The History of Friendship

This current series started with my initial post, New Year; New Types of Friends that suggests the turn of a calendar page is a great time to re-evaluate your friendships. To help you through that evaluation process, I now describe some history of friendships, some of which may even surprise you. 

My hope is that this series will help you understand and overcome some of the barriers men have in making friendships. Later in this series, I’ll provide some examples of good friends in sports, literature, and entertainment. I’ll also wrap up the series with why good friends may not be beneficial —and why you need some GodBuddies to help you become a better man. 

Ancient Theory of Friendships 

My previous post on The Philosophy of Friendship explained that Aristotle distinguished three types of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics: a friendship for utility, a friendship for non-sexual mutual pleasure, and a friendship of the good. Aristotle felt this last type is the most preferable since it results in living for a higher purpose. 

I also explained that the Greeks defined friendships as having philia, a sort of brotherly love. Understanding how brotherly love is different than storge love (love shown to family members), eros love (sensual or passionate love), or agape love (unconditional love of God), is critical to emotional depth with your friends.

But now some more about friendships have changed over time.

Friendships in the Middle Ages 

The early Middle Ages (500-1,400 BC) marked a period of economic and territorial expansion and the restructuring of secular and religious institutions. It was the era of the Crusades, Gothic art and architecture, the establishment of the papacy in Rome. It also was the birth of the university and education, the recovery of ancient Greek thought, and soaring intellectual achievements. 

Friendships began to change as religious beliefs played an important role in a life centered on the life of Christ. This meant being united in the love and care of thy neighbor. 

But during the 12th century, political, social, economic, and cultural structures were profoundly reorganized. Roman imperial traditions gave way to those of the established kingdoms in the former Western Empire. Friendship became a contractual link with utilitarian goals of economic and military support for political gain. During this period, the lexicon of friendship in Europe included diplomatic agreements; companionships of arms, and monastic brotherhoods, including amorous and sexual bonds. Friendship was reconstructed as an earthly relationship, not something centered on Christ.

Friendships During The Renaissance Era

The history of friendships for social and political again continued throughout the Renaissance era of 1450-1600. Men, in particular, behaved according to the terms of personal obligations owed to parenti, vicini e amici (relatives, neighbors, and friends). An individual was entwined from birth to death to a network of overlapping circles of personal associates, including relatives by marriage, neighbors, and friends bound by honor to assist and promote them in all endeavors.

The social- and private-self were the same. Friendship based on love and trust functioned properly. It was mainly a familial bond, a Christian love. It was a time of warm letters addressed to friends, where honest emotions about special relationships were revealed and discussed.

Later, the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) coined the phrase amicorum communia omnia – friends have everything in common, which was a renewal of the ideas of Marcus Tullius Cicero in which you valued people not for what they give you, but because you find them a kindred soul. 

Friendships During The Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries brought new changes in concepts of friendship. During this time, the belief became that friends needed to be equal in order to truly be friends. No more political or personal gain was required.  The sudden blossoming of trade and the expansion of empires. Literacy rose and more people became educated. The religious perception of friendship also shifted toward loving your friend and neighbor, and not expecting anything in return.

There were no sudden shifts in core understandings of friendships between the 18th and 19th centuries. Men viewed man friendships as the most fulfilling relationship a person could have. Their platonic relationships — a relationship of emotional connection without sexual intimacy, were the ideal. They had friends with whom they shared similar interests and who could help them in a time of need.

Male Friendships in 19th Century 

During the 19th century though, male friendships showed an intense bond filled with deeply held feelings and sentimentality. Man friendships had a similar intensity as romantic relationships between men and women. Essentially, it was a continuation of the heroic friendship of the ancient world such as David and Jonathan in The Bible, the Greek writings about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and the Roman emperor Augustus and the army general Agrippa, who served as Augustus’ lieutenant.

These writings idealized a relationship between men based on an intense bond which did not necessarily imply a sexual relationship. Men during this time freely used endearing language with each other in daily interaction and letters such as in letters to male friends with “My lovely boy,” and “Very affectionately yours.” 

