Friends to What End?
A Review Essay
Andrew G. Deskins and Todd C. Ream

Like many words populating the English language, “friend” is in a state of flux. Social media platforms such as Facebook have now turned friend, once strictly a noun, into a verb. In addition to being a friend, one can now friend someone else. Perhaps of greater concern than the fact that friend now functions as multiple parts of speech is that its meaning as a noun is also changing. At one time in the not so distant past, a friend was someone defined by an ongoing relationship of measured intimacy. You not only shared trivial matters with that person but also your struggles and pain. The word friend, as a noun, in the realm of social media can mean something far more casual and thus may include hundreds of people with whom you once shared only a passing existence in contexts such as high school. Looking at the rising number of recent titles considering the nature of friendship, we are of the impression that we are not alone in our confusion about what the word friend has come to mean.

Lest we think such concerns are new, reflections upon the concept of friendship, at least in the West, are common in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Tho­mas Aquinas. One noted treatise on the topic, Spiritual Friendship, was offered by Aelred of Rievaulx in the twelfth century. In the introduction to a new edition of Aelred’s text, Dennis Bill, CSsR, notes that Christian friendship “is all about extending the fellowship of Christ to one another” (Ave Maria, 2008). This theme then appears in modern studies of friendship, such as Gilbert C. Meilaender’s Friend­ship (University of Notre Dame, 1981) and Paul J. Waddell’s Friendship and the Moral Life (University of Notre Dame, 1989) and Becoming Friends (Brazos Press, 2002).

Most recently, A. C. Grayling and Samuel Kimbriel offered respectively Friendship (Yale University, 2013) and Friendship as Sacred Knowing (Oxford University, 2014). Grayling is Master of the New College of Humanities in the United Kingdom. His interests are epistemological in nature; he concerns himself with the relationship between knowledge, metaphysics, and logic. Earlier in 2013, he published The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (Bloomsbury) in which he offers a philosophical grounding for the “new Atheist” movement. It is thus not a surprise that this atheistic perspective is apparent in Friendship. In contrast, Samuel Kimbriel is a Teaching Fellow in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham with interests in metaphysics and knowledge/perception. With names like John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock dotting the acknowledgments in his book, a safe assumption is that he arrives at different conclusions than Grayling.

The authors’ religious perspectives are not the only thing that sets apart these books. Although both authors deal with many of the same sources, Grayling’s approach is like the person who goes to the grocery store and wanders the aisles looking for good stuff to add to the cart. Kimbriel’s approach, in contrast, is like the person who goes to the grocery store with a list of specific items to get and accordingly attacks the aisles. Grayling’s approach is an erudite meandering through philosophical and literary texts, trying to discover the special nature of friendship. Kimbriel is more focused on a specific task; he sees the brokenness of human relationships and sets out to explain that the remedy for this brokenness is friendship with God, or more appropriately, God’s friendship with us.

GraylingCoverGrayling’s book is divided into three parts. He follows up a quick historical tour through the history of the philosophy of friendship with a tour through literary and historical examples of friendship, along with a personal reflection on everything he has just surveyed. He predictably begins with Plato and Aristotle and unpacks his critique from there. He appreciates much in their work but ultimately argues that their examinations of friendship are incomplete. He seems particularly frustrated with the amount of mental energy spent by subsequent philosophers and literary writers on Aristotle’s definition of a friend as “another self.” He argues that the statement was “more or less an aside” and believes it has had too much influence on setting the terms of discussion of friendship. As he works his way through later philosophical writings and his own personal experiences, he develops what is, for him, a much more psychologically satisfying understanding of friendship.

KimbrielCoverIn contrast, Kimbriel begins with an expansive discussion, via Charles Taylor, of the disengaged or buffered self that defines and plagues modernity. He then sets out to offer his remedy for this sickness. Like Grayling, Kimbriel employs Plato, Aristotle, and others to establish the groundwork of his critique. Like Grayling, he also recognizes that their work, while helpful, has limitations. For example, Kimbriel’s strongest chapter emphasizes that God’s act of befriending us through the incarnation is an ontological breakthrough to a realized definition of friendship. He then moves on to Augustine and Aquinas, not surprisingly, to build on the foundation of Plato and Aristotle as a means of defending the rationality of this incarnational friendship.

Grayling, apparently stepping beyond his standard research interests, wants to move away from a strictly technical discussion of friendship in favor of a more personal approach. He lauds Cicero’s De amicitia precisely because it is “richly human” while still using the framework of Aristotle and others. As an aside, he also admires Cicero’s desire to avoid “pedantic accuracy,” an accusation some might make against Kimbriel. Of all the material he discusses, there is one type of source for which Grayling, not surprisingly, has little to no use, theology. Aquinas’s thought is dismissed as a “barrage of casuistries” (73), and he is interested only in the works of Augustine that focus on the “notably secular” accounts of friendship in the Confessions.

