On Advantageous Friendship

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A reflection on Plato’s Lysis

Throughout human history, and as far as we can tell throughout our predecessor’s existence, humans have existed as social creatures. Through our lives, we accumulate a vast list of acquaintances, lovers, teachers, students, and – if we are fortunate – a few close companions who we can honestly share our innermost thoughts. Besides the purely therapeutic aspect of friendship in keeping loneliness at bay, friends also provide a vehicle for self-improvement and development – or act as a blockage to our growth if chosen injudiciously. With this in mind, we will examine what makes a friendship ‘advantageous,’ and how we should tend the garden of our relationships to better cultivate both ourselves and our confidants.

Firstly, we must look at how friends help in our Intellectual development. As someone close to us, companions have already slipped through the first layer of instinctive reaction that we often throw up as a defence mechanism when confronted by conflicting opinions (see on Failed Inquiry). As such they can often act as a vector for exposure to divergent beliefs, the sugar for the medicine so that we can better stomach heterodox opinions – accepting multiple perspectives is a lot easier when you don’t think the interlocutor is going to jump down your throat. We must really discard the myth of intellectual development as a single person alone in a room, reading some dusty tome. Although individual reading is an essential aspect of growth, equally important is exposing these new-found ideas to external debate, learning is a collaborative process.

So, what defines a good and a bad relationship? It goes without saying that friendship which only reinforces your opinions, biases and beliefs – although flattering to the ego and great for self-confidence – is actively harmful to your intellectual development. Equally disadvantageous is a situation where a friend, possessing ‘sacred’ values, is only able to engage in diatribe or proselytisation when confronting a near and dear belief.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the perfect friendship where someone with entirely different experiences and insights is wholly willing to submit to debate. This binary distinction does little to assist us in navigating the more complex realities of relationships because we are almost never going to find a ‘perfect’ friend, even in ourselves. Furthermore, the caricature of a bad friend neglects to reflect the familial ties, personal history and human chemistry which is also an central aspect of forming healthy relationships. Facing this conundrum, I think it is best to reflect on how we can utilise the inevitably imperfect relationships in our lives to better ourselves and our companions.

In the first place, if encountering difficulty in discussing a topic with a friend, try to talk around the problem, phrasing it from a point of view with which they are familiar. Consider your own style of oration, are you actually engaging in genuine debate, or is this an act of argument which is attacking your friend’s opinion, belief or personal identity. Either way, the discussion isn’t truly dead until you agreeing to disagree, and even then, we can merely put aside incendiary topics until both sides have cooler heads. But all these solutions presume good faith on both sides of the divide, leaving the issue of damaging relationships aside.

A damaging friendship is when a person attempts to aggressively assert ideology, rather than respect ideological diversity. In this situation, our ‘friend’ doesn’t see us as an equal, with whom they want to collaboratively build understanding and personal growth. Rather, they think of us as territory to be conquered, another feather in their ideologue cap. In these instances, we will never be able to develop a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship at an intellectual level. Only you can decide when a negative relationship’s impact on your personal development outweighs its other benefits, but I recommend you consider the effect of such disadvantageous friendships carefully.

Original text

Plato’s Lysis


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881

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