In this article I explore and discuss the arguments of Foucault, Bray and others, arguing that the western European debate on friendship in the Enlightenment was more complex and contested than they suggest.
I pay particular attention to eighteenth-century French radical thinkers such as Helvétius and the Marquis d’Argens who, influenced by materialist philosophy, sought to deflate idealized views of selfless friendship and to show that all human relationships were ultimately driven by calculated self-interest. On closer examination, however, their views on friendship were less consistent, and less coldly rational, than some critics have assumed. The complex political connotations of friendship became particularly significant in the revolutionary era at the end of the century, when it became both the sentimental underpinning for solidarity among equals—‘fraternity’—and widely invoked as the guiding spirit of attempts to forge solidarity across cultural differences, by becoming ‘friends’ of Jews or non-European slaves. Despite the widespread aspiration in the eighteenth century to place private intimacies under public and analytical scrutiny, the nature of friendship continued to resist neat codification or definition.