Friday, 20 August 2010

The best of friends

Being made redundant is, I’ll admit, a pretty depressing experience (particularly when it happens for the third time – why, I may soon have to start wondering whether I’ve been doing something wrong in my career, a thought that had never previously occurred to me). However, there are benefits too.

First of all, there’s the time for reflection offered by what I hope will turn out to be a brief period of unemployment. Then there’s the redundancy itself which can be quite a learning experience.

In my case this has led to my giving some thought to the nature of friendship.

My reflections were helped by listening to a discussion on the theme in an old episode of In Our Time. The participants started their review way back in classical antiquity.

Now I should say that I don’t always go along with the unquestioning admiration of all things Greek. For instance, Plato’s Lysis which I learned is devoted to the subject of friendship, rules out the attraction of opposites as a possible basis. This is because it would imply the good being attracted to the bad. This strikes me as a painfully formalistic and limited view of good: two people of opposite temperament can still both be good – there are many ways to be good. My way of being good may be the best way, but I’m tolerant and broad-minded enough to admit that yours may not be entirely without merit.

What really interested me was when they got onto the subject of Aristotle. He, it seems, distinguished three categories of friendship on the basis of utility, enjoyment or excellence. The problem with the first two is that as soon as the utility or enjoyment ends, so does the friendship – only the third endures.

Now this I can go along with. Utility friendship is clearly the kind of thing that exists in general between colleagues. At the lowest end of the scale, it’s forced – you oblige yourself to get on with people you’d probably go out of your way to avoid, left to your own devices. I confess I’m not good at that kind of artificial friendliness as people read my real feelings much too easily. I like to think that I have no patience with fools, but lots of people link to think that: after all, it’s a neatly disguised boast wrapped in contempt for others. Clearly, I think numerous people around me are fools, while thinking that I’m not a fool myself. Ironically, I’m probably at my most foolish when I get impatient with others who disagree me with me (and class themselves by that token with the fools).

Then there are the colleagues with whom one can have a real friendship. These are people one admires or who do outstanding work or with whom it’s just fun to work. Sadly, however, once we part company there’s little basis for the friendship to continue. It’s a pity, but I suspect before long all I’ll have of these utility friends is some pleasant memories and a sense of pride over some of our of things we achieved together.

This is the same as what happens with friends of enjoyment. Drinking friends or friends with whom one plays football are great until one realises that hangovers really aren’t much fun and running up and down the same pitch several dozen times is no way to spend an hour or two. When you go off to do something a bit more rational – which means more or less anything – you tend to lose touch with the old friends, some of them getting very old, who are still trying to cling on to the image of their youth and its pastimes.

Then there are the friends of excellence. These are the ones to whom you’re bound by an affection that’s mutual and unconditional: they’re your friends not because they’re cleverer or more skilful or more amusing than others but because they are who they are. No-one summarised that better than Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French writer. After his friend the poet Etienne de la Boétie died, he wrote if people pressed him to say why he loved la Boétie, he could find no better of way of replying than to say ‘because he was Etienne de la Boétie and I was Michel de Montaigne’.

Now that’s the kind of friendship that’s worth having. And I’m glad that I leave my former company with a few friendships of that strength and they won’t be broken by a mere inconvenience like redundancy.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

What a touching post.

I haven't heard that IOT episode. Sounds like good stuff!