It was never lost on me that Aristotle dedicated two of the 10 books of his Nicomachean Ethics to friendship. He clearly considered it to be entirely essential to a good human life. His famous distinction between types of friendship serves us well still today: Friendships of pleasure are typical of the young and fade when the shared interest is gone; friendships of utility are more typical of older people but also fade when the utility does; and finally, true friendship is friendship of virtue, in which both friends encourage one another in excellence. Friendships of pleasure and utility are not necessarily bad, although they can be; they’re simply not friendship in the fullest sense of the term. A good life is an end in itself. No one can answer the question “Why do you want to be well?” because we want well-being for its own sake. Similarly, the elements of the good human life are ends in themselves, too: virtuous activity, beauty, friendship, family. Friendships of pleasure and utility are not ends in themselves, however; they are merely instrumental goods. Only friendships of virtue are worth having simply for themselves, which is why, in a true friendship, the friends will endure great suffering with one another rather than give up on the other. C.S. Lewis’ rumination on friendship in The Four Loves is helpful, as he points out that friendships of pleasure and utility may be the “matrix” within which a true friendship blossoms. Following Aristotle’s logic, Thomas Aquinas argues that the essence of love is to will the good of the other, since true friendship always draws the other on toward excellence. It’s an excellent definition of love, but it’s also so abstract that I might (with the help of the Holy Spirit) love everyone in the whole world in the sense that I am willing to do my part in their betterment whenever and wherever the opportunity should arise. Lewis does a better job of explaining specifically how actual, concrete friendships form, particularly in contrast to romantic love. While lovers are pictured face to face, friends are side by side. Friends have some shared project or passion, and a morally good friendship will be one oriented toward the truth, goodness, or beauty inherent to their shared interest.
Are those people who friend you really “friends”? Or are they something less than? Do online acquaintances have to be the equal of real-life relationships? Or can they supplement them in unique and life-enriching ways?
I’ll leave it to others to debate whether marriage is a subspecies of friendship (as Aristotle and some new natural-law theorists hold) or in some category of its own (as other new natural-law theorists hold). It still seems worth mentioning that the great physical and psychological benefits of marriage, statistically speaking, might be due to its nature as a kind of guaranteed friendship (one hopes). It persists through moves and life changes, and it produces more guaranteed friends in the form of grown children (one hopes). While family love is something different than friendship, the best familial relationships are ones in which parents and siblings are also friends.
Keeping Sex Out of It
Ancient friendships seemed to have had an intensity unfamiliar to the modern Western world—Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi—so much so that modern interpreters often argue that these relationships were sexual. But a look around the globe at non-Western cultures shows how parochial such a view is; men in Arab countries hold hands while walking, and Jesus’ disciples laid their heads on his shoulder. Setting aside the intricacies of Christian sexual ethics, this may help explain some of the historical taboo against homosexuality. Allowing that same-sex friendships could always blossom into romantic love undermines the safety of forming those friendships, just as (on an even deeper level) keeping parent-child and sibling relationships nonsexual keeps those relationships safe in an important way. Some have argued that this partly explains why we’re seeing such a boom in middle-school girls declaring themselves bisexual. (In seventh grade, my son said every single girl in his class said she was.) While part of this is clearly faddish, there may also be an element of confusion among pubescent children who have not been given a paradigm for deep friendship, and whose only cultural paradigm for genuine affection is romantic love.
I imagine that right about now you’re wondering whether I’m on Billy Crystal’s side, when he declared in When Harry Met Sally that women and men can’t be friends. Absolutely not! It’s merely the case that friendship was often experienced between people of the same sex in the past because men and women occupied very different social worlds. As our social worlds overlap more and more, friendships between men and women will develop quite naturally. But it still remains that there will be a difference in those friendships, when one or both are married or the two are of widely varying ages, for instance, from a relationship in which people really are potential mates. Romantic love and human sexuality are wonderful things, but they also introduce many complications into a relationship, which is one reason why the boundaries around sexual behavior were always tightly regulated, even if in different ways in different cultures, until quite recently.
In the end, though, there will always be a special place for same-sex friendships because there are some tendencies and experiences unique to being male and others unique to being female. While it’s popular these days to say that gender (and even sex) exists on a spectrum, I suspect that any person who only has friends of the opposite sex has actually denied themselves something quite precious, perhaps as the result of false ideas about themselves or their own sex. My own mother often said that women were catty and petty, and that men made better friends. Little did she know that I would enter academia in a field—philosophy—in which women make up only 17%. If you’re not already aware, academia—and especially philosophy—is definitely the cattiest and pettiest of the professions, so I’ve experienced no dearth of catty and petty men (as well as wonderful ones!) to disabuse me of my mother’s self-hating notions about the female sex. On the other hand, I’ve been delighted to enjoy some of the deepest and most spiritually profound relationships of my life with other women. I will venture to say, even on pains of cancellation, that the particular kind of intimate friendship I am describing now could not exist for me with a male friend, even though I enjoy many wonderful and supportive friendships with men.
