This article was previously published in Sword & Spade Magazine.
Tommy Killackey discusses the loss of virtuous friendship
in our culture of kitsch.
A sunset, an adventure, a tragedy, a profound belief, a moment encountering
the sublime: life’s most riveting moments seem to demand from deep within us
the need to share them. Marriage is said to be the oldest institution in humanity,
but it might be argued that friendship between human beings is a close contender. Across party lines, schools of thought, cultures, or religious beliefs, the intrinsic value of friendship permeates. The Bible says plainly that “there is nothing so
precious as a faithful friend, and no scales can measure his excellence” (Sirach
6:15). Human beings are profoundly communal, and it should come as no surprise to us that friendship is a sacred gift we all desire.
But not all friendships are the same. Aristotle famously classified friendship
into three sorts: those of pleasure, utility (or convenience), and virtue. We have those friends whom we just get along with really well (pleasure) and those friends whom we are cordial with but probably wouldn’t be friends if it weren’t for circumstances or external motivations, like coworkers (convenience). But what of the friends whom we would want to give our eulogy, look out for us, or call us out of ourselves? What of the friends who love us right where we are, but love us too much to keep us there Who are the friends who have a chapter in our book of life? These are friends of virtue. These friendships are not so much a third “type” of friendship; they are, rather, what the fullness of friendship looks like. As philosophy might coin it, virtuous friendship is the “end” of friendship. Friendships of pleasure and utility are perfectly legitimate friendships, but they lack what they could be. Since the dawn of man — literally — we have yearned for the ennobling knowledge that we are known. Between intimate spouses, yes, this is found, but the gift of virtuous communion among friends seems to be losing its prominence in the modern world, and this should concern us.
Aristotle powerfully said “no one would choose to live without friends” (Ethics VIII.1). C.S. Lewis, too, in The Four Loves, says, “To the Ancients, friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue.” But Lewis adds that “the modern world, in
comparison, ignores [virtuous friendship].” What can explain this? He goes on to say that “few value it because few experience it.” Few experience it, I think we all can begin to see, because the modern age has distorted our understanding of what friendship is, and as a direct consequence has lost its understanding of the tedious but ever joyful work that is building a friendship. When we lose our understanding of
what something is, we lose our ability to pursue it; no one can arrive somewhere without a destination in mind. Ironically, the modern world’s invention of “social” media — designed to mimic, enhance, celebrate, and expand our friendships — has distracted, distorted, confused, and isolated us from the communion its conception was seeking to aid. Deep down, few of us deny this. But, perhaps it is high time that we allow this conviction to compel us to action.
Come, Now: Everyone Has Social Media
This might appear ridiculous: billions are using these social platforms; they have undeniably provided something so attractive to the human person that more than half of all living humans have bought in to — or, perhaps more accurately signed in to — some form of social media. Looking at Facebook alone, a third of all humans have an account. That means Facebook has drawn in more members in its short history than the Catholic Church in over two millennia.
Social media follows similar logic to many modern inventions: “shortening” the distance or difficulty in normal human activity. Confined to space and time, the automobile and airplane, for example, have shortened our constraint against space while dishwashers, power tools, and assembly lines have enabled us to accomplish the same (or superior) results in far less time. As the automobile increased our circumference of mobility, so also social media has increased not just the number of friends we have, but the frequency with which we are able to communicate with them on a regular basis.
A strong argument for social media is that it is not intended to replace friendship itself, rather, it is a tool to be used to enhance our capacity for friendship. Social media often builds upon existing friendships. It allows us to “keep in touch” with a wide variety of friends regardless of location and — while it was impossible prior to the advent of social media — allows us to expand the number of people we have in our social circle. Even Aristotle demonstrated that friendship consists of sharing life together; social media allows us to do just that with exceptional efficiency to our now-larger circle of friends. Grandparents can now see photos of their grandchildren without taking trips; friendships now can be formed from thousands of miles away; the time required to share your life experiences that once only permitted a handful of close friends can now be expanded to even hundreds of people. Honestly, what type of antisocial xenophobic Luddite wouldn’t use it?
Particularly as we view social media through the lens of efficiency, it would be foolish to deny its remarkable ability to perform its function. Namely, sharing our experience with our circle of online friends (or followers), consuming their own shared posts, and reacting and seeing others react to our posts. Is this not a remarkable augmentation of friendship? To state once more: social media performs its function impressively well.
