Conceptualizing Friendship in Time and Place

In: Conceptualizing Friendship in Time and Place
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This introduction reflects on the different meanings of ‘friendship’ in diverse social and cultural settings as well as historical periods. It provides a sketch of the research on the topic in various fields of scholarship, and presents an overview of the several articles included in this volume. The review attached illustrates the scale on which friendship applies in different contexts, and summarizes some of the most common characteristics and values associated with the concept.

A concept such as ‘friendship’ can be called universal on the understanding that it finds its local, varying expressions in time and place. Still, in many respects, friendship remains an elusive notion. In the broadest sense of the word, ‘friendship’ refers to a valuable relationship of some kind between individuals. In some languages, a single term may cover the whole range of relations from kinship to ties of affection between people who, until recently, were complete strangers to each other. With a paradox that exists only in virtue of the narrower sense of the term ‘friendship,’ those who are ‘friends’ on a formal basis may actually not even like each other, without any contradiction in terms. In languages like English, on the other hand, it does make sense to say, “we are not only cousins, but also friends.” As shades of friendship are enacted within a wider set of relationships and moralities, nuances in meaning and everyday performance can easily be overlooked or misunderstood. The context in which a particular sense of friendship is embedded may also be shifting.

In his well-known book The Friend, social historian Alan Bray describes how in the Middle English period vows of sworn brotherhood were also seen as ‘weddings,’ which involve binding promises.1 Bray analyses the ‘relational fabric’ (to use the attractive phrase coined by Foucault)2 of certain male friendships in history as an arena of meaning inviting further analysis. To find appropriate expressions to cover the shades of fluidity and continuity tinging the notion of friendship in a still wider sense involves an even more complicated challenge. How best to approach such a topic?

Since we are publishing in the English language, first of all it seems appropriate to make explicit that the English term ‘friendship’ by itself by no means refers to a culturally neutral concept. When used in the current Western context it tends to carry a presumption that bonds of friendship should be ‘voluntary’ and ‘sincere,’ and that they be devoid of ulterior ends. Only when these conditions are met is a friendship judged to be valuable. Thus sincerity is seen as the most exclusive and highly valued form of expression friendship can take. The moral position that any form of instrumentality in friendship dilutes the quality of the relationship in some way follows naturally from this view. The English term also implies a certain basis of ‘equality’ between friends, which need not be universal.

In this volume, the term ‘friendship’ will be used as an overall catchword—in the broadest sense, covering relationships of solidarity among individuals—as it finds its varying expressions in societies worldwide. As a single language can articulate differing conceptual meanings or provide for specific nuances in naming styles of friendship, investigating this terminology while taking into account the social and moral implications involved, is likely to yield valuable information on forms of human interaction and relatedness. Initially, we aimed at including contributions from all over the world. For one book, however, this proved too wide an aim. Therefore, we decided to limit ourselves to Asian and Western contexts, while very much regretting we could not include, for instance, contributions from African3 and South American societies. With this collection of essays, then, we hope to gain a broader understanding and inspire a further debate.

This volume contains insights of thirteen scholars from a variety of disciplines: each with specific knowledge of meanings and practices of friendship in specific historical periods and localities. Each author was invited to contribute an essay on this theme, set within a socio-cultural context of the authors’ choice and expertise.

Ancient reflections on the phenomenon of friendship in both regions offer a rich field of research, and are addressed in several contributions. In Asia, written reflections on the theme of friendship had already begun on a substantial scale in pre-modern China, and the concept remained part of traditional Chinese ethics. Mencius (372–289 bce), the second most important philosopher in the tradition of Confucius (ca. 551–479 bce), included friendship among his ‘five cardinal human relationships’:4 love between father and sons, righteousness between rulers and their subjects, seniority between older and younger brothers, difference between husbands and wives, and trust between friends. At approximately the same time in ancient Greece, friendship as representing various forms of solidarity and mutual profit was also a central theme in discourse that reflected socio-political developments.5 The dissident moral position taken by the figure of Socrates (469–399 bce) with his emphasis on care for quality of the soul of the individual—both the self and the friend—, and Aristotle’s (384–322 bce) analysis of types of friendship were of seminal importance. From Roman antiquity, the dialogue On Friendship or Laelius De Amicitia by Cicero (106–43 bce) remained influential.

Several authors discuss cases concerned with historical change, in the semantics, ideology, and the performance of friendship. Direct lines of continuity cannot easily be drawn, and distinguishing between historical continuities and mere conceptual similarity is a complex matter in any case. Others describe contemporary notions of family, gender, personhood/the self, sociality and ‘the relational’ in various cultural settings, which at times offers insight into cross-cultural influences in shaping bonds of a kind. The cross-cultural perspective is not only of academic interest: awareness of the tremendous variation in degrees of taken-for-granted, implicit expectations with regard to continuity and reciprocity has an obvious social value more than ever today.

