Finding the Philosophy in Facebook

“Why does the happy man need Facebook?” – Aristotle.

Aristotle never asked this, but he did ask “why does the happy man need friends?” What would Aristotle have made of what we call ‘Facebook friends’? This question shouldn’t really be asked – for any answers given are sure to be suppositions or at the very least conjecture – unless it is first re-phrased. What does Aristotle’s most famous work, The Nichomachean Ethics, make of Facebook friends? There’s a question. And now that we have our question, we have our interlocutor…

The Ethics presupposes that friendship requires an interpersonal acquaintance. This means that we can rule out Facebook as being the cause of friendships. Indeed, the person who sends you a friend request without having actually met you is usually to be avoided. There are some valid reasons as to why such a request might be sent, but usually such friend requests are rightly met with suspicion. Normally, they’ll be added to the list of the unaccepted.

Facebook was founded in 2004. It’s young, and it remains, at least for now, a young person’s scene. Therefore, what The Ethics has to say about young people and their friendships might be revealing of Facebook. “The friendship of young people seems to aim at pleasure.” In the ancient world this is a criticism. And, because young people have friendships based “of pleasure or utility, even bad men may be friends with each other or good men of bad.” How many of our Facebook friends would we consider bad people? Perhaps not many, but perhaps not none of them. There are many reasons to be friends with someone on Facebook – whether, to use Aristotle’s units, we have them for utility or for pleasure. For many of us, Facebook has replaced the calendar and the diary as the mode of organisation, and we often keep someone on Facebook not because we see them as a friend but because we derive pleasure from them in some other way. That we keep them for now does not mean that we will never tire of them in the future and cull the excess – as The Ethics observes: “but with increasing age their pleasures become different” which is why “they quickly become friends and quickly cease to be so.”

Ask yourself the question, if Facebook were to vanish tomorrow how many Facebook friends would you actually regret losing? How many would you actively seek out through other means? This is an exacting test, and it’s a distinction valued in The Ethics which distinguishes between the state of friendship and the activity of friendship. “Distance does not break up the friendship absolutely, but only the activity of friendship.” If Facebook friends are only friends in the state of friendship, and not in the activity of friendship, then are they really friends?

The Ethics warns us also that, “if absence is lasting, it seems to make men forget their friendship.” This may have been natural in the ancient world, but now that we have Facebook – whose timeline will remind us of our friends whether we want to or not, and also provides us with an ease of communication – we really have no excuse not to sustain the state of friendship so that we might one day rejoice again in the activity of friendship. In other words, as inevitably we fail to follow this simple two-step, Facebook forces us to confront the fact that some people who we once thought we would care to lose we actually don’t, and, uncomfortably, this also happens in reverse.

Mark Zuckerberg decided to set a limit on the amount of Facebook friends we can have. He went for 5,000 friends. 5,001 friends? Oh my, you promiscuous girl. Maybe Mark is to be considered an authority on where to place the red line, but I submit that The Ethics councils with much greater nuance. It’s not about the exact number of Facebook friends you have, it’s about finding the happy middle ground: “You cannot make a city of ten men, and if there are a hundred thousand it is a city no more.” Imagine a city in which you suffocate under the weight of all the people you don’t really know and all around you are the neon lights of billboards which advertise various club nights… oh yes, that billboard is your cover photo, that decadent city your soulless timeline. Then again, the other end of the spectrum is just as bad. Only the village weirdo and granny have 10 Facebook friends.

The Ethics’ philosophical cornerstone for friendship is the idea of self-love. This idea should not be misconstrued as meaning that only auto-erotics can have friendships. Aristotle’s self-love means that you must love yourself in order to love another and be good to one another. In Facebook terms, this might imply that to be a good Facebook friend requires some kind of online grooming (calm down – it’s a homonym). To clarify and keep this legal, this grooming entails being at ease in your online skin in order to self-love and partake in online friendships. This is perhaps best demonstrated and practiced through the posting of statuses and photos. If we cannot do this, if we cannot get ourselves up for a bit of self-loving online (please – stop it), then we must settle for reciprocity in online friendship: if someone pops up with a like on your timeline, maybe try throwing a like back in their direction.