Friendships of pleasure and utility are not ends in themselves, however; they are merely instrumental goods.
The State of Friendship Today
Before we proceed to the doomsaying over social media and how it has changed the notion of friendship, we ought to address the doomsaying over modern friendship itself. There are many concerns and many arguments over the concerns. First, Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone told us we were increasingly disconnected. Then some countered that comparing our level of connection to the nationwide solidarity at the height of World War II might be to compare apples with rationed oranges. Then we noticed that more people live alone than ever, as many delay marriage, others never marry, and many more divorce. But living alone is not the same as being lonely, and being unmarried is not the same as having no friends. Nevertheless, we were told that America was experiencing a loneliness epidemic, but some researchers say that Americans are reporting no higher rates of loneliness than they did in the 1970s, at least on average. Social science is harder than physics, so I’m not going to pretend to untangle all these debates here, but one thing does seem apparent: Middle-aged men, particularly white ones, are the loneliest, most friendless people in our country. They have high rates of suicide and many of them are simply “missing” from the workforce. This is a shocking problem, even—or perhaps especially—if friendship among other groups remains steady. There are all sorts of interesting facets to the issue of what has happened to spaces for male friendship, and we in the church should be particularly sensitive to examining them. But one thing is for sure: Social media is not an important factor in this. If some middle-aged men are getting lost in videogames, it’s because they’re already depressed, not the other way around. Instead, it’s changes in larger social structures that I suspect is the culprit.
The Benefits of Social Media
I hope I’m not just being a contrarian, and I’ll address a few areas in which the rise of social media is quite worrisome. But in general, social media can be extremely beneficial when used properly, and I actually think a majority of people do use it properly. It’s just that the tiny fraction of people who use it improperly also use it a lot. Their noise and prominence exaggerates the sense that social media use is mostly about various nasty kinds of interaction. When it comes to the disastrous social consequences of new tech, I always presume against the doomsayers for three reasons. First, new tech is, well, new. Like any new product in the marketplace, it may take a little while to find its own feet as well as its proper place in our lives. For a while there it looked like the ladies really were going to be quite corrupted by the novel, but soon enough Jane Austen and George Eliot came along with their careful character analysis and moral rectitude, and in the end all was not lost. Second, our preference for the known makes our attitude toward the changes new technology brings predictably negative. Plato was worried about the spread of writing, which he thought would make us dumber by making memorization unnecessary. Many worried about the printing press, arguing it would result in nothing but the publication of trash. Nevertheless, writing actually allowed a much deeper level of intellectual analysis and cross-generational conversation, and the printing press’s greatest hit was the Bible. Third, even where some of the doomsayers have a point, it’s quite difficult to measure the benefits versus the costs of any new tech. I’m not a huge fan of the way cars have structured our living spaces, and don’t even get me started on the federal highway system. But I also know that motor vehicles have allowed many, many people to make a living where they couldn’t have otherwise. It’s not at all obvious that my perfectly valid critiques of our car-based society mean we would have been better off without cars.
Research shows that people with well-established friendships tend to use social media to maintain and expand them. My son Solomon had a best friend in grade school who moved to California. In my day we would probably have lost touch, but Solomon and Taj play videogames online with their other friends. They laugh together and make appointments to do it again tomorrow. For the past five years, Solomon has spent two weeks in California over the summer with Taj and his family, whom he refers to as his “other family.” It’s a blessing to have such a long-term, ongoing friendship throughout one’s childhood, and I’m always so happy for him when the trip comes around.
While I often use social media to keep up with friends I don’t see in person anymore, our exchanges can still be quite meaningful. Friends who were once close (and in closer proximity) can still be sincere in congratulating the others’ successes or mourning with them when they experience losses. I’ve even experienced this with people I’ve never met at all. Because I joined social media for the sole purpose of keeping up with colleagues in academia from across the country, my experience has been dominated by many wonderful, like-minded people with good information to share. I have often “friended” someone through interactions with a mutual friend, even if I haven’t met them in person. I’ve enjoyed it when we do meet and can laugh about the fact that we already “know” each other! On one occasion, I friended a professional acquaintance that I’d spoken to on the phone. He enjoyed my posts and interacted with many of them. Sadly, his home was completely flooded by a dam breach. I teamed up with another friend whom we both knew to run the GoFundMe effort, since that would expand the reach of the campaign. We were able to raise over $80,000 to restore his home, and it was a blessing to keep up with the reports on his progress, but it wasn’t until a few years later that we actually met in person! By then he had already been interviewed by my husband on his experiences and we finally met because he invited me to his campus to give a talk on my new book. Recently, we experienced a once-in-a-millennia rain in my hometown, and he Facebook-messaged me to make sure I was OK. On another occasion a Facebook friend whom I’d met at a few conferences posted that he was looking to fill a certain post at his Christian university. At the time my own university was making cuts, and I knew the perfect person for the job was already on the chopping block here. He had always wanted to work at a Christian school. I recommended him strongly. Sure enough, they hired him, and he emails me now and then to tell me that he feels like he’s in heaven at this job. Without social media, not only would I not have seen the posting, I probably wouldn’t have kept up with the contact at all or been in a position to be considered a trusted source by him.
