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A Reflection on Loneliness

In the weekly Philosophical Happy Hour of the Lyceum Institute this past Wednesday (9/21), the topic of conversation turned to friendship and loneliness. It seems today that many in this twilight of modernity have been struck with loneliness. This should never be confused with merely “being alone”. Loneliness, rather, is the lack of true personal relation. Loneliness is not the mere absence of present relations: it is the wound of relations lost, or never grasped, relations through which two persons become somehow as one. Loneliness is the wound made by an absence of friendship.

But what is friendship? We often hear tell of “real” friendship, in contrast to mere acquaintance, or casual friendship, or something of the like. Often, this adjective “real” is drawn upon a discussion of friendship found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which friendly relations are classed according to what we might call the utilitarian, the pleasurable, and the true. Utilitarian friendships are those that ease our being with others by virtue of pleasant and friendly dispositions: as when one makes small-talk with the cashier or the barista, or one’s casual co-workers; being friendly makes one’s exchanges with others go more smoothly, and so it is useful to be friendly in such cases. Pleasurable friendships are those wherein the basis of the relation is some third thing that both persons enjoy: bowling, a sport, a certain television show, a band, a video game, a football team, etc. Where the utilitarian friendship focuses mostly on the good that oneself receives by being pleasant to the other, the pleasurable friendship consists in the unity of the two persons which is affected by that common object.

True friendships, by contrast, are held to be those in which each person takes the good of the other as though it is his or her own. It is not in some third thing, nor in oneself, that the goodness of the friendship is found, but in that which is of genuine benefit or good for the other. This should not be confused with a “pure altruism” or any other—for the good of the other does not demand an absent consideration of the self, and, indeed (as I hope we will discuss some other day), altruism presupposes an individualism that would have been quite alien to Aristotle—for it is fundamentally a relational unity with the other. But I think it a mistake to denominate this true friendship alone as “real” friendship.

The word “real”, that is, receives a great deal of abuse, being conflated very commonly with both “true” and “actual” as to its significance. Something is “real” to the degree that it can have an effect on something other. The object of an irrational fear, for instance, may not be “real” in and of itself—there is no “real monster” in the closet—and yet its effect of making the child scared undoubtedly is real. Likewise, someone may not really be a friend, in the sense that he does not have in himself a care for your own good, and you may even know this explicitly, and yet you would be sad to lose the relationship with him, say, because he quits playing the game or the sport which you have in common.

Moreover, the third thing through which we bond with others in such a manner may become, as it were, a transparent lens through which the other appears. A bowling buddy may become a best friend. But we are more likely to form true bonds when the object of our attention itself is something that reflects deeply upon ourselves and our nature. A casual pursuit does little to impact our being; one does not likely develop in human personhood through rolling a ball down the lanes, and though much is gained from competitive team sports—the ability to work together, discipline, etc.—these remain largely at the surface of who we are. Most importantly, whatever the common objects of our social interaction, they must be approached thoughtfully if we are to get beyond the veil and see the other.