The Business of Friendship Isn’t Business

by Roger Martin

Philosopher Todd May says there’s more to friendship than transaction.

Is it good that we die, or should we pine for immortality? What makes life meaningful? How many forms does friendship take, and what forces are shaping the kinds of friends we have? Is it possible for America to be a nonviolent nation? Or, to put it vividly, as Todd May did in a New York Times commentary after the Boston Marathon bombing, “How has the United States become so saturated in slaughter?”

Tackling the big questions

These are not questions scientists ask, not questions that a double-blind, placebo-controlled study can easily address. They are questions for philosophers like May.

Because May tackles the big questions, he has a chance of affecting public opinion—or of getting a public hearing, anyway. He is a regular contributor to the Stone, a New York Times opinion series launched in May 2010 that showcases the writings of contemporary philosophers on issues as diverse as art, war, ethics, gender, and popular culture.

But he’s also a scholar. He’s published eleven philosophy books, including Death (2009) and Friendship in an Age of Economics (2012). Into these, he’s woven the thoughts of such academic icons as Michael Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Rancière. These days, he’s pondering nonviolence.

He sees himself as straddling the two worlds of everyday people and academics. Have his fellow philosophers attacked him, given the preference of many academics to narrow their focus, to stick to their own kind?

May says: “To my surprise, I don’t find myself at odds with them. This may be in part because I’ve also written more specialized articles and so I’ve established myself in traditional philosophical discourse. But it’s also because fellow philosophers see that behind the wider focus there is concern with rigor that they appreciate.” This inclines him to take nuanced positions. He clearly has a capacity to anticipate objections and to think against himself.

Is he a public intellectual? Would he agree with Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century dictionary compiler, who wrote: “The seeds of knowledge may be planted in solitude but must be cultivated in public”?

Deep friendship doesn’t mean using others to climb up or cash in. Image by Neil Caudle.

Philosophy and the way we live

May resists the label of public intellectual. He says he doesn’t buy the idea that philosophy is an either/or matter. Philosophers do not have to choose between talking only to fellow philosophers in a private jargon or addressing the public in a simpler language. Still, in an article, “Michael Foucault’s Guide to Living,” published in 2006 in the academic journal Agelaki, he was clearly talking to his peers in saying that “one of the key problems that philosophy faces is not that it is too oriented to how we live our lives but that it is not so oriented enough.”

In the same article, he advised his colleagues to ask themselves questions like this: “Might what I am writing shape my life or the lives of others in important ways?”

“For me,” he says, “philosophy has always been about who we are and what we ought to do.”

At seventeen, May was the youngest person ever to have surgery for a herniated disc in the history of New York Hospital. The next day he awoke to find a friend sitting in a chair in May’s hospital room. He doesn’t remember what the friend said or how long he stayed, but May will never forget the visit, he says.

May uses the story to point to a particular type of human bond. In the 1950s, people in this country, especially women, were encouraged to remain close to family at the expense of outside friendship. That changed, he says, with the upheavals of the 1960s, which forged closer friendship and the type of “deep friendship” he experienced after his disc surgery.

Deep friendship is “other-regarding,” May says; that is, it seeks the other person’s good for the other’s sake, not one’s own. Of course there may be other causes for our doing good, such as when we repay a debt out of gratitude or simply as an act of altruism. But in deep friendship, the driving wheel is “passion or affection” for the whole person: “In the end it is the person, not the sum of the characteristics, that one likes in a friendship.” And, because one’s dearest friends are loved in whole, rather than for some particular quality, they are irreplaceable.

More heart than mind

Such friendship may be summarized in terms of individual qualities, such as looks, mannerisms, voice, and character, but that doesn’t really do justice to these relationships; at bottom, they are more a matter of heart than of mind. One wants to share time with these friends. These attractions have about them a sense of mystery. In May’s words, deep friendships “involve a desire to be around the other that is uncertain in both the character of the time spent and the reason for spending it. An account cannot be given; one is left with the sense that there is a hole near the center of one’s words.”

Another characteristic of such friendships is that they “require a past,” May says. “The past does not have to be temporally extended: Deep friendships can develop through a short but intense past. For there to be a deep friendship, however, the past must play a founding role.”

In a New York Times column written in 2010, May wrote that “past time is sedimented in a friendship. It accretes over the hours and days friends spend together… The sedimentation need not be a happy one. Shared experience, not just common amusement or advancement, is the ground of friendship.”

May describes other types of friendship in his book, but he draws our attention chiefly to the threat of “consumer relationships” and “entrepreneurial relationships” to deep friendship, which could “slip away from us under the pressure of a dominant economic discourse,” he wrote in the Times commentary.

We enter into the former, he says, because of the pleasure they give us now. We engage in the latter, he writes, in hopes that they’ll provide a return later.

These aren’t new motives for friendship. Aristotle identified pleasure-based relationships millennia ago and wrote: “It is not for their character that men love ready-witted people but because they find them pleasant.” May says that Aristotle characterizes this type of relationship, focused on momentary enjoyment, as appealing to young people. When May writes about “entrepreneurial bonds,” he describes what Aristotle called useful friendships: “Those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves, but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.” For Aristotle, May says, “this brand of friendship is often the province of the old, who need assistance to cope with their frailty.”