Furthermore, theology’s contribution to the discussion must be discredited because it has been historically unsupportive of the relationship between homosexuality and friendship. At one point, Grayling basically describes Christianity as a parasite that infected Europe and suppressed the sexual expression of friendship (156). In his broader conversation, he recognizes the importance of the moral/ethical language involved in discussions of friendship “at least when they are sufficiently down to earth.”  However, he ultimately arrives at a description of friendship as a “mutual tie” that is supportive, forgiving, and durable in nature (170–71). This point surfaces at the specific “psychological” shift he makes at the end of this work where he writes, “The answer lies in the psychological fact underlying human sociality” (170). Friendship is thus a marvel in that it enhances human individuality and helps develop the person’s ability to fit into the various social groups or the various “personae” as he describes them.

Kimbriel sets out to articulate the validity of that which Grayling dismisses. He argues that any treatment of friendship without a discussion of the incarnation is casuistry and sophistry. The usual philosophical suspects are trotted out: Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero; even Heidegger and Sartre, to a lesser extent, join the list. Like Grayling, Kimbriel goes to great lengths to describe how all of their efforts fall short of a complete epistemology of friendship. “Disengagement’s metaphysical poverty is embodied in our practices of love” (35). Contra Grayling, this failure does not lead to a more psychological/emotive (or humanist for Grayling) definition of friendship. Rather, it opens the door to a proper incarnational understanding of friendship, as seen especially in the Johannine account. “Because of the Son’s role in creation and because of his intertwined dependence with the Father, he is able to catch human life up into this love. This is the kind of agency that is being exercised in the discourse of friendship” (67).

Augustine and Aquinas are not dismissed; rather, they are the linchpins that link the philosophical discourse to the reality of the incarnation. Kimbriel proposes that the difficulties that arise in the “secular” discussion find their solution in Augustine and Aquinas. “The gift of grace for Aquinas comes in two forms, both of which have to do with movement. The first... involves the Divine activity of moving the creature either to some new knowledge or to a particular activity... [and the second] imparts, as Aquinas says, a quality to the soul, enabling it to move itself” (141). Kimbriel’s incarnational account of friendship emphasizes that the God who creates the world will not allow humans to completely disengage from each other or from God, in the manner of Taylor’s buffered soul. All love reflects this divine reality whether we want to admit it or not. “But in [the Gospel of] John, it is friendship which brings this dynamic to its completion, for here the very character of God has become ­incarnate” (171).

As a whole, Grayling’s text is more engaging than Kimbriel’s. Its eclectic and accessible style allows for an almost conversational tone that individuals prepared by a wide array of disciplines can appreciate. In particular, the narratives, be they literary or historical, throughout his work offer something for everyone. For example, in chapter six, arguably Grayling’s most technical, he moves from Kant to Hume to Voltaire to Adam Smith within approximately eight pages. As a result, he avoids bogging his readers down in the details which often accompany discussions of figures such as these.

However, Grayling also arguably passes over some of the details that can allow readers fully to appreciate the philosophical offerings of one figure, not to mention how those offerings connect to the next. Some readers will look at Grayling’s ­five-page discussion of Kant as insufficient and thus incapable of offering even the most casual of readers a surface-level understanding of Kant. Some readers will also look at that five-page discussion as insufficient in terms of what comes next. For example, Grayling moves with almost no transition from his discussion of Kant to a discussion of David Hume (100). While such a move makes sense to the student of philosophy, Grayling’s accessible style is incapable of appropriately helping more novice readers make connections from one to the next.

Kimbriel’s text arguably struggles with the opposite challenge. Simply stated, his relatively inaccessible style is not for everyone. One could even argue that his work is likely of limited accessibility, and thus appeal, to individuals not schooled at some reasonable level in philosophical theology. As previously mentioned, Kimbriel frames his account around the ideas drawn from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. The physical heft of Taylor’s invaluable tome has likely scared off as many readers as the dense nature of its content. Regardless, Kimbriel begins his discussion of Taylor in the first paragraph of chapter one and assumes a certain prior knowledge of that text.  Compounding this challenge is Kimbriel’s writing style. Whereas some may rightfully criticize Grayling’s style as too conversational, Kimbriel is in no way susceptible to such criticism. Kimbriel’s sentences and paragraphs can prove to be punishingly long.

The larger difference between the two books, of course, is where they begin and thus where they end in terms of their respective explorations of friendship. Despite the dismissive posture A. C. Grayling takes toward theologically focused forms of friendship, his otherwise wide array of beginnings thus allows for a wide array of ends. According to Samuel Kimbriel, the Church’s teachings on friendship begin and end with the incarnation. Friendship under these terms means that our relations with others are grounded in the reality of a God who, out of love, took human form, and that we are called to a love that reflects the love of our Lord and Savior.


Andrew G. Deskins serves on the faculty at The Episcopal School of Jacksonville, Florida. Todd C. Ream serves on the faculty at Taylor University. They met and became friends over twenty years ago while graduate students at Duke University.

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