Life: On Men's Friendship

Men’s friendship has long been celebrated. If you asked the ancient Athenians about the birth of democracy they would have told you the story of two friends, Harmodius and Aristogiton. These soulmates ridded the city of an oppressive tyrant. A statue of them standing together took pride of place in the ancient Athenian marketplace. Their praises were sung in the dinner parties called symposia.

In the Renaissance, the philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote an essay in praise of friendship, reflecting upon his close relationship with Etienne La Boëtie. ‘If you press me to say why I loved him I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: ‘Because it was him: because it was me’,’ he says. He felt that the joy he found in the friendship could only be the product of a ‘force of destiny’.

So contrast that with how male friendship is commonly portrayed today. The novelist Nick Hornby writes about them in his novels Fever Pitch and High Fidelity. His men share a blokeish love of soccer and music. But that comes across as limited, if not flawed. The friendships flounder as the men try to get closer to each other. It seems that whilst male sociability is in fine form, male intimacy comes unstuck.

There is an analysis of the problem that contrasts men’s friendship with women’s. Women, it is said, love their friends for who they are in themselves. They, therefore, share all kinds of intimacies and affections. Men, though, love their friends for what they can do together – from pursuing extreme sports to planning global domination. They, therefore, don’t really love each other, as women do. Rather, men love the things they do together.

But perhaps things are changing again. For example, many men seem happier expressing the kind of affections that Montaigne wrote about, and which come naturally to women. So, they will greet each other with a kiss or a hug. It may be that we’ve just become more Italian. It may be that men’s friendships are deepening.

So we should learn to celebrate male friendship once again. Cicero, the ancient Roman philosopher, did so, declaring it ‘the most valuable of all human possessions’. Someone who has a true friend ‘sees the exact counterpart of his own soul.’ That can be frightening, of course. But it would surely make we men more human.

Back to the top