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Curing the Crisis of Real Friendship

August 8, 2022


Why do so many men have no real friends?” asked a recent essay in the U.K. Times. The essay begins with the experience of 34-year-old Max Dickens, who said, “I didn’t realize I was lonely. . . . But then in 2019 I wanted to propose to my girlfriend and found I had nobody I could ask to be my best man.” Having looked through various coworkers and acquaintances, he realized he had no close friends. He thought, “How did this happen?” 

Unfortunately, this happens to many people. According to Daniel A. Cox, American men are suffering a friendship recession: “The percentage of men with at least six close friends fell by half since 1990, from 55 percent to 27 percent. The study also found the percentage of men without any close friends jumped from 3 percent to 15 percent, a fivefold increase. Single men fare the worst. One in five American men who are unmarried and not in a romantic relationship report not having any close friends.” Although women, on average, fare better than men in terms of friendship, women too can find themselves without the quantity and quality of friendships that they desire. Friendship is inherently valuable, indeed one of the most valuable things in life. For this reason, Aristotle said, “No one would choose to live a friendless existence, even on the condition of having all other good things.” 

If we better understand what friendship is, then we might better understand how to build new and better friendships. Aristotle provides us with some resources for thinking about friendship. Indeed, when I was a freshman in college, it was Aristotle’s teaching on friendship that first awoke in me an interest in philosophy. 

In a friendship of virtue, what you love is the person, not just the fun times you have together or useful things they do for you.

Aristotle thought friendship involved mutual good will, shared activity together, and a shared emotional life. In a real friendship, both parties choose what is good for the other for their sake. Unlike a farmer who feeds the pig to get a higher price at market, a real friend cares about you for your own sake, not to get anything from you. Aristotle taught that friends spend time together in a shared activity. That shared activity could be doing jiu-jitsu, talking about what’s happening in the family, working on producing a play, or trying to catch fish. Real friendship involves a real time commitment. In an Atlantic essay, Julie Beck notes, “One study estimates that it takes spending 40 to 60 hours together within the first six weeks of meeting to turn an acquaintance into a casual friend, and about 80 to 100 hours to become more than that. So friendships unsurprisingly tend to form in places where people spend a lot of their time anyway: work, school, church, extracurricular activities.” If we want friends, we need to spend time in activities cultivating potential friends and reinforcing the friendships that we have. 

Aristotle also taught that real friends share the ups and downs of life, the triumphs and the tragedies, the victories and defeats. A true friend knows the worst of you but thinks the best of you. And this requires courage. Unless you are honest with your friend about the realities of your life (even those realities that don’t put you in the best light), an acquaintance may never develop into a true friend.

One of the most important insights of Aristotle is that there are three kinds of friends. Friends of pleasure are ‘party people’ that you can share laughs with and fun, but not much more. These friendships tend to be shallow and short lived because what we take pleasure in tends to shift over time. Secondly, there are friends of utility, where the relationship is based on mutual exchange. I’ll provide the car, and you provide the gas money. What you love in friendship of utility is not so much the person but what the person gives to you. A friendship of utility is something like a business deal. These friendships also tend not to be long lasting because what is useful now (help in my physics class) is not useful later (when the semester is over). Finally, there is a complete friendship, a friendship of virtue. Friends of virtue are enjoyable to be with (like friends of pleasure), but this is grounded in something deep and lasting (good character), rather than trivial and ephemeral (pleasure). Friends of virtue are also useful because they are eager to help you and reliable when they promise to help. But in a friendship of virtue, what you love is the person, not just the fun times you have together or useful things they do for you.

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Christian belief and practice facilitates making, keeping, and developing the best kind of friendship. Many people don’t have the kinds of friends that they wish they had (or that they need) because they devote excessive time to acquiring more money, fame, power, and pleasure. Greed for these things is the opposite of virtue and thwarts the cultivation of deep friendship, if only by squandering time that could have been spent cultivating friendship. By warning us about the dangers of greed, Christianity facilitates friendships.

Finally, Christianity opens the door to friendship with anyone by urging us to love everyone, even our enemies. St. John Henry Newman said, “We should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.” Princeton Professor Robert George suggests, “Engage those who do not share your views and be open to their questions and challenges. Respect others and do not let disagreement destroy friendships or prevent them from being formed.” If we respect and even love our enemies, we may bring about a profound change. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”