Since Asimov wrote The Naked Sun, Americans have been engaged in wholesale flight from one another, decamping for suburbs and Sunbelt, splintering into ever smaller households, and conducting more and more of their relationships online, where avatars flourish. The churn rate of domestic relations is especially remarkable, and has rendered family life in the United States uniquely unstable. “No other comparable nation,” the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin observes, “has such a high level of multiple marital and cohabiting unions.”
Oceans of ink have been spilled on these developments, yet hardly any attention is paid to the one institution—friendship—that could pick up some of the interpersonal slack. But while sizzling eros hogs the spotlight these days—sex sells, after all—too many of us overlook philia, the slower-burning and longer-lasting complement. That’s ironic, because today “friends” are everywhere in our culture—the average Facebook user has 130—and friendship, of a diluted kind, is our most characteristic relationship: voluntary, flexible, a “lite” alternative to the caloric meshugaas of family life.
But in restricting ourselves to the thin gruel of modern friendships, we miss out on the more nourishing fare that deeper ones have to offer. Aristotle, who saw friendship as essential to human flourishing, shrewdly observed that it comes in three distinct flavors: those based on usefulness (contacts), on pleasure (drinking buddies), and on a shared pursuit of virtue—the highest form of all. True friends, he contended, are simply drawn to the goodness in one another, goodness that today we might define in terms of common passions and sensibilities.
Akst points to the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson as the genesis of the self-centred individual rather than social person. I don't know that the answer is that simple in fact. Akst's example of the "male buddie films" as a "social contra-indicator" is also open to debate. That is why I offered the following comment...
Of the comments thus far the two that strike the strongest echos for me are David Jewett and RameshRaghuvanshi; the former for his very detailed personal insight, the latter for his chink-hole peep into the divided society.
I do not make friends easily. In that respect I am perhaps in the same category as David, although I do not dredge the internet into the picture as a rationalisation. I have always had a reticence to be involved with other people and particularly other men. The reasons are manifold. Some are echoed by Ramesh.
On the other side to Akst's (excellent) article is that there are times when man (generic) needs solitude as much as he needs close friendships. That has been (in the past) my justification for being so insular and "self-reliant".
Is it likely that our society's disconnection with personal relationships is the result of that desire (and hence the attraction of the internet where friendships are far more ephemeral than real life)? In old history, the community and its inter-relationships could be avoided by a simple walk into the distance. Today (and despite the divisions Ramesh notes) that pressure of "community" is far greater and unavoidable.
"Friendships" on the internet are easy, passing and almost always strongly boosted by a search for "people who are of the same mind".
In real life, strong friendships are far more difficult - as Akst points out. They require regular maintenance. They do evolve, and can often eventually die through the events as he describes.