Just as philosophy leads to friendship, so friendship leads to philosophy. In the Phaedrus, which was most probably written several years after the Lysis, Socrates and Phaedrus go out into the idyllic countryside just outside Athens and have a long conversation about the anatomy of the soul, the nature of true love, the art of persuasion (rhetoric), and the merits of the spoken over the written word. At the end of this conversation, Socrates offers a prayer to the local deities. This is the famous Socratic prayer, which is notable both in itself and for the response that it elicits from Phaedrus.

Socrates: Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry. – Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me.
Phaedrus: Ask the same for me, for friends should have all things in common.
Socrates: Let us go.

Plato may fail to define friendship in the Lysis, but in the Phaedrus he gives us its living embodiment. Socrates and Phaedrus spend their time together enjoying the beautiful Attic countryside while engaging in honest and open philosophical conversation. By exercising and building upon reason, they are not only furthering each other’s understanding, but also transforming a life of friendship into a life of joint contemplation of those things that are most true and hence most beautiful and most dependable.

At one point, during a lull in their conversation, Socrates insists that they continue talking, lest the cicadas laugh at them for avoiding conversation at midday, and mistake them for a pair of slaves who have come to their resting place as cattle to a waterhole. On the other hand, he explains, if the cicadas see that they are not lulled by their chirruping, they may, out of respect, offer them their god-given gifts. For once upon a time, before the birth of the Muses, the cicadas used to be human beings. Then the Muses were born and song was created, and they were so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing that they forgot to eat or drink and died without even realising it. As a gift from the Muses, they were reborn as cicadas, singing from the moment they are born to the moment they die without ever feeling hunger or thirst. After dying, the cicadas report back to the Muses in heaven about who is honouring them on earth, and win the love of Terpsichore for the dancers, of Erato for the lovers, and of Calliope, the eldest Muse, for the philosophers.

If only on the basis of his response to the Socratic prayer, it is obvious that Phaedrus is another self to Socrates, since he makes the same choices as Socrates and even justifies making those choices on the grounds that their friendship requires it. Thus, whereas Aristotle tries to tell us what perfect friendship is, Plato lets us feel it in all its allure and transformative power.

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

Plato ostensibly devotes an entire book, the Lysis, to defining friendship or philia, which he is reluctant to distinguish from erotic love or erôs. In the Lysis, Socrates is in conversation with two youths, Lysis and Menexenus. Socrates tells the youths that, whereas some people desire horses, or dogs, or gold, or honour, he would rather have a good friend than ‘the best cock or quail in the world’: ‘Yea, by the dog of Egypt, I should greatly prefer a real friend to all the gold of Darius, or even to Darius himself: I am such a lover of friends as that’. Lysis and Menexenus appear to possess this treasure in each other, so perhaps Menexenus can tell him: when one person loves another, which of the two becomes the friend of the other, the lover or the beloved? Menexenus replies that either may be the friend of the other, that is, they both are friends. Socrates says that this cannot be the case, since one person may love another who does not love him back, or even who hates him. Menexenus suggests that, unless they both love each other, neither is a friend. Socrates disagrees, and explains that if something that does not love in return is not beloved by a lover, then there can be no lovers of things such as horses, dogs, wine, or wisdom. Thus, what is beloved, whether or not it loves in return, may be dear to the lover of it. Such is the case, for example, with children who are too young to love, or who hate their parents for punishing them. This suggests that the beloved is the friend of the lover and the hated one is the enemy of the hater, but the implication is that some people are loved by their enemies and hated by their friends, which seems absurd. Thus, neither the lover not the beloved can always be said to be a friend to the other.

Socrates suggests that they may have been wrong in their conclusions. He turns for guidance to the poets and philosophers, who say that ‘like loves like’. Socrates argues that this aphorism must only apply to good people, since bad people are in some way unlike themselves and are just as likely to hate other bad people as anyone else. This implies that good people are friends with other good people, whereas bad people do not have any friends at all. However, Socrates remains unconvinced: like cannot be of any use to like, and if people cannot be of any use to one another, then they cannot love each other. It remains possible that they love each other because they are both good, but the good is by definition self-sufficient, and so has no desire for friendship.

