Fridays with Fred: Friendship
Over the years at Rekindle I have written about friendship, particularly: (i) Christian friendship; (ii) obstacles to friendship; and (iii) the supposed dangers of mixed-sex friendships. Therefore, I was delighted to discover that friendship is a topic Nietzsche devoted his considerable mind to. Naturally, for Nietzsche, friendship is plagued by power dynamics. So too are many relationships today. Thus I will quote and interact with a couple of Nietzsche’s passages on friendship from his Aphorisms on Love and Hate. But I also plan to challenge the German philosopher, by suggesting clearer distinctions for conversations about friendship. At the conclusion I will also develop a point from Nietzsche that explains why we see so few truly honest, deep and intimate friendships today.
In Aphorisms , Nietzsche discusses what he calls the “talent for friendship.” He describes two such talents or gifts, which we might also call approaches. Firstly, “The one man is in a continual state of ascent, and finds an exactly appropriate friend for each phase of his development. The series of friends that he acquires in this way is only rarely interconnected, and sometimes discordant and contradictory, quite in accordance with the fact that the later phases in his development invalidate or compromise the earlier phases. Such a man may jokingly be called a ladder.” Jokes aside, we all know ‘ladders.’ You might even be one.
Nietzsche does not offer a moral evaluation of this approach to friendship. In fact, I am fairly sure he would have considered it expedient, for each friendship serves its function in time, enabling progress and growth of the individual. However, this is in some ways a regrettably mercenary view of relationships. Hence the description: “ladder”. Friends could be thought of rungs in our ascent to greater heights and successes. On the whole, I would question whether these are really friendships at all.
The second approach to friendship, “is represented by the man who exercises his powers of attraction on very different characters and talents, thereby winning a whole circle of friends; and these come into friendly contact with one another through him, despite all their diversity. Such a man may be called a circle; for in him that intimate connection of so many different temperaments and natures must somehow be prefigured.” The “circle,” according to Nietzsche, does not only bring people to himself but also to one another.
If Nietzsche was into astronomical metaphors he might have described this person as a ‘star,’ who brings other celestial bodies into a system—or orbit of relationships. This is, in my opinion, a much better ambition to possess for our friendships. To use the philosophers’s language, this gift is to be desired. Or as the apostle Paul wrote, “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” Be a circle; not a ladder.
Nietzsche concludes this passage by noting, “In many people, incidentally, the gift of having good friends is much greater than the gift of being a good friend.” Rarely has a truer word been uttered. In fact, both the ladder and the circle might be those who collect friends but fail to develop meaningful friendships. As I have already said, the ladder is more likely to fall into this trap. But the circle is not exempt from a similar danger. In Nietzsche’s words, each of the respective approaches to friendship: “find…acquire…exercises his powers…win.” Both can be tragically self-centred rather than the genuine search for intimate friendship. Elsewhere in Aphorisms, Nietzsche writes, “The least ambiguous sign of a disdain for people is this: that one tolerates everyone else only as a means to his end, or not at all.” So while Nietzsche’s two categories provide us with a helpful diagnostic for our friendships, a more probing question exists, which can be applied to all relationships: am I using this person as a means to my own end?
I promised at the outset that I would explain the heartbreaking dearth of meaningful friendships in our day and age. Two reasons have already been touched on. The first was that many of us are ladders and not circles when it comes to our friendships. The second was our, often shamelessly, selfish view of people, whom we treat as steps — or rungs — towards our own goals.
In conclusion let me offer a third. Towards the end of Aphorisms, Nietzsche explores the reasons we battle to love and respect the same person. His answer is that respect is typically located within a hierarchy of relationships. These are usually built on power, even fear. But, as he writes, “Love acknowledges no power, nothing that separates, differentiates, ranks higher or subordinates. Because the state of being loved carries with it no respect, ambitious men secretly or openly balk against it.” Thus, the third reason friendship is an artefact, a lost treasure, is our desire for power. We speak readily of love but would rather have power. Loving, intimate friendship foregoes power. But this is something many refuse to surrender.