Facebook Friendships and the Good Life
Filed under: Popular culture | Tags: Aristotle, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network, friendships |
For Lent this year, I gave up Facebook. My reasoning was multifold. In part, I was starting to worry how much time I was spending “piddling” on the computer during the long Boston winter. I wanted to spend more meaningful time on the computer, and replace the time I was wasting on Facebook with reading books (which has been largely successful until I started reading War and Peace; now I am craving FB again). But I also watched “The Social Network” right before Lent started and found Mark Zuckerberg’s character pretty reprehensible. It was the final scene that struck me most, where Zuckerberg is in the lawyer’s office, and the pretty young lawyer has just left, and he sends a friend request to Erica, his ex-girlfriend, and keeps refreshing the page, waiting for a response.
Zuckerberg’s character went from reprehensible to sympathetic. I could not but help feel pity for a guy whose only possibility for “friendship” was through Facebook. A couple of years ago, the New York Observer interviewed some Facebook holdouts who were critical of such alleged “friendships” that Facebook offered:
Cary Goldstein, 33, the director of publicity at Twelve books, is another proud Facebook holdout. “I don’t see how having hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ is leading to any kind of substantive friendships,” he said. “The whole thing seems so weird to me. Now you really have to turn off your computer and just go out to live real life and make real connections with people that way. I don’t think it’s healthy.”
Yet the number of people not on Facebook is steadily declining. So as Lent comes to an end and I prepare to reenter Facebook, I’ve started thinking more about the nature of Facebook friendships from an EverydayThomist perspective. I’ve addressed this question before using Cicero, but I think the question demands further examination in light of the rising importance of Facebook in people’s lives.
It is not too much of a stretch to say that friendship is at the heart of Aristotle’s ethics: “For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods,” he writes at the beginning of Book VIII of the Nichomachean Ethics. Following Aristotle, Aquinas also places friendship at a central place in the moral life by identifying charity, the mother of the virtues, as friendship with God.
What is friendship? For Aquinas, it is a particular type of love. Following Aristotle (Rhetoric ii, 4), Aquinas writes,
To love is to wish good to someone.’ Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone (to himself or to another) and towards that to which he wishes some good. Accordingly, man has love of concupiscence towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship towards him to whom he wishes good (I-II, Q. 26, art. 4).
Most generally, a relationship of friendship is one characterized by mutual well-wishing and benevolence. Friends are those who wish good for one another. But friendship goes beyond benevolence. For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship demands that one see the friend as another self, and demands a certain “affective union” between oneself and the friend (II-II, Q. 27, art. 2).
Because of the intimacy that is prerequisite to friendship, friendship demands contact with the person who is our friend. It seems that for Aristotle, one needs actual physical contact to sustain the friendship: “Those, however, who approve of each other but do not live together seem to be well-disposed rather than actual friends. For there is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together.” In Book XI, Aristotle provides further support for the idea that friendship demands a certain physical society:
Surely it is strange, too, to make the supremely happy man a solitary; for no one would choose the whole world on condition of being alone, since man is a political creature and one whose nature is to live with others. Therefore even the happy man lives with others; for he has the things that are by nature good. And plainly it is better to spend his days with friends and good men than with strangers or any chance persons. Therefore the happy man needs friends.
Friends, for Aristotle, must share a life together. Friendship, he says at the end of Book IX, delights in the sight of the beloved. Friendship is an intimate partnership.
“And as a man is to himself, so is he to his friend; now in his own case the consciousness of his being is desirable, and so therefore is the consciousness of his friend’s being, and the activity of this consciousness is produced when they live together, so that it is natural that they aim at this. And whatever existence means for each class of men, whatever it is for whose sake they value life, in that they wish to occupy themselves with their friends; and so some drink together, others dice together, others join in athletic exercises and hunting, or in the study of philosophy, each class spending their days together in whatever they love most in life; for since they wish to live with their friends, they do and share in those things which give them the sense of living together.”
As Paul Wadell writes, “The test of any friendship is our willingness to let our life be shaped by it, not only to spend time with our friend and be present to her, but also to succumb to the friendship, to make ourself vulnerable to it because in some way our life is created from it” (Friends of God, 34).
The question, it seems, is whether Facebook satisfies the demands for a “shared life together.” For Aristotle, the society of friendship is clearly physical, but he, of course, did not know the possibility of a virtual society. Can we agree with Aristotle that friendship demands contact, but also conclude that the virtual “contact” provided by Facebook satisfies this demand? After all, it may be true that we do not stay friends with people that we lose contact with, but Facebook makes it possible to never lose contact and hence, to never lose the friendship.
It is hard to see, however, how the intimacy that friendship demands is satisfied by Facebook. One possible reason is that we are corporeal creatures, and hence, our friendships demand a great degree of corporeality. To be a human self is to be embodied. It is impossible to see the friend as another self without somehow sharing in bodily life together: eating together, touching each other, hearing each other’s voices, looking into each other’s eyes. Facebook friendships can only palely imitate this corporeal intimacy with pictures, wall conversations, and likes and dislikes, but at the end of the day, the Facebook friend can never be “another self” because the friend is always disembodied.
We are social creatures, and the intimacy that we human creatures demand is a very physical intimacy. And this is what makes the end of “The Social Network” so tragic: Zuckerberg’s isolation is a physical one, one which he tries to fill virtually but can never find satisfaction. You get the sense that what he wants at the end of the movie is not money, nor power, nor fame, but somebody to eat dinner with, to converse with, to touch his arm consolingly, to bear with him. The man with thousands of friends is actually friendless.
From an Aristotelian perspective, friendship is clearly the basis of a good life. Maybe the end of “The Social Network,” however, reveals more about the corporeal nature of the good life than it does about the friendship made possible by Facebook. If Facebook keeps us from a shared life with our friends, it can be antithetical to the good life, as we see with Zuckerberg. But Facebook need not replace true friendship. Like so many things in life, Facebook may only become bad when used excessively.
So, as Lent comes to a close, I am looking forward to getting back on Facebook. I think I’ll probably use it less, but I bet I’ll always use it some. I have, however, enjoyed this time of abstinence and the opportunity it provided to reflect more thoroughly on the nature of friendship and the good life.