This time last year, in the midst of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, I had my first ever “virtual lunches” with friends. I’ve since given up these arrangements because most people refuse to join me in eating over Zoom (it is admittedly a bit awkward). However, the push to relate to others in new and creative ways has also prompted me to ask, “What is friendship?” Is there a requirement for how long Zoom conversations should be with friends? Am I subtly giving priority to the friends I choose to meet up with in person now that restrictions have lifted? And what about all those people listed on Facebook and Instagram whom I know about through fun photos and emotionally-charged posts but have not had an actual conversation with in years?
In the past 12 months after social distance, broken friendships, and moments of extreme loneliness, I’ve realized friendship can go beyond the quantitative measurements provided on social media. My pondering has prompted me to explore friendship at a deeper level and go back to the philosophers who first coined the term “platonic friendship.”
CS Lewis declared, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” After a year of restrictions on human connection, it is important to recover friendship and reclaim it from the mixed message our culture sends about this unique relationship. Perhaps through an exploration of friendship love, I can experience the treasure of friendship as a healthy way of relating.
Friendship as an Ancient Practice
Rather than measuring friendship by how much time is spent together, the ancients measured friendship by its quality. The Greek philosopher Aristotle laid out three purposes for friendship: pleasure, utility, and goodness. A healthy friendship can serve all three of these distinct purposes which pushes the relationship to surpass modern measurements of connection through social media likes.
Leaning into these more complex categories requires an intentionality beyond the usual question I ask my friends, “Do you want to hang out sometime?”. Instead, C.S. Lewis encourages friends to ask of each other, “Do we see the same truth?” Such a question invites a mutual discovery of pleasure, utility, and goodness. In reading about ancient practices of friendship, I’ve also learned friendship is inherently a spiritual practice. Yes, it is a relationship that takes place between two or more humans, but according to ancient ideals of friendship, it requires a person to will the good of their friend. What a high standard!
In my own life, friendship often looks like spending time with people to ease my own loneliness, or to share fun activities. Willing the good of another requires that I selflessly enter a friendship solely because I enjoy being in the presence of my friends and want their best. This kind of love feels foreign to me. It pushes me to ask the Divine to transform my selfishness for the purpose of redemptive relationships with others. At the end of the day, friendship love can be found in the example of Christ who, just hours before his crucifixion, proclaimed, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,”.
Friendship for us today
In some ways, I envy the ancients who made these bold declarations about friendship. Without the constant buzz of social media and consumeristic culture, perhaps it was easier back then to focus on the quality of friendship rather than quantifying it. At the same time, maybe the clicks and texts can empower us in a digital age to connect more easily and build quality friendships with people from all over the world.
I think of my siblings. This time last year, we were awkwardly connecting through nightly rounds of Mario Kart on our phones because we were all quarantining and had little else to do. The random conversations we had through that platform gave us the chance to get to know each other better even across the thousands of miles that lay between us. While my brothers and sisters know more about me than almost anyone else, we’ve grown apart in some ways as adults and Mario Kart served as an avenue to open up new conversations.
I look back on all the conversations I’ve had with each of my siblings in the past year, the honesty that’s taken place, and the phone calls and texts we’ve sent each other “just because” rather than with a specific purpose in mind. It makes me smile to think that these deeper connections started with a simple connection through a video game. Perhaps the friendship I currently experience with my siblings, after a year of getting to know each other better through technology, is a modern example of an ancient practice and faintly mirrors Christ’s ultimate example of Divine love.
Aristotle. (1976). The ethics of Aristotle: The Nichomachean ethics (J. A. K. Thomson, Trans.). Penguin Classics.
Lewis, C. S. (1982). The four loves. Collins. p. 57
Plato. (n.d.). Symposium by Plato (B. Jowett, Trans.; R. L. Kelley, Ed.). doi: http://faculty.sgc.edu/rkelley/SYMPOSIUM.pdf
 Lewis, C. S. (1982). The four loves. Collins. p. 57
 Aristotle. (1976). The ethics of Aristotle: The Nichomachean ethics (J. A. K. Thomson, Trans.). Penguin Classics.
 Lewis, C. S. (1982). p. 64
 Plato. (n.d.). Symposium by Plato (B. Jowett, Trans.; R. L. Kelley, Ed.). doi: http://faculty.sgc.edu/rkelley/SYMPOSIUM.pdf
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