What place then is there for friendship, if, when absent, good men have no need of one another (for even when alone they are sufficient for themselves), and when present have no use of one another? How can such persons ever be induced to value one another?

Socrates suspects that he may have been wrong in thinking that like loves like. He quotes Hesiod in saying that ‘the most like are most full of envy, strife, and hatred of one another, and the most unlike, of friendship’. Menexenus thinks that Hesiod is right in saying that friendship is born not in likeness but in dissimilarity, but Socrates is sceptical as the implications are not only that the enemy is the friend of the friend and the friend the friend of the enemy, but also that the just man is the friend of the unjust, the good man the friend of the bad, and so on. This, he says, is simply monstrous. Thus, neither like and like nor unlike and unlike can be friends.

If neither like and like nor unlike and unlike can be friends, then the friend of the good is neither the good nor the bad, but the neither–good–nor–bad. Since like and like cannot be friends, the neither–good–nor–bad cannot be friends with the neither–good–nor–bad, and since no one can be friends with the bad, the neither–good–nor–bad cannot be friends with the bad either. Thus, the neither–good¬–nor–bad must be friends with the good, who, Socrates says, are also possessed of beauty, that ‘soft, smooth, slippery thing’ that ‘easily slips in and permeates our souls’. While the good and beautiful cannot be friends with the good and beautiful or with the bad, there is nothing to stop them from being friends with the neither–good–nor–bad. For example, the body is neither good nor bad, but if it is corrupted by sickness, which is bad, then it becomes the friend of the physician. The fact that the body is corrupted by something bad does not make it bad, just as covering Menexenus’ auburn locks with white lead does not make them white. Socrates concludes that they have at long last discovered the nature of friendship: ‘it is the love which, by reason of the presence of evil, the neither good nor evil has of the good, either in the soul, or in the body, or anywhere.’ However, an ‘unaccountable suspicion’ comes over him, and he begins to doubt this conclusion.

If medicine, which is good, is a friend, then it is a friend for the sake of health. However, health is also good and, if good, then good for the sake of something, something which must also be good, and so on. Surely, there must some first principle of friendship or dearness for the sake of which all other things are dear. For example, if a father values his son above all things, he also values other things for the sake of his son. If, for instance, his son had drunk poisonous hemlock, and he thought that wine would save him, then he would value the wine and even the vessel that contains it. However, it is not really the wine or the vessel that he is valuing, but his son. ‘That which is only dear to us for the sake of something else is improperly said to be dear, but the truly dear is that in which all these so called dear friendships terminate.’ Socrates infers that the truly dear is the good, but points out that the good appears to be loved not for its own sake but for the sake of the bad. However, if the bad were eradicated, love and friendship would still exist, suggesting that there must be some other cause of friendship.

Socrates suggests that desire is the cause of friendship, and that he who desires, desires that of which he is in want, and hence that which is dear to him. Thus, desire, love, and friendship appear to be of the congenial, whether in soul, character, manners, or form. Socrates adds that if love is of the congenial, then the true lover must necessarily have his love returned. However, he points out that this theory falls flat if the congenial is merely the like, since the like cannot be friends with the like.

Then what is to be done? Or rather is there anything to be done? I can only, like the wisemen who argue in courts, sum up the arguments: If neither the beloved, nor the lover, nor the like, nor the unlike, nor the good, nor the congenial, nor any other of whom we spoke – for there were such a number of them that I cannot remember all – if none of these are friends, I know not what remains to be said… O Menexenus and Lysis, how ridiculous that you two boys, and I, an old boy, who would fain be one of you, should imagine ourselves to be friends – this is what the bystanders will go away and say – and as yet we have not been able to discover what is a friend!

