Friendship, Character, and Purpose

Each week, the fall series “Reimagining the World Together: Why Friendship Matters for Our Future” features a moderated conversation between a pair of friends. Because I have spent the past four months pulling together this series and am teaching a course tied to it, I volunteered to write about the goals of the series, which involve displaying connections between matters of character, questions of purpose, and human flourishing.

My task seemed simple enough: explain what friendship has to do with character and purpose and what character and purpose have to do with human flourishing. My first attempts to do that, however, failed, because some things, indeed some of the most essential things, aren’t best captured in didactic lessons.

I could have told you, for example, that more than 2,300 years ago Aristotle said that “the characteristic activity of a human being is a certain kind of life”; that the life in question is the good life; that the good life is a life lived “in accordance with virtue, and if there are several virtues, in accordance with the best and most complete”; that virtues of character ensure that our lives aim at the good; and that friendship “is a virtue, or involves virtue, and is an absolute necessity in life.” I could have added that purpose comes from the Old French purpos, which meant “to aim.”

I then could have stepped through all these connections to suggest that without friendship we would lack the virtues, because among the virtues, it is the best and most complete; without the virtues we would lack character; and without character we would be aimless—perhaps finding life on Wall Street or inside the Beltway or behind a pulpit, or on in a clinic or a lab or a court, but missing the target of a good life. I could have done all that but failed to do what I set out to do.

The working assumption of the series is that the best way to explore character and purpose might not be to describe them philosophically, but to listen to two friends talk about their friendship.

In the first conversation in the series, the Rev. William Barber said of his friendship with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: “I’ve thought about how glad I am to know Jonathan because I had some deep distrust about my white brothers and sisters because of things that happened to me early in my life. Having to deal with the Klan burning crosses in front of my uncle’s house. I think in some ways Jonathan helped to save me from my memories.”

Jonathan responded: “One of the great gifts of our friendship is that he helped me learn the history behind why a young person like me didn’t even realize that I was lacking friendship with someone like him. I remember the first time I walked into a state house behind Reverend Barber. I have lived as a straight white man in the world. When I walk into places, I’m generally welcomed, and when I’m not, I’m generally respectful of authority because that’s how I was raised. And here we were going to challenge the system and they told us we can’t come in. Well, something in my body, if I’m told I can’t come in, says, ‘Yes sir, I understand.’ But Reverend Barber says, ‘Tell me where that’s written down. Show me that rule.’ All of a sudden I realized that there are ways my body carries a memory of a certain relationship to this society that I have to unlearn if I’m going to be part of this kind of fusion coalition that our friendship represents.”

Noting that after first meeting twenty-five years ago they lost track of one another, Rev. Barber said: “I never forgot him, he never forgot me. And then the movement brought us back together, and we kind of picked up from where we were, but we started to go deeper and talk about what this friendship was supposed to mean beyond just us? What was it supposed to mean for the larger moral conversations in this country? And it’s a counterintuitive. If you would write the story, I was never supposed to meet him, he was never supposed to meet me, and if we did, we would surely be on opposite sides.”

Jonathan added, “It’s not just about two people being buddies. This is about a vision for what society can be. I think it’s that fear of the unknown that we have to confront and not knowing what all it’s going to take to change what is into what ought to be.”

“Reimagining the World Together: Why Friendship Matters for Our Future” runs every Thursday through November 5. The series is free and open to the public. You can register and find recordings of previous conversations here: https://kenan.ethics.duke.edu/friendship/. The next conversation will take place this Thursday and will feature Duke’s own Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, who have recently published the book Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity.

David Toole wears many idiomatic hats at Duke. Reflective of his wide-ranging academic endeavors, Toole holds appointments not only with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, but also the Global Health Institute and the Divinity School, where he serves as Associate Dean for Interdisciplinary Initiatives. He teaches courses on ethics, humanitarianism, and health systems, and is working on another book that gathers together a decade of research on the role of mission hospitals in African health systems.

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