A friend in need

is a friend indeed? This is one of those phrases that Resistentialists seldom use, except after a few brandies when we start to ponder questions such as: “Why do people use phrases like this one?”, and “What the hell do phrases like this actually mean, anyway?”

In short, it may be true to say that we complicate, and sometimes overcomplicate, the banal through grim terror – in that if we can accomplish the dissecting of every known cliche, it liberates in respect of those (rare) moments where we may accidentally use them in an unselfconscious manner. Because if our interlocutors can’t be sure that we are being sincere – given our prior analysis of the cliche – they are forced to interpret us as being ironic, and that’s just the way we like it. With all that out the way, the phrase seems to originate in the Latin “Amicu certus in re incerta cernitur”, from Ennuis, translated as “A sure friend is known when in difficulty”. But this is the first of two, possibly three, interpretations.

1. You know your true friends when you encounter difficulty – ie. when you are in need, your true friends reveal themselves by still answering your calls, etc.
2. The less charitable reading asks us to interpret the phase as a reference to exploitation, in that when people are in need they become especially friendly – so someone who needs your help becomes especially friendly in an effort to obtain said help.

Most people understand the phrase as meaning 1, above, and that interpretation does seem best supported by the translation from the Latin. But 2 is also in common usage. The Resistential contribution to this debate is to suggest that there is a possible third interpretation, little known to the people in this area (but destined to take the place of the mud shark in your mythology), which reads the phrase as being prescriptive rather than descriptive, as in:

3. When people are in need, one has a moral (or other) obligation to regard them as friends, ie. to perform efforts directed at assisting them.

Reading three is the Oprah reading, in that it does ask us to engage in a fair degree of paternalism, by making assumptions regarding how much need a person is in (does it cross the threshold which requires you to spring into action); whether it’s your help (rather than the help of others) that they would appreciate; and whether it is in fact your job to go around assisting unfortunates (so one could then also talk of the arrogance of the assumption that you are the best placed to help).

In conclusion, Slack Collective can (we feel) now use this phrase with complete confidence, in that not only have we discussed the common interpretations, and made our awareness of them clear, but we have also introduced a possible third reading – leaving our ironic-use-of-cliche (this one, at least) credentials fortified to the max.

(With thanks to Frank Zappa for the Mud Shark line, from “Nanook rubs it”)

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.