Listen: Alexander Nehamas '67 and Thomas Laqueur '67, H'14
During Alumni Weekend, historian Thomas Laqueur '67, H'14 (left) facilitated a conversation on friendship by Alexander Nehamas '67. Nehamas, who serves as Princeton University's Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature, discusses friendship from a philosophical perspective, defining it as a kind of love.
Alexander Neham: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Alexander Nehamas. I'm the class of '67 and I'm here with my very old friend, [Tom Laquer 00:00:09], also class of '67, to discuss some ideas about friendship. We very much hope that we won't be talking all the time. The very first moment you feel like you would have a question or having something to contribute, please do because normally first we talk and then there are questions. We hope we'll have a more lively and interactive discussion.
Before we go any further, Thomas Laquer '67.
Thomas Laquer: Right. We're going to talk about friendship because for one, all of you guys know about it, and two, Alexander turns out to be an expert on the subject.
This book came out last year to some critical acclaim and we did a whole gig at a bookstore talking about friendship. In a way, we wanted a reprise of that in a very short form, but really we do want to have your view. I mean, what is this about, so we want to hear from you on this subject.
I should just say that Alexander's one of the few people in the class that I've actually kept up with, more or less. Not quite daily-
Alexander Neham: Four or five times a week, actually.
Thomas Laquer: Four or five times a week for 50 years, so the strange time lapse that many of us feel. You know, like a Disney movie role where the flowers open. That's the case with him, so we worked together in grad school and then-
Alexander Neham: We did theater together.
Thomas Laquer: We did theater together here. We met when I directed him as Perry White in Joe Schultz's St. Louis [inaudible 01:41] and we became close friends. Then he was going to go off and become a rich ship owner. He was going-
Alexander Neham: This is actually true.
Thomas Laquer: But he had no firm plans for how to become a rich ship owner, other than his mother wanted him to marry Christine Onassis because her French was perfect. That's what she said, but he didn't marry Christine Onassis and he had no plans for becoming a rich ship owner. He had no other plans, and so I accosted him into the library in May of our senior year and said, "I need a roommate at Princeton," and he hadn't applied to Princeton or anywhere else.
Alexander Neham: It was a low period.
Thomas Laquer: But it was true. He had no plans. No plan B for the rich ship owner, and so he wanted to be a philosopher, but philosophy was full. We got him to apply in classics and he didn't drive, so I drove him to Princeton to be interviewed in classics and he ... You'd taken a couple of classics courses here, but that basically wasn't the thing. Being a good [inaudible 02:57] boy, you could [decline 02:59] and conjugate anything, and they didn't ask him anything serious in the classics. They just asked for some verbs and nouns and he did fine, and so he got into classics at Princeton and I got a roommate.
Alexander Neham: And then they say friends don't exploit one another.
Thomas Laquer: This is what you'll hear. He'll talk about use friendship, which is an instrumental version of friendship, and this ... What's a good combination of use friendship and real friendship? We'll talk about real friendship in a moment. We came to be friends then and we more or less kept up, and we've had an almost ... I think pretty much like four times a week, three times a week. We talk all the time for 50 years, so that's a rare gift in life to see someone go through all sorts of things in one's life and be at each other's weddings or whatever. We've kept up, so in some sense this friendship talk grows out of a lifelong friendship. It's really one of the only lifelong friendships, continuous lifelong friendships, that-
Alexander Neham: We actually taught the seminar together on friendship 10 years ago now, and I think that's what in a way got me started on this book. It's been a very [serious and joined 04:11] project, but we should start talking.
Thomas Laquer: Okay, so I have a few questions I thought I'd pose to Alexander.
Speaker 3: Can you pull the mics closer to you, please?
Thomas Laquer: Then-
Alexander Neham: Closer to the mic. Closer to the mic.
Thomas Laquer: A few questions that I'll pose to Alexander, and we really do encourage you to interrupt and have your views on the subject. Then we'll [inaudible 04:34]. The first question I'm going to ask him: sort of what's interesting about friendship? As I say, why would philosophers spend the better part of 10 years writing a book on a subject that seems in some sense at once both self evident and the other deeply mysterious?
Alexander Neham: The easy answer is publish or perish, right?
Thomas Laquer: Not by this time. He was the fanciest professor at Princeton by this time. That's false.
Alexander Neham: No, what got me interested was actually something very sort of marginal. I was writing a book about beauty and aesthetics, and it occurred to me that it's impossible to love somebody that you don't find attractive, right? If you love somebody, you find them attractive. It's impossible to love somebody and say, "What an ugly, horrible person?" No, you can't do that. Of course what each one of us finds beautiful and attractive is different. That's why we constantly say, "What does she see in him?," or, "What does he see in her?," and all that sort of things. It occurred to me that that was very interesting, and then I realized that with friends there's something very similar happening.
It's not that we find all our friends beautiful, but their looks, whatever they are, become relatively unimportant. That was driven home to me when I first started teaching in Pittsburgh. There was a colleague there that had polio as a child and he was completely deformed. I mean, he was hunchbacked and his stomach was out here, and the first time I met him I could not parse his body. I literally couldn't understand where his stomach was and where his shoulders were, and we started talking and we became friends. One night we were talking and all of a sudden, as he made some brilliant and interesting point, I saw he has these beautiful blue eyes. Then all of a sudden he was just another person. Not only that. He also, as it turns out, had a whole bunch of affairs on the side, and had an illegitimate child. He basically was a very charming man, and his looks became relatively secondary. I found that very interesting. I didn't particularly have an answer for it, but that was one of the variations that I got interested.
