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The Great Conversation: Aristotle on Friendship

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Aristotle, with his common sense approach to problems, frequently states the seemingly obvious. He makes points which on the surface don’t seem revolutionary, but they are shrewd and insightful enough to crystalize truths that, otherwise, would be difficult to articulate. Part of our lack of surprise at his approaches and conclusions derives from our living in a post-Aristotelian world. So, if what follows doesn’t surprise you, give yourself a high-five and consider yourself an Aristotelian.

Man is by nature a social animal whose inclination it is to live in the company of others. Such is Aristotle’s premise in Book I of the Politics.

Something within us compels us to live in society with others. We are naturally bound to form relationships with other people. What can we say about the social associations we make? What does their nature say about us? Aristotle addresses these questions on Friendship in Books 8 and 9 of his Nicomachean Ethics. According to Aristotle, there are three types of friendships: those based on utility, those based on pleasure or delight, and those grounded in virtue.

In the first type, friendship based on utility, people associate for their mutual usefulness. These relationships are the most common. My mechanic is my friend because it benefits me when my car is in the shop. I am his friend because he wants my business. My coworker is my friend because the workday would be more painful if he were not. My classmate is my friend because I learn more when we study together. This type of friendship is, by nature, self-regarding and selfishly motivated, though mutually satisfactory.

In the second type, people associate for the sake of sensual pleasure. We should understand Aristotle’s use of “sensual” pleasure broadly: while sexual and other physical types of pleasure are included in this group, so is general pleasure or delight. The crazy guy who is a friend because he’s hilarious fits into this category; so does the person you’ve been hooking up with or a drinking buddy; so do the people on your intramural soccer team. These are relationships one forms to facilitate or eventuate one’s own pleasure. Again, these are self-regarding or self-focused relationships.

Aristotle is not prudish or priggish when discussing these types of relationships and in no way seeks to impugn participants in them. Indeed, he considers many forms of them necessary: for instance, business relationships are necessary since a single man is not economically self-sufficient. However, he admits their limitations, both temporal and potential. On the one hand, temporally, friendships based on utility or pleasure will end when their objects end. A business relationship will end when a better one presents itself. A friendship with an exciting person will end if he becomes boring. On the other hand, one may be uninterested in or blinded to the greater potential in a person or relationship; one may neglect or overlook deeper or more important potentialities. Aristotle qualitatively distinguishes these self-serving friendships from selfless ones.

In contrast to the self-centered relationships described above, Aristotle delineates a third type, those grounded in virtue: τελια φιλια, fully-developed friendship. This type completes the intended design or purpose of Friendship. This entity is the final cause of friendship. Its participants necessarily share a set of values and principles of an irreducibly moral nature: A wants for B what is good for B for the sake of B. This is an essentially selfless relationship. Moreover, it is a constructive relationship. Each friend, by his own qualities, helps to fully realize what is not only potentially in the other but also realized in the other. He reveres and honors and, therefore, sustains, encourages, nurtures, supports, and celebrates what the other is and can become. Temporally, these relationships are not bound by maintenance of utility or pleasure but are sustainable over a lifetime.

As you may suspect, these relationships are the most rare of friendships, as they require virtuous participants to be realized. Should we despair, as most of us fall short of the mark? Will only few such friendships ever form, given the rarity of the truly virtuous finding each other? The theoretical Aristotle might imply as much, but, above all, Aristotle was a practical philosopher, and he offered this teaching to aid more than a few moral elites. Even between friends of greatly differing quantitative degrees of virtue (successful “execution” of a virtuous life), qualitative virtue (the desire for the other’s good for the other’s sake) can be shared rather equally. Consider this paraphrased example offered by Professor Daniel Robinson:

In a mutually agreed-upon relationship, two parties can bring in quantitatively different virtues but desire the good of the other. Take the musician and his audience. The musician invokes a lifetime of discipline, talent, and training and performs for the true enjoyment of the audience. The audience, though deficient in the particular virtues of the musician, brings enthusiasm, musical education, and love to the concert and wishes for the best performance for the sake of the art and artist. In this way, people of very different potentialities can join into a virtuous relationship.

Therefore, despite our particular shortcomings, if we bring disciplined, selfless love to our relationships, we could all be members of the worthy few.

What can we take away from this lesson? First, try to realize, without judgment or shame, into which categories our friendships fall. Do those friendships of utility or pleasure blind us to the good in others or ourselves? Do they stunt our growth or that of our friend? Do they handicap our ability to be as good as we can be? Second, where the answers to the above are Yes, consider enacting a change. Finally, remember that a friendship grounded in virtue is one of habitual decisions to eventuate good of the other. It’s a lifelong task, but, luckily, those few flourishing relationships will permit the exercise.

Congratulations to my Friend, Keith, on his well-deserved success.

Much thanks to Daniel Robinson, Ph.D. (whose sixty-part lecture series on the Great Ideas of Philosophy [The Teaching Company] is encyclopedic and inspirational) and Frederick Copleston, S.J. (whose ten volume A History of Philosophy [Doubleday] is unparalleled in English) for their qualitative, if not quantitative, friendship. No, I don’t know them personally, but I wish I did.

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About David L. Smith

Columnist: Great Conversation. Passionate student of ancient history. Smith has a BS in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology from Yale, and is a radiologist. During his day-job he is more apt to write articles like: Disseminated Histoplasmosis in an Immunocompetent Patient. Seriously, that’s on his CV. Ugh.

3 comments

  1. This was a pleasant surprise this morning! Not to get sappy, but you are one of my truest friends. My life is made better for having you in it. Thank you.

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