Friendship, ancient and modern

David Andreatta, a newspaper columnist, wrote that a true friend is somebody you would enjoy having a beer with, and who also would help you move.

Tim Madigan, co-author of the forthcoming Friendship and Happiness, once said to me that a true friend is someone who would visit you more than once if you were in a hospital or hospice.

But in ancient times, the ideal of friendship was that friends would literally sacrifice their lives for one another.

The most famous example is the story of Damon and Pythias, supposedly based on historical fact.  Damon was sentenced to death on charges of plotting against the tyrant of the Greek city of Syracuse, in Sicily, but asked for leave to go home first to attend the funeral of his father.   His friend Pythias volunteered to be a hostage to be executed in Damon’s place if he did not return.

Damon was late, and the tyrant, mocking Pythias for his trust, was about to execute him, when Damon appeared.   He had been kidnapped by pirates, and was able to escape only at the last minute. The tyrant was so touched that he spared their lives.

A.C. Grayling, in his book Friendship (2013), tells a story of an even deeper friendship, the medieval story of the knights Amys and Amylion.   Amys perjured himself in order to save the life of his friend, and, as punishment, was stricken with leprosy. Years later Amylion was told in a dream that he could cure his friend by bathing him in the blood of his children.   He did so, Amys was cured and the children were miraculously restored to life.

I read Friendship over a period of several months as part of a philosophy reading group hosted by Paul Mitacek.   I do not recommend it.  It is rambling, and does not come to interesting conclusions.

But it did raise interesting questions to talk about. Can bad people be friends? Do friends put up with each others’ faults or try to correct them? Do similar or dissimilar people make the best friends?  And just how important is friendship to us today?

The closest thing to the intense loyalty described in the ancient stories is the blood brotherhood of the warrior.  It is the bond of men (almost always men) who risk their lives to carry out a common mission, and whose lives depend on each other.   They are bound together by intense experience they never can communicate to others.

You have something of the same kind in any occupation in which there is shared danger and hardship—firefighters, merchant seamen, underground coal miners, construction workers on skyscrapers.

I don’t know whether there is a similar bond among women, but I suspect there is.  Prior to modern times,  the pain and danger of childbirth were as great as the pain and danger of war, and childbirth was the exclusive province of women—no men allowed.   Surely there must have been a sisterhood corresponding the warrior brotherhood.

But the warrior brotherhood is loyalty to a group, not an exclusive bond between two individuals.   As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves (1960), friendship is loyalty to a circle of friends, and you want your friends to be friends with each other.  In an erotic relationship, you want your beloved all to yourself.

Ancient Greek civilization was one of the few that honored homosexual love.  Grayling wondered whether the strong friendships celebrated by the ancient Greeks were homosexual in origin, and whether the tradition of passionate friendship derives from Greece.

I think there is something to that.  Jews and Christians historically regarded homosexuality as a sin, and, in the whole of the Hebrew and Christian Bible, there are only two stories of close friendships—David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi.   On the other hand, the Bible, especially in the earlier books, is very rich in its depiction of husbands and wives, fathers and sons, and older and younger brothers.

Most of us contemporary Americans and Europeans believe the bond between spouses is more important than the bond between friends.  Grayling mentioned how husbands and wives become jealous when their partner develops an emotional intimacy with someone of the opposite gender, even when no sex is involved.


Can bad people be friends?  You can’t be capable of friendship without being capable of loyalty, and there are certain people in this world who are not even capable of loyalty.   You can see this in Mafia chiefs and Napoleon, who trust no-one except blood relatives.

Should friends put up with each others’ faults?  Of course they should.   But friends should not expect friends to cover up crimes.  Friends should not be enablers of each others’ self-destructive vices.  There are friends whose main bond is their drinking habit or their drug habit.

If I think a friend is doing something harmful, I think I owe it to the friend and to myself to make my thought known.   At the same time, there is nothing to be gained by constantly nagging, and of course I could be wrong.  This is a hard question, and I don’t have a good answer.

I don’t know if I would turn in a friend who’d committed a crime.   It depends on the friend and it depends on the crime.

Do similar or dissimilar people make the best friends?  C.S. Lewis said you can feel affection for someone whose good qualities you like, even if you have nothing in common.   Animals of different species sometimes show affection for each other.

I don’t see how I could be friends with someone with whom I had absolutely nothing in common.  But all my really close friends have some good quality that I lack.   Husbands used to refer to wives as their “better half.”  I think the same can be true of friends.


I think David Andreatta had it right.   Friendship is companionship and sharing of thoughts and feelings, which everyone needs.   But it is when you or your friend need help that you learn whether you have a true friend or whether you are one.

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