In this volume a variety of situations is discussed in which bonds of solidarity and intimacy are recognized and given shape. These forms of friendship may involve kinship and family ties, bonds among peers, relationships across differences in culture, class, caste or race, as well as bonds between persons of different ages, of the same or of different sex. Friendship may also include an erotic dimension—an aspect currrently no longer considered part of friendship in the West, although in earlier historical periods it was recognized as such.

Attention is also paid to the specific performance of such relationships in various cultural contexts. To understand the workings of ‘friendship’ in a specific cultural setting demands an extensive knowledge of local (shifting) moralities—apparently even more relevantly than in the case of family, which involves a lesser fluidity and a higher level of articulated formal rules of exchange and duties. What does the continuity of friendship require in specific localities? Much of personhood and social life is performed in a way that is taken for granted. The cultural taken-for-granted element may show significant variations: within one (sub-)culture, for instance, people seem to be able to lose touch more easily than others.

Of course, we have the advantage of several earlier publications on the topic. Much has been written on poetry as it was practised during the various early historical periods in China, with its expressions of friendship and its emphasis on civil rather than military virtues.6 These authors stress the beauty and simplicity that was pursued. Burton Watson brings across the specific place of poetry woven into the life and history of the Chinese people:

Whatever level of society it may have sprung from, poetry is woven into the life and history of the Chinese people, and perhaps no other facet of their traditional culture possesses such universal appeal.7

Watson points to the virtually unbroken stream of poetic output from 300 bce or earlier, down to the present century. The invention of making paper and printing seven centuries later, greatly contributed to the dissemination and preservation of literary works. He emphasizes its remarkable degree of accessibility, and its “on the whole unusually humanistic and commonsensical tone, seldom touching on the supernatural or indulging in extravagant fights of fancy and rhetoric.”8 As Sabina Knight says, “China’s survival over three thousand years, may owe more to its literary traditions than to its political history.”9

As a historian of Chinese culture and literature, Martin W. Huang analyzed the negotiation and representation of masculinity in late imperial China, also based on the discourse of male literati friendship.10 In her recent study on Qui Jin (1875?–1907), Hu Ying relates the story of an impressive example of female friendship in the context of socio-political tensions in China near the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912).11

From a historical perspective in the West, the study of early Greek and Roman societies resulted in a wide corpus of publications and theory making.12 Allan Silver highlighted how, in eighteenth-century Europe, concepts of friendship and trust underwent a shift in meaning within the context of the rise of commercial society.13 Philosopher Neera Kapur Badhwar’s work offers a valuable overview of moral thought and political issues throughout Western history;14 in a similar vein, in 2010, Albrecht Classen and Marilyn Sandige published a monumental volume on the history of friendship in the West, with regard to the Middle Ages and Early Modern times in particular.

The important historical study by Alan Bray (1948–2001), which focused on the significance of male friendships, is also distinctly future-oriented, while the recent work of Ethan J. Leib on the West signals the current-day need to transform the notion of friendship. He draws attention to the need for legal institutions to acknowledge friendships in a variety of different contexts.15 Both of these books offer valuable new views on the shifting significance of the concept of friendship within today’s Western societies. While most publications deal with friendships between men, at times friendship between women was investigated both from a historical perspective and on a more analytic basis.16

In sociology, the publication “In Search of Friendship” by Robert Paine was influential.17 The importance of propinquity for friendship has been described in classical work done in the field of social psychology.18 In anthropology, until recently, the topic of friendship attracted much less attention than the much analyzed and debated concept of ‘kinship,’ but since the second half of the 1990s scholarly literature on kinship has been extended by research on the bonds of friendship.19 An important contribution to the idiom in which to describe and characterize everyday ways of expressing forms of relatedness20 and friendship was made by Overing and Passes (2000), who presented the concept of ‘sociality’ to name the specific culturally taken-for-granted ways of shaping an everyday conviviality within a society.21

The volume has three sections. The first section comprises two contributions dealing with classical Asian sources. The four contributions in the second section focus on historical moments of change with regard to the concept of friendship in Western/European cultures, starting from Greco-Roman antiquity. The third, broader, section presents reflections on friendship and some of its practices in East and West in more recent historical periods as well as in modern times.