Entitled consumers

To illustrate consumer relationships, May refers to a student type he’s observed: Students who think classes should be entertaining and bring their laptops to class in case the prof doesn’t deliver “are tilting to the consumer side.” And, he says, an increasing proportion of his students, “but still very much a minority,” feel entitled to a decent grade without much effort.

We might say of friendships that they are a matter not of diversion or of return but of meaning.

—Todd May

The entrepreneurially minded student, thinking about the future need for a letter of recommendation, might cultivate quite a different sort of relationship, talking with the professor after class or visiting during office hours. Such a student might also do a lot of networking, seeing others as potential resources.

“While writing this book,” May writes, “I was in a café where a man next to me was explaining to his girlfriend that ‘all relationships are transactional—you give something to get something.’ That’s entrepreneurial in the sense I describe it.”

None of us, in May’s estimate, engages exclusively in just one type of friendship, but deep friendship, he believes, is threatened by the rising status of these other forms of relationship.

Mistrust and the neoliberal

Why do the spirits of the consumer and investor insinuate themselves into so many of our bonds? The subtitle of May’s book pinpoints the cause: neoliberalism.

For me, philosophy has always been about who we are and what we ought to do.

—Todd May

Don’t confuse “liberalism,” in the George McGovern sense, with “neoliberalism,” which is close in meaning, oddly enough, to “neoconservatism.” In a general sense, neoliberals mistrust government’s ability to regulate or stimulate the economy. A reading of history from the neoliberal perspective would criticize what May terms “welfare state capitalism,” which dominated American politics from the end of World War II until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, finding it inferior to a vision of a nation driven by economic freedom and individual responsibility.

But for May, a nation that extols unfettered markets lacks an important element: “We are told to be shoppers for goods or investors for return. Neither of these types of lives, if they are . . . dominant . . . strike me as particularly meaningful.”

Neoliberalism has also inflicted a more tangible loss. May cites the well-documented growth in the wealth gap between rich and poor during the neoliberal age: Between 1979 and 2004 the income of the bottom 60 percent of workers dropped about 5 percent; the earnings of the top 5 percent rose 53 percent.

Consumer and entrepreneurial orientations are individualistic and self-seeking, so both make a tidy fit with neoliberal ideas. Question: If May is troubled by the corrosive effect of the neoliberal spirit on deep friendship, does he also regard human connection as more important than autonomy, social responsibility more crucial than individual responsibility?

His answer is nuanced: “If we subdue the individual to the group, we threaten to return to some of the failed experiments of the twentieth century. Alternatively, if we align ourselves with the individualism of neoliberalism, we lose the social glue required to make a more vibrant and caring society. Right now in the U.S., we are tilted more toward the problem of isolated individualism than an overweening social solidarity.”

The dark side of individualism

Individualism in and of itself is “not entirely a curse,” May writes. Many artistic, scientific, and technological advances “have their roots in the striving of individuals.” But individualism is also one of the reasons the United States has “become so saturated in slaughter,” he wrote in a Times piece after the Boston Marathon bombing. “The deep reason [for interpersonal violence] lies in our competitive individualism,” whose dark side “is a wariness of others and a rejection of . . . social solidarity.”

Deep friendships breed trust, allow us to tell each other the truth as we see it about each other, and tend to be a great equalizer. Friends don’t pull rank on friends. That’s what makes these friendships a possible basis for political solidarity movements, May thinks.

“I have been in a number of solidarity movements,” he says. These include serving as faculty advisor to a campus organization for gays and lesbians. He’s also supported Palestinian rights and, in the 1980s, took part in movements protesting apartheid and U.S. intervention in Central America.

As usual, he adds caveats to his position that deep friendship serves political movements. For one, deep friendships may be too exclusive. And not every element of a deep friendship will be called upon by a movement, May says.

Yet he says that when bonds run deep, “I learn how to go about the commitment of trusting others. I learn what it is like, how it works, what I can do to foster it, what some of its limits are.”

Equality and democracy

May says that besides trust, deep friendship can engender another quality of mind important to political solidarity with others: a sense of equality.

(Nonviolence) demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings, nexuses of hope and fear, children of some mother and perhaps parents to others: that is, no more and no less than fellow human beings in a world fraught with imponderables.

—Todd May

But isn’t a sense of equality problematic for those who want to launch a political movement? Isn’t leaderless politics an oxymoron? What would the civil rights movement have been without Martin Luther King, Jr.?

“The movement might have been fine without Dr. King,” May says, then qualifies: “This is not to say that he didn’t have an important role to play.” May remembers that Ella Baker, also an organizer, said that ìit was the movement that made King, not the other way around.”

“Movements are only successful when they have people working behind the scenes,” May says. “That work does not have to be hierarchical.”

Ultimately, May says, the sense of equality that arises between friends is more than a platform for political movements. It’s the basis of democracy.

“We need to educate people to take seriously the equality of one another so that [they] can begin to listen seriously to others and learn from them,” he says. “From this one can build decision-making processes that are less contentious. In short, one has to educate the members of a polity toward respectful interaction.”

And what’s the way to train people to regard each other as equals in a society as status sensitive as ours? In his Times piece on nonviolence, May notes that one way to see someone as an equal is to recognize his or her humanity.

“It demands that we who act do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other. It demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings . . .”

Some day.


Todd May is the Class of 1941 Memorial Professor of the Humanities in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities. Roger Martin is a writer and editor based in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo of Todd May by Patrick Wright.

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