Properties of Blood I.4: Friends, Part D

Types of Friendship

In everyday language, we apply the term “friendship” to many different sorts of personal connections.  If we loosely define friendship not by what it is supposed to be in essence but by the duties it imposes, we might describe it as a relationship in which one or both of the parties have or are supposed to have a moral obligation to do each other favors, we can see at once that there is a variety and scale of intensity in such relations.  We owe a variety of particular debts to, for example, kinfolks, workmates and teammates, neighbors, lovers, and—for want of a less sentimental word-- “soul-mates.”  Inevitably, some friends belong to several categories: We might live next door to someone with whom we fall in love or play on the same team or even share the deeply felt mutual respect and affection demanded by philosophers.  Despite the inevitable fuzziness and complexity that result from caring about other people, we should, nonetheless, distinguish the nature of these separate types of relationship before going on to look for common elements.

We can begin by distinguishing those who are friends by nature from other types.  By nature, I mean the ties of blood, kinship, and marriage, which, although they will be taken up separately, cannot really be kept entirely distinct from other guises of friendship, such as neighbors, comrades, and lovers.  At this point, it will have to be enough to say only that the English phrase “friends and family,” while it makes a distinction between ties of blood and ties of affection, couples kinship and friendship in a way that suggests that we have friendly feelings toward members of our family and that in making friends we are coming to treat outsiders as members of the family.  The topic of blood-ties is reserved for a later chapter.

Enough has been said already both about the passions of love and strife and of the Greek distinction between friends and comrades, of relations rooted in love and those based on competition in the pursuit of victory or success.  Comrades, team-mates, business colleagues, and political conspirators cooperate and act as friends—indeed, they often are friends in other senses—but the initial attraction of the relationship is the utilitarian goal of achieving a common purpose, whether the goal is winning a game, seizing power, or making money.  Although some virtues—courage and honesty—are part of the make-up of the ideal team captain, we do not chose a captain on the strength of his virtues but because of his abilities to lead us to success.  Human life, as I have said many times to the point of becoming tedious, is complicated and can not be easily shoe-horned into Cartesain or Kantian categories.

Comrades-in-arms, lovers, and spouses can all in different ways display the different facets of friendship.   Though many many would agree with Montaigne and Aristotle that erotic passion and friendship are mutually exclusive, it seems a waste of time to deny what so many people believe, namely, that spouses and lovers can become quite good friends.


It may be hard to imagine the significance of neighborliness in the postmodern world, where people change houses every few years, but in days of old—roughly from the time when men first put down roots until perhaps the 1950s—most ordinary people had to rely on their neighbors almost as much as they relied on kinfolks.  The English word neighbor (like Latin vicinus and Greek geiton) refers to someone who lives nearby, perhaps on adjoining land.  The Greek and Latin terms are perhaps more evocative:  The Greek is derived from the word for land, while the Latin is derived from vicus (related to Greek οἶκος, house), which can refer either to the quarter of a city or to a homestead.

Neighbors share our joys as well as our miseries.  In the Old Testament, the woman in debt who feared her sons would be sold into slavery is told by the prophet to go to her neighbors to borrow pots, which will miraculously be filled with oil to sell.  In the Gospels there are several parables involving neighbors.  The man with lost sheep calls his friends and neighbors together for help, while the woman who found her lost penny wants her neighbors to rejoice with her.

Greek literature—particularly comedy and oratory--is even richer in instances of cooperation and friendship among neighbors.  One goes to neighbors to get water or a light for the lamp.  If robbers or enemies attack, Athenians call on neighbors and “demesmen" for help.  (Demes were both political units like our own “wards” but based on villages and neighborhoods.)  Neighbors are important for the help they can provide, but it is also pleasant, recalls one comic character, during the rain to sit chatting with a neighbor.

Hesiod warns that in a crisis neighbors may be more valuable than kinsmen (who often live too far away to help in an emergency); nonetheless, one should not make a mere comrade (hetairos) equal to a brother.  The choice of the word comrade (often misleadingly translated as friend) is significant: Greek does not have a common expression like friends and family, because there is no sharp distinction.  All close members of a family are friends (philoi), and to the extent we regard someone as a philos, we are treating him as a kinsman.

Neighbors are proverbially nosey, which means they have probably seen your dirty linen and know your dirtier secrets.  This busybodying, while universally condemned by both postmodern Americans and pre-modern Greeks, is a useful mechanism of social control: Many of us cut our grass and clip the bushes out of fear of what our neighbors may say about us, and, in some neighborhoods at least, couples might mute the volume of their quarreling to avoid the inevitable neighborhood gossiping.  In Athens, the stereotype of the prying neighbor could be invoked  as part of a legal defense strategy, since the neighbors would certainly know if you had done something criminal or disreputable.

In a stable society, getting along with a neighbor is less a question of choice or taste than of practical necessity. To have good neighbors, one must be a good neighbor.  The practical advantages are obvious, but there is a moral basis to the relationship even in a very "backward" society.  Neighborliness—like kinship—implies some degree of friendliness (if not exactly friendship), but it is not simply a feeling but a set of reciprocal obligations.  In Alcala, a community in the South of Spain that Julian Pitt-Rivers studied not long after WW II,

Neighbors are thought to have particular rights and obligations towards one another. Borrowing and lending, passing embers, help in situations of emergency, discretion regarding what they may have chanced to discover, compose the obligations in which neighbors are forced by their proximity…

Neighbors everywhere are expected to do favors for each other.  The English "favor," like Latin "gratia" (and derivatives in Italian, French, and Spanish), implies both a feeling of gratitude and the actions that inspire such a feeling. It is not insignificant that both the Greek charis and Latin gratia are used in the New Testament to refer to Grace, the divine (and undeserved) favor that makes salvation possible.  This Grace creates an obligation, but it is one that we can never fully discharge.

The need for cooperation in the future dictates a spirit of cooperation in the present: I help you today because I know that you will help me in the future.  In English we say, “I’ll scratch your back, if you’ll scratch mine,” while Greeks and Romans used to say, “One hand washes the other.”  The need for delicacy in human relations, however, tends to soften the edges of the crass rule of tit for tat.  Jesus instructs us not to invite friends, brethren, or rich neighbors to a dinner in expectation of a reciprocal offer.  This is not a counsel of perfection but quite practical advice.  In Alcala, it was bad form to be too obvious about doing tit in expectation of tat.

The moral understanding of neighborliness is not limited to Greeks, Jews, and Christians.  Confucius ranked the moral duties of neighborliness and filial piety just after self-possession and a sense of shame and ahead of sincerity of speech.  I do not know if this is the best order of moral duties, but no one who is not a good son or good neighbor is likely to be a man of good moral character.  This, then, raises the obvious question: Who really is this neighbor to whom I owe proper treatment?  Does proximity in residence really entail a particular moral obligation or do we owe the duty of neighbors to everyone in the world?

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Dot says:

    “Does proximity in residence really entail a particular moral obligation”….. I think there should be some unspoken minimum standards that should be observed. For instance, keep the yard looking neat. I think changes in attitude toward the neighbor started back in the 60s or 70s when the idea of “questioning authority was popularized and became vogue. It lead to lack of respect for authority, and to relativism as a common attitude. I think one can attribute decreased religious participation, and increased drug addition to this attitude. On the other hand, many of those in authority have not acted in an exemplary manner either. I am wondering if this is nihilism.

    We don’t “owe the duty of neighbors to everyone in the world”. Somewhere along the way immigration laws were changed and people flow into my country as though it is their right above mine as a citizen. They manage to get all their needs met with or without a green card.