BOOKS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
THE PHILOSOPHY OF FRIENDSHIP, by Mark Vernon
, April 1, 2006
What friends are forTHE PHILOSOPHY OF FRIENDSHIP
by Mark Vernon
Hardback: 179 pages
RRP: $49.95In contemporary society, friendship is often seen as being based on self-interest: the idea being that we form friendships because of what we get from them, and that ultimately every friendship is self-serving.
Dale Carnegie's book, How to Win Friends and Influence People
, which has sold 16 million copies, elevated the utilitarian idea that friends are the key to business and personal success, and that even financial success can be achieved if you use certain techniques for handling people.
Undoubtedly, many contemporary friendships, particularly those in the workplace, are based on mutual self-interest. But we diminish friendships if we regard them as being basically selfish.Popular explanation
The other popular explanation of friendships is that they are essentially sexual: that men and women form friendship based on sexual attraction, and that same-sex friendships have a homosexual component.
What makes Mark Vernon's book interesting is that he cuts through these stereotypes, to show that the complex nature of friendship has exercised some of the greatest minds of civilisation, from Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, to Kant and Emerson.
While Vernon's book is titled The Philosophy of Friendship
, he basically provides a summary of what these great thinkers have said on the question, with their contradictions and contrasting views. He shows that the utilitarianism of the present age is shallow and unsatisfactory.
Yes, we all need friends. But, at its deepest level, a friendship involves an engagement of two minds, and often the most noble of friendships is one based on self-sacrifice, the opposite of utilitarianism and selfishness.
It has been the distinctive contribution of Christianity that friendship has been elevated above utilitarianism to its most noble level, embodied in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
And, in another place, Jesus said words which have embedded themselves in our culture, and showed that altruistic love is the highest form of friendship: "Greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends."
His life, and more importantly, his death, showed that this was a principle for which he was prepared to give up his life.
In turn, this inspired other Christian writers such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas to develop a spirituality and theology of friendship based on this Christian idea.
The author then translates Thomas's scholastic and theistic arguments into a modern and non-theistic frame. He does this by arguing that an ethical life aims at what is good, which in philosophical discourse is considered as "virtue ethics".
He says, "Contemporary ethics needs to reincorporate a dimension of trust into its account of friendship, not in the sense of acknowledging that friends trust each other, but in the sense that moral philosophy needs to trust friendship as a way of life and guide to action. It is at this level that friendship has been most deeply damaged" by modern secularism.
Mark Vernon's book deserves to be read, and pondered, as he has rescued friendship from the utilitarian dustbin into which contemporary society has consigned it.