Male Friendships from an Eastern and Western Perspective- 东西方视角下的男性友谊

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Image: ‘Soviet Friends’ Communist Propaganda. Retrieved from

Humans are fundamentally social creatures that, for the most part, are capable of love. In Ancient Greece, philosophers distinguished between three types of love: agape, eros and philia. Whereas erosis a “love of desire” (that is, desire for what one does not have) that was most commonly associated with male homosexual desire/love, agape became popular among Christian texts and refers to the redeeming love that God has for humans and that humans have for God (Lindberg, 2007, p. 14). Philia, on the other hand, means an affectionate regard that one might have for friends, colleagues, and even towards one’s country. It is also known as ‘platonic’ or ‘brotherly love’, which are all expressions of concern for the well-being of others, and are referred to in the Greek New Testament by the word ‘philander’. Based on these classifications, it is clear that philiais most relevant to our contemporary idea of friendship, a kind of relationship that is based on a special concern that two people have for one another. For Helm (2017), while we can conceptually understand the idea of ‘unrequited love’, since eros is primarily an acquisitive desire where the object of desire might not reciprocate the feelings that the desirer projects onto them, the idea of unrequited philia or friendship is senseless as there needs to be mutual acknowledgement of this love through significant interactions between two people for philiato exist. 

            According to the writings of Aristotle, ‘perfect friendship’ is a type of relationship between two social equals that were male. He believed that friendship was not only necessary for moral growth among citizens, but also a beautiful thing: for those who love their friends are praised, and an abundance of friends seems to be a beautiful thing (2002 translation of the Nicomachean Ethics, passage 1155a22-31). In book IX of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle went further to describe friendship as a mutual perception of the good or sunaisthesis. Friendship is therefore a form of ethical responsibility through “sharing conversation and thinking” (2002, 1170b10–12) with a close and trusted person. Sunaisthesisgoes beyond living and eating together as common animals to exchanging and sharing goods of the soul or ideas, which is what makes us distinctly human. Thus, to have friends in Ancient Greece was to have a prohairetic(coming from the word prohairesisor ‘choice’) life, which would involve moral decision-making and understanding through reflection that one would get by conversing with a friend (Von Heyking, 2017, p. 60). While book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethicsfurther distinguishes between three types of friendships, including friendships of pleasure, utility, and virtue, where the reason for loving a friend may change at different stages of a relationship, Aristotle also wrote that at its core, it is friendship/philiathat holds states together and gives lawgivers a reason to care for the state more than just through the principle of justice (1155a22). The idea that in a just society, citizens should experience friendship between each other, where they wish well for each other and do things individually and as a collective to promote others’ well-being, is a central theme to Aristotle’s idea of a good life. In passage 1161a31, philia even becomes a central criterion for distinguishing between just regimes and tyrannical governments (Schwarzenbach, 1996, p. 97).

            In the modern era of political philosophy, there is a significant de-emphasis on the importance of friendship. For example, there is no room for friendship in a Hobbesian world, where fear and self-interest were the primary motivators for why people gathered in a political community. For John Locke, the primary motivators for joining the state was securing one’s freedom and private property, while Hume claimed that commerce could establish peace among men. While Hegel (1967 trans.of The Philosophy of the Right) acknowledged the importance of love and friendship in the ancient world, he wrote that love is a feeling and “In the state, feeling disappears; there we are conscious of unity as law, there the content must be rational and known to us” (section 158A). The idea here is that love and feelings are associated with irrationality, which contrast reason and law– two essential ingredients to establishing a strong political community. 

            Indeed, with the emergence of the modern state and the beginning of the scientific revolution, the emotional aspects of binding citizenry together were often rejected. Political theorist John Rawls (1971)follows Hegel in arguing that a shared idea of justice and fairness is the primary unifying factor in a well-ordered society, and John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko (2008)comment that not only has friendship almost disappeared from political writings, but the practice of forming and maintaining bonds between people has changed too. For instance, the liberal idea that society is based on social contracts has meant that people are encouraged to network and schmooze to get ahead in society and realise their ‘autonomous selves’. Putnam (2000)describes time spent visiting friends and socialising as building up social capital, where one must constantly be a social climber and self-promoter to be successful and happy in society. While there is such a thing as “authentic” relationships that are not driven by the economic contract, popular books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence Peoplepoint out that the moral and beautiful aspects of male friendship that Aristotle emphasised have largely been reduced to personal interest and benefit. Today, male friendships are often seen as instrumental and devoid of intimacy in accordance to masculine performances, which means that in many cases, men have to confront social barriers that make performing intimacy difficult or undesirable in male relationships (Migliaccio, 2014). Although women are just as likely to have instrumental relationships as men (Wright & Scanlon, 1993), the avoidance of femininity as the focal point of masculine performance in Western society has meant that men tend to idealize expressive intimacy, but fail to establish this in their friendships since being masculine is associated with suppressing emotional expressions and needs (Doyle, 1995Morman et al., 2013). 