Section 1: Classical Asian Sources and Traditions

In the opening article, “The Chinese Concept of Friendship: Confucian Ethics and the Literati Narratives of Pre-Modern China,” Ping Wang analyzes the context and implications of friendship among the literati, well-known for their poetry. Wang points to the dominant Chinese philosophy on relationship, firmly rooted in a Confucian ethics of smaller solidarities—starting from relationships between family members and, by extension, between friends. This is contrasted to the tradition of Daoism, in which friendship is rather a universal concern that involves interpreting life from a metaphysical point of view. Significantly, within Confucian ethics, friendship is included in ‘wulun,’ the five cardinal human relationships described above. Thus, within this perspective, the individual can never be defined by ‘the self’ alone.

According to Confucian ethics, people learn to love humanity through its particular expressions of role ethics as formulated in all four Confucian canonical texts known as the “Four Books.” The key concept of ‘ren,’ referring to filial piety and fraternity, involves a conduct towards others close to the concept of the ‘pengyou’ (roughly translated as ‘friend’) also covering other closely-knit groups, sharing values and aspirations as exemplified by the friendship among literati and artists, promoting the integrated creation of literature and art. Friends are essential to each other like parts of an organism; friends may well be more important than one’s wife. Your place is where your friends are. The importance of solidarities on a smaller scale does not exclude the broader perspective that everyone has to play its part in a larger whole. As Wang argues, in spite of significant changes in family structure in the past few decades, Confucian values remain influential.

In the second contribution, “The Concept of Friendship in the Jātaka Tales,” Ranjini Obeyesekere points to the fundamental status of friendship as a basis for human interaction in classical Asia. The Jātaka stories, a collection of over five hundred folk tales featuring both animals and human beings, first appeared in the Buddhist canon and may go back to stories formulated by the council of early Buddhist monks in the third century bce. Some of the stories are also depicted in early Buddhist sculptures. Nowadays these tales, also known as the stories of the Buddha’s previous births, are still used by monks in sermons to illustrate a moral point or a certain human frailty. During the British colonial era (1795–1947), these stories were translated into English under the editorship of Edward B. Cowell and published by the Pāli Text Society, London. A second series of translations into English was published as Buddhist Legends.22

Obeyesekere is undertaking an English translation from the fourteenth century Sinhala version of these currently still extremely popular tales. She chose to present here three such stories to elucidate how friendship was perceived in the society of medieval South Asia, making explicit the underlying moral concepts. For example, at first sight the deep trust between such very different animals as an elephant and a dog seems highly unlikely. Their relationship seems to have grown, more or less accidentally, out of a daily close association, rather than being due to any form of contractual obligations. Within the Buddhist framework of karma and the cycle of rebirth, such friendships can be understood to be a consequence of similar close associations in previous lives in a long cycle of rebirths. In other stories, gratitude is said to find its source in protection received in former lives. This can lead to unusual bonds between different animals (such as a lion and a jackal) in later births. Unusual friendships that are ‘simply’ voluntary are also recognized.

Section 2: Western/European Traditions

In “Friendship After Money: The Case of Classical Greece,” Tazuko van Berkel describes how friendship operates as “a historical variable” in the Greek classical world. She illustrates how the way people think about friendship may be transformed by (drastic) historical change; she also shows how the language reflecting such changes offers new metaphors, thus making new perceptions of interpersonal relationships possible.

One such fundamental transformation was created by the invention and rapid spread of coin money in the Greek world of the sixth century bce, with far-reaching consequences for the conceptualization of friendship (philia) in Greek popular thought. In archaic times (before the fifth century bce), long-term interpersonal bonds were predominantly conceived in terms of reciprocity: as is shown, for instance, by the interactions of the heroes in the Homeric epic poetry (eighth century bce, but including more ancient notions), the return of favors and the exchange of benefits serving to create lasting ties of gratitude and obligation. The increasing monetization of the economy in the context of the Greek city-states, however, produces a new notion of mutuality in terms of commercial transaction. When performed more or less simultaneously, mutual exchanges of equivalent goods do not rely upon a lasting relationship between the participants. This new kind of exchange, of course, allows for multiple interpretations of the same exchange events (a gift, a loan, or a swap), and thus may create conflicting understandings of the relationships on which they are based.

The demarcation challenges created by this ambiguity, and maybe also the negative ring of economic idiom in the context of friendship relations, lead to new cultural constructions of reciprocity in friendship, as distinct from monetary transaction. This is illustrated by the conviction of Socrates that friendship is forged in and through the sharing of intrinsically valuable goods (such as wisdom), contrasting with the (likewise fifth-century) practice of sophists who favor the view that being taught wisdom has its price and that what is valuable for success in society should be sold to anyone who wants it.

