Anthropological evidence gives many examples of the role of friendship in different societies and cultures. For example, the Arapesh of northwestern New Guinea, the Hopi of Arizona, and the Tikopia in the Solomons created ritual or ceremonial bonds of non-kin friendship, mainly between males. Yet the traditions that focused most explicitly on friendship were the societies of classical Greece and Rome, and it is the treatises of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero that form the linchpin around which the subsequent philosophical debate has turned or to which it will return. Most of the classical philosophical writing on friendship presupposes a sociological context of male-male friendship. Greek writers, such as Plato and Xenophon reporting on Socrates' teaching, discuss eros and philia almost interchangeably to describe the very close relationship between men or between men and boys. Aristotle limits his concept of perfect altruistic friendship to men of virtue. The extension of friendship into a civic bond between fellow citizens is, for Aristotle, the ideal basis for politics. Cicero's accounts of friendship or amicitia in ancient Rome are also linked to politics and describe not only personal male heterosexual friendship, but also the concept of patronage, which sustained business and political relationships.
The ancient canon of friendship, which stresses the interests of the "other self," reciprocal consideration, and the role of friendship in contributing to a virtuous and good life, was superseded, in the medieval period, by the concept of spiritual friendship. With the rise of Christianity and hieratic religions, based on a divinity and priesthood, the relationship between man and godhead assumed prominence. The guiding emotions in religions with a supreme and omnipotent god, and especially in Christianity, were agape, or the love of God, and caritas, or charity toward others. Concepts of love and friendship were redefined by monks and theologians, as human relationships were triangulated to include God as an essential mediating force between human friendships. St. Augustine (354–430), Aethelred of Rievaulx (c. 1110–1167), and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), reworking the treatises of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, write of spiritual friends—the need to love God in order to make possible friendships between men.
Other religious traditions also synthesize classical ideas of friendship. The Muslim theologian al-Ghazali (1058–1111) builds on the Aristotelian ideal of friendship, overlaying it with notions of the spiritual bond of Sufi brotherhood. Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 1135–1204) the Jewish sage, reflects both Socratic and Aristotelian ideas in advocating the importance of finding a friend.
In the modern period, few philosophers have considered friendship worthy of attention, with some notable exceptions. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) write in praise of friendship. For Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), his friendship with the writer Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563) represented a pure and unique experience of the finest thing in life, but was unobtainable by most men and all women. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) challenges the complaisance he sees in the thinking about friendship. He describes a friend as the "third" between I and me, with the true friend being one's best enemy. Like Aristotle and Montaigne, he considers that only "higher" forms of humans are capable of friendships. Jacques Derrida continues Nietzsche's interrogation, using the mantra "O my friend, there is no friend" to illustrate the contradictions and anomalies in the history and politics of friendship, including the omission of women in this history of friendship. The distinction between love and friendship becomes, for Derrida, submerged into ideas of "aimance" or "lovence."