We kick-start our discussion with a question explored by the great 16th century essayist Michel de Montaigne: What Is Friendship?
Montaigne’s essay ‘On Friendship’ was inspired his own great friendship with judge and political philosopher Etienne de la Boetie. He describes it as a ‘loving-friendship’ of such perfection and rarity that it’s unlikely to be found once in every 300 years!
Leaving best bud Etienne’s perfections to one side, Montaigne describes their relationship as something more than an ordinary friendship, but not that of lovers. And this seems to be the key point of discussion for Montaigne. What is the perfect friendship and how does it differ from love?
Here is, in my view, Montaigne’s argument in a nutshell:
Human beings are made to be sociable, to engage in ‘fellowship’, and the best type of social relation is friendship. Any relations based on financial gain, or any kind of social or personal pressure are less ‘beautiful or noble’ and cannot be classified as friendships as its sole purpose is to bring two people together.
This sounds very much like a description of love. But Montaigne says, friendship differs from love. Love or passion is irrational and inconstant and filial love is a ‘forced bond of nature’ which we don’t chose for ourselves.
This is one of reasons why Montaigne says men and women cannot be friends, as well as the ‘fact’ that women aren’t capable of being trustworthy, constant and intelligent enough to sustain friendships! Hmmm.
Montaigne also distinguishes between perfect and common friendships. A perfect friendship is a unique meeting of two equal and inseparable minds. My friend’s happiness, misfortune, wealth or success is my happiness, misfortune, wealth or success. By contrast common friends are those who we get on with for various reasons: they are generous, kind, fun to spend time with etc. but are essentially interchangeable and replaceable.
You can have many common friends but only one perfect friend, that one person who is more important than all others, which is why this kind of friendship is so rare.
Montaigne’s idea of the one perfect friendship seems to me to be impossible. He doesn’t account for arguments and disagreements that can arise between the closest of friends. He doesn’t seem to believe that people related to each other can also be friends and he seems to suggest that women are incapable of forging friendships with men, let alone the possibility of friendships between women.
And yet, I think Montaigne raises some interesting questions: which kinds of friendships are ‘better’ or ‘closer’ than others, in what ways must two individuals be ‘equals’ in order to be friends and what is the difference between friendship and love?
So over to you. What do you think?
Montaigne at Culturethèque:
De l'amitié Michel de Montaigne
French Passions: Will Self on Montaigne Institut français du Royaume-Uni (48 min)
‘In Memoriam’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson (a long poem on the death of Tennyson’s friend expressing similar ideas to Montaigne)