Thank God we can choose our friends

Dr Thomas Dixon is the presenter of ‘Five Hundred Years of Friendship‘ on BBC Radio 4 and the Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. In this blog post he reflects on the history and ideology behind the idea that we can choose our friends.


On Christmas Eve, 1902, a Northamptonshire newspaper carried a satirical selection of revised proverbs, twisting old sayings into modern shape. These jolly festive gems included, ‘Many are called, but few get up’,  ‘People who live in glass houses should pull down the blinds’, and ‘God gives us our relatives – thank God we can choose our friends.’

The idea that we can choose our friends, but not our families, had become a commonplace by the early twentieth century, but in earlier periods it would not have made much sense. Prior to the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the distinction between friends and family was pretty blurred. One’s ‘friends’ were a supportive and interconnected web of close relatives, workmates, and neighbours – indeed any particular friend could quite easily be all these things at once.

Katherine Philips

The modern celebration of specially chosen friends supposes two things that only became widely available much more recently: education and leisure. Select, emotional friendships used to be the preserve of an educated elite – they required a refined sensibility and the spare time to indulge it. Such relationship also relied on being able to read and write – whether letters of friendship of moral and religious treatises on the subject. This was the kind of friendship engaged in by Erasmus and Thomas More in the sixteenth century, and by a remarkable woman called Katherine Philips who conducted a philosophical ‘Society of Friendship’ through letters from her home in the Welsh town of Cardigan in the seventeenth century.

In a society like ours, in which a large proportion of the population go to university, and can enjoy an extended, educated, leisured period of adolescence, this kind of friendship has become the norm rather than a minority pursuit. The coffee-drinking, wise-cracking ‘family of choice’ idealised in the hugely popular American sitcom Friends, first broadcast between 1994 and 2004, is a modern descendant of the friendships of choice celebrated by Renaissance humanists.

And the world of the globally marketed and highly successful commercial product, Friends, brings us to the final ingredient of the modern friendship of choice: consumerism. The Scottish economist Adam Smith, the great prophet of the free market in the eighteenth century, put rational individual choice at the heart of his philosophy in The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s other great work was his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explained the centrality of affectionate relationships to human society. But even in that work, Smith emphasised that the ‘prudent man’ would choose his friends not of the basis of ‘giddy admiration’ but by the ‘sober esteem of modesty, discretion, and good conduct’. It is to Adam Smith that we owe the idea that we are consumers in the emotional as well as the economic realm.

Today our public profiles on Facebook or Twitter are like shop windows, displaying our wares in search of friends or followers, and we speak about choosing our friends as we might choose our toothpaste, a new phone, or which newspaper to read. Online display and branding seem to be as important for socialising as for selling.

But in reality, how many of us actually make new friends in this way? Even in our highly connected age, family, neighbourhood, education, and work provide our closest friends in the vast majority of cases. It seems to me that there is still much truth in what the social critic John Ruskin wrote in Sesame and Lilies, in 1865: ‘granting that we had both the will and the sense to choose our friends well, how few of us have the power! or, at least, how limited for most, is the sphere of choice!’


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