The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 22: The Meaning of Friendship (Mark Vernon, 2010)

Books left: 4. Weeks left: 7 (breathe in, breathe out. Undo metaphysical belt of brain.)

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, and at least with a nectarine you know what you're getting.

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, but at least with a nectarine you know what you’re getting.

Wow, found a book with an author’s name starting with V, and that if nothing else is testament to the necessity of this project.

I see its pretty jacket and sail in, blithely unaware of the small note I later discover in the blurb that the book is a revised version of one previously titled The Philosophy of Friendship.

Consider your warning unheeded, sirs!

 

 

Vernon’s book is an examination of the rules and functions of friendship in contemporary society, with chapters on subjects such as friendships at work, the possibility of being ‘just friends’ and not lovers, friending online, friendship as it relates to politics, and friendship as a spiritual experience. He peppers his text with examples from both real life and pop culture, and simultaneously links it to the works of philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Foucault, Kant and Aquinas.

He paints a portrait of the ancient world that shows clearly how civilisation once valued friendship, though official structures, language patterns and customs, in ways it now does not; and calls for us to reconsider, as he has retitled his book, the meaning of friendship.

Why is it that modern society has no public means of recognising the bonds formed between friends, a fact that is in stark contrast to the family, which is celebrated as the very basis of community? Surely friendship plays a vital part in that too … it is not just that friendship is not recognised in society, whereas family is, but that the particularity of friendship can often be regarded as a threat to the unconditional love that is supposed to reign within the family too. Why else do individuals somehow feel they must renegotiate a long-term friendship when their friend gets married? Or, to put it another way: is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife – ‘forsaking all others,’ as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.

This is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. For all Kant may wish it, and ethical discourse may ignore it, friendship will not cease. Aristotle’s intuition is right: it has to do with self-love, and it is certainly partial, but it is also undoubtedly necessary for a happy life. Moreover, if friendship is rising back up the agenda of people’s personal commitments, as marriage reforms and other institutions of belonging become less reliable, then an ethical discourse that takes friendship seriously is needed, not least to provide some structure for people who want to make the most of it. Friendship will always be full of ambiguities. We’ve established that by now. But that does not mean it is not possible to think through them and welcome friendship as a key, if complicated, facet of life – which, after all, is only complicated itself.

As Vernon outlines, friendship has been a topic largely ignored by most philosophers. Many of the philosophers he references in depth here are a product of those ancient times in which friendship was valued more highly. This means his book is not only justified as an unprecedented study but that he has also been able to have a jolly good stab at assembling the gist of it all in one book of modest length. For a philosophy fan it will no doubt be a valued addition to the library as its subject matter, as well as the approach through a modern lens, is unique.

Note I say philosophy fans and not people like me, with gnat-like attention spans.

I consider myself a charming blend of literary snob and member of the unwashed masses. I like books with corpses or explosions or humour or if they are Serious Literary Fiction I like them to have stunningly beautiful prose. I am reluctant with documentaries, nonfiction or even things that smell of them, such as satire, to the point I even hesitated on the very funny New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows because I thought it might be too realistic for Sunday entertainment. But I do enjoy the nonfiction I end up consuming from time to time – recent examples being tiny house movement documentary Tiny and Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought. Point is, surely I can’t be alone in finding both ancient history and philosophy a hard slog, and now I’m no longer a pretentious 20-year-old who carries around a Nietzsche tome she is unable to finish, I can admit it.

By the middle of Vernon’s book my interest has flatlined and I fight my way to the final chapters rather grimly, cursing not Vernon or his subject matter but the book’s clever marketing that has led me to buy it in the first place (PRETTY COLOURS). It’s not difficult as such, thanks to Vernon’s engaging style, but I must say I don’t plan to pass it on to anyone I know unless they have a burning interest in the subject.

Having said that, the last do raise some intensely interesting topics, exploring far-reaching and fascinating histories of gender and same-sex relationship issues, and this has cheered me up a little by the time I embark heroically upon the conclusion. Here, Vernon has somehow travelled through time and space and seen my boredom and secret wishes for a fluffy self-help book, because his final chapter, Friendship Beyond Self-Help, draws to the heart of why he has written a book of philosophy.

Perhaps the key to a fulfilled life is not to be self-centred but other-centred, to lose yourself in order to find it. That’s a common religious sentiment, and it’s one attested to by the experience of friendship too. Aristotle has a particularly powerful account of it, when he talks of the friend being another self, the person in whom you not only see yourself reflected but in who you discover yourself. There is no being human on a desert island, any more than there are such things as solitary ants. The good life is the attempt to live for others in life. As Iris Murdoch has it, love is ‘the painful realisation that something other than myself exists.’
This perhaps partly explains why there is no end to self-help books. They are condemned to struggle with this conundrum – they solution they offer – attend to yourself – is actually part of the problem.

Consider me chastised!

Keep or Kill? I’m not going to re-read it, so unless someone of a more academic bent than me wants it, it’s going on the No Pile. 

 

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One thought on “The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 22: The Meaning of Friendship (Mark Vernon, 2010)

  1. I know you’re not going to keep this one! If only I could take it from you. I am happy to add that I still carry around half read philosophy tomes and have been thinking only recently that friendship is one of the main reasons for living.

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