In her analysis, Van Berkel makes convincing use of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘misrecognition’23 in relation to the concept of trust, which helps to understand and place the shifting meanings of ‘gratitude’ and obligation, as distinct from earlier understandings of moral bookkeeping. In the fourth century bce, this ‘Debtor Paradigm of Obligation’ was also criticized by Aristotle, because of its failure to recognize the importance of intentions and character.

In “The Road To Wisdom: A New Conceptualization of Friendship in Fourth-Century bce Athens,” Albert Joosse discusses a new, more intellectual role ascribed to friendship in classical Athens, which was created during the fourth century bce through a new interpretation of wisdom. Joosse first sketches the development of the concept of friendship in previous times in both literary and scientific/philosophical contexts.

The literary tradition (from Homer, the eighth century bce, onwards) offers a model of friendship that requires reciprocity between friends; wisdom involves social skills in selecting friends that can be relied upon in difficult times. Thus, the common theme of traditional Greek wisdom literature on friendship concerns how to live well with one’s friends and how to treat them well.

In the philosophical tradition (starting from the scientifically minded revolutionaries of the sixth century bce in the region of Asia Minor), the ability of human beings to grasp the (divine) unity and order of the cosmos is a central issue. In the gap between divine reality (knowledge of which is wisdom) and the human perspective (in search of wisdom), friendship finds a new role. Constructions of wisdom as something highly theoretical change the focus to valuing wisdom in itself, promoting—or degrading, according to one’s view of life—friendship to a prerequisite of wisdom.

It is in the Platonic Academy especially that this more specific conception of wisdom causes a reversal of its relationship with friendship. Since knowledge of the self is considered an essential element of both traditional and philosophical wisdom, this also can be acquired only via one’s equals. If the path to so lofty a goal is open to humans at all, it must be through a shared journey. This line of argument is echoed in Aristotle’s famous theory of friendship, and this understanding of friendship has remained an integral part of Western traditions ever since.

Allan Silver has published widely on friendship in Western societies. In his contribution to this volume, “Historical Moments of Friendship Ideals: David & Jonathan, Montaigne, Adam Smith,” Silver observes that in modern society the highest ideals of friendship center on sincere intimacy and trustful self-disclosure, which have become incompatible with earlier concepts such as honor, interest and gain. He deals with three historical moments bearing on the place of self-interest in friendship ideals in Western culture.24

As an example of ancient warrior societies, Silver focuses on the bond between David and Jonathan as described in the Old Testament bible, probably written down in the seventh to sixth centuries bce. Through semantic analysis and by taking into consideration the narrative power of the story, Silver shows how modern interpretations in terms of exemplary, altruistic friendship are anachronistic. This is due to their failure to grasp aspects such as the fundamental solidarity between male warriors, political interests, and the role of God’s charisma. Silver’s second example regards Montaigne (1533–1592), who rejects the prevailing aristocratic code of early modern Europe with its emphasis on action, while at the same time subverting the humanistic ideals of friendship inspired by classical authors such as Aristotle and Cicero. To Montaigne, perfect friendship exists between articulate, fully realized characters bound in emotional unison. In the development of a new pervasively commercial society (the third example discussed by Silver), Adam Smith (1723–1790) represents a moral theory of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Silver outlines how modern theory draws distinctions between utility, interest, and calculative relations on the one hand, and friendship involving sincere intimacy that may be trusted to be received with confidentiality, on the other. However, personal gain and intense friendship were highly compatible in many historical settings. The disinterested pure gift is a heroic, exceptional ideal before it becomes a secular ideal of personal friendship in modern bureaucratic and market societies. All examples focus on friendships between men.

In “Friendship in the European Enlightenment: The Rationalization of Intimacy?,” Adam Sutcliffe discusses various views on how the extremely lofty ideal of friendship inherited from the high cultural tradition of the Renaissance era developed into a more compromised nature of friendships to be distinguished in post-Renaissance Europe (from the seventeenth century onwards). This development was ascribed to a multiplicity of factors, such as changes in gender relations (due to the increasing presence of women in the public sphere), the instability of traditional class hierarchies (increasing with the advance of urban bourgeois culture), and the emergence of a more self-conscious attitude toward male sexuality and emotionality. Sutcliffe highlights the influence of Michel Foucault on the view of the eighteenth century as a key period in the rise of a modern culture in which unrestrained intimacy between men came to be seen as problematic.25 Alan Bray, influenced by Foucault, likewise argued that—in England at least—in this period flexible pre-modern notions of friendship, in which an erotic dimension was not regarded as transgressing a hard-and-fast divide, largely gave way to more rigid and ‘rationalized’ norms of interpersonal relations.26 Sutcliffe makes it clear that the debate on friendship during the European Enlightenment was less simple and more contested than these authors suggest. As a significant example from this period he presents the case of the French radical thinkers Helvétius (1715–1771) and the Marquis d’Argens (1704–1771). Influenced by materialist philosophy, they sought to deflate idealized views of selfless friendship by showing that all human relationships are ultimately driven by calculated self-interest. Sutcliffe argues that the humanist ideal of friendship was not uniform either—as exemplified by Spinoza (1632–1677), whose Ethics provided eighteenth-century French radicals with a model of a fearlessly secular approach to (personal and interpersonal) morality.

