I Miss You, My Friend: On Friendship and Tradition

Menahem Goldenberg

One of the themes conjured by the concept of solidarity concerns the coming together, or standing together, of individuals faced with the collapse of social orders, and the advent of new ones. As it turns out, this subject is still very much relevant – we have yet to reach the “end of history.” Old social orders have collapsed and are still collapsing around us, and efforts are being made to form relationships and friendships in order to uphold and protect certain things, in order to muster the strength and courage to build and to act, despite everything.

In an attempt to address the urgency that present day dissolution and construction of traditions and orders place at our feet, I would like to revisit a historical moment that feels pertinent to our time: Humanism, the cradle of modernity. It is a moment of a clash with tradition on the one hand and endeavors to find and regenerate a new voice on the other hand. A moment when walking along and outside the line, the attempt to find and establish values, to reposition and act, required standing together, and coming together, and solidarity and friendship.

1. Friendship on Trial 
The 14th and 15th centuries were a time of dramatic changes in Europe. A traditional environment ruled by an oppressive and corrupt Catholic Church, antagonistic to any exploration and examination, unwillingly meets and confronts new scientific, cultural, political, and secular knowledge. Copernicus suggests a new order of the universe, Galileo is incarcerated for supporting it. The printing press is invented, the Far East and far west are “discovered,” different cultures and forms of government are encountered. Man reclaims his status and place in the world by virtue of his will and his mind. In what might seem familiar to us, facts are challenged by faith, and principles stand the test of life. In short, an ancient tradition that over time, like all ideologies, has become the “common logic” or “common sense” through which the world is perceived and conceived, is forced to change and reformulate. A time when artists and philosophers, people of thought and action, are needed so as to harness the forces of human creativity for the sake of the present.

This was the backdrop for the inception of Humanism, which at first consisted mostly of clergymen and scholars, but later also gained a foothold among artists, nobles, merchants, statesmen, and rulers. The Humanists׳ desire was twofold. Their love of Latin led them to Roman and Greek texts, particularly those that predate the tyranny of the Catholic Church. But language also hosts ideas and thoughts. The linguistic structures and phrases that fascinated the Humanists were in many ways “poetic vehicles” for ideas and values, feelings and notions. It was a sensual (aesthetic) encounter with language and thought that were free from the need to comply with the idea of one God, and even more so, with His representatives on Earth. A “secular,” “civic” language and thought, free from the shackles of censorship: Human language and human thought and human values.1

The shared, unique, and often perilous interest served as the ground for many interpersonal relationships. This is a time when the inquisitive man, who seeks truth and free thought, often has to conceal his identity, run for his life, seek help and rely on friends. The very practice of reviving language and thought against the Church hegemony demanded a network of personal acquaintanceships and friendships. The texts that the Humanists sought out were those that the Church wished to conceal and suppress at best, or to destroy altogether on less fortunate instances.2 Roman and Greek texts that preceded the rule of the Church – especially those considered “forbidden texts” that were incongruent with the Church׳s doctrine – were very rare and hard to reach.3 Moreover, the duplication of texts before the invention of the printing press was based on manual copying. And so, even if a copy of a manuscript was located, a close acquaintance with the owner was needed, as well as the establishment of trust for him to entrust you with his (rare) “object of desire” to be copied (a process that could have taken weeks, and often months).

Except that the Humanists׳ interest in friendship was not merely the result of the dire circumstances of life. The concept of friendship was not just a multifaceted existential human experience, but a part of the set of non–theological human values that the Humanists wanted to invoke and by which they wished to live. The Humanists set out to formulate ideals that will inform and direct one׳s life; values that will advance and promote the products of the human spirit. As part of the past tradition that the Humanists wished to resurrect, they formulated “rules” of friendship,4 which thus became a value that gained symbolical presence through practices and institutions, especially among artists and intellectuals.

