Malbreaux: On Friendship

Modern social media detracts from true friendship.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 9/14/17 12:25am

Michel de Montaigne is widely considered to be the first modern essayist. “The Essais,” which in Middle French means “attempts” or “trials,” were the products of Montaigne’s sometimes messy ruminations. He freely admitted these were abundant with inconsistencies and contradictions. However, now compiled in books well over 1,000 pages long, “The Essais” is one of the most significant contributions to Western thought.

Montaigne lived during an age of religious violence in France. The Protestant Reformation had firmly taken hold. By the early 1550s, the country was well on its way to a civil war that claimed the lives of millions. Living in his chateau near Bordeaux, Montaigne locked himself in reclusion for his last decade of life. Surrounded by political chaos and in his characteristic equanimity, suggested that friendship was most important to fostering value in society. The capacity to wholly confide in another expressed the deepest kind of love, a love that transformed an assembly of mere citizens into a community of lovers. Souls of friends were “so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined,” he wrote.

To Montaigne, friendship meant more than acquaintance, and it was at least as valuable as romantic partnerships. Today, such a comparison would be considered hyperbole. But why did our philosophical forefathers see friendship so differently?

Aristotle, in his “Nicomachean Ethics,” said friendship requires “time and intimacy” that most men lack the desire to cultivate. Cicero wrote “Friendship transcends everything else; it throws a brilliant gleam of hope over the future and banishes despondency.”

Such high aspirations for friendship seem to require not only commitment but also intense focus. That focus blurs once you account for one thousand Facebook “friends,” of which you might have met only a quarter. I will avoid lambasting social media in its entirety as it is not solely responsible for the denigration of a friendship’s value. As William Deresiewicz noted in an article published a few years ago, friendship in its modern incarnation is the product of a multicultural process that began at least two centuries ago. The article is complex and should be read in its entirety, but my interest in Deresiewicz’s narrative starts in the late 1960s.

He attributes the development of the “friendship circle” — as opposed to more personal, one-on-one relationships — to 1960s counter-culture. These circles acted as “redoubt[s] of moral resistance,” sheltering young people from “normative pressure” and “social ideals.”

By the early 2000s, the friendship circle entered a new generation. The invention of Myspace and other platforms made self-promotion fashionable. No matter how trendy you were or what kind of music, food or television shows you liked, your coolness was now a function of followers, likes and retweets. Therefore, self-promotion necessarily meant promoting popularity — showing off how many “friends” you had. That is the point at which we find ourselves. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, to name a few, have turned smartphone owners into branding experts. Each post is an entry for a competition with millions of contestants, struggling to gain likes in a marketplace that often rewards vanity.

Friendship’s most recent changes would disturb Montaigne. He believed a person could have only one true friend, because multiple friends would serve only to devolve into a game of picking favorites. Montaigne went mad after his longtime friend, Étienne de La Boétie, died in 1563. In a very literal way, Boétie’s death was also Montaigne’s death. The rest of his life was spent in reclusion. Writing “The Essais,” especially in the section “On Friendship,” he made frequent reference to his times with Boétie, immortalizing him. Of the source of their friendship, Montaigne wrote, “because it was he, because it was I.”

Our sense of friendship should be more than just indicators of popularity on social media. Like most metrics, numbers of friends and followers alone are inept at explaining our whole self. On a broader level, it is important that we think of the broader role friendship plays in creating a community. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.” It is so that by getting to know others better, we become better ourselves.

Montaigne, through his friendship with Boétie, realized a part of himself he would not have discovered otherwise. Their souls were seamlessly connected. They were not mere complements to each other; they helped to define each other. Because it was him. Because it was he.