Friendship is an essential aspect of human life. Aristotle devotes two chapters of his Nichomachean Ethics to friendship. Aristotle believes friendship is a necessary part of human nature and also necessary for the good life. Friendliness is a virtue and a person must master this and other virtues if he or she wishes to live a good life. Aristotle believes that friendship is the happiest external good, and that for a man to be happy he must have friends. Aristotle writes that, “no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods” (119). Even though there are some similarities between Aristotle’s idea of friendship and the friendship people recognize now, people can still improve their lives by striving toward a friendship like Aristotle describes in the Nichomachean Ethics.
Aristotle describes three kinds of friendship: friendship for utility, friendship for pleasure, and friendship rooted in virtue—which is the best friendship. In the friendship for utility the friend loves someone only if he has some benefit to gain from the friend. Friendship for pleasure is the friendship two people have when they are only interested in the pleasures that the other can provide. A friend of utility or pleasure cares about a person not for his or her character, but only “insofar as he is useful or pleasant” (121). When a friend can no longer offer the utility or pleasure that was once useful or pleasing the friendship will end. In friendships for utility or pleasure the individual person is not cared about; it is the benefit or pleasure that is loved.
People today have many friendships of utility. Even though Aristotle does not consider these to be the best of friendships they can still be valuable. Aristotle gives examples of an elderly person needing help from a young person or a city cooperating with another city. In each of these cases the type of friendship is that of utility. Today people can still benefit from these types of friendships. A businessperson must have beneficial contacts and business partners. A person can also have a friendship of utility with a doctor. Also a relationship between a teacher and a student could be thought of as a friendship of utility. But just because a friendship is for utility doesn’t mean that it can’t also be of the best kind of friendship.
Aristotle writes that, “The cause of friendship between young people seems to be pleasure. For their lives are guided by their feelings, and they pursue above all what is pleasant for themselves and what is at hand.” (122). For Aristotle, a wide variety of friendships fall under this category. If a person is a friend of another person because they are funny and enjoyable to be around, Aristotle would call this a friendship of pleasure. That does not mean a complete friendship couldn’t be one where one friend found another’s humorous company pleasurable. The complete friendship can contain pleasures, but if people are friends only because of the pleasurable aspects of another person then Aristotle would consider this a friendship of pleasure, and not the best friendship. It seems that Aristotle would classify most modern day relationships as friendships of pleasure. Aristotle believes that only a few friendships are of the best kind. Aristotle says that these friendships of pleasure cannot last long because what is pleasurable eventually changes or a person might someday not be able to be pleasurable in the original way. Aristotle might explain the end of a relationship by saying that it was a friendship of pleasure, and the relationship dissolved because the desire for pleasure changed, or the ability to provide pleasure changed. But friendships of pleasure are not thought to be bad. They are only not of the best kind. A person can have many friendships of pleasure and still live a good life.
The best type of friendship is rooted in something Aristotle calls self-love. Generally someone calls a base person a self-lover in a negative way because he overindulges and puts himself above others. But there is also the virtuous self-lover. Aristotle believes that for one to have a virtuous character one must live in accord with reason. If a person does this then they will be habituated to desire what is fine and virtuous. The virtuous self-lover is one who aims for what is fine, and therefore “awards himself what is finest and best of all, and gratifies the most controlling part of himself, obeying it in everything” (147). The virtuous self-lover lives in accord with reason.
Aristotle believes that in order to have the best type of friendship individuals must have similarly virtuous characters rooted in virtuous self-love. In the best friendship a friend will find in the other friend a reflection of one’s own self. Aristotle writes that “The defining features of friendship that are found in friendships to one’s neighbors would seem to be derived from features of friendship toward oneself” (141). The person who has virtuous self-love will have been habituated to desire fine things and act in accord with virtue. Virtuous individuals will know what is best for themselves and will know what is best for others. Aristotle writes that the “complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right” (122). Those who engage in the best type of friendship will be virtuous and will experience all the benefits of being with another virtuous person while pursuing what is most fine.
Aristotle describes other qualities of the best friendship. Aristotle believes that friends should love and wish goodwill to each other just as they wish it to themselves. Not only must they have goodwill toward each other, but the friends must be aware of this reciprocated good will. Aristotle argues that wishing goodwill itself is not sufficient for the best type of friends, because someone could wish goodwill on a person and never know them. Therefore the friends must be aware of the other friend’s desire for their own well being. Aristotle writes that, “In every way each friend gets the same things and similar things from each, and this is what must be of true friends” (123). So each friend must want goodwill for the other, and the friends must know about this. This concept can apply to modern day friendships. A friendship would be more rewarding if each of the friends knew that the other wished good will toward his or herself. A friendship might be able to work if friends did not know that the other wished goodwill for the other, but wishing goodwill for another is the kind of thing one expects from a friend. Often it is assumed that a friend does feel this way. So there is no harm in letting a friend know how one wishes well for the other, because this will only enhance friendship. Doubt that a friend wishes goodwill for the other can destroy a friendship. So as Aristotle believes, it seems that the best friendship would be one where each friend would know how much the other cared about and wished the best for the other.
