Jackson Doughart
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Friendship: The Freest Love

The Charlottetown Guardian, 14 February 2013

In his essay "Of Friendship", the French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne examined platonic love through his own experience with Estienne de la Boétie, a philosopher and judge whom Montaigne described as the "perfect friend". When pressed to explain why he loved Estienne, Montaigne replied, "Because it was he, because it was I," and added that, "Beyond all that I am able to say, I know not what inexplicable and fated power . . . brought on this union." These words aptly describe an intrinsic element of friendship that we should attempt to better understand.

This subject is far from a contemporary preoccupation. Aristotle wrote that friendship ("philia" in Greek) was a human excellence or virtue that was an indispensable part of human life - the state of "a single soul dwelling in two bodies". He believed that relationships of this kind were part of one's cultivation, shaping and exercising his character, and that a central component of friendship was its exclusivity - "A friend to all is a friend to none." The Roman philosopher Cicero believed that with the exception of wisdom, the capacity for friendship was human beings' greatest gift from the immortal gods. And to use a more recent example, C.S. Lewis observed that despite friendship having no "survival value" in the sense of material sustenance, it belonged with philosophy and art in the class of things that gave survival value.

Yet in comparison to romantic or erotic love, our culture is at a loss to value friendship intrinsically. We have a fairly concrete idea about what it means to be someone's spouse or lover and to represent this in our cultural production, though the same cannot be said of friendship, whose meaning has been diluted in our own language and time. While we've erected boundaries around words like "husband", "wife", "partner", and "fiancé" which affirm a transcendent or sacred quality to those relationships, to be described as someone's friend could be as insignificant as being one of several hundred Facebook "friends". And we often ascribe a value to having "lots of friends" instead of the quality and profundity of one's friendships. The deepest philia may come about only a few times in one's life.

Andrew Sullivan writes that our inability to meaningfully console someone mourning the loss of a friend is a symptom of this dilution. In Love Undetectable (1998), which was styled as a lyrical tribute to his closest friend who died of AIDS, Sullivan describes a conversational deficiency that prevents us from recognizing friendship's importance. On the one hand, our response to the death of someone's family member or spouse has become normalized through a language of grief and respect; on the other hand, we're often unable to muster a meaningful response when someone loses "just a friend". And the fact that we describe our own relationships using this expression, suggesting that they belong to a lower order than our romantic endeavours, also reveals a failure to properly appreciate friendship.

Having experienced philia in my own life, I can confirm the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott's observation that true friendship involves a complete acceptance of the other person, where the desire to change him in any way is entirely absent. It is a state of being with someone who knows you so thoroughly that your individual character and history need not be explained, and where the petty affectations that accompany the game of courtship find no home. In fact, I think there is a strong case for friendship being a purer and superior form of love than romance.

The platonic friendship I'm speaking of is a deep, non-sexual affection between two people that is sustained for its own sake. And even though friendships serve a human need for confidence and camaraderie, these relationships cannot be tied to a greater purpose, lest they become a means instead of an end in themselves.

By contrast, it is difficult to divorce romantic love from our personal and community needs, which serve to make such partnerships a "survival value", to use Lewis's language. We need marriage or marital-like relationships to satisfy a longing for permanence and companionship in our day-to-day lives, to repopulate ourselves, and to responsibly and productively fulfill the sexual needs inherent in our biology. Devoting oneself romantically, sexually, and emotionally to one other person is not only a commitment to that person, but is also a contribution to society. The responsibility that this imparts upon the individual is just and necessary, but it is also unfree in the sense that one's loving impulses are conditioned by a greater social good.

This unfreedom cannot be solely characterized as a societal obstruction. Even without these pressures, it could be argued that there is an essential impurity in romantic love that relates to our basest insecurities. This is because romantic love includes a manifestation of self-love. When someone says, "I love you" to a sexual and emotional companion, especially in youth, it is often motivated less by selflessness and commitment than it is by one's own desire to be needed. "I love you" really means "Love me!" And the beauty of lifelong commitment to a spouse, such as a marriage that lasts for many decades, can often be attributed to the way that both partners become best friends in addition to romantic lovers.

The highest and truest form of friendship is unencumbered by either the strictures of one's responsibility to society or the temptations of self-love that can masquerade as romantic self- sacrifice. We enjoy our friends because we love them, not because they'll give us something material or spiritual. While the absence of a romantic lover can cause a physical longing connected with our need for closeness, friends can often be separated for months or even years and remain satisfied with their relationship - prepared to start things off again whenever the opportunity arises. This makes friendship a pure and valuable expression of our emotional connection to others and a quality of human life that we would do well to appreciate.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com