The Lysis may seem to fail in its task of defining friendship, and on one level of course it does. There is, however, far more to the Lysis than a couple of interesting but misguided thoughts about friendship. By discussing friendship with Lysis and Menexenus as he does, Socrates is not only discussing friendship, but also demonstrating to the youths that, even though they count each other as close friends, they do not really know what friendship is, and that, whatever friendship is, it is something far deeper and far more meaningful than the puerile ‘friendship’ that they count themselves to have. In contrast to the youths, Socrates knows perfectly well what friendship is, and is only feigning ignorance so as to teach the youths: ‘…and I, an old boy, who would fain be one of you…’ More than that, by discussing friendship with Lysis and Menexenus as he does, Socrates is himself in the process of befriending them. He befriends them not with pleasant banter or gossipy chitchat, as most people befriend one another, but with the kind of philosophical conversation that is the hallmark of the deepest and most meaningful of friendships. In the course of this philosophical conversation, he tells the youths that he should ‘greatly prefer a real friend to all the gold of Darius’, thereby signifying not only that he places friendship on the same high pedestal as philosophy, to which he has devoted (and will sacrifice) his life, but also that the kind of friendship that he has in mind is so rare and uncommon that even he does not possess it. If friendship ultimately escapes definition, then this is because, like philosophy, friendship is not so much a thing-in-itself as it is a process for becoming. True friends seek together to live truer, fuller lives by relating to each other authentically and by teaching each other about the limitations of their beliefs and the defects in their character, which are a far greater source of error than mere rational confusion. For Socrates as for Plato, friendship and philosophy are aspects of one and the same impulse, one and the same love – the love that seeks to know.

Plato and Aristotle both gave an important place to friendship in the good life; Plato devoted the major part of three books (the Lysis, Phaedrus, and Symposium) to friendship and to love, and in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle lavished extravagant praise upon the Greek concept of friendship or philia, which included not only voluntary relationships but also those relationships that hold between the members of a family. Friendship, says Aristotle, is a virtue which is ‘most necessary with a view to living … for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods’.

If friendship is so important to the good life, then it is important to ask the question, what is friendship? According to Aristotle, for a person to be friends with another ‘it is necessary that [they] bear good will to each other and wish good things for each other, without this escaping their notice’. A person may bear good will to another for one of three reasons, that he is good (that is, rational and virtuous), that he is pleasant, or that he is useful. While Aristotle leaves room for the idea that relationships based on advantage alone or pleasure alone can give rise to friendships, he believes that such relationships have a smaller claim to be called friendships than those that are based partly or wholly on virtue. ‘Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, not coincidentally.’ Friendships that are based partly or wholly on virtue are desirable not only because they are associated with a high degree of mutual benefit, but also because they are associated with companionship, dependability, and trust. More important still, to be in such a friendship and to seek out the good of one’s friend is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness.

For Aristotle, an act of friendship is undertaken both for the good of one’s friend and for the good of oneself, and there is no reason to think that the one precludes the other. In any case, to have a perfect friend is like to have ‘another self’, since perfect friends make the same choices as each other and each one’s happiness adds to that of the other. Unfortunately, the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for example, in young people, who are not yet wise enough to be virtuous), and, second, because a perfect friendship can only be created and sustained if a pair of friends spend a great deal of exclusive quality time together. Thus, even if one lived entirely surrounded by virtuous people, one would only ever have the time for at most a small handful of perfect friends.

The ideal of perfect friendship may strike the modern reader as being somewhat elitist, but Aristotle is surely right in holding that the best kinds of friendship are both rare and demanding. If the best kinds of friendship are those that are based on virtue, then this is above all because such friendships call upon the exercise of reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness. However, it could be that the distinctive function of human beings is not the exercise of reason and virtue, but the capacity to form loving and meaningful relationships. If this is the case, then friendships that are based on virtue are even more important to the good life than Aristotle thinks.

