need

Similarity & Difference

Check out the rest of Logan’s series on friendship.

I left off exploring the concept of friendship last time with Buber’s observation, “All real living in a meeting.” We investigated friendship as a concept that has no measurable object but itself, a continuous process of becoming, and as a relationship which contains freedom, joy, and affection within mutual responsibility and solidarity.

Similarity

Normally, we think of friendship as a matrix of shared experience and interests. Throw in a chance meeting and you’ve got a friendship. A quote from one of my favorite movies, High Fidelity, captures this:

“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the fuckin’ truth.”

It would be easy to cast this sentiment aside as unserious, except I think it sketches around the edge of a fundamental truth: it is impossible to encounter the fullness of another person. Books, records, films, these things can suggest who another person “really” is—and it's how we "really" meet each other.

Remember our short look at Martin Buber’s concept of ‘Thou’ in the previous post? With this language he’s suggesting another person is totally other. Buber wants to say there is a transcendent quality to a human being that is impossible to approach.[^1] Even to make the attempt to meet “what you are like” is folly when we do not first recognize the constraints of language and limited human understanding. Perhaps the best we can do is to approach the Thou of another person through manifestations of our similarities. Encountering and acknowledging this unbridgeable gulf is the basis of relationship based on freedom, mutual responsibility, and a process of becoming.

But this only partially meets our definition of friendship. If we’re content to define friendship through mutual interest, we miss a deeper understanding of friendship based not on similarity, but difference. It is difference which drives friendship as a site of action where need and desire are joined.[^2]

Difference

Shelley Jackson writes of the power of difference in friendship through the metaphor of a book: “A book, like a friendship, has two sides.” Jackson says that these two sides are “you and me” or “author and reader.” The power of the relationship between the two sides comes directly out of their difference. The desire for that which is out of reach of both the reader’s understanding and the author’s ability to express holds the two sides together in a mutual process of difference and togetherness.[^3] The same is true of friendship. We seek to express who we really are (what we are like) through our friendships. We seek to know another person, and ourselves. Through this process we come to know a bit of God—the divine sustaining center which makes friendship possible in the first place, the first thing we all share. We fall short, but the infinite qualitative distinction[^4] between ourselves, the other, and God stokes our desire and compels us to continue searching.

Meeting difference in another person is what drives our desire to continue the process of friendship’s becoming. Difference is also what makes solidarity possible. It fills out our definition of friendship. Most importantly, moments of reconciliation within difference are where we experience joy.[^5]

In an upcoming post, I will more deeply investigate mutual responsibility and solidarity as basic requirements for the fullness of friendship generating freedom and joy in those who constitute the relationship.

All Real Living is a Meeting

Check out the rest of Logan's series on friendship.

Through conversation over the past week, I've been led to continue reflecting on the concept of encounter that I touched on in my previous post, Encountering Poverty. Specifically, I will look into the concept of friendship and how it functions practically, philosophically, and theologically as a relationship. This will be a multi-post exploration, and I thank you for humoring me.


The word friendship shares etymologies with the word "freedom" in English, "freude" (joy) in German, and "philia" (affectionate love) in Romance languages and Greek.

For the sake of illumination, let's take a longer look at "philia." Philia is defined by Aristotle as, "wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one's own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him."[^1] Discussing the same, John M. Cooper writes, “the central idea of philia is that of doing well by someone for his own sake, out of concern for him (and not, or not merely, out of concern for oneself).”[^2] It is important to note, in both of these examples philia is directed toward and concerned with the other over the self.

With this etymological understanding in mind, friendship is not merely affection, but a relationship which contains freedom, joy, and affection within mutual responsibility and solidarity.

Becoming

The edges of friendship are fuzzy and imprecise. Friendship is fundamentally a relationship of becoming. Svetlana Boym writes that friendship is not an object of analysis but a process. It is a process of coming to know the self, another person, and the boundaries of a relationship. Roland Barthes calls it a “miraculous crystallization of presence." Friendship is a site of action where need an desire are joined.

The process of friendship is always imprecise and non-prescriptive. It opens into the universal and cannot be wedged into preconceived models or easily understood tactics of marketing, mission, or outreach. Rather than a relationship of increasing closeness and a fusion of individuals, friendship defies symbols of fulfillment. Instead, friendship has no measureable object but friendship itself—the continuous development of two people into a life where friendship is more and more possible. The only goal of friendship is its own continuous becoming and the becoming of its constituents as selves.

When this process ends, we say people have "fallen out" of friendship.[^3]

Thou

Martin Buber traced the full weight of friendship in his formation of the relationship between I (one, as an individual person) and Thou (another person). For Buber, to relate to another person is to become a person, a self, an "I." And as a person becomes more and more a self, she likewise increasingly understands that another person is himself an "I." But Buber goes beyond the impoverished, individualistic understanding of "I" we commonly hold.

Buber reveals that to relate to another person is to relate to the divinity of that person—her total otherness and transcendent quality as a human being. Another person is not "you," or "they." She is "Thou."[^4] Only this formulation of friendship can contain the fullness of freedom, joy, and affection within the bounds of mutuality, responsibility, and solidarity.

Truly and freely encountering another as a friend rules out coercion, violence, utility, and possession.

It is with this understanding that we will continue our investigation of friendship. And throughout the series, we shall keep in mind Buber's poetic wisdom: "All real living is a meeting."[^5]

  • [^1]: Nicomachean Ethics, 1380b36–1381a2
  • [^2]: "Friendship and the Good." The Philosophical Review
  • [^3]: Svetlana Boym's reflections on friendship play heavily into the previous two paragraphs. I found out today that she died on the 5th of this month after a year of living with cancer. I am thankful for her and her work: “Scenography of Friendship,” Cabinet Magazine
  • [^4]: The Christian theological tradition formulates this as the Image of God (or Imago Dei) in every person.
  • [^5]: I and Thou