First, we can mention the institution of patronage, which was one of the central institutions that organized friendship during this period. The patronage relations nurtured  and  introduced several expressions of institutionalized friendship, among them the “declaration of friendship”: oaths of allegiance and loyalty (often, these were written and signed statements, not unlike a marriage contract). Another practice developed by the Humanists as an expression of friendship, and which carries on to this day, is exchange among friends, whether in the literal form of gifting artworks, as references in the works (a painter who portrays his friends in a painting or a poet who mentions his friend in poems), or the practice of dedication: artists would dedicate their works to their friends (or patron). Finally, we can mention the “album,” a book that the Humanists would pass among their friends to collect dedications and statements about their friendship.5

Jean-Baptiste Roman, Nisus and Euryalus, 1827

2. On Love and Friendship 
We can begin to outline some of the characteristics of the Humanists׳ notion of friendship in light of the opposition it aroused in the Catholic Church, which explicitly sought to avoid it. It can be said that the controversy revolves around the Greek word Philia – the familiar prefix to many disciplines, chief among them Philo–Sophia, which usually denotes love. However, for the Greeks, the word Philia also meant friendship (or brotherly love). And so, philosophy could just as much be called – more accurately in my view – friendship of wisdom.

In broad strokes, we can say that the Church position vis–à–vis feelings was that the work of God is the love of God. The superiority and precedence of love, and especially the love of God, over every other emotion was already delineated in the early 5th century by Saint Augustine in his book De Civitate Dei (“The City of God”). And since the object of this love is infinite, it is an infinite love. And so, the Church saw no room for other feelings.6 The kinship between friendship and love allowed clergymen and men of culture to explore love as a substitute for exploring friendship. The Humanists, on the other hand, wished to underscore the differences between love and friendship,7 in order to conceive and propose an alternative model for hierarchical political regulation. Thus, throughout the Middle Ages we find many texts about love while only scant references to friendship. However, from the 14th century we see extensive writing on the notion of friendship, including Michel de Montaigne׳s 1580s essay De l׳amitié and Francis Bacon׳s 1625 Of Friendship. (And since total rejection of the primacy of love and faith was dangerous, many Humanists have argued that friendship is actually the first instance of “noble” intimacy and closeness one experiences, and in this sense, a preliminary experience that prepares one to the love of God).

Religion is based on a hierarchical imbalanced system, where one side is strong and the other is inevitably weaker. This is true both in terms of the relationship between God and his creations, and by analogy of the relationships between Church officials, and between them and devotees. Accordingly, the Church logic decreed that absolute faith marks absolute devotion or subordination, hence obeying supersedes a relationship of closeness and affection. This type of relationship corresponded with love, which, as we know, can be unrequited and is not limited to the human sphere, but can also exist towards objects, situations, or ideas. In contrast, it would be strange to conceive of unrequited friendship, since the notion of friendship seems to require reciprocity. In On Friendship, Michel de Montaigne defines friendship as “an equal disinterested relation between non relatives.״ The concept of friendship, then, indicates a relationship between equals, both in the sense that it is devoid of interests and has the interest of the other at heart, and in the sense that friendship itself empowers and facilitates growth and equality between friends – we become similar or worthy of our friends, as the saying goes.

Finally, returning to the beginning, we can also mention the religious establishment׳s fear of public affection and intimacy between men, as entailed in the institution of friendship. Dual concern, for despite the period and beyond the homophobic fear, the concept of friendship suggests the preference of civic political regulation over the theological one.8 Friendships are personal, but friendship is not private. Friendship is a social relation that requires visibility in the social sphere. Moreover, friendship concerns an action that is aimed at and takes place in the social/public sphere (praxis, to use Antonio Gramsci׳s term).

