The essence of friendship is equality. It must not develop into that inequality of power and gifts which is the essence of patronage. If it does, it will be destroyed. It must also be based on liking, mutual interest and shared feelings and thoughts. To ‘like’ someone is very different from ‘loving’ someone. I have heard people say that they love their parents (or their brothers and sisters), but do not really like them much. This is quite possible and, in the end, both are important. What is certain is that pretended friendship, where there is nothing in common and nothing to share, does not work.
Friendship is not a static thing. It is like a river, only meaningful if it is heading in some direction. It must always be developing, changing and expanding, absorbing new experiences. As someone once put it, ‘The English do not have friends; they have friends about things’. A shared activity or need is behind friendship. There are so many people in the world. Why spend time with just this one? Because one enjoys their company, they are ‘good fun’, amusing, supportive, kind. As we shall see, this often finds its strongest expression in playing games with them.
Friends must not be manipulative and calculating. Friendship abides by a central rule of ethics, namely that ‘we should treat people as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end’. If you feel a friend is ‘using you’, then the friendship ends. Just as true love and beauty cannot be bought or sold, so friendship cannot be purchased. You cannot go to an agency and buy or hire a friend, while you certainly can hire a person’s mind or body for a particular task.
So friendship is about the long-term liking of two equal people for each other. In England this can be between people of the opposite sex or of different ages. Men can be friends with women, adults with children. Even husband and wife can be ‘friends’ as well as companions and sexual partners. This is a very old pattern. The historian Eileen Power described how medieval life is ‘full of married friends’. To a certain extent, the English can even be friends with their pets. As the novelist George Eliot the novelist put it, ‘Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms’. Pets are the only kind of friend we can buy, but even they have to be respected.
We have to work at friendship; it neither comes naturally nor does it remain without constant attention. Friends can be likened to an orchard. They have to be carefully planted, pruned and protected. They cannot, however, be turned into private and exclusive property. You will find throughout your life that one of the most difficult things is to share friends and sometimes to lose them.
Friendship often clashes with other ties, especially to our family and particularly our love partner. Yet when it works, it can be one of the deepest of all relationships. As a little girl you used to listen with me to Handel’s famous aria, based on the biblical story of the lament of King David over his murdered friend Jonathan. Handel’s music captures the depth of their love.