“For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods… And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge.” — Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” Book VIII.
In the above video clip, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, best friends in real life, are resurrecting their beloved characters from “Shaun of the Dead.”
Our unlikely heroes, Shaun (Pegg) and Ed (Frost), have been friends since spinning electro together in primary school. Their flatmate Pete, however, sees their friendship as a sham, arrested development driving a perverse codependency. Ed wants a free place to crash and Shaun wants someone around who’s an even bigger loser than he is.
Pete is a prick and although that doesn’t make him wrong, it does incline one toward disagreement. I am so inclined and would submit that “Shaun of the Dead” is a profound meditation on friendship during an apocalypse, one that provides a guide to what friendship requires in our own time of the coronavirus.
Just as “Shaun of the Dead” is the gold standard (perhaps even a slice of fried gold) of Zom Coms, Book VIII of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” is the gold standard for discussions of friendship.
According to Aristotle, there are three types of friendship, two that generally do not last and a third that can last a lifetime. Aristotle believes that friendships based on mutual gain or sharing pleasure will not be lasting since what we find beneficial or pleasurable changes over the courses of our lives.
At first blush, Shaun and Ed’s friendship seems to tick both of these boxes. As Pete notes, Ed wants a place to stay and Shaun feels like less of a loser with Ed around (mutual benefit). Barring arrested development, what one finds useful changes over time.
The weed of youth becomes the toilet paper of middle age. Speaking of arrested development, Shaun and Ed are also video gaming/drinking buddies which might suggest they are friends simply for the pleasure to be gained from protracting their misspent youth.
Once the apocalypse is on, however, we see their friendship reveal its true mettle. As they battle the undead side-by-side, they demonstrate their friendship is without qualification. For Aristotle, this is the key to a lasting friendship. Even though others have difficulty seeing what to find of value in them, they have no difficulty valuing one another simply for who they are.
When pressed into service against the undead, they cultivate virtue in one another. Shaun finally sorts his life out and discovers a sense of responsibility he previously lacked. Ed makes the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the future happiness of his friend.
After all, there is a reason they have been friends since primary school, one that goes beyond a mutual fondness for New Order. We learn from Shaun and Ed that friendship truly is our refuge in a time of misfortune and without it we might as well join the ranks of the undead.
What can “Shaun of the Dead” teach us about friendship in the time of the coronavirus? Although it is fine to get together with friends for a quarantini during virtual happy hour (pleasure) and to belatedly call your pals if you find yourself in need of toilet paper (benefit), please do not neglect to value your friends for their own sake.
Friendship without qualification is the stuff of lasting friendship. Take this opportunity to find the good in one another and cultivate it.
Look after each other, give your friends a call if you think they might be lonely, and remember that we are all in this together.
Bryan Hall is Dean of the College of Contemporary Liberal Studies at Regis University and author of “An Ethical Guidebook to the Zombie Apocalypse: How to Keep Your Brain without Losing Your Heart” (Bloomsbury, 2020).
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