Our preference for the known makes our attitude toward the changes new technology brings predictably negative.
One of the joys of these recent years in my career has been building a network of scholars interested in promoting liberty, and especially connecting with Christians in these spaces. Especially during the pandemic, I was able to read others’ research and keep up with their work through social media. I was asked to write more because of interactions on social media, and when I published a book, social media was a great way to make connections with others interested in my work and in engaging with it more deeply. I’ll venture to say that a social media feed carefully curated to be full of interesting (and sometimes opposing!) comments, articles, and book recommendations can be a genuine improvement to one’s life, including the development of new friendships. But this has to be deeply intentional, and even then, regularly fasting from social media can be an important spiritual discipline.
Friendships: Thick and Thin
While I’ll insist on the benefits of social media for keeping up with old friends, for cultivating all kinds of professional connections, and (properly curated) for aggregating stimulating news and analysis, none of this is really what Aristotle or Aquinas or Lewis meant by true friendship. True friendships may be founded on common interests, but they go much deeper than that. A true friend doesn’t simply wish for the good of the other; she acts for the good of the other. She acts not just for her friend’s external good but also for the internal goods of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth. This is the friendship that Aristotle conceived of as an end in itself, part and parcel of the well-being of the human person. So perhaps it ought to come as no surprise that such friendships will almost exclusively be embodied, in-real-life, three-dimensional relationships. We humans are, after all, embodied beings. Being in this particular body is part of what it is to be me, which is why I’ll inhabit something like this body even in eternity.
As spatiotemporal beings, we are limited in whom we can love at the level of action. Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar is famous for his claim that face-to-face communities are limited to about 150 people, given the capacity of our brains. But he also said that “best” friendships will land somewhere around five, and close friends, to whom we can turn for sympathy and help, around 15. Friendship, then, doesn’t require only the desire for the good of the other but also the physical proximity to make action possible. There are a few occasions where friends separated by distance can still do each other great good; but in general, even these will be based on friendships first developed in person. So we might conclude by appealing to this distinction between thin and thick friendships, and that thick ones won’t be cultivated through social media. While “thin” friendships certainly can, it will be worth it only when we use wise media hygiene. This includes double-checking the veracity of anything we share, muting or blocking anonymous accounts and trolls, and refusing to use dehumanizing language. That sounds reasonable enough, which means that there’s one population that won’t be able to do it, and it will affect their thick, not just their thin, friendships: kids.
A true friend doesn’t simply wish for the good of the other; she acts for the good of the other.
I sat down with a savvy teenage friend of my son’s named Addie. I knew Addie would be frank with me about her experiences, but I was still surprised by what she described. She admitted that she regretted ever joining Snapchat, where malicious gossip and unhealthy comparison among friend groups had permanently destroyed some friendships in her circle. Group chats could make friends feel left out, and constant posting means that if you didn’t get invited somewhere, you’ll know it. It’s hard enough for all of us to understand the tone of a text-only communication, but young people don’t have the experience to realize what language comes off as angry or mean, even if it’s unintentional. When reading the recent work of Jonathan Haidt (coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind) on the terrible rise in mood disorders among girls, I assumed that the correlation he draws with social media use had to do with things like body image. It hadn’t occurred to me that social media could also be undermining girls’ close friendships, but that’s the story Addie told. She’s 17 now and has turned off all notifications on her phone so that she looks at social media only when she intentionally chooses to. Between what she told me and Jonathan Haidt’s concern, I’m wondering whether a social movement to get teens off social media altogether wouldn’t be in order. Addie said one really encouraging thing that resonated with me as a Gen X mom: Parents today didn’t grow up with social media and so often can’t walk our kids through the tough situations encountered there, or even know to limit media use. But this upcoming generation does have such experience, and we may see more wisdom on kids’ social media use as Gen Z starts having families of their own.
So if you’re an adult capable of good media hygiene, go ahead and enjoy the creation and maintenance of important, but perhaps thin, friendships. Log off regularly for some quality time over dinner with flesh-and-blood friends, though. Fast from tech completely every now and then, too—it’s a new kind of Sabbath for our overtaxed consciousness. And let’s give the kids a chance to grow up a bit before they have to navigate all that. They’ll thank us later.