            From a Confucian perspective, out of the five bonds that men were supposed to observe to maintain social harmony, it was the fifth bond of friendship that was the most distinctive. [Whereas the bonds between the husband and wife, father and son, older and younger male siblings, and ruler and minister, were concerned with maintaining China as a guojia国家(state organised as a family), based on a set of hierarchical, obligatory relations, the bond of friendship did not fall under these categories. Norman Kutcher (2000)explains that while every man was obliged to serve his family and a virtuous ruler, friendship was voluntary as there was no requirement that one had to make friends to be a good citizen. Furthermore, friendship is also the only bond that is non-hierarchical, which Kutcher considers as “potentially dangerous” (p. 1619) because a distracting friendship could possibly remove one from serving the family-state, which all men were supposed to follow. Kutcher argues this point by citing well-known Chinese expressions like “He who touches vermilion will be reddened, while he who touches ink will be blackened”, which represents a metaphor and message about choosing friends wisely. He also examines the Analects, where Confucius recognizes but also de-emphasises friendship. For example, when the ruler called for Confucius, he left immediately to answer his call even without waiting for his ox. But when a friend sent him a gift, he would not even bow to him in thanks (Analects, 10:14-10:16). Thus, it would seem that rulers, like fathers, deserve a particular form of respect that was essential to reproducing the hierarchy of the family-state. Friends, on the other hand, were only good if they helped the individual gain moral integrity and reflection. This mirrors the Aristotelean idea that friends were worthwhile if they helped further one’s capacity to morally reflect and understand the world.

            Kutcher’s interpretation is also seen in the writings of Hall and Ames (1998) who state that Confucian friendships are a “one-directional relationship in which one extends oneself by association with one who has attained a higher level of relation” (p. 268). Based on this explanation, it would seem that there is a type of hierarchy even in the friendship bond since a true friend is always someone better than oneself, that is, someone who is more morally cultivated and can be looked up to. Hall and Ames even describe Confucius as “peerless and, hence, friendless in this restricted Confucian sense of the term. To assert that Confucius had friends would diminish him” (p. 90). However, their take on Confucian friendship is unrealistic because if a friendship must always include one party who is morally superior, then two people could never be truly friends with each other since the morally superior person will only look for friends who are morally superior to himself. This morally instrumental view of friendship also omits the many examples in Confucian writings where friendship is celebrated and seen as joyous. In the Analects, the concept of xin 信(faithfulness and trustworthiness) is considered essential to friendship. When Yen Yüan and Tzu-lu visited Confucius, the Master asked them, “Why do you not each tell me what it is that you have set your hearts on?”. Tzu-lu responded, “I should like to share my carriage and horses, clothes and furs with my friends, and to have no regrets even if they become worn,” and Yen Yüan says, “I should like never to boast of my own goodness and never to impose onerous tasks upon others.” Tzu-lu said, “I should like to hear what you have set your heart on.” The Master’s reply was that, “To bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young” (5:26). In another passage, Tzu-hsia also says that even the unschooled man should be considered schooled if he “exerts himself to the utmost in the service of his parents…and who, in his dealing with his friends, is trustworthy in what he says” (1:7). Friendship here does not seem to be undesirable, dangerous, or even strictly based on moral advancement. As Xiufen Lu (2010) explains, in the Confucian tradition, all relationships have a unique place in the structure of family and society. Individuals are expected to know how to conduct themselves in such relations, and what virtues to exercise in them, on the basis of differences in rank, age, or gender.

            Thus, while the concept of friendship contrasts family-based relations in that they are not based on hierarchy (although hierarchies of social status, age, and gender are recognised), and they are not based on defined duties, obligations, and ritual ceremonies, friendships should be characterised by trust and affection. They also give people joy and personal fulfilment in a variety of ways and can help individuals become more humane or ren­-likeby learning how to trust others and being trusted. This makes friendship a particularly important type of relation as it allows men to practice giving affection to other males and have le 乐 (joy, pleasure, delight) outside of their family-state relations. Like in the West, however, such relations can be interest-based in various ways, especially through the guanxi 關係 system, where one’s relationships and social connections are based on reciprocal interests and benefits (Ji, 2016). If used inappropriately, such a system can create ‘meat and wine friends’– a Chinese metaphor for mistrustful relations where one person uses another as a means to an end. In China, guanxiis pervasive in that it plays a central role in daily social and business interactions and is usually based on personal relationships that are cultivated for long periods of time (Huang & Wang, 2011). While such an instrumental use of people is socially acceptable and expected, the key aspect of maintaining good guanxi is respecting the humanity in other people by treating them as ends in themselves. Guanxi relations are also different from real friendships as guanxi connections can be temporary and based on an informal payment system, or else extended through ‘guanxi maintenance’ in a useful professional, political or business network. Indeed, this version is more potent as it means your own worth is judged by your constantly cultivated guanxi network. Theoretically, however, a joyous and trustworthy friendship should go beyond payment systems or useful connections and be about sharing intimacy. 

