From Besties to Bromances: A Philosophical Look at Friendship

The Friendship Cure
by Kate Leaver
Duckworth Publishers (2018), 222 pages

 

"Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship." - Epicurus

 

As a devoted follower of the philosopher Epicurus, I am always keen learn more about friendship. In Kate Leaver, friendship could not have a more persuasive champion. Her book, The Friendship Cure, examines friendship in the modern world in all the myriad varieties that it occurs today: besties, bromances, and those social media "friends" we never actually meet all get a look in.

The book starts, as Aristotle did, with the declaration that humans are social animals. Leaver examines the bonding rituals performed by five teenage girls on the train, and compares them to the soothing gestures of apes which grease the workings of simian societies. This could be obscene, but Leaver methodically spreads out the research which shows just how vital friendship is to humanity and our individual wellbeing. Scientists can trace the hormones that a friendly touch produces in our brain. Understanding why we love to be held by our friends does not make it any less special, but it does underscore the physical need humans have for a close network of friends – it is written into our biology. Yet, friendship seems to move beyond mere biological imperative. As Leaver points out, friendship is “a tacit pact to stay in each other’s lives by choice, not because biology compels it.” Every person we meet has the possibility of being a new friend, but Leaver is not an advocate of universal friendship; not everyone is worthy of our friendship. A whole chapter is devoted to how to break up with friends who are actively making your life worse. We need to be honest with our friends about what we expect from them, and honest with ourselves about what we can demand from our friends. This is not a self-help book, but anyone who has friends will benefit from having read it.

All good philosophy is autobiographical. We can only understand the world through our experience. And don’t be fooled – friendship is philosophy. The connections we make can define our lives, and learning how to choose which people we invite into our lives is worthy of the deepest thought. This is philosophy shorn of all the Wittgensteinian word games and disappointing dialectics. This is self-help freed from the cliches of the genre. The lists and diagrams used to render most self-help tomes pseudo-scientific are exchanged for frank and interesting anecdotes. It is just an author in conversation with her readers saying “Isn’t friendship lovely?”

Leaver never assumes anything about her audience. Often the sickly over-familiar tone of books like these can make you hate an author for projecting emotions and motivations on you that you have never felt. Leaver simply presents facts and stories from her life leaving you to nod your head as you remember a thousand little social interactions from your own life that back up her point. It reminds us of the common humanity that underpins our friendships and should make us feel closer to everyone we pass in the street. Spreading out from that figure walking by us is a complex web of relationships just as meaningful as anything in our own lives.

Perhaps the most important section of the book is on the gender issues relating to friendship. Leaver delves into the seemingly innate differences between female-female and male-male friendships. Society dictates that women are either sister-like or catty in their relationships, while men must insult each other constantly or risk being fetishised as a pseudo-homosexual bromance. How these stereotypes developed, and can stand in the way of meaningful friendships, is a subject we should all take a moment to think about. Even the experts Leaver interviews cannot agree on exactly what makes men and women act so differently in friendships. Leaver does not, therefore, dictate that a good friendship must be performed one way or the other, but merely invites us to interrogate our own actions and preconceptions.

There is a beautiful chapter on the Loneliness Epidemic sweeping society. A woman interviewed about her feelings of loneliness compares it to being in a silent disco – one where everyone is dancing to music in their headphones that only they can hear. Loneliness, she said, was like being the only person in the room who has no music. It’s a brilliant image and one that is all too easy to imagine as we start to communicate more and more electronically. Not only can we not hear the music, we can’t even see the dance. In contrast to the positive, and long-lasting effects of our friends’ physical presence is the ephemeral hit of dopamine we might get from strangers liking our pictures online. That just leaves us craving more. If Oscar Wilde were alive now he might describe the Twitter beep of our phones as the perfect pleasure: it is exquisite and leaves one unsatisfied.

I don’t know Kate Leaver, I’ve never met Kate Leaver, but if her friendships are as profound as this book, then that is one friendship I wish I had.

 

 

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Ben Gazur is a biochemist, freelance writer, and keen student of classical philosophy.