Additionally, men during the 19th century weren’t afraid to be physically affectionate, often draping their arms around their buddy or even holding hands. It was even common during this era for men to share a bed to save money. For example, Abraham Lincoln shared a bed with a fellow named Joshua Speed for a number of years (Spoiler alert: Lincoln and Speed are one of the friendships I will write about later). 

Friendships in 20th Century America

A review of the history of friendships shows photos from the late 19th and early 20th Century in which men were pretty touchy with each other. These can be pretty jarring to our modern man sensibilities. However, the idea that sincere, impassioned friendships might compromise a man’s heterosexuality is more of a modern conception. Men went from lavishing endearing words on each other and holding hands to avoiding too much emotional bonding or any sort of physical affections whatsoever. Fear of being called or perceived as gay fueled this change. Ministers and politicians decried homosexuality as being incompatible with true manhood. 

The Industrial Revolution and Social Darwinism also changed the way men viewed each other since the man next to you was competition instead of a potential friend. The world became an urban jungle. A cutthroat instinct developed to destroy the competition even if the competition happens to be your buddy.

Conversely, there are still strong emotional bonds in the military where a man’s military life is surrounded by the friendships he established while in the service. Life and death situations create intense bonds which become a true brotherhood. Interestingly, the overt machismo of the military allows these strong bonds to exist without fear of homophobia getting in the way of your friendships. 

With increased leisure time that came with industrialization, men played more sports and took part in outdoor activities. Suburbia created other places where men could establish man friendships- the golf course, the front yard, and work. Instead of basing friendships on an emotional bond, men in the 20th century based their friendship around activities. These became the side-by-side relationships that actually foster man friendships. 

Modern Day Friendships

Just like other times in history, the end of the 20th century included friendship consisting of warm, emotional, and intimate relationships, which set aside questions of utility. While there are still business friendships for mutual benefit and partnership in commerce, friendships evolved more on the emotional side.

Increased mobility also contributed to the decline in male friendships. When you move to follow work or to enhance a career, it’s hard to set down roots and make true friends. 

Some friendships for non-sexual pleasure developed into relationships between opposite- and same-sex partners as “friends with benefits” for sexual satisfaction. In many cases, committed relationships developed into marriage. 

The history of friendships has moved into an age of new communication, making close connections is even easier. People who have never met in person start communicating and developing friendly relationships. Mobile phones and social networks have created virtual friendships. But it’s highly debatable whether technology and social media have brought us closer or sent us further apart. 

Friendships in modern times, especially those developed during adolescence or early adulthood, may begin to fade as you move through adulthood.

Throughout time, friendship ranged from utilitarian, companionist, erotic, and spiritual. Knowing the difference helps you determine the value of having a variety of friends.

So now is a good time to evaluate your friendships. Consider the history of friendships. Consider the purpose of your friendship. Determine the value each friend adds to your life and the value you add to their life.

Understanding these different types of friendships can men overcome their fear of emotional bonding and intimacy with their guy friends. They will develop deeper, more authentic friendships that can help them through the various stages of life.  They will have friends who make them better men.

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God Buddy Focus

My hope is that these brief summaries of the philosophy and history of friendships are beginning to help you realize why you need a small group of men, what I call GodBuddies. 

This week, consider these personal reflection questions:

  • Relationships during the Middle Ages were for economic or political gain. In what ways are your alliances – maybe even friendships, the same? Is this good for your life centered on following Christ?
  • The Renaissance Era renewed Cicero’s view to value people for their kindred soul and make friends with everything in common. What do you have in common with your closest friends? Do you talk about more than sports, weather, or politics? 
  • The 20th century led to serious transformation of the views of emotional bonding and physical intimacy among friends. In what ways might homophobia get in the way of your friendships? 

My next post is on the psychology of friendships. Don’t worry… I will provide examples of good friends in sports, literature, and entertainment. Until then, stick with me as I develop this series further. 

Feel free to make any comments below. 

Sources: History of Friendship: From Ancient Times To The XXI Century based a book titled Friendship: A History by Barbara Caine, Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography by John Ibson. The History and Nature of Man Friendships from the Art of Manliness.


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