Section 3: Friendship in Contemporary East and West

The last section of this volume combines contributions regarding Asia and the West/Europe without a predominantly historical scope. In his contribution, “The Utility of ‘Translated’ Friendship for the Sinophone World: Past and Present,” Wei-cheng Chu makes a tentative exploration into the possible influence of friendship studies in the West for understanding the meaning of friendship in other parts of the world, the Chinese-speaking world in particular. He further discusses the question whether, and if so, how this understanding could have the potential to shift the parameters of human relationships in modern China.

Chu argues for a more critical (which in this case comes down to a more localized) stance, and offers an examination of a similar moment in pre-modern Chinese history, namely the late Ming era. At this time a (small) book on friendship was published by a pioneering Italian Jesuit missionary, who lived in China for most of his life, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610).27 This book was published in Chinese by several befriended local officials (in 1596, 1599, and 1601)—officially without Ricci’s knowledge, as Rome required all writings by Jesuits to have its prior permission for official publication. The book received a substantial response and finally was to become a the late Ming equivalent of a best-seller.28

In On Friendship, Ricci distilled what he saw as the best ideas on friendship from Renaissance Latin texts and—owing to his substantial knowledge of Chinese civilization—managed to re-write these into one hundred pure and provocative Chinese maxims. The response of progressive Chinese literati was substantial if not massive, since the publication of this Western philosophical discourse on friendship coincided with an already full-blown project to shift the parameters of friendship by progressive Chinese literati. Wei-cheng Chu also notes the erotic dimension that at the time might be incorporated in male friendship.29

Chu reflects on Western philosophies of friendship and argues that while those familiar with the old tradition of friendship may lament its modern, much less optimistic substitute, from an Asian perspective it is actually thought-provoking to see friendship become one of the most predominant categories among human relations in the West—which is still not (or at least not nominally) the case in the East. While acquaintances venturing beyond a chance encounter in the West would be introduced simply and naturally as friends, such a term within Chinese society would demand specification or would need to be subsumed under one of the existing hierarchical relationships. The floating concept of friendship now current in the West, as being socially not institutionalized and ideologically non-hierarchical, provides the term with disturbing or even suspicious associations in Chinese societies in any case.

The contribution by Kanako Akaeda, entitled “Intimate Relationships between Women as Romantic Love in Modern Japan,” concerns a historical and sociological study of friendship between women in modern Japan. Akaeda describes the gradual shift in public interpretation given to schoolgirl friendships and intimacy in the 1920s and 1930s. While initially such friendships were correlated to maternal affection and friendship—simply seen as a form of friendship or romantic love and a preparation for later maturity—this attitude was to change gradually in the modernizing Japan of the 1920s and 1930s. During that time, the intimate relationships between schoolgirls, known as ‘Sister-’ or ‘S-romances,’ gradually lost their taken-for-granted innocence and intimacy. They were no longer viewed as fully acceptable. While these girl–girl friendships had initially been seen as sound preparations for marriage, they gradually came to be viewed as overly intimate. Eventually, they were labeled as morally deviant (homosexual) behavior due to the growing influence of Western social science and its views on sexuality in particular (Freud, Krafft-Ebing and others, who became popular in Japan).

Andrew Lambert’s article “Impartiality, Close Friendships and the Confucian Tradition” offers a comparison between Western and Asian forms of friendship. Lambert explores as a case-study two rival views that remained a source of dispute in the history of European moral philosophy: impartiality and close friendship. Lambert presents a vivid illustration of the dilemma that these two concepts can create, and he offers as an alternative the conception of moral conduct and friendship as suggested by early Confucian thought. Without being guided by an underlying metaphysical framework, moral judgment becomes relational and contextual, grounded in concrete social rules and norms lacking any deeper form of justification, apart from appeal to precedent. Moral conduct aims at harmony, understood as the appropriate blending of different elements. Friendship acquires as it were an ethical task: to transform routine interpersonal interactions into broader social events, and to extend the circle of people with whom such events are created. So-called ‘event friendship’ offers a way out of the conceived dichotomy, since the basis for action may be transferred from close friendship’s knowledge of character to imaginatively integrating all people and relevant circumstances into the event.

