friendship between Achilles and Patroclus. In a way, right below glory, what a Greek wanted most of all was friends. Even a cad like Callicles includes in his formulation of virtue the power to reward one’s friends (along with the power to punish enemies and indulge in every whim). Not much good if you don’t have any friends.

The second great flowering of Western Philosophy in the medieval universities, was built on the Greeks – and on friendship, again. At university, every student was part of a college, which was a sort of combination eating club, dorm and fraternity (similar to how its still done at Oxford). Your college was you home and family while at University. Classes more resembled Greek symposia than modern lectures – small numbers of students meeting with a master to work through questions. Many famous friendships were formed in medieval universities. Philosophizing, and learning in general, were activities by and among friends.*

This all began to change in the early 16th century. Philosophy became completely partisan. What side you were on determined what philosophy you learned. I’ve commented before on the contemptuous, near total silence with which the post medieval/early modern philosophers treat the scholastics. The almost never address any challenges directly at the school men straight on, but merely assume that their readers know Thomas was wrong, and that we’re here to clean up the (papist) mess. This has carried on to the modern day so much so, that if a person knows anything at all about medieval philosophizing, it’s that those benighted rubes worried about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

So it can be said that modern philosophy is built on antagonism, and not just antagonism to the past. A sort of fierce insecurity characterizes many modern professors in my experience. There’s often no real reason they have their job instead of somebody else (once had a comp lit professor at an uber-elite school admit he had his job because the department wanted at least one straight male), and if it weren’t for the solidarity – I don’t say friendship – between other academics in the same boat, they might not get any positive reinforcement at all. Who, outside the faculty and students, ever tells the philosophy teacher, or faculty in any of the ‘studies’ department, that  he’s doing anything important? Nope, college professors for the most part don’t really know in their hearts why they have their job or why it is that anyone would pay them to do it. Thus, the characteristic defensiveness whenever a non-academic places a toe on their turf.

True philosophy must start with the solid reality of love. You must know love of friend and family before you are able to know what it means to love wisdom.

* Then as now,. great friendships are opportunities for great hatreds as well, and enemies were almost as likely to be acquired as friends.The point is that the normal operation of education was not one of animosity but would have been impossible without a substrate of friendship.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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