Then it occurred to me that in philosophy we've been thinking about friendship in one way or another since Aristotle. Plato too, but Aristotle famously devoted two of the ten books of his major work on ethics to [Filia 07:06], which we have generally taken to be friendship. I don't think it is, but nevertheless we have followed Aristotle ever since then. One of the crucial things about Aristotle's view and in most philosopher's view is that only good, virtuous people can be friends. That seemed to me totally absurd and not only absurd. It seemed to me that the philosophers who wrote about friendship, Aristotle, Cicero, [San Elred, Quinas 07:33], Francis Bacon, they all had exactly the same view. Even Francis Bacon, the most sort of complicated and accomplished [quartier 07:45] in the world, he changed patrons whenever ... He changed his view of friendship every time he changed patrons to make it fit. He said only the virtuous have real friendship, and that seemed to me totally absurd.
It seems to me that most of us are not really virtuous. I mean, we're not evil, but we're not virtuous. Aristotle said only virtuous and there are very few virtuous, so true friendship he said is very rare. When you say, "Who are the virtuous, Aristotle?," and the closer he gets is to say, "Pericles and [Nose-harame 08:11], but that's a very high standard it seems to me and I'm not about to even come close to it. I started thinking about sort of honor among thieves and all that, and then Thelma and Louise came to mind. I don't know if you've seen this film. It's an amazingly wonderful film actually and the script for it, which got the Oscar, is terrific. It's about these two women who had a dead end life. They go out for a weekend. One of them is almost raped by someone, the other woman shoots him, they decide to leave and go to Mexico, and in the process they steal, they rob, they blow up a tanker, they shot a policeman in the car trunk while he's trying to arrest them. By the end they're trapped on the ridge of the [inaudible 08:59] mountain of the Grand Canyon and they look at one another and they just drive off. The last scene of the film is their car in the middle of the opening of the Grand Canyon and BB King is singing Don't Look Down Now.
They are extremely admirable through their friendship. It's not just that friends can do bad things. Of course everybody knows that. It's that people can become good friends because of bad things they do and that people can become admirable in a way because these two women become able to run their own lives rather than be pushed around by those two idiotic men that they've been involved with. There's something about friendship that doesn't fit with traditional moral, or [inaudible 09:53] moralistic views.
Speaker 4: I'm speaking as a neuroscientist. I'm not claiming this is yet established by neuroscience. It is useful to distinguish human group social behavior from interpersonal human social behavior.
Alexander Neham: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Speaker 4: You are looking at friendship in one realm and seeing that it doesn't fit the other.
Alexander Neham: How so? Why doesn't it fit?
Speaker 4: I-
Alexander Neham: And which is the other?
Speaker 4: Honor among thieves is honor in individual social relationships.
Alexander Neham: That's all I'm talking about.
Speaker 4: The idea that some kind of human ideal is required for friendship is talking more about group social behavior.
Alexander Neham: No, not really. Not really. Aristotle and everybody after him has been talking literally about one to one relationships.
Speaker 4: The label he used of virtue is to earn respect by the group, so it comes from group social behavior.
Alexander Neham: This is a really complicated question.
Thomas Laquer: Can I just say there's a whole chapter of [inaudible 10:56]. There's one chapter that I invite you to have this discussion. I sort of checked out on the two sessions of our seminar in which they did Aristotle because you had to know Greek, and they were shooting the the phenology back and forth. Maybe we should ... Could we bracket Aristotle? Would you mind? The technical question of what virtue is?
Alexander Neham: Yes, please. Lets. I'm very, very glad to talk about it, but now I have to remember where I was.
Thomas Laquer: You do.
Alexander Neham: That's what happens on your 50th anniversary.
Thomas Laquer: We talk about [inaudible 11:34], I think.
Alexander Neham: No, no.
Speaker 5: You were falling into the Grand Canyon.
Speaker 3: BB King.
Speaker 6: Honor amongst thieves.
Alexander Neham: BB King was earlier. No, honor among thieves. I ended up believing that bad people can be very good friends, and that suggested to me that we have two very different kinds of values by which we live our lives. One group, which is what contemporary thought and most modern thought since about the 16th century has focused its attention on, and those are moral and political values. Values that depend on our similarities with one another, either similarities that don't really exist or similarities that we hope we can create, and these values and sort of knowledge are required actually. Behavior that's impartial. We have to treat everybody the same way, both in politics and in morality, because after all we are all human beings or rational agents, whatever it is.
What you need is deep down inside the same thing that I need, so there are those values that depend, as I said, on similarity and that make certain similarities good things, but we have completely overlooked another whole family of values, which I like to call non-moral values or ethical values, if you want, that have to do much more with our differences from one another. We actually value people who do things their own way, people who have their own character, who are distinct individuals, and the issue for me is how to put those two together. How to have a relationship that involves and embodies justice and the reasonable treatment of other people on the one hand, and now at the same time we can strive to accomplish something that is a personal achievement rather than a universal one.
Philosophy in particular today has completely overlooked these values and I think it's time to bring them back. Part of what this book tries to do is to say look, values like beauty, like friendship, like elegance if you want, like wit, those are virtues and values that are not being discussed because we think that they're too superficial, too this, too that, or the other, but I say it's time to do it. Friendship is a particularly good test case because friendship is essentially not impartial. If I'm thinking in terms of morality, I would want to treat ideally everyone in the world the same way, but I'm not going to treat them the same way I treat my friends. Friendship is essentially partial, and if you want to say prejudiced.