In “The Performance of Friendship in Contemporary India,” ethnographer Nita Kumar sets out to establish the class-related, gendered, and provincial nature of friendship practices and discourses of ordinary people in India such as artisans and workers, as well as making a case for friendship as a performative process.

An important value both for elite and non-elite classes in India is dharma, or a reasoned intuition of ‘what is appropriate in a certain context.’ Another one is lila, or the idea of life as game or play. Kumar presents a variety of data and looks at her own interactions, as a representative of a high caste, with her informants and friends in the field—coming from a much lower caste. She argues that their understanding of friendship is striking, not as it permits an individualistic freedom in relationships, but rather since it works on the elastic assumption that relationships and roles are performances. She summarizes her various data to bring out that not only was she as an elite researcher enacting friendship in relation to her ulterior research motives, but that her informants, too, were likewise ‘performing friendship’ vis-à-vis their researcher. In Kumar’s words: “Performing friendship was what there was to do.”

“Shades of Thai Friendship among Migrant Thai Women in the Netherlands” by Panitee Suksomboon Brown regards cross-cultural marriages and transnational families of Thai migrant women and their Dutch husbands. She describes relationships between Thai women migrants and their husbands in the Netherlands; several of them also maintain good relationships with their husband’s parents. Next to their position as a Thai wife vis-à-vis her Dutch husband and his family, an important aspect of their daily life consists in the relationships/shades of friendship Thai migrant women aim to establish and maintain among themselves. In these relationships the Thai women often find support, and also the specific sociality of Thai friendship, which is celebrated periodically by large and lively get-togethers. The migrant brides experience these as being very different from the comparatively sober Dutch sociality of the small (often ‘nuclear family only’) gatherings with their in-laws.30 During her research in the Netherlands, Suksomboon found it challenging to find an appropriate and meaningful concept to describe these two contrasting ways of getting together. The concept of ‘sociality,’ or ways of keeping company, supplied her with the idiom to capture the taken-for-granted everyday ways of ‘being social.’

The article “On Family, Friendship and the Need for ‘Cultural Fuss’: Changing Trajectories of Family and Friendship in the Netherlands” by Carla Risseeuw is based on interviews held during the early years of 2000—one of the first periods of a retraction of the welfare state. The Dutch, mainly urban, respondents were approached through an advertisement in several newspapers, to answer questions on the relationships they maintained with their family members and their friends. As (nuclear) families were becoming smaller in numbers, would this lead to friends taking a larger share of their social life in future? Most informants assumed they would; still, giving shape to such life-transitions at times proved more challenging than one had initially realized. Although families tended to become smaller, family bonds remained influential, irrespective of how these bonds were experienced. One informant said she now realized her friends had seldom or never had met her mother so that they would only be able to feel sorry for her loss, but not to share her grief for the loss of the particular person her mother was. Another respondent even observed that the strongest relation was that between a citizen and the welfare state with its extensive provisions of support and security.

In the last contribution, the focus is mainly on Western welfare states. In “Civil Friendship: A Proposal for Legal Bonds on Friendship and Care,” Natascha Gruver addresses the growing importance within Western welfare states of dealing adequately with the growing need to facilitate alternative ways of home-care and support for their citizens. This issue is rapidly gaining importance in view of the increase of relatively small nuclear families with few children, coupled with current day employment requirements, often entailing substantially larger distances between the homes of family members than former generations had to cover. Government care budgets, especially in relation to the elderly, seem to require ever-increasing funding. From this perspective, it becomes urgent to find lower-cost models. In this context Gruver argues for the option of expanding the current state provisions to take care of close family members customary in most of the North European welfare states. Gruver proposes that current state-supported options to take paid or unpaid care-leave should come to include not only close family members, but also appointed close friends—living in the vicinity—to be registered and acknowledged by the state as being entitled to take care-leave to support their friends if necessary.


When reviewing the individual contributions, one of the most striking insights seems to be the worldwide recognition of the importance of the concept of friendship, whether including or as distinct from kinship relations. Although characterized by a wide variation in meanings and practice, shifting through time, friendship invariably carries a substantial moral weight of a kind. As regards gender, it is surely significant that the qualification of ‘friendship’ seems to be used more often to describe relationships between members of the same sex, whether in Asia or in the West.