One saying found in The Ethics is “birds of a feather flock together.” Are your Facebook friends people of similar interests or opinions? Although it might seem like they are, in my experience this is a widespread myth – actually Facebook is a much greater tool than Twitter in the way it exposes you to differing personalities and opinions. This suggests one of two things. Either Facebook isn’t rooted in Aristotle’s tenants of friendship, or else Aristotle got it wrong and friendship isn’t about similarities between people at all. Of course, this binary is a simplification. Facebook isn’t only a space for friends. It also includes family members. The Ethics says that most basic similarity needed as a prerequisite to friendship is age – “two of an age take to each other” – and Facebook makes this brutally clear as the vast majority of our friends seem to be our peers. There is a generational techno-lingo gap separating most parents who have Facebook from getting our online badinage. The Ethics says that “the friendship of children to parents is that of men to gods”. For Aristotle, this analogy is made because parents are good and superior to their children, much as the gods are good and superior to men. This metaphor extends into our Facebook, but instead of the gods having a good and superior nature to us, our familial gods are capricious and bumbling by nature. They post and comment in all sorts of inappropriate and hilarious ways.

When should we unfriend our Facebook friends? The Ethics argues that if “one friend remains a child in intellect while the other a fully developed man, how could they remain friends when neither approved of the same thing.” This reference does not instruct us to delete Facebook friends we think are intellectually beneath us – even the communists, even the vegans – but what it does is to asks us to think about deleting those who suffer from a deficiency of virtue. We should consider deleting people who, following on from a repugnant comment or inexcusable act, cannot co-exist with our moral worldview.

In a situation in which we did delete a Facebook friend because someone had stopped being good or virtuous, The Ethics seems to argue that we need not worry because upon deletion that friendship would be proven to not have been based on goodness and the corollary of this is that it was never a true friendship to begin with. Only the illusion of friendship has ceased. Aristotle thought that to be a good friend one must first be a good person, and being a good person is durable, an almost permanent condition. But these good people The Ethics says are anyway rare, and as such it’s natural that the things most people perceive to be friendships (but actually aren’t) invariably come to a close. In other words, sure, go ahead, delete that person from Facebook; after all, the likelihood is that neither one of you are truly good people anyway. However to think this is to dilute friendship. If only a handful of people are experiencing genuine true friendship, then what is the everyday experience that all of us plebeians call friendship? Does a good man mistaking a bad man for a good man really mean that there never existed any friendship? The Ethics fails to solve this quite common dilemma. To find the answer, we must travel over the Adriatic Sea to Republican Rome, where Cicero has something to say on the matter. Cicero disagreed with Aristotle, arguing that friendships should be held to account and that to hold a friend to account (purge him from Facebook) is not to reduce the friendship. Why should friendships have to be durable to be real friendships? It seems as wrong an assertion as the  common assertion that the qualities of love are durability and stability, when actually it might be something much more brief and dynamic – the unrequited love is no less real, is often much more intense.

It is axiomatic that Facebook as currently used is a celebration of life. And why wouldn’t it be, given the overwhelming youth of its users? But the moment we grow old, which many of us will, it becomes a much more morbid setting… another funeral, another funeral, another funeral… until the day comes when most of the people we know are dead and the online city of our compadres has been transformed into an amigo necropolis. By then, if it still exists, Facebook will play a much more somber role in our lives. We should not run away from this reality, delete our accounts and hide our faces. We should embrace it and use it to remember those who have passed, before, much like this piece, we reach our own once macabre now melancholy end…

Live though you may through all ages that you wish,

No less eternal death will still await,

And no less long a time will be no more,

He who today from light his exit made

Than he who perished months and years ago.


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