I'll commit more of myself to Tom than I will commit myself to somebody with whom I have not a very close relationship and much more than to someone to whom I have no relationship whatsoever. What has been morality, no matter whether I know or don't know anyone I still need to give them the same things.
Speaker 3: I was just wondering. As you're talking I'm thinking about The Ethics of Pair that Carol Gilligan wrote about and [crosstalk 14:52].
Alexander Neham: Sure.
Speaker 3: I was just wondering. I haven't read your book, so I'm just wondering is that something that you've associated this with?
Alexander Neham: I actually discuss Carol Gilligan's stuff. She's also [inaudible 15:02], right?
Speaker 3: Mm-hmm (affirmative), right.
Alexander Neham: As a matter of fact. I'm not, and she has changed her mind since the first and very famous book, I think. It's not quite as gendered now, the way she looks at things, but one thing that I actually believe here is that although there are profound differences in the behavior of women as friends and the behavior of men as friends, I'm dealing with the issue on a rather more abstract basis. I'm thinking of friendship as simply a kind of love, and the kind of love that friendship is is I believe the same across genders even though the behavior of the genders is very different.
Thomas Laquer: Can I interrupt you? The gender part, so one of the things I was going to ask Alexander about was what distinguishes friendship from this wide variety of instrumental relationships and casual relationships which we all have? I mean, there's all these friends on Facebook and there's his friend the barber that he goes to all the time and has a very particular relationship with. I want to talk a little bit about what the context of ... How friendship is different from all of these.
Alexander Neham: Right.
Thomas Laquer: They suggest that one of the things that you brought up and which speaks to the gender issue is when you talked of Thelma and Louise and started telling the story, and so what is friends about them? They shot a guy together and stuffed him in a trunk.
Alexander Neham: Right, yeah.
Thomas Laquer: They got away from their husbands and you got this whole sort of story, so in some sense gendered friendships are gendered friendships because women have different stories with each other than men do.
Alexander Neham: Yeah, every woman shoots somebody.
Thomas Laquer: [crosstalk 16:43] gender and friendship, but what struck me is that if you think about [inaudible 16:48]. Think about friendship versus all these casual relationships. There's more and more stories of then and then and then, and those can be gendered as our lives are gendered and when we-
Alexander Neham: The way to describe a friendship is never by describing the person and saying, you know, Tom is very intelligent and he's sensitive and educated and he plays the cello. Those are each aspects of him that I like. I don't like Tom just because of those things and we really see discretion from [either 17:23] that I won't get into now is what is it to love somebody, as we say, for themselves rather than for their money. If you say I love you for your money, it's to say I don't love you, right? To say I love you because you're intelligent suggests something that ... In fact, it doesn't explain anything because the fact that I think Tom is intelligent doesn't mean that if I were to meet somebody more intelligent than him, unlikely as that could be, but-
Thomas Laquer: Not in this group.
Alexander Neham: I would just trade up. You don't do that with friends and that's very important. Here is how I distinguish a friendship on the one hand from what I will call an impersonal or an instrumental relationship. I got this barber in Princeton, right? I went to him because I had tried others and I thought this barber was very good, and I kept going. At that point, if you ask me why do you go-
Thomas Laquer: His name is also Thomas.
Alexander Neham: Thomas, Thomas, the barber's name. If you asked me at that point, "Why do you go to this guy?," I would say, "He cuts my hair well," but as I kept going I started learning more things about him and getting to know him better. After a while we started talking about our lives and our families and things like that, and at that point if you said, "Why do you go to him?," I could no longer say, "Because he cuts my hair well." It was much more than that, and what's more is something that I couldn't express. Another reason that I knew it was like that is because Tom and my wife at some point tried to get me to change barbers because my wife is having her hair cut in New York, so it's a fancy barber. I mean, hairdresser or whatever. They thought that this guy would have done a much better job on my hair, which I admitted. I think he probably might have, but I wouldn't give up this particular relationship because it was the relationship that I valued. Not just what I would get out of the relationship, and that's the real difference.
A purely instrumental relationship is, for example, something that you have with a waiter at a restaurant. You know what you want in advance. I want to be served at the time, good food, and politely. Yeah?
Speaker 6: Why didn't you go get a decent haircut and take this guy out for dinner?
Thomas Laquer: That's a good question.
Alexander Neham: That's a very good question. Because we are not that close, and what I want to suggest is that friendship ranges from the [foreign language 19:53] all the way down to the partial friendship that we have with people, but when you don't have even a partial friendship then what happens is, as I said, you know what you want, somebody can give it to you. If somebody can do it better, immediately you go to them, right? If I find a better restaurant or a better waiter or a better barber, I immediately and I don't think about it whereas when we deal with our friends no such feature is determined.
On the other hand, of course we also exploit our friends, even our best friends. Whenever Tom comes to Princeton to visit, he fixes something in my house and he gets a few pies. I mean, we use one another. It's not that we don't, but there is this other element, and that element is what I think we usually try to say. It's the self. I like you as a person, not this part of you, but all of it.
Thomas Laquer: There's a line he uses from [Montain 20:54] where he asked [Montain 20:56] at the end why he's buddies with his best friend [inaudible 20:58] great essay on friendship, which is the essential lesson in [Motain's 21:02] essay, so [Motain 21:04] was really centrally interested in friendship and Alexander was, as I said, in the middle of his book, so it's crucial. The question is why are you friends with this guy, and the answer is because he is he and I am I.