With regard to the scope of friendship in various contexts it may be observed that—not surprisingly—the basis of one’s personal safety and the primary reason for trust and solidarity is quite often located in a nuclear, or some kind of extended, family. As in ancient warrior societies, the solidarity group may be extended to broader inherited bonds, usually involving a hierarchy of status and rank, whose members are bound by long-term obligations. A striking characteristic of these comparatively narrow bonds of friendship consists in the fact that they often involve the explicit exclusion of others. An extreme expression of this demarcation line is found in the principle of ancient Greek morality to the effect that one should help one’s friends and harm one’s enemies.31

However, even when the inner circle of friendships is based on fixed primary kinship ties that are culturally undisputed, this does not necessarily entail exclusion. In the case of the ‘graded’ human relationships of Confucianism, where bonds between parents and brothers (notably: rather than sisters) are vital, the relationship between friends occupies the lowest position. Apart from more formalized, special cases of chosen (sworn, pseudo-kin) brotherhood, voluntary friendship relations are included as well. Although traditionally these may be considered to be less essential, the bond between friends might well appear to be more valuable in terms of feeling and commitment, especially in the context of travelling.32 The extension to a more inclusive notion of solidarity is found in the Mohist movement (named after Mozi, ca. 490–403 bce), advocating an impartial concern for the benefit of all members of society, based on a unified set of social norms.33

Universal friendship between all members of the human species is formulated by Aristotle from a more conceptual point of view: analogous natural bonds are said to exist within other animal species. The significant extension of the notion of friendship of humans to members of the animal world is ascribed to Aristotle’s successor Theophrastus, in the context of his arguments against animal sacrifice.34

In the context of reincarnation as well, human beings may have a consciousness of being associated with non-human animals as being inhabitants of a common universe during the cycle of rebirths. The Jātaka tales on the Buddha’s previous births relate stories of friendship between animals of different species who may have been connected by similar ties in previous lives. In Greek antiquity, there is the story of Pythagoras protesting against the beating of a puppy because he recognized the soul of a friend. This story may be interpreted as testifying to the view that an individual human soul lives on in a member of a different species, and thus should be distinguished from the view—or: experience—that friendship relations may exist between individual human beings and members of other animal species.35 At the far end of human solidarity, the ideal person in Mahayana Buddhism is full of compassion for all sentient beings and vows to help them reach enlightenment and salvation.36

Of course, friend(ship)s in different gradations may be distinguished: not every member of the wider circle is necessarily felt to deserve the qualification of ‘friend’ to the same degree. In friendship, virtue on the part of the partners is a strong card to play, whether in the (Confucian) combination of virtue and duty, or in the Aristotelian type of friendship based on virtue and ‘the good.’ The value of friends in this context may be conceived as relatively general and informal, or as a value more strongly bound by shared external conditions and by common ideals, as in the groupings of literati that Ping Wang describes. The latter example shows that friendship based on virtue and friendship based on utility are not always easy to distinguish (as Aristotle himself realized).

Where protection, favors and influence are at stake, a chosen solidarity group may acquire characteristics similar to those found in the case of the (extended) family and in warrior contexts. However, without guarantees given with kinship ties or offered by closed social communities, solidarity bonds call for trust on a more dynamic basis and for more ‘commercial’ kinds of reciprocity. The use of a friend as an instrument to acquire wisdom (in the circle of Plato’s Academy) may be conceived as an extreme and intellectualist case. In modern Western culture especially, friendship ties ideally are strongly based on (mutual) understanding. On the other hand, the enactment of a quite practical form of chosen solidarity can be found in the more or less conscious mutual performance of friendship in everyday life between an ethnographer and his or her informants.

As a species (or sign) of utility, pleasure may play an important role in the enactment of all these kinds of friendship. The discussion on the question whether ‘love’ is at stake in Greek philia of the classical period may be relevant here. Pleasure was an obvious part of the (comparatively luxurious, safe) community of the literati. Still, one of the more general lessons that may be drawn from the present volume is that the association of friendship with non-hierarchical personal relations, good company, warm feelings, and various degrees of intimacy is not universal.

An interesting observation in this context is the clear premise now prevalent in the West that friendship in principle does not involve an erotic dimension (unless one turns to classical antiquity).37 This can be quite different in cultural circumstances that seem less, (or not at all) in the grip of theories based on the assumption that social patterns are determined by the limitation of sexual desire for the purpose of perpetuation of the species. Western scholars such as Krafft-Ebing and especially Freud were famous exponents, who employed the notion of an ‘unconscious’ and its repression of thoughts too painful to acknowledge. The therapy of ‘psychoanalysis’ became the method to bring to the surface the unconscious, also through analyzing the patient’s dreams.38 These theories contributed to certain essentialist perspectives on identity and the self, which overall seem to be more marked in the West than the East.39

Currently Western forms of friendship seem to be characterized by high degrees of fragility. Here the challenge to create continuity is substantial. The current Western phenomenon of acknowledged friends losing touch relatively in ways that escape notice seems unique. In this context, the proposal to expand existing legal options for nuclear families to take (degrees of) ‘care-leave’ to include one or two appointed close friends is attractive, and one may hope not utopian.

