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English review - The problematics of thinking about friendship

Every now and then, each of us is inevitably confronted with questions about friendship. A friend who asks you to do something you cannot support makes you wonder: is this person really a friend? Or you are organizing a party and experience doubt about who to invite: who are my true friends? What does that even mean, a ‘true friend’? In his new book Doodgewone vrienden. Nadenken over vriendschap, Paul van Tongeren, professor emeritus of Philosophical Ethics at Radboud University, turns toward the history of philosophy to address these kinds of questions. During a Radboud Reflects lecture in a sold-out LUX, Van Tongeren, who currently holds the Dutch honorific ‘Denker des Vaderlands’, gave the audience an insight in the development of his philosophical journey around the theme of friendship. Afterwards, he engaged in a conversation with the moderator, philosopher Kyrke Otto of Radboud University, and the audience.

Van Tongeren, who is also an expert on Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Nietzsche’s writings on nihilism, opens his lecture with a warning: his book is not just about friendship. As its subtitle already suggests, it is actually more about thinking about friendship, which is the topic of a long standing project my mine, Van Tongeren explains. Even though he started off this project to enrich his personal experiences with the beautiful reflections various philosophers have written on the theme of friendship, he soon discovered particular tensions or problems in the activity of thinking about friendship. This, he remarks somewhat mysteriously, has become the actual theme of the book.

Rethinking friendship

For Paul van Tongeren, thinking about friendship means first of all rethinking what the great philosophers of the past have put forward about the topic. In the first part of his lecture, he therefore provides an overview of some of the most famous reflections on friendship one finds in the philosophical tradition. Aristotle, Van Tongeren notes, was the first to systematically and extensively write about friendship as a virtue. In the ideal friendship, Aristotle emphasized, both friends are aware of the fact that they wish each other well, even though friendship cannot be reduced to such an exchange. Cicero, the statesman philosopher, was interested in the possibility of putting friendship to the test: a friend would never ask you to do something you cannot endorse, he asserted, because true friends are soulmates. In his Essays, Montaigne in turn gave a different response to this situation: if a friend would ask me to do something immoral, I would no doubt join him, he dares to admit in his famous eulogy on the topic. Montaigne described friendship in contrast to love as something like ‘one soul in two bodies’, emphasizing the importance of bodily distance. Another philosopher mentioned by Van Tongeren is Kant, whom we know spend quite a lot of time with friends and held that friendship revolved around confidentiality, openness and trust.

From eulogy to necrology

After this short enumeration, Van Tongeren moves to the second part of his lecture, by explaining how he gradually began to experience a sense of ‘unrest’, ‘hesitation’, or even ‘suspicion’ when reading these eulogies on friendship. First of all, he saw himself confronted with various ‘counter-voices’ in the history of philosophy that sought to draw attention to the problematics of friendship. Van Tongeren mentions both Pascal and Nietzsche, who, each in their own way, held that friendship hinges on pretense and ignorance rather than openness and trust. As such, the question emerged of how to reconcile these critical voices with the accounts of friendship presented earlier in the lecture.

In addition, Van Tongeren explains, there was already a certain tension to be found even within these eulogies themselves. In order to elicit this tension, he starts by revisiting Aristotle, who at this death bed would have uttered the famous words: ‘o my friends, there are no friends’. Although this is probably a mistranslation, Van Tongeren notes, we still have to conclude that the philosopher who wrote so extensively on the topic was probably somewhat skeptical about the prospects of true friendship. Van Tongeren gives two other examples: if one takes a closer look at the structure of Cicero’s reflections on friendship, he explains, you notice that he writes on behalf of a very distant and unknown friend, who, moreover, has passed away, just like that one friend with whom Montaigne claimed to have experienced an indescribable and ideal friendship: Étienne de La Boétie. Van Tongeren has come to call this the ‘motive of the dead friend’: the ideal friend, he emphasizes, always seems to be a dead friend. In all these beautiful texts on friendship, true friendship is thus presented either as something belonging to a distant past, or as an unachievable ideal. In this sense, the eulogies on friendship are also necrologies of friendship.

Faithfulness to the earth

In his book, Van Tongeren has sought to find an explanation for this tension. According to the philosopher, the friction has to be located within the phenomenon of thinking about friendship rather than within friendship as such. Thinking, he explains, implies searching for the ‘core’, ‘essence’ or ‘ideal form’ of something: there is an ‘idealizing tendency’ in thought. Yet here lurks the danger of nihilism, Van Tongeren agrees with Nietzsche, which devalues the world in which we live by subjecting it to an ideal. Applied to friendship: in the philosophers search for the essential, true or ideal friendship, our real and ordinary friendships tend to become either degraded or completely lost.

Is there a way out? Can we avoid the detrimental consequences of thinking about friendship? Should we perhaps cease to think? According to Van Tongeren, this cannot be the answer, for there will always be experiences that will lead us to think about friendship, and the idea of true friendship in particular. For the emeritus professor, the solution is clear: it consists not in a refrainment from thinking as such, but rather in a refrainment from thinking ‘naively’, which means that we should always remember rather than forget the ‘idealizing tendency’ of our thinking. With consent, Van Tongeren invokes the imperative of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to ‘remain faithful to the earth’. This also means, he adds, remaining faithful to our real, everyday friendships.

By Lucas Gronouwe, Master student of philosophy at Radboud University