Alexander Neham: If you ask me why I love him, I would say that this cannot be expressed. That's in the first edition of [Montain's 21:22] essays. In the third edition of the essays, it says, "If you ask me why I loved him, I would have to say this cannot be expressed except by saying because it was he, because it was I," which is a really moving non-definition.
Thomas Laquer: If you then unpack that, which is my [inaudible 21:44] narrative story. If you then unpack this, saying, "What does that mean? That I am I and he is he," you'd just get an endless set of stories.
Alexander Neham: Right.
Thomas Laquer: Why am I friends with Alexander? We could be here [inaudible 21:55] with each other. We could be here for weeks and there's another line that's kind of nice where he said, "It's not what you do with your friends that matters. It's what you do when you do with your friends." [crosstalk 22:07].
Alexander Neham: It's what you do is less important-
Thomas Laquer: That you do with your friends. You've built up this set of narratives and the difference ... The reason you don't ask your barber out to dinner is because you don't have them. You didn't go to Swarthmore together and you didn't fix ... You go through these gazillion stories that we always have with our friends.
Alexander Neham: Oh yeah, please.
Speaker 7: Thinking of Aristotle [inaudible 22:34] to Thelma and Louise. This thought just came into my mind.
Alexander Neham: Okay.
Speaker 7: But are Thelma and Louise really defining a new kind of virtue as from a female perspective in which-
Thomas Laquer: That's a ... I was going to ask you about gender and friendship.
Speaker 7: Shooting your rapist is a virtuous thing to do even though it's ... [inaudible 22:57].
Alexander Neham: That's a really good point. I would say virtue here is not really the relevant feature. It's adoration. They become admirable. Not virtuous. I mean, they shoot people for ... I mean, the guy was no longer trying to rape the Gina Davis character. Then [inaudible 23:23] said something. He swore to them and the Susan Sarandon character, because she had been raped earlier in her life, turns around and shoots him. It's more or less a [fortuitous 23:32] killing that would have gotten them in jail, and then when they blow up this tanker yeah, the guy was making dirty gestures at them as they were driving, but still. It's one thing for the guy to say hello and for you to just blow up this huge tanker into a fireball. That's an excessive reaction, but if you don't mind, Tom has talked about stories and I believe in a way that our friends are so to speak inexhaustible.
We always find more things and more things. When we stop finding more things, we stop the friendship. When you realize that there's nothing else to get out of a relationship or that the relationship offers nothing, you don't have to stop seeing them anymore, but the relation loses its kind of vitality that it had.
Here's a story I will tell you about a friend from the book. Let me try to explain this by means of a story. Several years ago a very good friend, I'll call him Tom because that's his name, was visiting me at home in Princeton. On a cold, winter, gray, November morning as I was getting ready to drive my 10 year old son to school, Tom decided to come along. Since we were in a hurry and he wasn't going to get out of the car, he threw a raincoat over his pajamas and jumped in. He got the raincoat also because my son said, "Too embarrassing. Tom, don't do that." Of course, he was 10.
Traffic in the school yard because of the rain was even worse than usual and we're part of a long, slow queue of cars waiting their turn. When we finally came to the front, as I got out of the car to speed things up for those waiting behind me, I saw that one of my tires was flat. As I stood by the car cold, wet, and horrified because I had no idea how to change it, under the eyes of the many annoyed parents in their cars behind us, Tom in dark blue pajamas, a gray raincoat and bare feet leaped out of the car and took over. Changing the tire turned out to be a complicated affair and every few minutes he had to stop working and move out of the way so that a few other cars could come by.
A crowd gathered. The children mostly stared, fascinated. Actually my son told me that everybody thought I had the coolest friends. Some adults offered to help, but there was nothing they could do. Others just watched or made various jokes. One colleague of mine from the university told me how lovely she thought Tom's outfit was. Of all that, Tom remained completely oblivious. He fixed the tire, drove me to a garage, discussed the situation with the mechanics still in pajamas, raincoat, and bare feet, and returned home ready to do some work while I'm collapsed in a useless heap. As I say, if you were ever to ask me why this fellow is my friend, that story would be certainly one of the things I would tell you and other stories as well, and I would still not be able to explain it.
Why not? Why can't we explain it? My guess, and it's just a guess. I don't have proofs or anything like that. It's the following. That when you have a friend, or in general anybody that you love, because friendship is one species of love and we should think of all those things together, you don't just so to speak love them for what you already know about them. The love that you have for a person includes what one could describe as a hope or sometimes a certainty or a guess, if you wanted to be pseudo-scientific and say hypothesis that you haven't learned everything there is to learn about this person and that the other things that are coming as your relationship goes on are also going to be good and are going to make your life in some way better.
Now, that always doesn't work, of course. It very often doesn't work at all, but in other words friendship and love in general include crucially a commitment to the future, but we don't know this future because in contrast with the instrumental relationships where I know already what I want and I can tell you whether I got it or not, when I become friends with someone or when I fall in love with somebody I actually want to change. I want the things that I ... I want to learn to value, to appreciate, to do, to know new things because of that relationship, which I wouldn't have done otherwise. Of course I want to influence the person and I want to be influenced by them, and so both of us change in a relationship like that.
There's no way to predict what will happen, so of course I can't tell you why I love him. Because part of the reason why you love anybody is this dark future, which we can't tell something about something that you don't know. I think that unknown part is basically what we call the self when we say I love your for yourself. It's I love you no matter what, in other words, is going to come out of it. In fact, it doesn't always work like that, but that's a commitment. A commitment we make.
