Friends and Distance: A Musing for An Age of Isolation

I have friends I have never met face to face whom I would trust with all my money. Meanwhile, very few of the “friends” I have made through the normal social accidents of my life have ever been more than useful or pleasant acquaintances in the end — “nice,” agreeable enough, but lacking the essential kinship of soul that is the essence of genuine friendship. A true friend, as Cicero says, is a “second self.” Thus, we may say that in this overcrowded age of dispirited material beings, so sparsely arrayed are true souls that some of us need an entire world to find ourselves.

I had boyhood chums, and later a few people I killed time with (or used to shield myself) in high school, like everyone else. But I never made a true friend until I learned to think, and subsequently began, tentatively, to share those thoughts. There is no real friendship without shared thinking. Shared thought, in fact, is the essence of friendship, in the highest (i.e., strictest) sense of the word. This is why today, while everyone is presumed and encouraged to have his “social network” — an ever-expanding collection of interchangeable others he may exploit to gain his advantage or seek his material pleasure — there are almost no friends; for where there is no thought, there is no kinship of souls. All other claims to “spiritual connection” are empty romanticism or rationalizing egomania; but late modernity is the age of empty romanticism and rationalizing egomania. Sincere, self-developing investigation and open-minded wonder are the necessary preconditions of all friendship. When that sort of thinking wanes, as it has in our progressive late modernity (due to our politicized and dehumanizing education methods and goals), the possibility of achieving the only genuine “bond” between individuals diminishes. And thus the lifeblood of civilization itself dries up. Freedom loses its only true guarantor. As Pausanias says in Plato’s Symposium, tyrants despise and fear the love between friends, and therefore pass laws to restrict its development. Today, we call those laws “public school” and “redistributive justice.”

Teacher (non-progressive model)


  1. One who prepares others to be a friend in the strict sense.
  2. A person who seeks to foster in others a condition (or a more evolved condition) of potentiality for friendship.

One might reasonably ask whether, while we may in extraordinary conditions form true friendships at great distances of space, it is also possible to form them across temporal distances. Of course, we are all familiar (or used to be) with people who regard a favorite author, long dead, as “a friend.” But we tend to think of such declarations as figurative expressions, not descriptions of a literal relationship. For one thing, we normally assume that true friendship requires reciprocity, which would seem to be impossible when one of the “friends” died before the other was born. Furthermore, as an extension of the first problem, we might ask whether such a pair can really be said to “share their thoughts.”

Although the answer may thus seem self-evident, I would be inclined to defer judgment until we have sufficient knowledge of the primary factor that would determine the ultimate plausibility of friendships across eras, namely how time and thought are related, if at all. For if friendship is essentially a kinship of souls based on shared thinking, then much would seem to turn on the question of whether, or to what extent, thinking (in the relevant sense) is essentially temporal in nature, which is to say limited or determined by time.

Language is certainly limited or determined by time, which is why our historicists and progressives reduce all great thinkers of the past to nothing but expressions of “their times,” since these people are reductionists about the mind, and are therefore unable to perceive any distinction between an idea and the words used to express it. But if thought is not reducible to language (i.e., to social and historical conventions of communication), then the possibility of the atemporality of thought — by which I mean only the highest kind of thought, of course — is restored as an open question. And if the kind of thinking that draws souls to one another in genuine friendship is in some essential sense atemporal, then in that same sense, and to that same extent, it would reside outside of, or beyond, the timeline. So, then, might be the relationship between two souls engaged in such thinking, to the extent they are engaged in it.

There is nothing trivial, then, and in fact there may be nothing “merely metaphorical,” about the girl who thinks, upon reading Persuasion, “Jane Austen understands me better than any of the people around me in my practical life,” or the boy who, upon reading The Apology, thinks, “Socrates is my true teacher.” In fact, I strongly object to the notion that any profound metaphor is “merely metaphorical.” The figurative, in my view, is the secret key with which we open the trap door to escape from our cave of the rectilinear and pedantic. The figurative is language itself straining to transcend its own temporal limits, in the service of that for which there are no words.

By contrast, it is the literal that binds us to our time and place. There is no harsh reality in this, however, since “literal” is merely a synoptic way of saying material-temporal, which in turn entails the historical and political. Insofar as there is in us something which is not merely material and temporal — an ahistorical and apolitical essence — its definition, or at least its name, will necessarily be figurative.

Can a spiritual kinship across eras be called a true friendship, then? We must return here to the question of reciprocity.

But how could such a figurative friendship be reciprocal? What can I “do” for the person of the past that would constitute a genuine act of friendship, let alone one entailing a “bond” of friendship? There is no immediately obvious answer here, and perhaps there is no remote and obscure answer either. We may conclude with a few brief observations, however.

First, if the ideas shared by two friends are atemporal, and a thinking mind is, in a sense, its thoughts, then the two minds in this “moment” are also atemporal. And this same principle would apply whether the friends are in the same room or on opposite ends of a civilizational arc. The person thinking the equation “2+2=4” in 500 B.C. would have exactly the same mind, as he is thinking this, as you do in thinking it right now. The material substratum of “his” thought is different from “yours,” of course — different physical brains and nerves — and separated by 2,500 years. But the immaterial thought itself is entirely identical, or else that equation is not true for both of you.

Second, Plato and Socrates are forever united in our understanding of each. We all know, most essentially, that Socrates was Plato’s teacher, and thus had a profound impact on Plato’s thought. But in truth they only knew each other for eight or nine years, and when Socrates died, at age seventy, Plato was only twenty-nine. The latter philosopher lived another fifty-one years after his teacher’s death. And yet during the rest of his life, he wrote dozens of dialogues — his own popular teaching instruments — in which Socrates was the main character. There can be no doubt of the profound connection between Plato’s thought and that of Socrates. Nor can there be any doubt that Socrates knew, before he died, that he had found something special in this young student. Because they actually knew one another in life, it is easy to forget that the relationship we call their friendship, one which no one would reasonably call “figurative” or unreal, in fact took place mostly after Socrates’ death. Plato’s mature life, writing, and teaching, were conscious continuations and enhancements of Socrates’ life and work — his means, if you will, of sustaining their world-historical friendship stretching across two generations beyond the “literal” extent of Socrates’ life and thought. He tells his friends in a letter that he, Plato, is not represented in his writings, which instead present “a Socrates made beautiful and new,” which is to say purified of all the meaningless contingencies of human material existence, and revived. Was this not a supreme act of friendship? The Socrates of the dialogues — the works that, in the end, define Plato himself — was Socrates’ mind and manner channeled and communicated through the life and mind of Plato, who in turn loses his own identity utterly in his philosophical and literary existence as a “beautiful and new” Socrates. If that does not embody the very definition of the “second self” notion of friendship, the spiritual bond that transcends the isolating literality of space and time, then no friendship ever could. And yet did Plato not live out this friendship in its most developed form for a full fifty-one years after his friend’s physical death?

What if Plato had only known the historical Socrates for three years, rather than nine? Would their relationship not still seem to us to represent the epitome of the philosophic friendship? How about one year? Six months? Would it matter if Plato had merely been a silent observer of Socrates in the agora, but the two had never exchanged words personally? Where is the cut-off point at which Plato’s fifty-one years of writing about, or as, “a Socrates made beautiful and new” becomes nothing but a nonreciprocal allegiance, rather than a genuine friendship?

To what extent is the true communion of souls, the shared thought that is the essence of friendship, bound by the vicissitudes of time? When the girl says, “Jane Austen understands me better than any of the people around me in my practical life,” is she not claiming Austen as her friend? And might she not be quite correct in doing so? If not, why not, exactly?

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