By Cindy Minarova-Banjac

Can Confucians Have Friends? – 你能在儒家中拥有朋友吗?An article by Peter Adamsom*

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Confucius and Friends

One of the more arresting claims Aristotle makes in his famous exploration of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics is that you can’t be friends with god. His reasoning is that friendship requires equality, and the gods are vastly superior to us. The argument is a plausible one: it seems difficult or impossible to be friends with a boss, mentor, or teacher in quite the way that one is friends with one’s peers and equals. Indeed we might say that friendship is distinctive precisely in being non-hierarchical. If I am truly your friend, what I am to you is exactly what you are to me.

This thought has been supposed to cause trouble for the followers of Confucius. Confucianism was China’s most influential philosophical tradition for well over two millennia. Its ethical teaching has at its center several hierarchical relationships that were intrinsically bound up with forms of propriety, including rituals. The second most famous Confucian thinker Mencius (372-289 BC) identifies five ‘cardinal relations’, four of which are clearly hierarchical: ruler and subject, father and son, old and young, and husband and wife (Aristotle too sees the latter as an unequal relationship). The odd relationship out is friendship. Friendship seems to fit badly with the Confucian idea of modeling human relationships on family bonds. One possible comparison, which sees friends as having a bond like that between older and younger brother, would not secure the symmetry we’re looking for. Friendship is also anomalous among the cardinal relations in lacking ritual prescriptions, and in being voluntary. You don’t choose your father or (at least in ancient China) your ruler, but you do choose your friends.

Confucius (551-479 BC) would also have had some reason to think that friendships should be unequal. For him the purpose of friendship is the cultivation of virtue. It seems a natural thought that we should therefore befriend those more excellent than us, so as to learn from them. Yet like Aristotle, Confucius insists on symmetry in true friendship, advising, “do not have as a friend anyone who is not as good as you are.”

It’s been argued that in light of this latter rule, Confucius himself could never have made friends at all. His disciples were certainly dear to him, as we see from a passage in his Analects, when he openly grieves for one of them who has died. But does that mean he was this disciple’s friend? David Hall and Roger Ames would say not. In their book Thinking Through Confucius, they asserted, “Confucius is peerless and hence, friendless. To assert that Confucius had friends would diminish him.” His relation with his students was arguably more akin to a hierarchical, familial one, as shown by the fact that he referred to them as his xiaozi, meaning ‘little masters’, or ‘sons’.

In keeping with the equality of friendship, Confucius identifies trust (xin) as its distinctive attitude, whereas a familial relationship would be characterized by an asymmetrical virtue such as filial piety (xiao). Confucius would thus discourage parents from trying to befriend their children, a common trend in modern-day family life. Just as a father cannot be the teacher of his son because their relation is too intimate, so being overly familiar is no way to be familial.

But how exactly do I cultivate excellence by befriending someone who is equal to me? After all it would seem that I have nothing to learn from my moral peer, at least not in the way Confucius describes in this passage from the Analects: “in strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.” Instead, it must somehow be that sharing with equal others in the excellent moral life, or at least in the pursuit of virtue, is itself a spur to the good life, or even a constitutive part of it.

Confucius seems to have been convinced that this is so. For one thing, no less than other relationships, friendship gives us an opportunity to exercise virtue. Confucius himself aimed “to bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young,” and in advising us on examining our own character he speaks of reflecting on whether we have always kept our word with our friends. Friendship is also a source of delight, as is made clear in this line from the opening passage of the Analects: “to have friends [peng] come from distant quarters: is this not a source of enjoyment?” Yanguo He informs us that the word peng has a strong implication of ‘like-mindedness’, and may especially indicate the bonds between the students gathered around one master.

This is a hint towards a deeper importance of friends, namely that they are embarked with us upon a joint project of self-cultivation. We do not improve morally by looking to friends as a model for imitation, as we might with a superior. Rather, our affection for them is based on a recognition that they share with us our greatest pursuit. To illustrate this idea, the scholar Xiufen Lu gave the example of the tale of Bo Ya, a musician whose mastery was fully appreciated only by his friend Zhong Ziqi. When Zhong died, Bo Ya smashed his instrument, on the grounds that playing without being understood is pointless.

Likewise, Confucius occasionally complained about being unappreciated by the morally inept. This may come as a surprise, but is simply the counterpart of the joy he took in associating with those who shared his values. Birds of a feather really do flock together, ideally by taking wing towards the heights of virtue.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2018

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

*This original article can be found here.