Savour the Mundane
Mark Vernon on Friendship, Love and Sex

Mark Vernon on the Three Kinds of Friendship

The Meaning of FriendshipWhat is friendship? Why are we friends with some people but not others? Why do some friendships last while others wither away? These are some of the questions considered by Mark Vernon in The Meaning of Friendship.

According to Aristotle, there are three reasons people may be friends: because they are useful to each other, because they enjoy some shared interest, or because they value each other for who they are.

Most work friendships fall into the first group. Consider how we typically feel when a colleague leaves:

“Why is it that you can have known a colleague for years, enjoyed their company day after day, worked with them, even helped them when personal matters spilt into the workplace, and yet, when they left, it was, overnight, almost as if you had never known them? You might miss them for a day, perhaps a week, and hope their new job is going well. But, in truth, most of the people with whom we were once friendly at work disappear from our lives with little more than a toast in the canteen, or best wishes on a card. It is very odd, when you consider all the time you spend with these people, and the genuine exchange of good feeling. And yet, it is entirely understandable when you realise that the relationship was, at heart, one of utility, based mostly on what was done together. Take that shared activity away, which is what happens when people leave work, and the friendship withers like a cut flower. It is not that they were not liked or had nothing in common with you. It is that the thing held in common - the work - is gone; without doing that together the relationship ceases to have reason or purpose.”

The second group is similar to the first, except that the shared interest is pleasurable rather than utilitarian. It may be a common love of board games or birdwatching, shopping or sex. Like the first group, however, the friendship only thrives for as long as the shared pleasure continues to exist.

Vernon argues that it is friendships of the third kind – those who enjoy being together because of who they are in themselves – that are the most durable. However, while this may be a necessary component of the best friendships, it may not be sufficient:

“In [philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche's book, longevity is not the determining measure of friendship. A short-lived friendship may nonetheless be the most important of your life. It's not that there is anything wrong with long-lived friends per se; it is rather that time can suck the authenticity out of friendship... Such friends do not really share that much, beyond their association, and so wind away the hours talking about this and that, conspiring in indecision and perhaps in all honesty becoming nuisances to one another...

[Nietzsche] also suspects that such relationships are untrustworthy because when the dynamism disappears from a friendship, but the individuals concerned cannot quite bring it to an end, they constantly strive to re-establish their intimacy with each other - by dwelling on the 'old times' or college days; the past, not the future. This is a sign that habit has become a substitute for any real affection or closeness.

Nietzsche is not saying that a shared past is not important to close friends. Rather, he's arguing it's not enough. His observation about the future orientation of the best friendships is an arresting one.”

To Nietzsche the true joy to be found in friendship is not the collapse of boundaries between the individuals, nor a sense of like-mindedness. Rather, like the Missing Piece and the Big O, it’s the realisation that they are moving in the same direction.

Most of our friendships don't reach such heights. Yet for Nietzsche there was value in more superficial friendships too:

"Just as in order to walk beside an abyss or cross a deep stream by a plank one needs a railing, not so as to hold on to it - for it would at once collapse if one did that - but to give the eye a feeling of security, so as a youth one has need of people who without knowing it perform for us the service of a railing. It is true that, if we were really in great danger, they would not help us if we sought to rely on them, but they give us the quieting sensation that there is protection close at hand."

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