Is friendship an art or a science? Are there certain principles that can lead to a good friendship or are those rules not rigid? There are a plethora of books on how to make friends with Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people” being the most popular of them. Critics of such an approach would argue that such generalizations cannot be applied to every friendship and the art of making friendships is akin to social sciences rather than rule-based natural sciences.
Up until the beginnings of the modern world, though there was a sense of distinction between arts and sciences, a rigid line separating the two did not exist. Science, philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc. were all mostly practiced by the same set of individuals. We now have attached the word “Philosophers” to these individuals. It becomes interesting to see how these individuals sought out the meaning of friendship and are their thoughts relevant in modern times.
Socrates view on friendship
Almost all that we know of Socrates comes from Plato’s dialogs. We do not have the works of Socrates today with us and it is his student Plato who brings out the story of his life through his works.
Socrates had the habit of asking questions, a lot of them, to elicit interesting responses from the person that he was conversing with. It is said that he could have a conversation with anyone on the street, a thing that did not bode out well for him in the end as one of the reasons for which he was executed was for misguiding the youth of Athens.
Socrates placed a lot of virtue in friendship, equating it with philosophy. It can be said that for Socrates friendship was an extension of friendship and vice versa. His way of philosophy was not sitting in a corner of the room, coming up with tenets of human nature. He loved the interaction and to have a good interaction, in most cases, you need to have a good understanding with the other person.
Socrates somehow disregards the notion of arriving at the definition of a friend, when he says “So what is to be done? Or rather is there anything to be done? I can only, like the wisemen who argue in courts, sum up the arguments: if neither the beloved, nor the lover, nor the like, nor the unlike, nor the good, nor the congenial, nor any other of whom we spoke—for there were such a number of them that I cannot remember them all—if none of these are friends, I know not what remains to be said... O Menexenus and Lysis, how ridiculous that you two boys, and I, an old boy, who would fain be one of you, should imagine ourselves to be friends—this is what the bystanders will go away and say—and as yet we have not been able to discover what is a friend!."
However, if we had to come up with a modern equivalence of what Socrates meant by friendship, it would be based on having knowledgable discussions about topics that would ultimately lead to a state of friendship, without the need of defining what friendship is. That friendship would have little to do with distinctions such as class, color, creed, religion, etc as Socrates himself valued knowledge above almost anything else, at a time when friendship was majorly based on kinship. This egalitarian and discussion-based friendship is extremely relevant in the modern world, with more and more people being connected to the same social media platforms that give us an opportunity to hear out different views, regardless of the background of the person who is behind them. Though it is questionable whether only healthy discussions can lead us to develop friendships with our feelings and circumstances playing a major role in our decision to make friends, it is surely an interesting way to understand friendships.
(The views discussed in the article are the author’s own. For more reading refer to https://plato.stanford.edu/)