I think there are many degrees of friendship, so I will try to define the “ideal” friendship
of maximum intimacy. Lesser degrees of friendship will include fewer of the following
I conceive an ideal friend as an extension of my own nervous system. That is to say,
their nervous system is compatible with mine, so their experiences become my
experiences. They provide me with an extra pair of eyes, ears, and other sensory
organs, so that I can feel what they feel, or felt. Their experiences enlarge me and
enrich my life. By this definition, the closest possible friends would be identical twins
who were raised together and shared all the same experiences as they grew up.
Usually, they would rather be with each other than any other person; in fact, they can
hardly survive without the other.
1. For most of us, however, the most essential element of friendship depends on
similarity of world view. For example, someone with a rationalistic, scientific view of
life could never achieve intimate friendship with some fundamentalist who assumes
that what we call reality is all a satanic illusion, and that the most important thing in life
is to please their god.
2. Political orientation is perhaps less important than assumptions about the nature of
reality; still, it would be virtually impossible for a Libertarian to be intimate friends with
a Communist, for example, since they are polar opposites in terms of economic
theory; nearly everything they say or do will be in conflict. But of course, not all political
views are that extreme.
3. There must be similarity of ethnicity, age, wealth, I.Q., education, tastes, interests,
and values. Wide differences in social class are virtually insurmountable. It would not
be possible to share experiences if they cannot both enjoy the same kind of
experiences. For example, I could not get any satisfaction out of telling my friend about
the great opera I just saw if I know he is a sports fan with no interest in music or
theater. You can’t laugh at my jokes if you don’t know what I’m talking about, and I can’
t very well commiserate with your difficulty in finding a reliable maid to clean your 20
room mansion if I can barely afford a one-bedroom apartment. There is no point in
inviting me to a hip-hop concert if I am an old white man with season tickets to the
philharmonic, who hates pop music and noisy crowds.
4. Ideally, there should be mutual admiration between friends for their talents and
abilities. In practice, however, this is more often a case of admirer and admire-ee.
Every celebrity has a coterie of fans who want to attach themselves to their hero or
heroine, so that some of the glamour rubs off on them. But unless the fan has some
trait that the celebrity also admires, there can be no intimate friendship. Normally,
celebrities can only be close friends with other celebrities, because they are most
nearly equals. Each can then assume that the friend is not just trying to exploit them for
their own surreptitious ends.
5. Close friends must actually care about the welfare of each other, so that the joys and
sorrows of one become the joys and sorrows of the other. That means we must
assume an obligation to aid and support our friends, above and beyond those of other
6. Close friends must perceive each other as equal in judgment; otherwise, complete
trust is not possible. We might trust their good will, for example, but be less confident
about their maturity and competence.
7. Intimacy means they must be willing to share details of their life that might be
embarrassing or even damaging if made public. When one person has the courage to
reveal such details, the other is expected to reciprocate with similar openness. Risking
this kind of vulnerability creates a bond of trust, as well as a deeper insight into who
8. Close friends must frequently share activities in order to keep the bond alive. These
activities are all the more enjoyable because they are shared. If one person moves
away, however, the bond is seriously weakened. Commonly, we become best friends
with some schoolmate or military buddy with whom we have shared our lives and gone
through highly emotional experiences. Alas, after graduation or discharge, the two
friends may try to stay in touch for awhile, but eventually they drift apart. The letters
become less frequent, and finally stop as their lives diverge.
9. Both friends must be extremely sensitive to the other’s feelings. They must be
empathic. If one person subtly signals annoyance or disapproval at something the
other is doing, the other person should immediately perceive that signal and react
accordingly. If one person is so obtuse that it is necessary to spell out the problem
explicitly, then it is unlikely that a close bond could ever be established.
10. If both friends have proven their sensitivity, good will, similarity of values, and good
judgment, then it is possible for them to mirror each other, so that each can perceive
himself more accurately – including his own strengths and weaknesses. This is a
critical function of establishing our own identity and self worth. Without intimate friends,
we really don’t know who we are. This is why we all have a great hunger for intimacy.
David Reisman wrote a book in 1950, called “The Lonely Crowd,” which was about
the great anxiety produced by living in an age of conformity. If a person tries to live
according to externally prescribed dictates, even if his friends accept him on those
terms, he remains anxious, because he knows that he is living a lie, and he fears that
he would be rejected if he dropped the mask and revealed his true personality.
11. Maintaining a close friendship requires time, effort, and reciprocity. If one person
goes to the trouble of writing a long, newsy letter, for example, there is an obligation for
the other to respond in kind. If there is no response, that is regarded as a snub. If it
happens repeatedly, that signals the end of the relationship.
12. Close friends are able to influence each other – as long as neither of them
becomes too “bossy” about it, which would weaken the bond.
13. Finally, close friends must never make excessive demands on each other, such as
violating a law or loaning large amounts of money. To make such a demand would
also threaten the bond of friendship.
14. In essence, intimate friendship is the same as a love affair, but without the sex.
15. Real world friendships hardly ever meet all of the preceding criteria, and we can
only strive to spread our network of acquaintances as far as possible in the wistful
hope that one of them may someday meet as many of these points as possible.
On the Nature of Friendship
Presented to the Philosophy
Club of Los Angeles 9/20/07