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Philosophers in the ancient world took friendship seriously. Among contemporary philosophers, not so much. But that seems to be changing. In recent years there have been a few serious articles and books written by philosophers on various aspects of this apparently central concept. The change might be due to the fact that Aristotle found the concept to be of utmost importance (he dedicated more chapters to friendship than to any other in his major book on ethics) and there has clearly been a renewed interest in the sort of ethics of virtue developed by Aristotle among contemporary philosophers. The change might also be due to the fact that most human beings desire friendship, but so few are currently finding it in any meaningful form. Why write about what we all have and what we all take for granted? Perhaps current books on friendship are like SOS signals for desperate cultures.
The specific question addressed by Mitias in Friendship is, why did the concept of friendship disappear from the ethical studies of philosophers after the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods? Friendship is not only a sustained argument that answers this question; it also offers the positive thesis that philosophers were wrong to exclude friendship from their catalogs of crucial ethical concepts. The main argument of the book is that "no moral theory can be adequate if it does not acknowledge [friendship] as an essential ingredient of the good life" (1).
The 233-page book is divided into seven chapters of similar length and includes a brief introduction and an index. The four central chapters of the book follow a chronological explanation of the role of the concept of friendship or, more appropriately, how the concept of friendship devolved from its role as a central concept in the moral theories of Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophers to a lack of any significant role at all in moral philosophy since the middle ages. The first chapter, "Concept of Moral Paradigm" develops the idea that forms the linchpin of Mitias's argument. He defines moral paradigm as "a conceptual framework that consists of the moral beliefs and values of a community" (19). The central chapters of the book explain the elements of the moral paradigm of particular historical periods and each argues that "the dismissal of friendship from the dominant moral theory of the period was unjustifiable" (5-6).
This argument only makes sense within the context of Mitias's understanding of the nature and task of moral theory. That is, Mitias has decisive, though controversial, ideas about just what he thinks philosophers ought to be doing and how they ought to conceive of their primary task. According to Mitias, "the ultimate quest of moral theory has been a quest for an understanding of the meaning and implications of the supreme good implicit, or should be implicit, in the moral rules" (28). Not all philosophers would agree with Mitias about this.
It is in Friendship's last chapter, "Friendship as an Ontological Need," that Mitias returns to and develops his argument regarding the nature of moral theory. His claim is that friendship "is an essential human need," that "we cannot be fulfilled as human beings without it" (197). The implication for moral theory and theorizing is, of course, that if friendship is indeed a moral value that reflects a basic human need, as Mitias thinks it is, and if a "theory is adequate inasmuch as it takes into consideration all the moral values implicit in the moral paradigm of a certain culture," as he thinks is the correct way to judge a theory, then "it is inadequate if it fails to acknowledge anyone of these values," especially a value as central to human growth as friendship (216).
I must admit that I sometimes had difficulty in finding the thread that tied the detailed narrative of each chapter to the central argument of Friendship. And I am not sure I could recommend the book to a general audience. I would certainly recommend it to my colleagues in philosophy, those who have some background in the moral theories discussed in the book. But I think anyone interested in the general concept of friendship would benefit from the last chapter, "Friendship as an Ontological Need." No special expertise is required to comprehend the interesting and insightful discussion there.
Those who count themselves fortunate when they have accumulated many Facebook "friends" would do well to consider Mitias's insight that friendship "is not founded in advantage but in love, the kind that fosters human development" (201) and that "mutual understanding, respect, and trust … are necessary conditions of friendship" (202). This sort of love, of course, is not easy to find. But, as Mitias, shares, "from the assumption that it is hard to attain it does not necessarily follow that we can afford to neglect it, ignore it, or belittle its significance" (202).
One final comment on the physical presentation of the book itself is in order. I know the publishing business is not what it used to be. Familiar labels are disappearing. Those that remain are cutting corners. Friendship is an editor's nightmare. As I said above, I believe some of the discussions are not as clearly related to the central thesis of the book as they should be. But more importantly, there are numerous typesetting, typographical, grammar, and spelling errors. Chapter headings on a number of pages are incorrect. There are missing footnotes. There are lists that start with first, followed by no second, or an a followed with no b, etc. As many students have pleaded, these sorts of errors are minor compared to the content of the argument, aren't they? In the end, I suppose they are.
© 2013 Ben Mulvey
Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences of Nova Southeastern University. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics. He teaches philosophy at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.
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