A Reflection on Friendship and Meaning of Life


By Tunji Olaopa

I have along the tortuous path of life and living deviated from my natural element for the sake of expediency. Trying to be myself again had entailed undertaking deep reflections on some dimensions of human life. Indeed, human life is a complexity. This complexity has so many dimensions and it affects human life itself, for good or for ill. On the one hand, the complexity of human life is affected by the vicissitudes of life itself. We are born, we grow up, achieve some successes, record some awful failures, and we die. On the other hand, our lives are made better or worse by our relationships with others in the human society. To achieve meaning, humans have created values and institutions that make life a meaningful experience before death ends everything. Relationship is key to human survival. Indeed, human life is a series of different relationships with differing significances and attachments.

Friendship is one of those few valuable relationships that humans have created, and which has made life and its twists and turns bearable. It is exactly this feature of friendship as relationship that has made it a favorite topic with poets, philosophers, writers, theologians and scholars generally. Baltasar Gracián, the Spanish philosopher and writer, recognizes the relationship of friendship to the good life when he said, “True friendship multiplies the good in life and divides its evils. Strive to have friends, for life without friends is like life on a desert island… to find one real friend in a lifetime is good fortune; to keep him is a blessing.” In Hamlet, Shakespeare allows Polonius to advise Laertes: “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,/
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” With Aristotle, we arrive at a very deep reflection on the value of friendship. For Aristotle, there are three types of friendship—friendship based on utility, the one based on pleasure, and finally the one founded on virtue. A perfect friendship is a virtuous one. Such friendship does not exist because with it each of the friends finds each other useful for a reason; or because they derive pleasure from being in each other’s company. Rather, a friendship is good and perfect because the friends love each other for the sake of friendship. This simply means, for Aristotle, that such a virtuous friendship is only possible between friends who are good or who are similar in their moral character.

I agree with you: our sociological and cultural realities complicate the idea of friendship more than Aristotle or Shakespeare or any intellectual understanding of it can unravel. There is a large sense in which we become who we are because of the kind of friends we keep. It is now an axiomatic part of our social imagination to say, “show me your friends and I will tell you who you are.” Indeed, it seems logical to argue that a person’s life is the sum of his relationships. If this is correct, we are therefore driven by pure reflection to inquire into those personal and sociological dynamics that drive us into friendship, and that drives us out of it. The value of friendship is laid in the family. Nietzsche hits the nail on the head when he remarks that “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” The family presents to us the purest form of philia—the friendship between husband and wife, between parents and children, and between siblings.

However, even the sacred ambiance of the family is not sufficient to save us from the terrible consequences that friendship has to suffer in the face of the stark realities of life. When Julius Caesar, in amazement, uttered the famous statement, “Et tu, Brute?”, it was a terrifying moment that brutally summarizes the many encounters that friendship has had to go through. Caesar and Brutus were bosom friends. But by the time the political intrigues of ancient Rome unfolded, friendship became subordinated to necessities. Julius Caesar must have died with a fundamental confusion about how his friend could have been at the center of the conspiracy that took his life. The even more tragic story of Romeo and Juliet has become the archetypal narrative of forlorn friendship that is circumvented by life’s inclement incidences. Both instances of philia tragedy bring closer to us the relationship between emotion and reason in relationships. Julius Caesar was the most rational of humans. His friendship was founded on instrumental considerations. The friendship between Romeo and Juliet was mediated by deep philia emotion.

For how long can one keep a friend? This is a fundamental question because it alludes to the ravages of time and distances in relationship. Many of us have lost one friend or the other to a distance that makes the fire of friendship grows dim. The Yoruba say that twenty children cannot play for twenty years: that circle of friendship founded on proximity is inevitably destroyed by time, by distance, and is ultimately ravaged by death. Yet, there are many friendships that endure forever. That timeless hymn declares: “there is not a friend like Jesus.” True friendship endures, and defies all contrary realities and pressures. This perhaps is what Julius Caesar was expecting from Brutus. When he asked the question, “And you too, Brutus?”, he was wondering how his friend could have been drawn into the conspiracy that led him to pushing the knife into his own friend. Caesar knew at that point that he had miscalculated how true his friend could be. Unlike Caesar, the Biblical David knew what true friendship implies. Jonathan represented all he should run away from and never trusted, even though they were “friends”. But Jonathan came through. David and Jonathan endured despite the animosities of Saul, Jonathan’s father, and David’s sworn enemy. David and Jonathan represent Aristotle’s understanding of friendship founded on virtue and character.

One would have thought that with the advent of the social media, information technology, and the transformation of the idea of presence and absence, the idea of friendship would receive a technological boost. With the aid of the internet and sundry communication technologies like the mobile phones, human relationships ought to have become essentially strengthened and even more consolidated. The irony is that the opposite is now the case. Thus, while the world is fast becoming a global village, there is now a gradual but steady enlargement of the philia gap between people. This is not only a fascinating communication paradox, but a disturbing sociological nightmare. I have come across so many images and video of children lamenting the “absence” of their parents from their lives even though the parents are physically present in the home. Statistical analyses have been carried out on the growing addition to phones and the pandemic of stricken relationship. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, “friends” are deleted and blocked with abandon!

Friendship has always fascinated me at several points. I have often wondered how many friends I have made in life and at several juncture of existence; and how many friends I have lost due to stupidity, ignorance of the basics of relationship and through acute betrayal. Growing up and attending schools have left me with lots of queries about how enduring any relationship can ever be. How many friends can I ever logically and humanly be able to keep? Should I feel a sense of guilt if my friend list begins to shrink? If twenty children cannot ever hope to play together for twenty years, as the Yoruba saying attests, should I even think that my friend list should keep growing? Friends have set me back, and friends have equally advanced me. How then do I engage with Aristotle, and mediate the instrumental considerations which enables me to count on my friends to ensure my progress? Is it wrong, absolutely, for me to use my friends to advance my calling? Is life not about exchanges and mutual reciprocity?

Our idea of friendship is often juxtaposed against the idea of a stranger. A friend is someone we know, as opposed to someone else we do not know. Now, this brings us to a critical point because this essentially makes friendship, like citizenship, nationalism and all other such concepts, an exclusionary concept. It simply means that to have a friend is to have an unequal relationship that leaves out non-friends and strangers. We owe our friends some level of obligations and responsibilities that we do not ever owe those we consider strangers, and even acquaintances. The worry, however, is that the distinction between friends and strangers assumes that we have the capacity to determine the conditions that makes some people our friends. We forget, for instance, that those we consider our friends today used to be stark strangers before. And that there is the possibility that today’s friend may eventually fall out of our friend zone into strangeness.

What we cannot deny, however, is that friendship is essential to life and existence. There are many times we may not have any concrete control over who we become friendly with or who chooses us as friends. But we have a great capacity to control what we make of that friendship as a most beautiful and most valuable component of who we are and what we are able to achieve to make existence a most meaningful thing before death ends all.

*Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration (tolaopa2003@gmail.com ; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)