Aristotle takes a position similar to the popular saying “to give is better than to receive”. Aristotle believes that it is better to love than be loved. Aristotle writes, “people who love their friends are praised; hence, it would seem, loving is the virtue of friends” (128). Not only is it virtuous to give and to love, but giving also corresponds to the concept of self-love. Aristotle writes of an artisan’s creation: “the product is, in a way, the producer in his actualization; hence the producer is fond of the product because he loves his own being” (145). Aristotle believes that the benefactor of love experiences more joy then the beneficent because in a way the benefactor is creating something that is a reflection of his or herself. Aristotle writes that, “a parent is fond of his children because he regards them as something of himself … A parent, then, loves his children as [he loves] himself” (133). Just as a mother loves a baby before the child can love her back so too friends must love each other. Today people find much joy in giving pleasure to others. Not only does the person feel good about it but others also recognize that this is a good action. So by giving gifts a person can receive pleasure and also receive praise.
Aristotle believes that the best friendship takes time to develop. It also involves being together and taking part in activities that friends find most pleasurable, such as philosophy. If distance separates friends then they can still be friends but they will not be engaging in the activity of friendship. Aristotle says that friends should live together, but he does not mean living together in a home. He writes, “For in the case of human beings what seems to count as living together is this sharing of conversation and thought, not sharing the same pasture, as in the case of grazing animals” (150). Living together can simply be thought of as spending time together with friends and participating in mutually enjoyable activities. By living together and experiencing the thoughts and actions of others, good people can further develop and hone virtues. Aristotle writes that while living together each friend “molds the other in what they approve of, so that” they learn “what is noble from noble people’” (153). Some today might say that a person should choose the best people for friends because they will make one better. In a similar way Aristotle thinks good people will cultivate virtue in each other. Aristotle writes that, “Those who welcome each other but do not live together would seem to have goodwill rather than friendship” (125). True friends must spend time together enjoying the pleasure of the others company while developing their own characters. In a society driven by pleasure it can be hard to have friends of this sort. People are often friends solely because they have similar pleasures. Friends often spend time together partaking in pleasures that do not develop character. Friends who study philosophy, which Aristotle considers the best way of life, can engage in pleasurable activity and also improve their characters.
Aristotle believes that one cannot have many best friends. One of the reasons that a person cannot have many best friends is that it is difficult for a big group of people to effectively live together. One would not be able to devote the amount of time needed to each specific friend to maintain a complete friendship. Aristotle writes that in a large group of friends one might be sharing one friend’s pleasure while experiencing another’s grief at the same time. Aristotle writes that “it even seems impossible to be an extremely close friend to many people” (151). Most people today hold this view. But some, such as teenagers, could benefit from learning what Aristotle wrote about the amount of complete friendships one might be able to have. Some teenagers have a strong desire to be popular. If they could hear and understand Aristotle’s view then they might learn to treasure the friendships they already have rather than desire a great many less fulfilling friendships. Aristotle writes that those who do seem to be friends to a great many people seem to be friends of no one at all. True friendships require attention and time to develop.
Aristotle believes that a base person cannot have the complete friendship because he desires things that are not fine. Just as a good person will be drawn to other similar people so will a base person be drawn to other people who desire base things. Aristotle writes that, “not everything is loved, but [only] the lovable, and this is either good or pleasant or useful” (120). Therefore a bad person can only be loved for pleasure or utility, since the best friendship is that among good people. Aristotle believes that base people have friends for utility and pleasure rather than for the other person’s character. Aristotle writes that if friends “are unstable, and share base pursuits” then “by becoming similar to each other, they grow vicious” (153). Sometimes friends in the lesser of the three friendships might feel they are not getting their fair share of pleasure or utility. But the virtuous friends will know that the other person could not act unjustly, whereas base people concerned with benefiting themselves would angrily desire what they thought was their fair share. By becoming virtuous and engaging in the best type of friendship one can avoid these problems.
Unlike friendships for utility and pleasure, the complete friendship is one that can last as long as each friend is virtuous. However, if there is a complete friendship and one of the friends becomes vicious then it is okay for the virtuous friend to not take part in the friendship any longer. Aristotle also thinks that if one of the friends becomes more virtuous than the other then the friend has a right to end the friendship. However it is very important that one try to save a friend from becoming vicious. If the person is not able to be saved that is unfortunate. One cannot forget old friends.
The model of the best friendship that Aristotle outlines in the Nichomachean Ethics is based upon virtue. Aristotle writes, “when everyone strains to achieve what is fine and concentrates on the finest actions, everything that is right will be done for the common good, and each person individually will receive the greatest of goods, since that is the character of virtue” (147). This is Aristotle’s ultimate goal. If every person strove toward what is virtuous then eventually everything would be done for the common good, and nothing would be done selfishly. Even though we may never reach Aristotle’s ideal, individuals can still improve their lives, friendships, and the lives of others around them by aspiring to live virtuously.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Terrence Irwin. Indiana: Hackett Publishing