Thomas Laquer: I'm just going to put a question on the floor for you guys to discuss. We can open everything up. I have three more questions. One speaks to what was asked about the gender in the friendship, whether friendship is gendered and what your view of this was. The other thing is one that [Motain 28:57] talks about, where he thinks that basically men just totally can't be friends with women because of sex. That sex and friendship are incompatible.
Alexander Neham: He does say if there were a woman who was good enough, then if you marry that woman from a [inaudible 29:12] point of view, that would be the best, but of course unfortunately [inaudible 29:15].
Thomas Laquer: Obviously the gender in Aristotle is one thing we heard [inaudible 29:19] because only men could be equal to men, so in the old days there's no question, but today that's no longer the case. The issue of gender and friendship might be something that would be interesting to talk about and that [inaudible 29:32]. The last thing I wanted to think about people talking in the context of being here is friendship and time. In other words, it's one thing to keep up a youthful friendship. That Alexander and I basically see each other all the time and there's some other people who have stayed over the years, but many of us are seeing each other for the first time in 40 or 50 years, and so some people you talk to you feel some version of the past there that's going to mimic friendship or feel like friendship, but I'm interested in what you think about this idea of friendship after half a century, which is a remarkable period of time.
That's all I have. Just [we have to say 30:13], right? Officially-
Speaker 4: To pick up on a kind of theme that you just articulated, which was implicitly a kind of surprise and inexhaustibility of the connection.
Thomas Laquer: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Speaker 4: Let me ask you this. Suppose you are dear friends. Could he cease to be a dear friend?
Alexander Neham: That's a-
Thomas Laquer: What's the basis of the question? Could you-
Speaker 4: You were talking about an inexhaustibility of friendship. That occasionally somebody could change a tire, occasionally somebody has a skill-
Alexander Neham: But he can change a tire only as he can change it, because many people can change a tire and I know of them.
Speaker 4: I don't know about that. That only he can change a tire.
Speaker 3: In his pajamas.
Speaker 4: But there is an inexhaustibility implicit in the kind of delight in seeing a new thing about somebody.
Thomas Laquer: Right.
Speaker 4: My question then is if you have at point A a sense of inexhaustibility, of surprise, of delight, can a person cease to be a friend?
Thomas Laquer: Sure.
Speaker 4: What does it take to cease to be a friend? Because that will-
Thomas Laquer: That's an interesting question.
Speaker 4: Further give us a sense of-
Thomas Laquer: [crosstalk 31:28].
Speaker 4: You can't articulate it.
Thomas Laquer: What breaks ... Ending friendships is a really interesting question that we never got very got very far with it.
Alexander Neham: I don't think I can actually answer the part of the question. That's really a question of psychologists rather than for a philosopher who doesn't deal in facts. Known facts, you know? What do they matter?
Speaker 4: The difference [inaudible 31:52] from.
Alexander Neham: Okay, but I think what happens at the end of a friendship is either you find out something that you think is horrible about the other person that you hadn't seen before, in which case you can either say he changed, he isn't the person I started liking, or you can say you were deceived all this time. He really wasn't somebody I wanted to be friends with, but he hid it so to speak. More often than that it is either distance that does it or a sense that there is not very much new there. That you feel that you've exhausted the enthusiasm that this inexhaustibility can generate. A friend of mine ... That moves over to marriage, but I think again there are deep similarities. He was thinking of getting a divorce and we're talking, and he said, "I feel as if my life would be the same from now on until I die." It's that which, to me, signifies the death of a relationship.
Now, it doesn't mean that because you stop being friends with somebody you give them up completely or whatever. You still have almost an obligation to the relationship, you know, so you still can deal with that person in a different way, but then you deal with just somebody you don't care about and never cared about at all. Having cared for someone a lot makes a difference of how you deal with them now. Do you see what I mean?
Speaker 6: Or you become somebody else yourself.
Speaker 5: Yeah.
Alexander Neham: That [crosstalk 33:26].
Speaker 6: A whole combination of things can change.
Alexander Neham: Absolutely right. It can be either point of view, yeah. You change and all of a sudden you find out that you've gone in a very different direction from where you were. That's a change, and of course again you can't predict at all, so you don't know what you will become as a result of falling in love or starting a friendship. You just don't know, and that lack of knowledge is both, I think, an exhilarating feeling but at the same time it's very dangerous.
There are at least two ways in which it can be dangerous. One is what Proust describes at the end of Swan's Way where Swan, this character who has been in love with this woman for many, many years, horribly jealous. He marries her and one day he says, "To think that I have spent the best years of my life, to have cried and done this for a woman who wasn't even my type." [inaudible 34:26]. That's one way.
Another way which I think is worse is when you develop a relationship with somebody and without realizing it you get perverted and degraded, but your standards change at the same time, and so you're happy to live in a way that you would have considered absolutely abominable before you entered that relationship. Then you have been harmed and you don't even know that you have been harmed.
Thomas Laquer: I think there's a [inaudible 34:58] think of breaking up. It's when a past doesn't sustain a future anymore. When the past becomes a burden rather than more possibilities. I'm thinking [inaudible 35:06] the break up of these friendship amongst the romantics where they had all of these very tight, intimate relationships and then people became more and more burdened, so in some sense [crosstalk 35:15].
Alexander Neham: [Colridge 35:16].
