Philia – Personal Friendship
It’s not easy to be my friend. Sometimes I even think, I should wear a sign on my head: Warning – you better not even try to become my friend!
Anna and I were 10 years old when we came to meet in school – to see, meet, recognize each other. It was love, philia-love, at first sight. At that moment, neither she nor I knew what our friendship would require from each other, and I am grateful to both of us for we were simply taking one step after the other, naturally, getting closer and more familiar with each other, day by day. We have 34 years of philia by now – 34 years of a freely chosen, freely continued, freely developed and deepened friendship. I can’t tell how happy and thankful I am to both her and me.
Aristotle, who more than 2300 years ago was the first to develop comprehensive ethics and theory on friendship1, would have liked the two of us.
At age 11, Anna spent nearly an entire nighttime, trying to carefully cut out with her scissors pink sticky threads of chewing gum from my hair, without sacrificing too much of my at that age highly cherished hair. We were on a winter school trip in the mountains, and I had wholeheartedly engaged in a chewing gum battle with the girls from the other room.
I can count on you
At age 13, Anna was again cleaning my hair. This time with a paper handkerchief, lifting ugly, stinking pigeon shit from my head. Sensing the warm, fresh, fluid bird shit on my top was definitely no fun experience for myself. But at least I couldn’t see how disgusting it looked like. Anna could. I will never forget the face she made and the sounds of aversion that accompagnied her task, but she kept going cleaning. Since then I knew for sure: Anna was a true friend. I could count on her in worst conditions. Anna tought me the first law of the Art of Philia: How ugly you might present yourself on the surface, how terrible you might feel about yourself, a friend will respect you and remember your light. Nothing on me or inside me can be bad enough to not deserve love and attention.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes three types of friendship2: The most basic one is a connection that aims at utility and usefulness of a relationship. The second type in his system is called „friendship of pleasure“, which Aristotle describes as based on fleeting emotions and shared activity; he perceived it mostly in young people. The third and highest level of philia-love is called „friendships of the good“: They are based upon the common pursuit of good; in this connection both friends enjoy each other’s virtue and character. The most altruistic form of this noble friendship has found numerous examples in literature and movie making. Friedrich Schiller in has famous ballad „The hostage“ („Die Bürgschaft“, 1799) presented the self-less friends Moerus and Selinuntius, who were ready to give their life for each other – their philia eventually touched the tyrann’s heart, so he renounced to execute the death sentence, which he had imposed on Moerus.
Fortunately, our lives usually are less dramatic. All three expressions of philia have value – in ancient greek times as nowadays. „My best friends are those whom I can call at 2.00 nighttime for help – when the car broke down, when the relationship broke, when my idea of who I am has crashed“ – this is what I hear most often when I ask people about their vision of friendship. My friends are those whom I can do crazy things with and burst out in laughter. I remember Anna and me, at the age of 13, calling people on the phone, saying: „Hello, this is Tina Turner“ – and singing them „You are simply the best!“.
Friends find words for each other – honest words. They tell me, when I am in illusion and betraying myself. They give me notice, when they see me getting off track from what makes me happy. „While both the truth and one’s friends are loved, it is a sacred thing to give the highest honor to the truth”, writes Aristotle. He is right – and sometimes, truth and friends can go together. I am infinitely grateful for having these friends in my life.
I trust you
By creating community with the other, by creating repeated fulfulling philia experiences, trust can grow. Friendship then becomes much more than a connection based on giving and receiving, as Aristotle describes it for philia of utility. The wish to exchange love, affection and support, the commitment to be a reliable presence for my friends does then not necessarily originate from a feeling of obligation to give back. It becomes a natural and free wish, a wholehearted impulse to care for and abundantely give to the other.
This is not to say that Philia is an easy thing or happens simply by itself. Hurts and pain are intrinsic elements of every relationship, and we tend to attribute more weight to those hurts caused by our close ones, as they are close to our heart and vulnerability. This is where philia, in order to stay happy and alive, needs work on ourselves and with each other. For me in my teenager years, it was one of my best friends whom I felt betrayed by the most, when she started dating the young man I was in love and in a relationship with. It took years of distance, years of growth, months of raging and weeks of talking to come at peace with the fact that even your best friends at times act out on you their siblings rivalry, their ego needs and dysfunctional patterns. „I hurt“ – can I share these vulnerable words with the one who caused the pain? Can we talk about it without blame? It requires the security of the bond and the commitment to stick together, which philia can create. For friends as well as for lovers. True intimacy, that touches the fine strings of the inner harp, implies being in contact with each other in the tender places. Will you still love me when I am weak and ugly? Will you consider or forget me? Will you respect me when I’m fragile, when I let go of all control?
Walking through the dark together
When Anna was 32 and on a hike in the mountains, the man she had loved for many years slipped on the ice and fell down the cliffs from very large height. He was dead from one moment to the other. I had not been with them on the tour, I felt though my heart breaking like glass on the day of the accident. I will never forget the emptyness
of her stare when I finally met her. Her eyes looked as if inside she was dying with him. I wished I could safe her, I wished I could have cleaned her of a thousands of chewing gums and disgusts, but with my handkerchiefs her pain could not be brushed away. I was holding her, caressing, waiting, loving, hoping, praying that slowly, slowly one day my beloved friend would come back to life. And she did. Slowly, slowly, Anna started radiating again, engaging, trying to trust life even though. I felt happy beyond limits. Philia, I learnt, means patience and walking through the dark together; it can soften the most unbearable pain and wrap it in love.
And after a while life turned back to normal scale again. Last year Anna and I went on a sailing trip with a couple of friends. The waves were high, they rocked the boat heavily. Anna got seasick. She had eaten a Greek salad with Feta cheese, hardly digested. Joyfully I got myself water and handkerchiefs. I cleaned the boat in humbleness; honoring friendship, celebrating philia.
2 Artistotle In: Sachs, Joe (2002). Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics: Translation, Glossary and Introductory Essay. Focus Publishing. chapter VIII sec. 1156a.
3 Schiller, F., Fiedler, K. (2014). Die Bürgschaft. Weimar: Aionas