We are connected to everyone. We don’t really know anyone.
© 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York • Photo: akg-images • Reproduction, including downloading of Picasso works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
We live in an age when friendship has become both all and nothing at all. Already the characteristically modern relationship, it has in recent decades become the universal one: the form of connection in terms of which all others are understood, against which they are all measured, into which they have all dissolved. Romantic partners refer to each other as boyfriends and girlfriends. Spouses boast they are best friends. Parents urge their young children and beg their teenage ones to think of them as friends. Teachers, clergy, and even bosses seek to mitigate and legitimate their authority by asking those they oversee to regard them as friends. As the anthropologist Robert Brain has put it, we’re friends with everyone now.
Yet what, in our brave new mediated world, is friendship becoming? The Facebook phenomenon, so sudden and forceful a distortion of social space, needs little elaboration. (If we have 768 “friends,” in what sense do we have any?) Yet Facebook and MySpace and Twitter—and whatever we’re stampeding for next—are just the latest stages of a long attenuation. They have accelerated the fragmentation of consciousness, but they didn’t initiate it. They have reified the idea of universal friendship, but they didn’t invent it. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that once we decided to become friends with everyone, we would forget how to be friends with anyone. We may pride ourselves today on our aptitude for friendship, but it’s not clear that we still even know what it means.
How did we come to this pass? The idea of friendship in ancient times could not have been more different. Far from being ordinary and universal, friendship, for the ancients, was rare, precious, and hard-won. In a world ordered by relations of kin and kingdom, friendship’s elective affinities were exceptional, even subversive. David loved Jonathan despite the enmity of Saul; Achilles’ bond with Patroclus outweighed his loyalty to the Greek cause. Friendship was a high calling, demanding extraordinary qualities of character, rooted in virtue and dedicated to the pursuit of goodness and truth.
The rise of Christianity put the classical ideal in eclipse—Christian thought discouraged intense personal bonds, for the heart should be turned to God. The classical notion of friendship, however, was revived by the Renaissance. Truth and virtue, again, above all: “Those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship,” wrote Montaigne, “for to undertake to wound and offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him.”
Classical friendship, now called romantic friendship, persisted through the 18th and 19th centuries, giving us the great friendships of Goethe and Schiller, Byron and Shelley, Emerson and Thoreau. Wordsworth addressed his magnum opus to his “dear Friend” Coleridge. Meanwhile, the growth of commercial society was shifting the grounds of personal life toward the conditions essential for the emergence of modern friendship. Capitalism, said David Hume and Adam Smith, by making economic relations impersonal, allowed for private relationships based on nothing other than affection and affinity.
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