Thomas Laquer: Yeah, [Colridge 35:17], but they dropped the [inaudible 35:18]. These guys had really intense relationships that ended big time. I mean, I don't think I've ever lost a serious friend, but in a way sometimes you feel the past just won't sustain the kind of more discovery, and so at some point you reach this state where the past won't. I find with close friends that the past does sustain, to me, an engaging future. It is the fact that we've had these adventures together that I think there might be more of them, and even he sometimes is irritating and doesn't answer the phone for weeks. He doesn't use a cell phone, for example, so it's very hard to reach him, or he's from California and it's hard to get up early enough to get him before he goes. It's irritating. On the other hand, you sort of forgive him.
Alexander Neham: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Speaker 5: I don't have anything to say about the romantics, but-
Thomas Laquer: You don't?
Speaker 5: There seems to be a big difference between break ups or their equivalent in a friendship. I mean, I have memories of particular friends where [inaudible 36:23] and what seems to me, at least just speaking for myself, a much more pervasive drift away that is just a loss.
Alexander Neham: Right.
Speaker 5: Not a moment of conscious disillusionment or conflict at all, but your particular friendship has obviously been aided by what I'm calling institutional structure. I mean, you're both academics at distinguished places where you're likely at one point or another to come and give a talk at the other place, et cetera, so there's a whole set of institutional expectations which enable it.
Alexander Neham: Absolutely.
Speaker 5: Which is not to say your effort didn't go into it. I mean, I don't have an answer or even a question exactly as just thinking, and I'm very conscious of how many close friends over my adult life or even my childhood life I've just lost. Not in-
Alexander Neham: Just [crosstalk 37:14].
Thomas Laquer: Right.
Speaker 5: If I were not simply to blame myself for this in a kind of immediately personal way, I would say it has to do with changing personal and professional and physical shifts away, but there are people who are capable of overcoming that drift. I would love to know the gift of it, but it seems to me a very, very strong counterweight to the kind of long term ... I mean, you said this is [inaudible 37:48]. I don't have anyone, I don't think, that I can think of.
Alexander Neham: You don't have any-
Speaker 5: To have that 50 year long period of sustained connection.
Alexander Neham: Yeah, I have friends from before grade school.
Speaker 5: Yeah.
Thomas Laquer: [John 38:04]?
Speaker 3: You can use the microphone.
Alexander Neham: Sorry?
Speaker 8: Could you talk about roles within a friendship? The two members of a friend pair are not identical people. They are usually complimentary in some interesting ways. My son says that preteen boys tend to run in packs of four. There's always the leader, the sidekick, a criminal, and an idiot.
Alexander Neham: I think many films would verify that, yeah.
Speaker 8: They all have their roles to play and in a way this carries their story forward and sets them up for further adventures. I won't ask you to describe a four way relationship like that, but the idea of a role to play within a friendship. It's an interesting idea.
Alexander Neham: That is very interesting. I hadn't thought about that very much, but I can certainly say that Tom's role in my life includes his practical aspects. I mean, he really does help. He really does fix the cupboards. It's really, really important, and I have another ... I can't tell you everything. I can't tell you everything I advise him because some things are too personal, but I am a source of advice about certain relationships and certain things. I am a source of advice about clothes, which you should see the jacket he's going to wear tomorrow. Things like that, and I think you're right in a way that many friendships are sort of structured in terms of roles, but very often those friendships where roles aren't crucial are often the leader and the follower, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Especially in mystery novels, right, where every detective has a sergeant or whatever it is.
What's interesting is that these people become friends and with serialized novels ... I mean series of novels like that. It is like discovering friendships on their own part, all of them, right? They first see Archie Goodwin again in the 17th book and he says, "I never gulp orange juice. I only sip it." That's something that I recognize that he said before, right, so I recognize him as someone that I've had a past in history with.
Speaker 8: The other two. Holmes is the leader, Watson is the sidekick, Moriarty is the criminal, and Lestrat is the idiot.
Alexander Neham: The idiot, right. Yeah, since Moriarty is a constant thing there are four, but in most others there are three. The criminal changes every time. Otherwise it would be boring.
Thomas Laquer: [inaudible 40:49]?
Speaker 4: Yeah, I wanted to ask about if you have generalizations about the circumstances in which friendships are more likely to develop. I know from my own life ... I lived somewhere in the northeast until I was 30 and my friends were either people I went to school with, or people I went to camp with, or people I lived in groups with, or people I was politically active with, especially the last. Then I moved out to Seattle and eventually I did develop some friends, but those circumstances I listed, and for other people it might be different, weren't happening anymore. I'm wondering, but really it's a question. Can you generalize about the circumstance in which it's more likely or less likely?
Alexander Neham: To some extent, but I think you also have to take another factor into account, and that's age.
Speaker 4: Yeah.
Alexander Neham: Notice how quickly children make and lose friends, right?
Speaker 4: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Alexander Neham: Constantly. Why? Because children are always changing very fast and trying new ways to be. Friends are a crucial element of that. They allow us to try out new ways of being, so there's constantly this change. At around 35 to 40 people's self concept gels. Now, as I was saying before, having a new friendship or starting a new friendship means that you're going to be changing and I think many people find that much more difficult.
Speaker 4: Yeah.
Alexander Neham: Especially if you also change locale, as you did. When one of my best friends at Pittsburgh left Pittsburgh to go to Princeton actually, and he came back for an examination or something, and we're talking. I was asking how he was and he said, "I've read Proust this semester." I said, "How much time do you have?" He started saying how he couldn't make any new friends, and this was a very social person. I mean, we had a wonderful time together, and yet at that point he retreated. I think we do, for better or worse, retreat at some point in life and usually we say we have too much work, spouses, jobs, children, but that I think is much less important than the fear or the unwillingness to change who we are.
