The book: Friends are a constant presence in our lives, yet friendship itself is difficult to define. Even Michel de Montaigne, author of the seminal essay “Of Friendship,” found it nearly impossible to account for the great friendships of his life. Why is something so commonplace and universal so hard to grasp?
In On Friendship, Alexander Nehamas *71 explores the long philosophical tradition on friendship, from Aristotle to Emerson and beyond, drawing on examples from literature, art, drama, and his own life. Nehamas argues that for centuries, friendship was as much a public relationship as a private one — inseparable from politics and commerce and favors and perks. Now that it is more firmly in the private realm, close friendship is central to the good life, he says.
Friendship has a “double face,” according to Nehamas. Although it often brings pleasures and benefits, it can be a source of profound disappointment, and even though it can be founded in immorality, it is still a great good, in both the philosophical and the everyday sense. On Friendship sheds light on why we love our friends — and how in doing so we come to better understand ourselves.
The author: Alexander Nehamas is the Carpenter professor in the humanities at Princeton and is a professor of philosophy and comparative literature. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has written books on art, literature, and authenticity, among other subjects.
Opening lines: “None of us would ever want to live without friends, according to Aristotle, even if we had every other good in the world. Aristotle wrote a long time ago — in the fourth century BC — but time has done little to cast doubt on his praise of friendship: friends may have enemies; friendship itself does not.”
Reviews: Joyce Carol Oates says, “Nehamas… has written a far-ranging, meticulously researched yet warmly personal account of the mysterious phenomenon known as friendship.” The Library Journal says, “with the social media ‘friending’ mind-set prevalent in today’s society, Nehamas’ treatise of the subject is timely and significant.”