On the purpose & possibility of friendship

Join us on Wednesday evening to talk about it!

Gracious readers,

This week, we’ll explore:

  • The purpose & possibility of friendship

  • Word of the week: “prosopon” (προσώπων) meaning “he who stands in front of someone else’s eyes”

  • An invitation to an event on Wednesday night to further discuss friendship

  • Highlights from our conversation on the future of the humanities

  • Would you like to host a talk on civility or the future of liberal education?

  • Winners of last giveaway—and introducing the next one!

On Friendship

“It is not good for man to be alone,” God declares after creating the natural world and Adam, the first man. The book of Genesis recounts that for this reason God decides “I will make a suitable companion for him.”

Mankind’s fundamental need for companionship finds similar expression in the Zulu concept of Ubuntu: “A person becomes a person through others,” as one Zulu proverb puts it.

Indeed, cultures across geography and throughout history have noted the importance of friendship and community to personal happiness and flourishing. The Greek word for person, for example, is “prosopon,” meaning “he who stands in front of someone elses eyes.”

We become our best selves—we fully understand ourselves as persons—in community.

That is why so many writers and researchers in recent years have sounded the alarm on the growing trends of isolation, alienation, and the disintegration of community. Other concerning developments in recent decades, such as the rise of the opioid crisis, increasing suicide rates, and other so-called “deaths of despair” are manifestations of our modern crisis of community. And the breakdown of civic friendship among our public leaders has similarly led to what seems the worst political polarization in recent history.

Friendship requires a basic likeness and commonality. Plato claimed that the vital bond of fellowship between citizens was best sustained by polis — a community of less than 5,000 people. Aristotle increased that number to 10,000 explaining that a city needed to be big enough to be self-sufficient, but never large to the point of curbing the friendly bond of kinship that was preserved among all citizens, “for acquaintance begets mutual confidence,” as he wrote in his Politics.

More recently, C.S. Lewis observed that while romantic love is two people looking directly at each other, friendship is two people standing side by side looking forward together. Similarly, French author, Antoine de St. Exupery noted, “Love is not just looking at each other, it’s looking in the same direction.”

Finding commonalities with those around us sometimes seems to be a tall order when many cultural forces constantly remind us of what divides us, and why we should hate and fear the “other.”

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates leads a conversation about the nature of justice—or our basic duties to one another. Justice is being good to our friends and harming our enemies, argued one conversant.

Justice is the advantage of the stronger—might makes right, argued another.

Socrates wasn’t satisfied with any of these answers.

Why would we want to see harm to our enemy? He mused.

Isn’t the goal to wish them well, and to make our enemy our friend?

Jesus Christ echoed this sentiment a few centuries later. He noted that it is the easiest thing in the world to do good to those who do good to us, to help those who help us. There is nothing commendable in that basic expression of self interest. “But love your enemies,” He instructed. “Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you,” and “lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”

Part of my project on civility is to dismantle the unnecessary barriers to friendship and community—to make less important the matters of taste and class that can inhibit relationships—and to instead help revive the norms that promote a healthy communal life. In my book on civility, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press, I make a distinction between what I call “class markers” and “social lubricants.” The class markers are norms of exclusivity, used by gatekeepers to keep the in-group in, and keep the out-group out. The social lubricants, meanwhile, are norms of self-sacrifice and inclusivity that help reduce impediments to friendship and community by helping us get along.

We need less of the former and more of the latter. We need to build new habits of engagement that help us see others as persons first, more like us than unlike us, and equally deserving of our basic respect—and, quite possibly, our friendship.

“Try to understand men,” wrote John Steinbeck. “If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”

An invitation

If these ideas interest you, please consider joining us for a conversation on friendship this Wednesday, March 24th at 8pm. Civic Renaissance has partnered with Braver Angels to discuss the nature of friendship, and how reviving it might heal our deep divides today—both at our national level, and in our personal lives.

Find more information, and register, here.

Highlights from “The Future of the Humanities” Conversation

Thank you to each of you who joined us for our conversation on the future of the humanities last Wednesday! It was great to have nearly three hundred people turn out for the dialogue, and there were so many comments and questions at the end that Classical Wisdom and Civic Renaissance are putting together a document to answer those we didn’t have time to address at the time of the event.

Some takeaways:

  1. The classics still matter. They remain important because they help us ask important questions about the human experience, and connect us to our identity and our past in important ways

  2. We need an omnicultural approach to humanism. There is a core of human wisdom that cultures across time and place have both drawn from and built upon. There is much in the traditions of other cultures that we can and should be learning from.

  3. We must revive true humanism. The humanistic tradition employed the classics and the liberal arts to craft character and to cultivate morality in students. The future of the classics depends on reviving the humanistic tradition.

I’ll be sure to share the full conversation as soon as it is ready!

Would you like to host a conversation on civility or the future of liberal education?

I had the privilege of addressing students and faculty at Miami University last Monday about my work on civility. I was impressed by the caliber of their questions and the quality of the conversation throughout the evening. Indeed, the event was a wonderful opportunity to speak about my work. It was a great way to get discuss what I believe are important ideas, and more importantly, I was able to get first-hand feedback about how my thinking and ideas are received—which is vital as I endeavor to craft my book around the needs and interests of our current society.

Speaking to groups is enormously helpful to my research. And an absolute pleasure on its own terms!

If you know of a company, think tank, university, or other organization that might be interested in hosting a conversation on civil discourse of the future of education, please do feel free to reach out to my wonderful lecture agent at Macmillan Speakers Bureau, Colleen Osbourne, who would be thrilled to help facilitate!

You can reach her directly at: colleen.osborne@macmillan.com

Thank you very much in advance!

Congratulations to our winners! + Next book giveaway

Congratulations to Paul Antony of Silver Spring, Maryland, and Robert Griffiths of Auckland, New Zealand, for winning this month’s give away of Eric Adler’s Battle of the Classics!

This month the Civic Renaissance give-away is a new book on friendship, called We Need to Hang Out: A Memoir of Making Friends, by Boston Globe journalist Billy Baker.

I will give away a few copies to people just as a thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community—but please share this post on social media, or forward it to a friend, for additional chances to win!

Civic Renaissance is a newsletter and community dedicated to ennobling our public discourse with the wisdom of the past, curated by award-winning writer Alexandra Hudson, whose forthcoming book on civility will be published by St. Martin’s Press. Read more about Civic Renaissance here!