During the process of completing this volume, it was inspiring and a great pleasure to gradually expand one’s acquaintance with the varied and shifting meanings and practices of ‘friendship’ in Asia and the Western world. We are extremely grateful to all the contributors for their valuable and original input and thank them deeply for all the work done and effort made.


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Bray, The Friend, 2003.


Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, 158; French ‘tissu relationnel,’ Dits et écrits, 310 (from: “Le triomphe social du plaisir sexuel, une conversation avec Michel Foucault,” interview conducted by Gilles Barbedette, October 1981).


See e.g. Guichard, Grätz, and Diallo (eds), Friendship, Descent and Alliance in Africa.


See Huang, “Male Friendship in Ming China,” 2; Ames, Confucian Role Ethics, 103–5; 114–21.


Van Berkel, “The Economics of Friendship.”


Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, 1–5; Idema and Haft, A Guide to Chinese Literature; Knight, Chinese Literature; Birrell, Chinese Myths—to mention but a few sources in English.


Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, 1.


Ibid., 3.


Knight, Chinese Literature, 3.


Huang, Negotiating Masculinities.


Ying, Burying Autumn. Poetry, Friendship, and Loss.


Konstan, Friendship in the Classical World; van Berkel, “The Economics of Friendship.”


Silver, “Friendship and Trust as Moral Ideals," and “Friendship in Commercial Society.”


Kapur Badhwar, Friendship.


Bray, The Friend, 2003 (published posthumously); Leib, Friend v. Friend, 2011.


For example: Cosslet, Woman to Woman; Ying, Burying Autumn; O’Connor, Friendships between Women.


Paine, “In Search of Friendship,” 1969.


Newcomb, “The Prediction of Interpersonal Attraction,” 1956; Nahemow and Lawton, “Similarity and Propinquity,” 1975.


See for example Graham, Kinship and Friendship in Modern Britain (1996); Bell and Coleman, The Anthropology of Friendship (1999); see also Desai and Killick, The Ways of Friendship (2010).


A concept originally coined by Carsten, Cultures of Relatedness, 2000.


Overing and Passes, The Anthropology of Love and Anger, 1–30.


Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka; Burlingame, Buddhist Legends, 1921.


French ‘méconnaissance’: Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, 6.


See in this context also Heehs, Writing the Self.


Foucault, “Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity,” 163–73.


See Bray, The Friend.


Ricci, On Friendship.


Translator Timothy Billings ibid., 2.


See Huang, Negotiating Masculinities in Late Imperial China.


In this context, see also the Dutch publications on degrees of social isolation in the Netherlands by Hortulanus, “Eenzame Naasten,” and Hortulanus, Machielse, and Meeuwesen, Sociaal Isolement.


Blundell, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies, 26–59.


Huang, “Male Friendship in Ming China,” 5–6; Ames and Rosemont, “Were the Early Confucians Virtuous?,” 29.


Lloyd, The Delusions of Invulnerability, 133–34; Black, A World History of Ancient Political Thought, 107–110; Fraser, “Mohism and Motivation.”


Baldry, The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought, 88–101; 142–45, referring to Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics viii. 1, 1155a16–22; Porphyry, De abstinentia ab esu animalium (On Abstinence from Eating Animals) 2.22, 3.25; see also Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals, 131–33.


Osborne, Dumb Beasts & Dead Philosophers, 45–50.


Liu, An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 218–19; 231–33.


Dover, Greek Homosexuality, 49–54; Huang, “Male Friendship in Ming China,” esp. 15 n. 48 on the term ‘homosexuality’: “For lack of a better term, I use terms such as ‘homosexual’ with hesitation, fully aware of its inadequacy in discussing many cases of male bonding in traditional China. Scholars of Western sexual history have argued that ‘homosexual’ was a concept ‘invented’ when those involved in same-sex love were singled out and identified as members of a ‘third gender,’ a result of the increasingly strong homophobia in Europe beginning from the eighteenth century. In late imperial China, people with inclinations toward same-sex passion were never considered belonging to a ‘third gender,’ and there was no gender category of ‘homosexuals’ in pre-twentieth-century China, as understood in its modern sense.”


Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis, 1886; Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900; The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901; Three Essays on Sexuality, 1905; Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 1915–1917.


Seigel, The Idea of the Self; Ames, Confucian Role Ethics, 102–14.