Friendship is a topic as old as we are. The nature and meaning of friendship have been plumbed by the greatest thinkers in all of history so when I read the postaday 2011 topic of the day I was loath to add my own opinions to such an illustrious list. What could I say that had not already been said far better by someone else?
Aristotle, an acute observer of humanity, said that “a friend to all is a friend to none”, pointing out that you can’t like everyone and still remain true to yourself. He also said that “wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit” and so it is that there is not time enough to become truly intimate with more than a few other souls in this life. This means that regardless of how many facebook friends that you can claim the real circle of friends will always be small. Scientific studies indicate that we can perhaps include as many as 150-300 people in our group called friends but in reality that represents a much wider circle than what most of us would refer to as genuine pals.
In his Rules of Civility George Washington says “Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence”. So it is apparent that the choices we make in friendship affect our lives and few of us are willing to open up and show ourselves to the whole world. This makes us all restrict our true friendship to only those few who we share the most in common. Sometimes our friends are those who dislike the same people that we dislike, there is no rule upon which friendship is founded but as Thomas Aquinas said “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship”.
Friends can be transient as we pass through different social circles and as Emerson once remarked “A man’s growth is seen in the successive choirs of his friends” and our choice of friends often defines who or what we are in a larger social context. John Gay wrote
Who friendship with a knave hath made,
Is judged a partner in the trade.
We are often influenced by the company that we keep and in the days of 1000 friends on social networks it is all that much easier to be led away from one’s true friends to an empty cyber social scene that meets in chat rooms. Do we ever really get to know these cyber friends at all? Without the benefit of physically spending time with people can we ever really know if they are being straight with us, if they are real or imaginary, a façade.
Most importantly though, we can see ourselves through the eyes of our closest companions just as they see themselves through our own eyes. This process involves a certain amount of acceptance on both parts, a chance to trust someone enough to lower our walls and let them share our real self. Of all of the people that we know there are very few that any of us know that we could count on in a crisis. As Euripides points out “Friends show their love – in times of trouble, not in happiness” just as in those very times of happiness we enjoy our company of friends for its quality and genuineness. All of us would hope to be able to say, as Yeats puts it “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends”.
How many friends can we have? We can have as many, or as few, as we need. The world is filled with people that will pass by but as Marlene Dietrich put it, “It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.”