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The Art of Friendship

November 30, 2012

Jessica V. Chiu in Paris Review:

Philia, the root of Philadelphia, roughly translates to “friendship” in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, an enduring source for understanding the ethics of friendship. Aristotle identifies three essential bases for friendship: utility, pleasure, and virtue. Friendships of virtue, Aristotle believes, are ideal because only they are based on recognition. (…)

Friendship has never seemed both more important and less relevant than it does now. The concept surfaces primarily when we worry over whether our networked lives impair the quality of our connections, our community. On a nontheoretical level, adult friendship is its own puzzle. The friendships we have as adults are the intentional kind, if only because time is short. During this period, I began to consider the subject. What is essential in friendship? Why do we tolerate difference and distance? What is the appropriate amount to give? And around this same time, I discovered the curious, decades-long friendship between the writers Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and the sculptor Wharton Esherick. Their relationship seemed to me model in some ways; they were friends for over twenty years, mostly living in different cities. Each man was dedicated to pursuing his own line of work, and the insecurities and single-mindedness of ambition seemed analogous too to the ways that adulthood can separate us from our friends. (…)

The letters between Anderson, Esherick, and Dreiser are rich in the Aristotelian pleasure. Letters sent between 1920 and 1940 note arrivals, departures, delays, and visits to and from homes in Paoli, rural Virginia, New York City, and Mount Kisco. The men sailed on the Barnegat Bay, walked together in woods, drank and socialized together. They were ribald. Esherick’s papers include letters decorated with lusty doodles, a bosomy woman showering nude, a sketch of Anderson’s enormous rear end. Utility, too, emerges in material and emotional support. (…)

Friendship, Aristotle suggests, is the most immediate form of public personhood; it motivates a person for moral excellence, ennobles us to become a stronger unit for a social whole. And yet, the thing is this: the very material of friendship is the exchange of it. In friendship, sentiment is the relationship. Friendship may have a public aspect, but it is essentially a private exchange. If the letters between Anderson, Esherick, and Dreiser showed me anything, it is that friendship remains the special provenance of those who live it … Friendship is a return, as variable as we are. [More]

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