Books

A Love and a Virtue

Detail of Jan Steen’s Rhetoricians at a Window (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Public Domain/PD-US)
Losing Friends, by Digby Anderson (The Social Affairs Unit, £12.95, 206 pp.)

It’s a big subject — friendship — and one not often written about these days. Euripides said, “One loyal friend is worth 10,000 relatives.” Aristotle found that friendship was no less than the basis of society: both “a love” and “a virtue,” and indispensable not only for individual friends but for everyone. Augustine, when a friend of his died, groaned of his “grief,” “torment,” and “misery”: “I wondered that he should die and I remain alive, for I was his second self.”

These quotes and thoughts are drawn from Digby Anderson’s new book Losing Friends. Anderson is familiar to readers of this magazine: He is a prolific writer on food, and a prolific writer on everything, come to think of it. He is the director of the interestingly named Social Affairs Unit, a London think tank. Anderson is your basic (well, not basic) English polymath. He is a journalist, a scholar, a policy analyst, and that most venerable and exalted of things: a social critic. He expresses himself with brass, logic, and daring. He has a special talent for saying things that you yourself have thought but have shied from voicing, for whatever reason (probably cowardice and fear of public laughter or contradiction  —  which Anderson seems to have none of). He also thinks of things that you, frankly, have never thought of, and that seem almost impermissible to say. There may be times when you’re incensed with him, along with times when you’re purring along with him  — but you are always engaged, stimulated by him.

In the present volume, Anderson contends — and complains — that friendship is declining, that we are, as the title says, “losing friends.” His evidence for this? It is largely “anecdotal” — dread word — but that doesn’t mean that it fails to add up or that it doesn’t ultimately convince. Besides which, the book simply rings true, strikes one as true. Life bears it out.

When funerals are held, where are the friends? There are fewer now. When obituaries are written, where are the mentions of the deceased’s key friends? Practically non-existent. Do friends have rights or privileges when a loved one is in the hospital or in prison? Generally not — but relatives do, and these may not care a fig about the person in question. Companies afford no “bereavement” or “compassionate” leave when an important friend dies. The role of the club and the pub and the fraternal organization has diminished — and how our sophisticated and judgmental have loved to scorn and belittle these institutions! (Anderson has a brief section on Rotary, and it is one of the sharpest and most moving in the book.) Folks write to “Dear Abby” types utterly bewildered as to how to make or keep friends. Travel agencies arrange trips with what amount to fake, or stand-in, friends.

And so on.

There are, of course, many kinds of friendships, and many notions of friendship — which Anderson treats acutely. He has much to say about Biblical friendship, classical friendship, and Victorian friendship — about “high” friendship, which is to be distinguished from today’s kind, which tends to be “thinner,” more “restricted”: the kind that confines itself to leisure and recreation (not that these are to be sneezed at, to be sure). Real friendship is more than the Sunday golf foursome or the occasional movie. Nor is friendship a matter of mutual flattery, Anderson emphasizes; true friendship has always relied on candor, sometimes brutal-seeming, though offered in a loving spirit. (We moderns, of course, have been capable of seeing this. Recall the excellent Jerry Herman lyric, from Mame: “Who else but a bosom buddy will sit down and level, will give you the devil, will sit down and tell you the truth?”) Classical friendship, according to Anderson, held that friends were to keep each other firm in character and identity. This friendship involved a “moral commitment,” quite apart from “feelings,” “hearts,” and sentiment generally (sentiment — or, better, sentimentalism — being one of the author’s many enemies of friendship).

Cicero thought friendship no less than “complete identity of feeling about all things divine and human, as strengthened by mutual goodwill and affection.” We need not go so far as that to wonder whether some of the relationships we now term “friendships” deserve the designation.

One of the great friendships of the Bible was that between David and Jonathan: Their “souls,” we are told, were “knit” together. Their friendship was marked by what today we would recognize as marriage-like qualities — and qualities pertaining pretty much only to marriage. Said Jonathan to David, “Whatsoever thy soul desireth, I will even do it for thee.” The two men undertook a kind of pledge: “We have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord for ever.” Plainly, they had a deep love for each other: and, of course, this is enough to cause some people today – pseudo-scholars, wishfully-thinking activists, idiots at large — to cry, “Fag!”