Thomas Laquer: I think that having friendships takes a mutual amount of energy. I mean, this is my experience. You really have to put ... You need to engage with your friends and the older your friend and the deeper your history, maybe they're less work than the new friends, as you're saying.
Speaker 4: Yeah.
Thomas Laquer: It takes a lot of energy, and we all hope to have this energy in our work and the rest of our lives, but it's harder to develop that kind of Eros with new people.
Speaker 4: We have more in common with ... I mean, I've just in the last three weeks gone to [inaudible 43:45] with four guys who went to elementary and high school together.
Alexander Neham: Who was the criminal and who was the ...
Speaker 4: [inaudible 43:53], and so I do feel that friendships that are longer and in which you've done something intensive in common are two big things.
Thomas Laquer: Alexander opens his book with his [border 44:08] his high school.
Alexander Neham: For 10 years.
Thomas Laquer: For 10 years and these guys were still all around in Athens, so he opens the book by talking how easy it is to fall into relatively little effort, but it's hard. You haven't made any new Greek friends in Athens, right?
Alexander Neham: Some, but no. What's very easy about sometimes those relationships that stop and then you recover them. I think the reason that I found it so wonderful to get in touch with my old friends who have lived their life together literally is that you no longer have the kind of insecurities, uncertainties, competitiveness that teenagers or even college students have toward one another. Those things really drop out as you get older, so you can actually just see the person without constantly comparing yourself to them or trying to outdo them or whatever it is. That really, really helps I think.
Speaker 4: I think, to just paraphrase something you said, the concept of unconditional love is one you traditionally hear in a love relationship, and it basically means whatever the ... I think it basically means what you just said friendship is. Regardless of what happens with this person or if they do something you don't like at some level, you-
Alexander Neham: There are limits, but they're very, very broad.
Speaker 4: They're still your friends.
Alexander Neham: That's right, absolutely. You should see the things he does.
Thomas Laquer: [inaudible 45:36] people. Sorry.
Speaker 9: I first commented in a question, but I'm sitting next to my friend of 65 years out of 72. A few other people in my class knew my parents. She knew my grandparents. She knew what I grew up from and I knew the same about her. That is an eradicable basis for a friendship. Now, she or I could do something unpredictable to split it, I suppose.
Alexander Neham: Sure, yeah.
Speaker 9: But that connectivity makes it possible to go back to that friendship without any feeling that you are starting over. You're just picking up, and that has in my experience been a very valuable aspect of friendship. My question to you concerns the barber.
Alexander Neham: The what?
Speaker 9: The barber. You said he was ... I think I'm quoting you more or less correctly. He was not that good of a friend.
Alexander Neham: He was a casual friend, yes.
Speaker 9: Right, yes. Is it possible at all to have that good of a friend with someone who is providing you with services that you pay for? Tom changed your tire, fixes your cabinets, neither of you could imagine any payment.
Alexander Neham: No, we barter.
Thomas Laquer: We barter. [crosstalk 47:10].
Speaker 9: How is it even conceivable to have a friendship where one person has in effect the power of the purse over the other?
Alexander Neham: I don't think you can have ... Generally speaking, I don't think it's easy to have a very close friendship, but I do think that my relationship with Thomas the barber is not one of pure instrumentality. I think we actually ... I forgot to go introduce you to him yesterday. Really it's him I like and I think that's shown by the fact that I decided not to go to a better barber, supposing that this guy was better, because I felt loyal to him. I didn't feel loyal to him just because he provided me with a service, you see? Providing the service, the money part, doesn't create loyalty. It's whatever is left once the money part goes out, is taken out, that matters. I think it's very difficult to have close friendships when you actually are paying people, but I don't think it's all that difficult to have a more casual friendship. I think it's mutual, yeah?
Thomas Laquer: It's interesting. I mean, it's an interesting question. I've become very close friends with my cello teacher, and so he doesn't want me to pay him anymore. I find it just sort of unbearable to have him coach a group of amateurs that mostly does a butchering of [Shubert 48:36] quintet and not pay him. It's his job, and so I insist on paying him. We have this certain amount of tension about the categories. He's both a good friend and a professional musician, and as a professional musician I just couldn't bear it, so we settled on a compromise. I said we'll just separate. When you're coaching us, you're in your professional role and when we bike together and hang out you're not. I think it's possible to split, to somehow segregate parts of a friendship or a relationship like that.
Speaker 9: I suppose that's possible, but I think every time you split it one way or the other you make it more fragile.
Alexander Neham: Make it more fragile?
Speaker 9: Yes.
Thomas Laquer: Yeah, I guess. Maybe it's different what kind of thing you do. Having someone as a music teacher is a fairly intimate relationship anyway, and so it's just a different version of intimacy. Anyway-
Alexander Neham: People do become friends with their doctors, for example. This gentleman, right?
Speaker 10: Yeah, just a couple things. We could go on for hours, but [crosstalk 49:49] point of view [inaudible 49:54] are interested in this as well. He talked about [inaudible 49:58].
Alexander Neham: He talked what?
Speaker 10: [inaudible 49:59].
Alexander Neham: Yeah. He talked about what?