Despite the extravagant praise that he lavishes upon friendship, Aristotle is quite clear that the best and happiest life is not the life spent in friendship, but the life spent in the contemplation of those things that are most true and therefore most beautiful and most dependable. There is a contradiction here: if the best life is a life of contemplation, then friendship is either superfluous or inimical to the best life, and therefore undeserving of the high praise that Aristotle lavishes upon it. It may be, as Aristotle tentatively suggests, that friendship is needed because it leads to contemplation, or that contemplation is only possible some of the time and friendship is needed the rest of the time, or even that a life of friendship is just as good as a life of contemplation. So much for Aristotle, one might say. Plato also gives an important place to friendship in the good life…

Historically and still today, many people believe that humankind is the creation of a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’. I do not propose to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. However, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, no one really knows what this purpose might be, or that it is especially meaningful. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system such as the universe increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating humankind and, indeed, all of nature, might have been nothing more lofty that to catalyse this process. If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipaters, then having no purpose at all is better than having this sort of purpose because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes and thereby to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. For this same reason, having no purpose at all is better than having any kind of purpose, even a more traditional and uplifting purpose such as ‘serving God’ or ‘improving our karma’. In short, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind (and why should He have had?), we do not know what this purpose might be and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it. Unless we can be free to become the authors of our own purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worse, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our choosing.

Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not have any purpose at all. However, this is to believe (1) that for something to have a purpose, it must necessarily have been created with a purpose in mind, and (2) that something that was created with a purpose in mind must necessarily have the same purpose for which it was created. Last summer, I visited the vineyards of Château-Neuf-du-Pape in the South of France. One evening, I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet which I later took back to England and put to excellent use as a book-end. In the vineyards of Château-Neuf-du-Pape, the declared purpose of these stones is to absorb the heat from the sun during the daytime and then to release it during the night time. Of course, these stones were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if they were created with a purpose in mind, then this purpose was almost certainly not to make great wine, serve as book-ends, or be beautiful. That same evening over supper, I got my friends to blind-taste a bottle of claret that I had brought along from England. As I did not have a decanter to hand, I kept the wine in its bottle and masked the identity of the bottle by slipping it into one of a pair of socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a purpose in mind, even though this purpose was very different from (although, note, not strictly incompatible with) the one that it eventually found.

In summary, whether or not God exists, and whether or not He has a purpose for us, we should strive to create our own purpose or purposes. In Sartrean terms, whereas for the galet it is true only that existence precedes essence, for the sock it is true both that essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a foot) and that existence precedes essence (when the sock is used other than on a foot, for example, as a bottle sleeve). Human beings are either like the rock or like the sock, but whichever one they are like, they are better off creating their own purpose or purposes. To re-iterate, unless we can be free to be the authors of our purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worse, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our choosing. Plato once defined man as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails, but another much better definition that he gave was simply this, ‘A being in search of meaning.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

Diogenes searching for a human being.

Diogenes of Sinope or Diogenes the Cynic was a contemporary of Socrates’ pupil Plato, whom Plato described as ‘a Socrates gone mad’. Like Socrates and, to a lesser extent, Plato, Diogenes favoured direct verbal interaction over the written account. When a man called Hegesias asked to be lent one of his writing tablets, he replied, ‘You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.’ After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions. He proved to the later satisfaction of the Stoics that happiness has nothing whatever to do with a person’s material circumstances, and held that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. The terms ‘cynic’ and ‘cynical’ derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon or ‘dog’. 

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for a human being to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that a human being should live in accord with nature. Accordingly, he taught that, if an act is not shameful in private, then it should not be shameful in public either. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he replied, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly’. Upon being asked, on another occasion, where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world’ (cosmopolites), a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term ‘cosmopolitan’. Although Diogenes privileged reason, he despised the sort of abstract philosophy that was being practiced elsewhere and in particular at Plato’s Academy. When, to great acclaim, Plato defined a human being as an animal, biped, and featherless, Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it to the Academy with the words, ‘Behold! I have brought you Plato’s man.’ Plato consequently revised his definition, adding to it ‘with broad nails’. 

Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Much to his credit, Alexander still declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ In another account of the conversation, Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father (King Philip of Macedon), but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.’ Diogenes used to stroll about in broad daylight with a lamp. Whenever curious people asked him what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’ Much to his chagrin, all he ever found were rascals and scoundrels. When asked how he wished to be buried, he left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so that wild animals could feast upon his body. After his death in the city of Corinth, the Corinthians erected to his memory a pillar upon which they rested a dog of Parian marble. Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. He was, I think, a shining example of the art of failure. 

Adapted from The Art of Failure – The Anti Self-Help Guide.