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Wilfred McClay on friendship new and old

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What is friendship? What does it mean to be or to have a friend? And why does Aristotle consider friendship a virtue and an important for political life?

Wilfred McClay has a nice essay on friendship at the Hedgehog Review, where he reflects on the title of the song “My New, Old Friend.” McClay writes that he initially did not like the idea of a “new old friend,” first because true friendship is rare and takes time to develop, and second because of the increasingly diluted meaning of the word friend.

After all, the noble term friend has already been so diluted and cheapened in our times, like so many of our most important words of personal and social connection, that it has become like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep. Such cheapening has occurred not only in our personal usage but in public discourse. When Abraham Lincoln concluded his First Inaugural Address with a heartfelt plea to the seceding Southern states to recall that “we are not enemies, but friends,” the word had great emotive power, describing the very bonds of public affection that were being sundered. Such earnest usage has all but disappeared.

As this example illustrates, friend can designate anything from a mysterious or otherwise uncategorizable love interest to a study-group classmate to a business associate to a helpful neighbor to the “friends” who accumulate on people’s social media accounts, where they are as plentiful and enduring as the daily harvest of low-tide sea shells on a beach.

In contrast to popular usage, true friendship is rare. It is, as Aristotle has written, only possible among people who are virtuous and in search of truth and goodness – and who will the good for each other.

A New, Old Friend?

With all this in mind, he asks if a “new old friend” is possible. In some ways no, because there is something about true friendship that requires a connection to our past and to our biographies. Yet, he writes, “Such friendships have their limitations. For one thing, it’s not always helpful to be reminded constantly of who you were ‘then.’ Life does move on.”

McClay writes:

And here I come to the heart of the matter: There is no denying the phenomenon of a new old friend. I have acquired a couple of them in recent years, people with whom I have found a near-instant bond whose depth is hard to explain, whose friendship feels as old and rooted as an ancient sequoia, even though I know it is as new as a sapling. Moving about in such friendships, I’m wary at first, thinking they may be too good to be true, fearing to trust too much in the sensation of oldness, fearing, much as one fears when living in a foreign culture, that my habitual ways of being will suddenly be misperceived or strike the wrong note. There is something deeply mysterious about such friendships, and mystery induces caution, as well as awe.

But perhaps the mystery has to do with the mystery of friendship itself. Lewis remarks that what finally hold us together as friends are not the “unconcerning things,” facts of biography and shared experiences. Of course, one brings the residue of all such things to the activity of friendship. But the friendship itself stands apart from such things. It concerns itself, Lewis argues, with nothing less than a shared quest for the truth about things. In the very act of sharing in this one thing, friends gain access to an astonishing degree of freedom.

McClay concludes:

But the larger truth, that the deepest friendship can take root in the sparsest biographical soil if some high and shared animating spirit is present, seems right. I’m guessing that’s how we make new old friends. Though in the end, it is a mystery.

A good essay worth reading. Also worth reading is C.S. Lewis on friendship in The Four Loves. And speaking of Wilfred McClay, be sure to look for his new book on American History: A Land of Hope. I just started reading it but so far it is clear, accessible, and quite beautifully done.

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Michael Matheson Miller Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute

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