Friday, December 14, 2007

Aristotle and his view of Friendship

Aristotle wrote on a vast amount of subjects during his lifetime, such as biology, chemistry, physics, ethics and logic. In one of his most popular works, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses a variety of these subjects in order to find virtue and moral character. One of the virtues which Aristotle examines quite extensively is friendship. Aristotle believes that there are three different kinds of friendship; that of utility, friendship of pleasure, and virtuous friendship. Aristotle argues that friendship should be so highly valued because it is complete virtue and he explains that it is above both honour and justice. Aristotle’s theories regarding friendship break down into self-love, of which self-love of utility and self-love of pleasure become selfishness, while self-love of virtue is the highest good a person can achieve. Due to these three different kinds of love, human beings are shown to be quite political in nature. This is especially shown in the first two; love of utility and love of pleasure as Aristotle argues that humans set up relationships for each owns personal gain. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that virtuous friendship is one of the most glorious attainments one can achieve.

Aristotle describes a friendship of utility as shallow, “easily dissolved”[1] or for the old. He views them as such because this type of friendship is easily broken and based on something that is brought to the relationship by the other person. Aristotle uses the example of trade and argues that friendships of utility are often between opposite people, in order to maximize this trade.[2] A more realistic name for this type of friendship would be an acquaintance and could be described as the relationship between a person and their mailman. They greet each other, discuss the weather and other such petty talk, but when it comes down to it, there is no real relationship present. Aristotle believed that this is exactly why this type of friendship is for the old; Aristotle argued that they “...are at such a time of life pursue not what is pleasant but what is beneficial.”[3] Aristotle also believed that the young would pursue this type of friendship as they seek that which is advantageous to them and would not live with someone they are in this friendship with. This type of friendship is broken when, no matter how small, some part of the relationship changes and it is no longer beneficial to one or both of the individuals in the friendship. For example, say a person visits the same barber shop every month. However, a new barber shop has opened up and provides better service for a cheaper price. The friendship built between the barber and person getting their haircut will likely dissolve, as it is cheaper to use the services of the cheaper barber. Because of this, the friendship of utility has very weak bonds between the individuals in the relationship and in this aspect; it is quite similar to the friendship of pleasure.

Aristotle goes on to describe what he terms as the friendship of pleasure. This type of friendship is normally built between the young as passions and pleasures are great influences in their lives. This type of relationship is characterized by such feelings as passion between lovers, or the feeling of belonging among a likeminded group of friends. It differs from the friendship of utility in that those who seek utility friendships are looking for a business deal or a long term benefit, whereas the friendship of pleasure Aristotle describes is where one seeks something which is pleasant to them presently. [4] This sort of relationship is built on passion, which among the youth, is constantly changing. Like the friendship of utility, Aristotle views this type of relationship as fleeting and target of constant change. This is precisely why Aristotle argues that the young “...quickly become friends and quickly stop...” and “ and stop loving quickly...”[5] Therefore, Aristotle views both friendship of utility and pleasure as unstable and constantly subject to abrupt change, which in fact dissolves the friendship, however; Aristotle moves on and begins discussing the truest form of friendship: that of virtue.

The highest form of friendship, Aristotle argues, is friendship of virtue. This type of friendship is based on a person wishing the best for their friends regardless of utility or pleasure. Aristotle calls it a “...complete sort of friendship between people who are good and alike in virtue...”[6] This type of friendship is long lasting and tough to obtain because these types of people are hard to come by and it takes a lot of work to have a complete virtuous friendship. Aristotle notes that there can not be a large amount of friends in a virtuous friendship because the amount of time and care that a virtuous friendship needs limits the amount of time one can spend with other friends. Aristotle argues that there are similarities between friendship of virtue and that of utility and pleasure, however; it is only the good that can endure in such a friendship. As Aristotle puts it, “it is clear that only the good can be friends for themselves, since the bad do not enjoy their own kind unless some benefit comes from them.”[7] Friendship of virtue is only felt among the good, between few amounts of people, is resistant to slander and is long lasting.

