William Deresiewicz has penned an interesting essay on friendship in the age of Facebook (Vultilibris?). I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusion that Facebook has debased traditional notions of male-male friendship–I think Kate Harding at Broadsheet has a better point when she underscores the cultural roles that “force boys and men to squelch their feelings and keep their emotional distance"–but Deresiewicz does his readers a service in sketching the idea of amicitia in the ancient world:
The idea of friendship in ancient times could not have been more different. Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Virgil’s Nisus and Euryalus: Far from being ordinary and universal, friendship, for the ancients, was rare, precious, and hard-won. In a world ordered by relations of kin and kingdom, its elective affinities were exceptional, even subversive, cutting across established lines of allegiance. David loved Jonathan despite the enmity of Saul; Achilles’ bond with Patroclus outweighed his loyalty to the Greek cause. Friendship was a high calling, demanding extraordinary qualities of character—rooted in virtue, for Aristotle and Cicero, and dedicated to the pursuit of goodness and truth.
The observation echoes much of Cicero’s own essay De Amicitia, from the exceptional nature of “elective affinities"…
Namque hoc praestat amicitia propinquitati (here a general “relationship” of kin or citizenship), quod ex propinquitate benevolentia tolli potest. Ex amicitia non potest; sublata enim benevolentia amicitiae nomen tollitur, propinquitatis (sc. nomen) manet. (6.19)
…to the necessary ingredient of character rooted in virtue.
Qui ("there are those who") autem in virtute summum bonum ponunt–praeclare illi quidem ("quite rightly indeed"). Sed haec ipsa virtus amicitiam et gignit et continet nec sine virtute amicitia esse ullo pacto potest. (ibid. 20)
Deresiewicz is right about the powerful bond generated by friendship in the ancient world; modern notions of male friendships (e.g. the fake “bromances” of a Judd Apatow movie) suffer by comparison. For example, it is difficult for modern eyes to see the strong friendship depicted between, say, Nisus and Euryalus in the Aeneid and not presume a homosexual relationship. That IMO says much more about modern than ancient culture.
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