Following Aristotle׳s statement that “one cannot be friend with the gods,” as well as Cicero׳s claim that love can also exist in relation to an object or an abstract subject (like philosophy), the Humanists sought to think of friendship, first  and foremost, as a human–social value: Humanist. Instead of the theological values of love and obedience and in lieu of command and punishment, the Humanists preferred to emphasize the values of loyalty and camaraderie and the feeling of closeness. The friend does not only have his friend׳s interest at heart: he is a kind of second–self, a duplication of the self. In this sense, friendship creates a space of “shared subjectivity” (which stands in contrast to a sociopolitical perception that is based on the individual and his attitude toward the Other).9

The political implications of this approach are far–reaching and long–lasting. The equality, the closeness, the brotherhood, and having the friend׳s interests at heart eliminate the need for the rule of law or any political regulation. The idea that in a society or a state composed of friends, there is no need for government – an idea that was already introduced by Aristotle – was also adopted in modernity by a number of philosophers, including Jean–Jacques Rousseau in relation to the “state of nature,” and in an equally utopian context by Marx. (Unfortunately, we all know the other side of that insight: divide and conquer).

3. Heroic Friendship: Someone to Betray With 
The basis for the Humanists׳ perception of friendship was already defined by Aristotle, who distinguished between three types of friendship: friendship of pleasure; friendship of utility; and friendship of the good. While the first two types of friendships are based on the friend׳s presence, and on a purpose that once achieved may bring the friendship to an end, the latter – friendship of the good – does not depend on the realization of a particular goal, it can exceed the limits of presence and persist in the passage of time and from a distance. The friendship of the good holds a moral and metaphysical value: It is friendship of the kind that helps us cultivate and realize the best that we can be (often beyond and against what we wish for ourselves or know about ourselves).

At the core of the friendship of the good stands the possibility of transcendence: Transcending the personal and the private, transcending the homogeneity and the banality of everyday life, transcending chronological time and physical location. The possibilities of transcendence represented by the friendship of the good appealed to the Humanists, who wished to liberate language and thought – both in terms of transcending tradition that restricted them and in the formulation of a new tradition, but even more importantly, the Humanists were interested in the possibility of transcending the present to the past. A revisit of the past is a requisite for anyone who works in the cultural domain. In the context of the Humanists, who were mostly clergymen, this is almost obligatory. How can we invoke the past without once again going through a tradition that resents and undercuts the past? How can one maintain a tradition that upholds a liberated – non–hierarchical and non–chronological – relationship with the past?

These are fundamental questions for the Humanist; indeed, they are fundamental questions for anyone who wishes to create.

In response, or as strategy to take on these questions, the Humanists invoked the idea of the friendship of the good. The Humanists often referred to these historical writers, whose texts they sought out, copied, and memorized – Epicurus, Cicero, Lucretius, Horace, Virgil, and Marcus Aurelius – as friends. And while this constitutes a gesture of closeness and a level of familiarity, it also marks a formulation of a new notion of history.10 It is true that both Greeks and Romans turned to the past and to the dead, and it is also true that both Greeks and Romans acknowledged the power of friendship to exceed the conditions of experience (space and time), however it was not common to address the dead as friends. The Humanist perception wished to harness the “possibility of transgression” embodied in friendship towards two complementary movements: First, it allowed one to confront tradition without prejudice, as friends; and second, it freed the mind to lay the foundations for a new tradition in the present and together, as friends.

As the famous saying goes, it is difficult to tear down but even harder to build. And while confronting tradition poses formidable challenges, laying the foundations for the possibility of a new tradition demands different and even more complex efforts. In short, one can tear down with anyone but it is best to build with friends. In order to establish a new historical relationship and a new tradition, the Humanists had to find a new language. Since all the lofty appellations for moral and metaphysical values were “taken” by the Church and reserved for God and religion, the Humanists had to invoke new human–secular concepts for describing the friendship of the good. One of the most important adjectives introduced in this context was the concept of heroism. Unlike the sublime or the divine, heroism is not an abstract and ideal trait, but rather one tested in action, here and now (to use the Aristotelian distinction, we could say that the Humanist concept of heroism does not denote a pure moral value but an ethical value associated with leading a shared life as a society, a value involving the presumed possibility of acting in the public sphere).

