Friendship Isn't Modern

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I couldn't disagree more with William Deresiewicz. Yes, modernity is about equality -- Tocqueville taught us that much for sure. But this means we do not like to make distinctions, declaring one person or set of morals or way of life to be better or worse than another. The radical particularity of friendship, of loving this person more than that person, pushes against our egalitarian sensibilities. The entire trajectory of modernity has been towards the universal, away from the particular: consider our infatuation with "human rights," which are taken to be universal; our humanitarian concern for those half-way around the world; our skepticism towards nationalism and even patriotism; and our cosmopolitanism. To put this slightly differently, there is an intrinsic connection between equality and universality, or what Tocqueville called "general ideas."

Andrew, in "If Love were All," ends up making precisely the opposite point that Deresiewicz makes -- that friendship is the form of love, the relationship, we have lost in modern times.

It is true that friendship is predicated on equality (Aristotle teaches us this), but that is only to say that friendship, especially of the deepest sort, is between equals. This notion of friendship between equals can exist amidst the most radical social and political inequality. Two aristocrats can be friends, and their rough equality of station and power and wealth might make that friendship possible (or free it from certain tensions and problems) -- but that is because they are equal, not because "equality" is the principle of justice for the society in which they live. So the fact that modernity is connected to a broader equality, the equality of, say, the Declaration of Independence, really tells us very little about the prospects for friendship. Indeed, to refer again to Tocqueville, the broader equality -- equality as a principle of justice -- may actually undermine the more particular form of equality, that in which two friends, or a small group of friends, see themselves as somehow set apart from everyone else: equals who are unequal with regard to everyone else. That's one feature of the democratic age, the age of equality: no one is set apart from the rest.

Deresiewicz basically makes this point for me in his discussion of "romantic friendship," which he sees as a recapitulation of a classical ideal. Exactly! To the extent friendship persisted into the modern age, it was understood as a retrieval of an ancient notion. It was not defended on modern grounds.

In summary: Andrew's essay is far more nuanced and interesting and simply accurate than the one you link to. How do these people get published in such prominent places?