Perspectives on Friendship:

Confucian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Roman, Christian and Muslim Understandings of Friendship

“Friendship is love without need, desire without want.”

Despite their many differences on the surface, Confucian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Roman, Christian, and Muslim traditions place a similar importance on friendship, many even considering it a virtue. In many of these traditions, the importance of friendship is linked to spirituality and faith, and each understands the intrinsic relationship between friendship and politics. All agree that friendship has immense power which requires elements of trust and vulnerability, and all make moral claims about the multi-faceted and inherent values of friendship. In understanding the commonalities between these traditions, we are able to more readily examine the power and influence of friendship across time and cultures.

For many cultures, friendship is viewed as a way of growing closer to God. Christian, Zoroastrian, and Muslim cultures are linked in their understanding as friendship in its proximity to God and faith. All three traditions recognize that friendship is vital in spiritual and religious spaces, and many holy books make references to the importance of good friends. Yazata (the Zoroastrian holy books) state that Iranians who promote and protect friendship deserve God’s charismatic power. In this way, friendship among people was viewed as a socio-religious covenant. As Azarabad Omidan says “The real connection with religion is only attainable through friendship”, pointing to the intrinsic relationship between Zoroastrianism and friendship.

Similarly, Christian perspectives on friendship view friendship as a Christian charity between God and man. John 5:15 says “I will not call you servants but my friends….for now I have delivered to you everything God has given to me”. In this example, the exchange of holy and virtuous knowledge is considered a relationship based in friendship. For Miskawayh, an Islamic philosopher, religious ritual is – in essence – friendship, as the goal of religious rituals is to deepen a knowledge of God and develop a virtuous life, similar to the goals of friendship. He posits, for this reason, that congregational religious rituals are designed to promote friendship. This idea of congregational religious rituals also acting as rituals of friendship is seen across time and cultures.

The virtuosity of friendship is often discussed by philosophers far and wide. Zoroastrians believed that immortal beings would use friendship in order to bestow wisdom and knowledge upon people. Zoroaster asked of God, “Oh God, will you bestow upon us a gifted power to maintain peace at our land in reciprocation to our order and good thoughts?”. The gifted power which he refers to is that of friendship, which is considered the highest level of peace. In Muslim tradition, Miskawayh stated that the most stable friendship is virtuous friendship because virtue does not change.

Friendship is seen as incredibly beneficial by all of these cultures in a multitude of ways – religiously, emotionally, even physically. In Hindu tradition, the purpose or goal of life is to alleviate human misery as much as possible. As such, it would make great sense that friendship is an important and incredibly necessary part of this mission. For what is a happy life without the presence of friends? Ancient Indian texts even forbade betraying or killing friends, further recognizing its vital role in society. Similarly, Laelius said, “We must love our friends and never abandon them, even when it means compromising our virtues”. Furthermore, this Roman perspectives claim that friends help us actualize our virtues, a theme we have seen many times in the discussion of friendship perspectives. Cicero states that “love can be conceived as a search for ourselves and at the same time a search for the good”. In this quote, Cicero acknowledges the balance between self-betterment and the strive to be virtuous, both of which can be achieved through healthy and happy friendships. In Avestan texts, friendship is seen as possessing healing powers (physically and mentally), and it is believed that friendship can be used to control evil. The analects of Confucius further merit the importance of friendship, stating that it plays a crucial mediating role in the bridge between family and society.

Although these traditions have been historically expressed as oppositional in some ways, it is obvious that friendship remains a common link among them. At a time where differences can feel so evident and isolating, it is beautiful to think that a persistent commonality across cultures is an acknowledgement of friendship’s necessary and virtuous role in our lives. If there’s one thing to be honed from examining these various perspectives on friendship, it is that the most natural and human thing in the world is to simply be a friend.

 

 


 

 

Choksy, Jamsheed. (2011). Friends and friendships in Iranian society: Human and immortal. Iranica Antiqua. 46. 251-288. 10.2143/IA.46.0.2084422.

Leaman, Oliver (ed.) (1995). Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives. Curzon.

Stern-Gillet, Suzanne, and Gary M. Gurtler. Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship. Albany (N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2014. Print.