Speaker 10: [inaudible 50:01], and of course it translated into sympathy, but recognized and it's been taken further with skepticism and [inaudible 50:08] and some others, but recognized that that's [inaudible 50:13] something that you had. It's not something you've acquired. It's something that you had, and that's something that he built a morality on. There's more discussions about that and people have talked about circles of sympathy. That starts with the self.
Alexander Neham: Right.
Speaker 10: But your family is close, your friends are closer, but then you gradually get out into what you would call a society without sympathy. Where you have to deal more in a transactional basis, and that's justice, that's ethics. What we're really talking about is what is it about a relationship with another non-family person that brings them into this inner circle of sympathy? It becomes an emotional connection. Exposure is one thing, and that's what we have with physician/patient relationships. It's an exposure that's more intimate than anything you could imagine in some cases, as in the case of an oncologist.
Alexander Neham: Yeah.
Speaker 10: I've been to friend's weddings. I go to way too many funerals, but it's something that you have an emotional connection with. It doesn't happen with everybody, of course, but that can be explained as more biological than maybe you were thinking of otherwise. The real question is-
Alexander Neham: How do you explain it biologically?
Speaker 10: Again, it starts with [inaudible 51:38] basis. Smiling releases neurons, sets thresholds, so it should feel better to smile. If somebody smiled at you, you smile. It's a mimic reaction so that you have an intrinsic response, but you also have a reaction when you smile, so it reinforces that feeling. Crying is the same, although-
Alexander Neham: But excuse me. Do you think that there's anything that we do in a conscious life that doesn't have an neurophysiological basis?
Speaker 10: No, I don't.
Alexander Neham: Neither do I, but I don't think that that means that friendship is just some endorphin sitting in my brain.
Speaker 10: Oh no, it's more than that. It's what we build in ourselves, so there's something called emergent properties.
Alexander Neham: Yes, I'm familiar with it.
Speaker 10: Emergent properties are our consciousness. It can't be predicted by your biologic content, and you build a self over time and friendships build into that self, so it helps to bind it. It represents a loss if you lose it, and probably the reason why we lose friends is that they no longer have that feeling. They no longer build a self for us. Again, I'm not saying anything different than what you're saying.
Alexander Neham: Oh yes, but I don't think ... You said explained biologically and I don't think that's quite right. It's not explained biologically. It has biological-
Speaker 4: He's not telling you it's explained. He's saying that a neonatal infant with no language is born with mechanisms.
Alexander Neham: Of course we have. Of course.
Speaker 4: [crosstalk 53:07].
Alexander Neham: I mean, we don't need scientists to tell us that frankly.
Speaker 10: What I'm saying is it correlates and we can probably measure in some ways if we're sophisticated enough what's happening with a friendship in terms of various biological [inaudible 53:23].
Alexander Neham: Maybe. [crosstalk 53:24] with that.
Speaker 10: My current research is about why dogs are our best friends.
Alexander Neham: Yeah? Tell us about it.
Thomas Laquer: [inaudible 53:37], but interesting question. This is not cognitive. This is biological, and yet there's a huge [inaudible 53:44] cultural things that go into making this intimate human/animal relationship. I mean, obviously it's biological.
Speaker 10: The question is-
Thomas Laquer: But that's not this whole mountain of relationships we have with these animals and other animals, and I think you'd say the same thing with people. Obviously there's attachment all along. We need to ... We're supposed to be out of here right now.
Alexander Neham: No, we have one more minute.
Speaker 11: We have one more minute.
Thomas Laquer: One more minute, sorry.
Alexander Neham: [crosstalk 54:11].
Speaker 12: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about relationships and friendships between couples.
Thomas Laquer: Couples.
Speaker 12: I was thinking about [crosstalk 54:24]. I was thinking about it on the context of [inaudible 54:28] has an incredible book about the lifelong relationships between two couples who got to know each other as [inaudible 54:36] when they were young and how both the relationships within the couple and between the two couples were affected by their varying careers, their varying family dynamics, the fact that they've got one member of a couple who gets sick and the other was burdened with a loss. I mean, it seems to me that life is fraught with unpredictable changes and the dynamics between us because of what is thrown our way, and we have very little control over it. It has a great bearing on what we can turn to in ourselves and amongst our friends for solace and support.
Now, in a way, Wallace Stegner was writing about a period in life when people have longterm careers, they were relatively stable, they could see one another, they had relatively stable marriages, and so in a sense they stayed together. How do you think about friendship in that context? In the context of longer term intra and inter couple.
Alexander Neham: I don't know very much about couples as a sociologist or as an anthropologist would know, but what I'm trying to say about friendships starts with two individuals, but I think it can be generalized. I don't think that ... Again, I don't think the feelings are different. I think the behavior may be different, once again. That you do ... When there are four of you and you are sort of regular, traditional couples, male, female, or whatever, there are all kinds of things that you will do for one another that two men or two women for that matter would not do, right? There are other things. I can't tell you exactly what those things are. That's something for a sociologist to figure out, and sociologists actually have tried to figure out ... Sorry? Oh I misunderstood.
They have something like 322 kinds of friendship. It shows that nobody knows. It's not as bad as instincts. In the 20's there were over 5,000 instincts that people had identified.
Thomas Laquer: Wow.
Alexander Neham: Which showed, again, that nobody knew what was going on. That's the kind of thing that I'm not capable of dealing with. What I think I can deal with is the sort of very general features that distinguish on the one hand intra-marital or interpersonal relationships and what I would call personal or friendly relationships on the other hand. I can't get any more specific than that, except by giving examples, as I did before with Tom or with other friends.
Speaker 12: Okay.