Friendship in Early Modern Philosophy and Science

By Smith, Vanessa; Yeo, Richard | Parergon, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Friendship in Early Modern Philosophy and Science


Smith, Vanessa, Yeo, Richard, Parergon


It is now well accepted that 'collaboration' and 'network' are keywords in academic research management, in both the humanities and the sciences. This collection of articles looks at some aspects of the deep history of these notions, focusing on the ways in which collaborative effort was conceived in the natural and political sciences, philosophy, and the creative arts in early modern Europe (c. 1550-1750). In particular, we restore the idea of friendship as fundamental to the ways in which collaboration was imagined and conducted. In each of the texts and contexts examined here, a claim is made for friendship as a crucial aspect of intellectual inquiry. Contributors have aimed to take this claim seriously, and to weigh, variously, the importance of a rhetoric of intimacy within scholarly networks, the relationship between friend and stranger in facilitating intellectual dialogue, the gendered nature of sociability in the learned world, and the circumstances that could render friendship both a necessary and a fraught conduit for cultural exchange.

Friendship has long been a philosophical topos. (1) In Plato's Lysis (c. 380 BC), Socrates encounters Hippothales, who is infatuated with the boy Lysis. Socrates is dismayed to find that Hippothales is confessing his devotion in poetry and song, and offers to demonstrate the superior effect of uncompromising argument in attracting young minds. He engages Lysis and his friend Menexus in conversation on the subject of friendship, raising and then disposing of propositions until he is forced to admit he is lost for words and has failed to define friendship. Socrates' propositions concern the issue of reciprocity:

   which is the friend of which? Is the lover the friend of the
   beloved, whether he be loved in return or hated; or is the
   beloved the friend; or is there no friendship
   at all on either side, unless they both love one another? (2)

He attempts to balance various similar terms: are the like and the like friends? Or do unlike types attract one another, by a compensatory logic? Does the union of virtue with virtue make for perfect friendship? Is it a question of mutual congeniality? Yet Socrates and his interlocutors are confounded by the sufficiency of putative friends to themselves. Like can add nothing to like; goodness is a kind of wholeness. Worthy friends in fact require nothing else for their completion. Socrates concludes that

   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 I cannot remember all--if none of these are friends,
   I know not what remains to be said ... as yet we have not
   been able to discover what is a friend. (3)

Socrates is franker than most subsequent philosophers in drawing attention to the limitations of his argumentative powers in defining friendship. Plato's dialogue also inaugurates a long tradition of engagement with the topos of friendship. While Socrates argues explicitly that the integrity of the self renders friendship unnecessary, the dialogue might be said to show that philosophical completeness is only attained between two reflecting and sparring selves. Thus the dialogic form is itself here integral to the argument; the relationship of genre to thinking on friendship is explored in articles in this issue by Diana Barnes and Elizabeth Eger.

The paradox of friendship, as both occurring between equals, and enabling a completion of the self, is probed in books VIII and IX of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics (c. 350 BC). Aristotle divides friendship into three types--the pleasurable, the useful, and the good--and goes on to argue that philia, the friendship between equals in virtue, incorporates and subsumes those lesser friendships based around pleasure and use, offering a reciprocal model of friendship. As Ronna Burger has argued, however, Aristotle's thesis shifts in Book IX, where the friend becomes necessary to the self not as reflection, but as the other voice in a dialogic relationship:

   The friend was originally designated an allos autos, suggesting
   the replication of myself as an other; as a partner in dialogue
   he becomes heteros autos, forming a pair with me precisely
   because of the difference that makes him genuinely other. … 

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