Here we have another of the enemies of friendship: dumb suspicion of homosexuality, and confusion about that vital word, “love.” As Anderson writes, this word “can be heard coarsely as physical sex, but it also has been sentimentalized into a sickly mutual niceness. Perhaps because of this, some of those who write today on friendship never mention love at all.” What’s more, “a sexually obsessed society — be the obsession liberational or repressive — is the enemy of friendship.”

Other enemies? They seem to lurk everywhere. The modern eye can see friendship as “subversive,” as an outright “anti-social institution”: Other institutions, “such as the family or the firm, the regiment or the team, and indeed the nation-state, are wary of friendship. It is a potential rival to them” (although it can be a boon to them, too, if they would only let it be). The Left is often suspicious or disdainful of friendship on grounds of egalitarianism: To assert friendship is to choose, to prefer — to be partial. “I like him, and that means — sorry  — that I like him less,” which in these times may not sit so well.

And then there’s our old friend — or culprit — “family values.” Perhaps the most challenging of Anderson’s chapters is that entitled “Friendship’s Greedy Rival for Time and Affection: the Romantic Family.” By “romantic,” the author means unrealistic or wrongly idealistic: the family as be-all, end-all, a “tightly-knit tiny unit” that hunkers down against the other good things in life. The nuclear family, writes Anderson, is at the moment “very much turned in on itself,” to no one’s good. The fact that friendship has been assigned “a very low priority” has affected not only friendship but marriage, harmfully. People get married later than ever, in part to enjoy life outside the family; in this way, marriage and family are seen as a trap and stultifier. Divorce, for some, can mean liberation from the family, a chance to have breath outside it. Says Anderson, “Under cover of righting the listing ship of marriage, [certain conservatives] tie the husband to its mast. [Losing Friends is mainly about male friendships, although it certainly touches on others.] Thus bound, he is left no time or place for friendship. It is ironic that one traditional value, marriage, when exaggerated, can do so much damage to another, friendship.”

As far back as the 19th century — when the going was good, or better, in Anderson’s judgment — Samuel Butler wrote, “A man’s friendships are, like his will, invalidated by marriage.” And what a pity, or outrage. Yet Anderson argues — with great persuasiveness — that marriage and friendship, properly understood, are at least as much allies as competitors, being undermined by the same things (jealousy, moral relativism), and depending on the same things: fidelity, honor, self-sacrifice, constancy, love. They may stand or fall together.

Friendship is a “challenge,” everyone says — and so it is. It generally doesn’t come without some effort. Anderson tartly notes that people speak of “losing contact” with friends; they seldom speak of “neglecting” them. But if they were to avoid their parents for an extended period, or forget to feed the dog for a few days, could they plead that they had merely, simply “lost contact”? Friendship requires a certain “moral literacy,” as Anderson insists; and a society that lacks it will be one in which friendship is hurting.

This is a relatively short book, but the author covers an impressive amount of ground. He examines how friendship is faring in business, in the universities, and in the professions, and among all classes. He devotes a chapter to the theological obstacles and aids to friendship. He calls on a wide cast of characters — Seneca, Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson — not to show off, but for genuine illumination. He laments that our age has “marginalized” friendship, leaving it as a “private pursuit,” when it can perform so much public good. Above all, he would like to restore friendship to its former level of importance, to provoke “thought and explicit comment” on the subject — on “the love whose name is seldom spoken” (as he says).

At a certain juncture, Anderson describes his book as a “tour of old ideas.” It is also a tour de force. Though modest-appearing, the book is packed with a thousand insights — many of them startling — coming from both the author himself and the many he has read or talked to. Unfortunately, Losing Friends isn’t easy for the U.S. reader to acquire. One can get it through the British Amazon.com (found at www.amazon.co.uk); or one can inquire directly of the Social Affairs Unit (website: www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk; address: Morley House, 314-322 Regent Street, London, W1B 3BB). But take a friendly tip: If the subject beckons to you, the book, like friendship, is worth the effort. It’s the kind you think about for a long while after you’ve read it. It sticks to your ribs, jangles your mind.

— This article first appeared in the January 28, 2002, issue of National Review.

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