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…

Whilst personality disorders may lead to distress and impairment, they may also lead to extraordinary achievement. In 2005, Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey found that, compared to mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high security Broadmoor Hospital, high-level executives were more likely to have one of three personality disorders: histrionic personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and anankastic personality disorder.

Thus, it is possible to envisage that people may benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with histrionic personality disorder may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and therefore at building and exercising business relationships; people with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, and self-focused, and able to exploit people and situations to their best advantage; and people with anankastic personality disorder may get quite far up the corporate and professional ladders simply by being so devoted to work and productivity. Even people with borderline personality disorder may at times be bright, witty, and the very life of the party.

As the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910) put it more than a hundred years ago, ‘When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce … in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.’

Update 27/12/11:
Most recently, in 2010, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues carried out a study to uncover exactly how successful psychopaths differ from unsuccessful ones. They asked a number of members of Division 41 (psychology and law) of the American Psychological Association, professors of clinical psychology, and criminal attorneys to first identify and then to rate and describe one of their acquaintances (if any) who was not only successful but also conformed to Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath,

…social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.

From the responses that they collated, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues found that the successful psychopath matched the unsuccessful one in all respects but one, namely, conscientiousness. Thus, it appears that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the one behaves impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the other is able to inhibit or restrain those destructive tendencies and build for the future.

Adapted from The Meaning of Madness.

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

There are important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression, and these can in large part be accounted for by socio-cultural factors. In traditional societies, human distress is more likely to be seen as an indicator of the need to address important life problems, rather than as a mental disorder requiring professional treatment. For this reason, the diagnosis of depression is correspondingly less common. Some linguistic communities do not have a word or even a concept for ‘depression’, and many people from traditional societies with what may be construed as depression present with physical complaints such as headache or chest pain rather than with psychological complaints. Punjabi women who have recently immigrated to the UK and given birth find it baffling that a health visitor should pop round to ask them if they are depressed. Not only had they never considered the possibility that giving birth could be anything other than a joyous event, but they do not even have a word with which to translate the concept of ‘depression’ into Punjabi!

In modern societies such as the UK and the USA, people talk about depression more readily and more openly. As a result, they are more likely to interpret their distress in terms of depression, and less likely to fear being stigmatised if they seek out a diagnosis of the illness. At the same time, groups with vested interests such as pharmaceutical companies and mental health experts promote the notion of saccharine happiness as a natural, default state, and of human distress as a mental disorder. The concept of depression as a mental disorder may be useful for the more severe and intractable cases treated by hospital psychiatrists, but probably not for the majority of cases, which, for the most part, are mild and short-lived, and easily interpreted in terms of life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition.

Another (non-mutually exclusive) explanation for the important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression may lie in the nature of modern societies, which have become increasingly individualistic and divorced from traditional values. For many people living in our society, life can seem both suffocating and far removed, lonely even and especially amongst the multitudes, and not only meaningless but absurd. By encoding their distress in terms of mental disorder, our society may be subtly implying that the problem lies not with itself, but with them. However, thinking of the milder forms of depression in terms of an illness can be counterproductive, as it can prevent people from identifying and addressing the important life problems that are at the root of their distress.

Adapted from The Meaning of Madness.