The notion of “heroic friendship” wishes to mark the sacrifice, valor, and loyalty embodied in friendship, and needed for creation, but also the strength of spirit needed to fight for what is important and to rise to the challenges of the times; the possibility of deviating from the prevailing agenda and the commitment to building a shared and egalitarian future. Like the hero, a friend inspires and pushes forward. The friend, like the hero, signifies and gives hope. We may add that later the “heroic friend״ served as a model for understanding the role of the artist himself.

However, the moment of deviation embodied in heroic friendship also manifests itself in the other – less mentioned and often denied – side of friendship as a moral value: the act of betrayal. Friendship generates and is based on strong feelings of closeness and brotherhood, on exposing oneself and on intimacy. Thus, a clash with friends, not to mention a break or termination of friendship, is often perceived as a betrayal. But the act of betrayal attributed to friendship is not just a “hysterical reaction״ of invested and tormented souls – it is one of the cornerstones of friendship. Friendship often makes one act beyond his own personal interests; it sometimes requires us to act against our (social) obligations; and in some cases, even betray the state – the institution itself.11

The heroic friendship that the Humanists wished to champion – the heroic friendship as a model for understanding the creative action – practices transgression and liberation that one seeks in order to transcend and advance oneself and one's environment. The act of heroism associated with friendship forces and allows man to examine the conventions and rules and affiliations – not only those of the society that surrounds him, but also his own. It is the heroism of friendship that allows one to push his limits “the farthest,” and in this sense – to betray himself, who he is, and for the common good. Betray for the sake of what is worth standing by: Friends and friendship and the common future – the cultivation of the highest human good.12

July, 2019

Translated by Maya Shimony

(Based on a talk given at Performance Conference 0:7 Solidarity, On Friendship and Tradition Panel) 


1 It is worth noting that at first, and as mentioned, Humanism was conceived and developed under the rule of the Church, hence it is not merely a secular–liberal concept, as is commonly thought today.

2 One such story concerning the discovery of Epicurus׳s book On the Nature of the Universe in the 15th century by Poggio Bracciolini can be found in Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011).

3 Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose revolves around a similar idea. 

4 These “rules” were mostly derived from Laelius – De Amicitia by Cicero – one of the figures most admired by the Humanists, both for poetic reasons and due to the availability of his writing. 

5 Peter Burk, “Humanism and Friendship in 16th Century Europe” (chap.15) in Friendship in Medieval Europe, Sutton Publishing UK, 1999.

6 Of course, we also find friendship, or quasi-friendship, with God (Abraham, Moses) or his representatives (Jesus, Mouhamad, angels, prophets) in the monotheistic religions. However, as a cultural phenomenon the concept of friendship was denied and sidelined. The pious believer, and in Christianity particularly the monk, devotes himself entirely to the love of God and not to human friendships. 

7 We could also mention in the context the tension between Jewish and Christian values. While the Christian concept of community is rooted in the love of the other, in Judaism the community takes precedence over the individual, and in that sense “all Jews are responsible for one another.” 

8 We should mention that similar friendships obviously existed among women (particularly in convents) and between men and women, for instance between Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna, or later between Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. But as we know, women were marginalized in everyday life and even more so in the cultural and intellectual spheres. 

9 The Other is, to my mind, a highly problematic political category for it designates (quite literally): the third is missing.

10 The study of history and thinking based on a historical perspective are among Humanism’s foremost contribution to what will be later called “Humanities.”

11 Gaius Blosius’s claim that he would have burned Rome if his friend Tiberius had asked him to do so, as Cicero mentions in his book Laelius (Burk, p. 95). 

12 We could mention in this context the double “negative logic” proposed by Sartre as the basis for authentic act: be who you are not and do not be who you are.