However, it is precisely this argument — in the “functional” benefit of social media as a help to friendship — that ought to be questioned not merely in and of itself, but further in its collateral effect. If social platforms are only intended to enhance our social lives (their purported function), we must ask the obvious question: do they? If social media instead were to cause us to pull us away from proven norms of friendship (like those geeky Greeks) into an updated definition of what friendship is, we then must ask the next obvious question: is this new era of social media friendship even a form of friendship at all? Perhaps social media offers some simulations of friendship, but it cannot meet our deep longing and need for virtuous friendship.
Revisiting the types of friendship that are for pleasure or utility, we can see that social media exists primarily because of the enjoyment or advantage the “friendship” brings. Following or “friending” others typically provides a form of enjoyment, or even entertainment, as we see what others are “up to”— and if we’re honest — as we enjoy watching others watch us. Some platforms are more honest, when they call our connections “followers.” In the chapter “Hiding Behind the Screen,” Roger Scruton articulates this form of amusement: “You ‘click on’ your friend, as you might click on a news item, a music video, or a fragment of film. He is one of the many products on display. Friendship with him, and relationship generally, belongs to the category of amusements and distractions, a commodity that may or may not be chosen…” (Confessions of a Heretic, 95).
Likewise, business-specific social sites like LinkedIn are built to provide valuable connections that, to state again, are not in any way something to be frowned upon. But it exists, nonetheless, for that purpose primarily, if not exclusively.
Avoiding True Friends
Friendships of virtue, by contrast, require a much deeper commitment and investment than those of utility or pleasure. The façade of the screen might not just limit things like physical encounter, but it also helps us avoid the vulnerability required of true friendship. Scruton again helps us here:
By placing a screen between yourself and the
friend, while retaining ultimate control over
Rembrandt, Two Old Men Disputing, c. 1625-1635
what appears on that screen, you also hide
from the real encounter — forbidding to the
other the power and the freedom to challenge
you in your deeper nature and to call on you
here and now to take responsibility for yourself and for him” (Scruton, 96).
Put simply, intimacy and control cannot coexist. Social media always renders us in complete control, and whether we choose to click, scroll, watch, reply, like, or close our tab, we individually always have the power within our fingertips. Scruton goes on to say, “Risk-avoidance in human relations means the avoidance of accountability, the refusal to stand judged in another’s eyes, to come face to face with another person, to live yourself in whatever measure to him or her, and so to run the risk of rejection” (Ibid, 108). We might call this Scruton’s warning against the risk of avoiding risk. The “risky” friendships that “call us out of ourselves [to] take up our crosses” were not built online, nor could they exist there exclusively. We may still interact online, but the soul of virtuous friendship where we risk encountering another can only occur offline. Friendships of utility may exist on LinkedIn, friendships of pleasure may exist in double-tapping our friend’s latest post on Instagram, but as long as we maintain perfect control over the encounter, we cannot truly share life, encounter, risk, accompany, and be with anyone behind a screen, full stop.
Can’t Buy Me [Friendship]
A sunset, an adventure, a tragedy, a profound belief, a moment encountering the sublime: these are not moments we want people to look at. These are moments we want to share with our friends. Friends can look at our experiences online, but “withness” only occurs offline, however obvious it is to say that. It sounds appealing to us Americans to “build a profile” or see that someone “friended” us, but we all know
friendships — especially friendships of virtue — are not things we can click on. The tech elites would love it if we remained under the illusion that it is a commodity: something signed up for, consumed, or produced. But the only friendships that are really worth our sweat are the only ones that aren’t commercialized because the best things in life are never for sale. To put it another way, 2020 proved Zoom isn’t the same as grabbing a Guinness with your friends (or learning in an actual classroom). I doubt we need to be reminded of the sobering statistics of anxiety, depression, and even suicide rates in the wake of global isolation this past year-and-a-half.
Social media, like anything else, needs to be on the hot seat: what is it for? If it’s practical, fine; there are certainly professional benefits to social media. But if it’s to find and produce the virtuous human connections we deeply crave, does it do the job? Social media sells the lie of immediate connection, but the more we allow the likes, reactions, and affirmations to “itch” our holy longing for communion by imitating it, the less likely we will be to actually build the community we desire — and need. Social media is not a place of encountering others, it is a marketplace of information exchanges with a currency that inflates with every passing day. The fullest form of friendship takes time and risk, and there is an app for neither. The very fact that there is no shortcut to the friendships we crave most — and that they require the surrender to vulnerability and real presence — proves their inherent dignity. And while we cannot deny the difficulty in finding virtuous friendship in a world so saturated in imitations, we can still know that the more we become distracted showcasing ourselves or our friends, the greater the risk becomes that we forget the very thing we are supposed to be showing. Friendship of virtue doesn’t need social media, and the more we invest, risk, and immerse ourselves within the beauty of virtuous friendship, the less we would concern ourselves showcasing it.