A friend carries within him our identity’s safe box.
The ancient Greeks had several linguistic expressions for the idea of love: eros (έρως), philia (φιλία), storge (στοργή) and agape (αγάπη). In general, eros refers to passionate love, being often associated with sexual desire or selfish love, which turns the loved one into an object. At times, it can refer to a friendly love, one even stronger than the one described by philia. Also, eros can be associated with the feelings that lay the foundation of a couple or a marriage. I believe the notion of “eros” can help us understand the nature of complex and highly diversified friendships. For me, friendship is a form of philia, which has generally been associated with friendship and affection.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined friendship (φιλία) as a “relationship between people who know of the others that they are well-intended and wish each other well”. For the philosopher in Stagira “friendship means doing good, doing this without being asked and not asking for praise for what you’ve done” (Rhetoric, II). As in the case of the access to Truth, the access to Friendship is reserved, in the ancient Greek mind, to good and virtuous people. Unlike people who consider themselves friends with those to whom they are tied by utility or pleasure and who can be any kind of people, even bad people, authentic friends cannot be anything but good.
The ancient Greeks practiced the cult of friendship but never had a god of friendship. How can one account for this? This is how Ioana Parvulescu answers this question in a beautiful essay dedicated to friendship: “Gods and goddesses are full of whims, jealous, impulsive, angry, they abandon their protégées, they hit and use people for their own interest, they lift them up and bring them down as it pleases them. You cannot trust them, you cannot rely on their help, not even when they are on your side. If in the old Greek Parthenon friendship does not have a god, this happens because it is situated above the whims and anger, above the greedy desires, above reward and vengeance. There is no god of friendship because the gods are not serene enough to patron it, they do not raise to its level.”
Here is why one can think about friendship in a more natural, organic and, indeed, friendly way only within Judeo-Christianity, where a faithful God is revealed to us, who keeps “his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9), a God who says about Himself: “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6).
Agape (αγάπη) dominates in the New Testament, where it defines vibrant, universal love, the love of superior spiritual freedom. It is manifested both towards God and our fellow man, including our enemies, unlike philia (φιλία), which is only used in the relationships with our close ones and can never be used for loving our enemies. Agape is also a divine quality (John 4:8) that “has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5), but also one of the three Christian cardinal virtues, next to faith and hope, with the side note that: “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
In Christianity, agape also refers to God’s love for humans, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), “to save the world through him” (John 3:17). The same word is used by John in his first epistle: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
The mirror without which we are incomplete
Our identity is closely tied to the self-image we build over time through others—that is, through the way in which others see us. Throughout life we go through different trials, through many defining and redefining moments, a process which causes our self-image to adjust, to be reviewed until it reaches a certain stability. During this process, true friends remain where they belong: in the panoply of mirrors in which we can see ourselves without our identity being marred by them. An authentic friend is the mirror in which we see ourselves as we really are! This is why, when a friend leaves us—leaves the city, the country or the world—we feel the pain of a part of us leaving together with our friend. We don’t just lose a mirror in which we can see ourselves undistorted, but also a chip of our identity, kept in his image of us. A friend carries within him our identity’s safe box.
In 1973, when I was in my third year of college and my good friend Sever Iordanescu left Romania for Germany, off went the one who told me, since the very first day we met, that when I argue I have a “deep, almost fanatical look”. This is just an example. What had actually left for Germany was an entire collection of memories and mutual perceptions, which made up a part of my identity, but also a part of his. I believe it was no coincidence that, during his first trip back to the country, in 1975, he wanted to meet me and I, having taken my first leave, asked him to come along. Sever had gone to Germany for “family reunification”, as it was called back then, but returned each year for “friendship reunification” (with me and others)—that is, for “identity reunification”.
I now miss another great friend who I also met in college and lost at the beginning of this year: Valentin Mureșan. He is the one who, on a cold winter morning in 1972, when I was shivering at the Grozavesti Plant tram stop, waiting for the tram that would take us to college, told me amused: “You are annoyingly nice!” He was the one literally looking down on me (as a 1.9m tall former volleyball player) and approached me saying: “Hey, dude! Where did Popper write what you said at the seminar?” After graduation we spent several New Year’s Eves together, we went together to our colleagues’ weddings, we participated in various scientific projects, we met with our newly-formed families—whether it was me coming to Bucharest, him to Brasov or us meeting in the middle, in Busteni, where he had bought an apartment. We buried him this year, on the 3rd of February, eight days before his 69th birthday. I miss Valentin like I miss our talks, those feedbacks that helped me know myself better, his brilliant lines, in whose light I was able to see myself clearer. This friend accompanied my spiritual evolution, a thing which I only now realize now that he is no longer with us. When we miss a friend, we also miss a more complete version of ourselves, a more fulfilled self.
Only between equal people
From Stagirit I also inherited another idea: authentic friendship can only happen between equal people, both in virtue and in kindness. Inequality does not lead to friendship and friendship does not lead to inequality. Like in love, in a friendship, one’s personality is not blotted out, nobody becomes dependent on the other, and authentic friends do not fuel each other’s narcissism. I believe we cannot find a better explanation for this idea than from German psychologist Erich Fromm: “Love is the union that allows one to put oneself into relationship with others, to feel one with others, without limiting the sense of integrity and independence. It is a participation and communion experience which allows the development of personal activities. Illusions are not at all necessary: it is not necessary to idealize the other, nor our own person, because the active reality of participation and love lead to the transcendence of individual existence, causing, at the same time, man to feel like he possesses the active forces which make up the act of love. What we are interested in is the quality of love, not its object. Love is found within human solidarity…”. If we replace the word “love” with “friendship” we get exactly what I think of Friendship (with a capital F!). It is a form of co-evolution and a way to become more human, an opportunity for self-accomplishment for each partner and a fragment of the big circle of human solidarity—a solidarity established and re-established on principles and values. If it is sabotaged by selfishness, pride or complexes, than the friendship dissolves too. This is why I believe that the anchor which stabilizes it forever is Faith, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
Friendship is a big trust wager, which is not shaken by the first difficult trial. A friend is he who does not believe the bad words he hears about you.
A friend is one who speaks well of you in your absence and would never tell you that he did so (if you happen to find out, you do so by coincidence, from other people). When your friends are insulted and slandered, you do not diplomatically keep quiet and you certainly do not join the detractors’ group, whether these friends are still alive or not. If they are no longer with us and cannot defend themselves, your duty of defending them is all the greater. Defending their memory is another way to talk well of them in their absence without them knowing.
This is why Aristotle was right when he said that authentic friendship can only exist between equals, that is, between people who deserve each other, who are not indebted to one another because no one is keeping score. In this sense, Hegel said “there is no hero for the servant; not because the hero is not a hero, but because the servant is a servant”. The latter does not see the hero, because from the perspective of his relationship with him, he only sees a dependent man (depending on the quality of his activity). An authentic friendship can happen only between equals, because true friendship is not compatible with identity fraud or with undermining one’s personality for the sake of another. As was stated earlier, Fromm saw it as a plenary development opportunity of the self. Friendship brings us closer to God.
Dumitru Borţun is a university professor at the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations, part of the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA).