Do You Have True Friendships? Aristotle Thinks You Don't

The philosopher could very well be in Mean Girls with this kind of theory. 

Name your five closest friends, I’ll wait. Think of the people you can talk to about anything, the ones you’ve known for a while, the ones you can always call. Now, think of how many people on Facebook you can really say are anything like that group. We all still have a guy from high school on our Facebook that we don’t think about until his birthday.


Dunbar’s number, the supposed maximum number of meaningful social relationships you can have, is 150. The median Facebook user has a much higher number of friends than that, how many of them are really people you still know? How many of them are people who you would want to see for no other reason than that you enjoy their presence?

How many of your friends are really your “friends”? How can you know the difference? What is that difference?

In his ethical masterpiece The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle turns his brilliant mind to the problem of what friendship actually is. Aristotle views the good life as requiring not only virtue, an internal good that you are largely responsible for; but also requiring external goods which facilitate virtue and are enjoyable in themselves. Such things include being Greek, male, well-off financially, educated, reasonably healthy, having decent luck, and having good friends. The question of what a friend is takes on a new importance for him.

In book VIII of this work he defines three sorts of friendships, and one virtue of friendship, “Philia” or brotherly love. As with all of Aristotle’s virtues, Philia is the midway point between two vices. A lack of brotherly love leads to the vice of egoism, while the person who is too friendly with everyone is also vicious in their own way. Aristotle would agree that “The friend to all is a friend to none”. To be a self-actualized person, in the Aristotelian sense, you need to master the art of friendship.

But, what are the three kinds of friendships?

The friendship of utility is the first kind of friendship Aristotle covers. These friendships are based on what the two people involved can do for one another, and often have little to do with the other individual as a person at all. The person you buy a drink for so they can score you tickets, put in a good word for you, or even just make you look better by comparison. Such friendships as this include offering hospitality, so he claims. These friendships can end rapidly, as soon as any possible use for the other person is gone.

The second is the friendship of pleasure. These are the friendships based on enjoyment of a shared activity and the pursuit of fleeting pleasures and emotions. The person you drink with but would never have over for dinner. The guy who you go to a football game with but would never be able to tolerate seeing anywhere else. Aristotle declares it to be the friendship of the young. This is, again, an often-short tenured friendship as people may change what they like to do and suddenly be without connection their friend.

In both of these friendships the other person is not being valued “in themselves” but as a means to an end. Pleasure in one and to some useful thing in the other. While these are listed as “lesser” friendships due to the motive, Aristotle is open to the idea of the final, and greatest, form of friendship finding its genesis in these categories, however.

The final category is “True” friendship. The friendship of virtue or the friendship of “the good”. These are the people you like for themselves, the people who push you to be a better person. The motivation is that you care for the person themselves and therefore the relationship is much more stable than the previous two categories. These friendships are hard to find because people who make the cut of "virtuous" are hard to find. Aristotle laments the rarity of such friendships, but notes they are possible between two virtuous people who can invest the time needed to create such a bond.

While Aristotle encourages us to seek the “pure” form of friendship. He doesn’t necessarily think you are a bad person for having friends of the previous two sorts. We all have them. While he admits that some pleasures are bad for you, he also calls pleasure a good which people do want to enjoy. The real problem in these friendships is when you fail to understand that they are of the lower kind and make no effort to find better friendships.

But, friendships of pleasure are all I have right now. Am I a bad person?

No, but Aristotelians would encourage you to move up. Start thinking about your friendships. Are there any friends who you think you'd like to know better? Do it! If it doesn’t work out, try again. Aristotle is clear: friendships of virtue are rare, it might take a while. Before anything can work, you need to be virtuous too. You needn’t be a paragon of virtue right away, even Cicero questioned how virtuous you needed to be to make true friends, but an understanding of Philia would be useful.

In a world of ever increasing social connections, the question of what friendship “really is” is an important one. The guidance of Aristotle, with his views of differing friendships and the possibility for improvement, are one much needed suggestion in our modern world.

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