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What is friendship? Seven tips from a former philosophy professor at Georgetown University

The below was a past article written and sent to me by one of our readers, and friends, John Cunningham. John Cunningham is a New Hampshire lawyer specializing in limited liability company law and tax. Before becoming a lawyer, he obtained an M.A. in philosophy from Fordham University and taught philosophy at Georgetown University for three years.

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As a former philosophy professor, although now for 30 years a lawyer, here are my main philosophical thoughts about friendship:

Philosophers tend to focus on abstruse (obscure) issues and to do so in highly technical and sometimes unintelligible terms. Thus, for most people, philosophy texts are not a favorite read.

However, I’ve come to believe that philosophy should not focus primarily on abstruse issues. Rather, it should focus primarily on how to define and describe friendships, on how to be good friends, and on why friendships are so important. And it should do so in plain English that any careful reader can understand.

  1. Most friendships are between two individuals who, at least to some degree, respect and like each other, and who, in some friendships, deeply love each other.

  2. These individuals usually become friends because they somehow sense a commonality between them—sometimes, a profound commonality.

  3. Friends provide two main gifts to one another: they share their lives with one another by disclosing to them the truth about their lives as their lives evolve and they enrich each other by this sharing; and they are always looking for ways to help one other in concrete ways.

  4. Individuals can’t be close friends with one another unless they are willing to be intimate with each another in their sharing and helping; to trust one another; and to be vulnerable to one another. And the closer their friendship, the more stringent their ethical duty to meet these requirements.

  5. Friendships exist on a spectrum from casual to profound. For most of us, the closest friendships are with our spouses or partners. But the maintenance of even casual friendships requires work. You have to make efforts—sometimes major ones—to keep in touch with your friends, to share with them and to help them.

  6. An obvious reason that we form friendships with one another is simply that we are social animals; we need friendships. But if we are wise, we will seek friendships not only because we need them but also because we know that, if they are close friendships, they will greatly enrich our lives and the lives of our friends and will bring joy to both of us.

  7. Aristotle, the great fifth century B.C. Greek philosopher, taught that friendships are the greatest goods available to human beings. I think he was right.


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