There are some who question why Aristotle has such a high view of friendship. Aristotle values friendship so highly that he argues friendship supersedes justice. Aristotle believes that no one would choose to live without friends.[8] Friendship, he argues, is necessary for life because no one would want to live without friends. He points to the fact that those who are rulers and have a great deal of power have a great need for friends. Aristotle views friendship as beautiful and the glue that holds cities together. To back this up, he discusses that those who are in power seem to take friendship more seriously than justice. Aristotle claimed that “friendship seems to hold cities together and lawmakers seem to take it more seriously than justice”[9] Not only did Aristotle argue that friendship was higher than justice; Aristotle argues that the love in friendship is higher than honour. In honour, people value being loved rather than loving. People who value honour will likely seek out either flattery or those who have more power than they do, in order that they may gain through these relationships. Aristotle believes that love is greater than this because it can be enjoyed as it is. “Being loved, however, people enjoy for its own sake, and for this reason it would seem it is something better than being honoured and that friendship is choiceworthy for its own sake.”[10] Aristotle believed that friendship, and the love which is a product of virtuous friendship, is greater than honour and justice and because of this, he proves why he prizes friendship so much.

Earlier in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that human beings are political by nature. His discussion of friendship backs these points up and further affirms that humans are naturally inclined to practice politics. Take, for example, the friendship of utility, where a person creates a relationship purely for some sort of gain. This is quite often the relationship between different cities and states, as relationships are usually set-up though trade agreements or other treaties signifying a mutual benefit of some sort. However, most of the comparison between politics and friendship comes from the virtuous friend. It has been observed that a virtuous friend loves another for the sake of that person. This is the highest form of virtue; loving is better than being loved. Aristotle argued that it is this type of friendship that would hold cities together and no man can live a complete life without the benefit of friends. Virtuous friendships are very limited in number and it is the friendships of utility and pleasure that keep the city together, however; it takes the character of those in the virtuous friendship for a solid community to exist.

Aristotle clearly defines 3 different types of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics. He describes friendship of utility as being focused on the products of a relationship and what the other person in the relationship serves. The friendship of pleasure us defined by Aristotle as friendship where a person loves someone for their charm. The similarities between these two are to do with the fact that they are both based on the products of the relationship, they both dissolve easily, and neither one leads to a complete friendship. Virtuous friendship, however, is described as complete and the ultimate form of love. This type of friendship happens between few people, is long lasting, and must be between people with a certain moral character. Those involved in virtuous friendships must be able to value loving over being loved and as such, their relationship will be based more around loving the other person and wanting what is good for them. It is through this type of friendship that we see why Aristotle values friendship so much. Aristotle argues that the only thing that should be valued higher than honour and justice is love, which is a product of virtuous friendship. As well, Aristotle believes that it is through friendship that cities are held together. Those with the moral virtue to enter virtuous relationships are a major part of this but friendships of utility and pleasure are also needed as friendships of virtue are severely limited in number. Communities are built around friendships, which are greater than honour and justice, but according to Aristotle, there must still be honour and justice within friendships.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Joe Sachs. (Newburyport, Focus Publishing, 2002) 1156a20.

[2] Ibid., 1159b12.

[3] Ibid., 1156a24-25.

[4] Ibid., 1156a30-35.

[5] Ibid., 1156b01-05.

[6] Ibid., 1156b07-08.

[7] Ibid., 1157a19-20

[8] Ibid., 1155a03-04.

[9] Ibid., 1155a23.

[10] Ibid., 1159a25-28


Andrés Torres said...

Excelent summary. Thanks'for sharing.

Denny Pearson said...

excellent presentation. In the Nicomachcean Ethics, Book X,Chapters 6-9 Aristotle points to the highest degree of happiness as sharing ourselves with others.

HammondGurl7 said...

Kind of a superficial reading. Co-workers can also be friends based on usefulness.

Windi Noor said...

It helps me to understand, thanks!

William Ray said...

Sir, would you direct me to where Aristotle referred to the Rule of Three, which seems to pervade his categories of knowledge? Tria sunt omnia; Omnia trium perfectum––these seem to have derived from Aristotle and percolated through the classical tradition.

thank you,

William Ray

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Susan Moore said...

Thank you very much for this summary. I thoroughly enjoyed this reading and found answers to some long standing questions.

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