|Friendship has lost its top billing in modern society, according to political and social commentator Andrew Sullivan, who spoke recently in McNally Amphitheatre.
Throughout much of human history, the virtues of friendship were extolled by important philosophers and writers, many of whom held friendship in higher esteem than familial and romantic love. Cicero, for example, said with the exception of wisdom, there is no greater gift than friendship “that has been given to a man by the immortal gods,” and Aristotle called friendship “indispensable for life.”
Times have changed, according to social and political commentator Andrew Sullivan, who used ancient philosophers and writers to help make a case for friendship as the most desirable and sustainable human relationship during an Oct. 6 presentation, “Friendship: The Forgotten Relationship,” in McNally Amphitheatre on the Lincoln Center campus. According to Sullivan, friendship has been trumped in modern society by the relationship to one’s family or community, and, most significantly, by romantic love.
“We are at a point in our culture in which friendship has been devalued as a human relationship,” said Sullivan, a former editor for The New Republic and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and The Sunday Times of London. “We’ve traded it in for something more powerful and immediately gratifying: love.”
In pop culture today, it’s nearly impossible to avoid being assaulted by images of romantic love. Blockbuster movies end with the hero or heroine getting the guy or girl. Pop stars croon about lost love or love’s pursuit. And romance novels spin tales of chivalrous and tragic love. Decades of such bombardment have created what Sullivan calls a “cult of romantic love,” in which true happiness can only be attained by those in love.
Unfortunately, said Sullivan, romantic love is perhaps the most overrated, overvalued human relationship in society today.
To highlight the fickleness and risks of romantic love, Sullivan used Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the quintessential tale of tragic love. The play opens with Romeo obsessing not about Juliet, but about his girlfriend, Rosalind. The minute Romeo sees Juliet, “Rosalind is toast,” said Sullivan.
“That is the nature and danger of romantic love. Romantic love can burst, consume and disappoint. It is a combustible desire for one another.…To unite with that other person becomes a way to lose one’s self,” said Sullivan.
“Friendship is not about merging. It’s about remaining separate,” Sullivan continued. “There is no fusion, no enemy. There is an alliance especially if the friendship is maintained over the years.”
While Christianity promotes spiritual love for all mankind and for family as the most important of human relationships, the Gospels underscore friendship as an enduring and equally important relationship, according to Sullivan.
“Jesus said, ‘There is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for a friend.’ Jesus was first and foremost a friend,” said Sullivan. “The church says family is most important, yet the founder of its religion left his family and lived alone. … The power of Jesus was the supreme importance he placed on friendship.”
Sullivan’s interpretation of the Gospels is ripe for debate. Most Christians believe that Jesus was first and foremost the son of God, and that he put God above all else. It follows, for many Christians then, that if God’s will means a life away from family, then that is the path to be followed.
Sullivan’s pummeling of romantic love drew a sharp response from some in the audience, who argued that romantic love and friendship can and should coexist, and that a romantic relationship can be equal parts love and friendship. Sullivan disagreed, saying that introducing sex into friendship changes the dynamic of the relationship entirely. Power, need and an abdication of oneself are part of a sexual relationship, according to Sullivan, and none of those are present in a pure friendship.
Sullivan’s books include Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage (Harcourt, 2004) and Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). His lecture was hosted by Fordham College at Lincoln Center, the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, the Office of the University Chaplain and the Department of Theology.