Many of your thoughts and emotions throughout life will revolve round friends. Why is friendship so important in our life? In most societies, the people we inter-act with are largely a matter of luck; they are family, neighbours, members of the same caste. They are not chosen. They are, furthermore, not our equals. If they are relations, they are senior (parents, older siblings) or junior. Likewise if they are members of another caste or of the opposite sex they are by birth superior or inferior. The idea of meeting many of our equals is out of the question. If friendship of a kind develops it is likely to be lop-sided.
Patronage is lop-sided friendship, that is to say where the two sides maintain their relationship because of their differences. One provides certain assets, the superior may provide political protection, the client flatters or supports him in his schemes. The relationship is general and long-term, not like the specific and limited transaction with a bureaucrat or shop-keeper. It has some warmth and a hope that it will last.
This system of patron-client relations is very widespread in the world. It is the main way of getting things done outside the family. It is particularly prevalent in the countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy and the middle East and in places like South America which were colonized by the Mediterranean powers. It even spreads into the relationship with God or the gods. There are patron saints or gods to whom people pray when they are trying to get benefits in certain branches of Christianity or Buddhism.
Each patron usually has a number of clients. People try to have several patrons in useful places to help them obtain favours and to protect them against other powerful individuals. The patron is often encouraged to take an honorary family position by being made a spiritual relative, a god-mother or god-father.
Having a real friend, on the other hand, whom we must not exploit or use to further our own ends is a curious phenomenon. It tends to be found in societies where there are a lot of roughly equal people and where there is so much movement that we constantly meet potential new friends. It is predominant where most of the important things in life do not come through the manipulation of personal relationships. Almost all we need in life is provided through an impersonal bureaucracy, the relationship between buyer and seller, underpinned by the legal system. Only in such a situation, where we do not have to manipulate contacts in order to survive, can we afford the luxury of disinterested friendship.
What is peculiar about Britain for a long period is that patronage has been relatively unimportant as a way of organizing personal relationships. There have been what we call ‘patrons’ of art or learning, and others who control jobs and other benefits. But if I asked you who your patrons were and who your clients, you would look puzzled, just as many of your predecessors for hundreds of years would have been surprised at such a question.
Just as patron-client relations are weakly developed in the white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant parts of the United States, so they have been relatively weak in England for many centuries. With the exception of some ethnic groups and a few branches of politics, the arts and professions, or in some criminal organizations, the system of patronage is just a pale shadow of the world of the Godfather and mafia.
So if family and patronage do not hold people together in England, and romantic love can only glue us to one other person at a time, what can provide the link between us? The short answer is friendship. This is why so much of your time at school was devoted to the making and unmaking of friends. Throughout your life, much of your happiness and success, or loneliness and failure, will depend on your ability to make ‘friends’, momentary or long-term. So what is this peculiar thing which is described by this Anglo-Saxon word?