A Friend by Any Other Name

It is said that when the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus died, he left behind thousands of friends. This was 2300 years before Facebook, so how could he have befriended so many people?

I suspect that most of them were not dear friends (it’s impossible to be close to that many people) but instead students or followers; yet he seems to have referred to them as friends because friendship or φιλία was core to his philosophy of life. Perhaps also he did not differentiate strongly between the teacher-student relationship and the friend-friend relationship. See for example the very end of his Letter to Menoikeus:

So practice these and similar things day and night, by yourself and with a like-minded friend, and you will never be disturbed whether waking or sleeping, and you will live as a god among men: for a man who lives in the midst of immortal goods is unlike a merely mortal being.

Interestingly, we find something similar in the Confucian tradition. Consider this quote from Book VII of the Analects:

The Master said, “When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them.”

The Neo-Confucians held similar views; a good example is Wu Yubi, a Confucian teacher who lived in the 1400s (cf. M. Theresa Kelleher, The Journal of Wu Yubi, p. 156).

For some months I’ve been pondering the many pairs of terms we use for relationships that can involve ethical or psychological authority: therapist-patient, counselor-client, teacher-student, mentor-youth, coach-protege, minister-layman, priest-parishioner, prophet-disciple, guru-seeker, guide-traveller, leader-follower, expert-beginner, parent-child, etc. In the recent tradition of philosophical counseling, certain providers try to avoid such terms entirely; for instance, Gerd Achenbach, who started a philosophical practice at Köln Germany way back in 1981, says that he is merely a host and the people who visit him are his guests. This is broadly consistent with the “philosophical midwifery” that Socrates practiced – for he, too, called his interlocutors friends, not students, disciples, followers, patients, or clients.

Naturally, it’s one thing to use neutral, non-authoritarian terminology, and perhaps quite another to foster an egalitarian relationship or environment between two people when one of them might be considered more knowledgeable or experienced. For instance, the latter is decidedly my intent when I mentor people; although I think that I mostly succeed, I can’t be certain that I always do…

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