Aristotelian Friendship and the Importance of Making Clear Choices

Aristotle has been one of the most inspiring philosophers in western thinking. Part of what made his writing and thinking so attractive is that his ideas spanned across a vast range of fields, and captured the daily ethical challenges that we face on this planet even today. How can we tell whether a philosopher was relevant? By citing his ideas over and over again, and still finding validity in them even after so many years that have passed.

In my undergraduate days I took a political philosophy course, where the teacher asked her intellectually rather uninspiring students whether if they went out to work for the banks, insurance and consulting companies awaiting them in the “real” world, they would ask themselves about the values of virtue, truth and justice. These were things that came more naturally to our ancient Greek predecessors than our contemporaries. Her words still ring in my head. When I interviewed her in her office for another class, she recommended me to read the Nicomachean Ethics, which I did only in part a few weeks ago. I was particularly interested in the passage on friends and friendship (also superbly summarized here), where we realize that to live a full and happy life, we cannot rest content by philosophizing on our own, like Schopenhauer argued, but we need other human beings with whom we need to share our time and effort.

Why are friends so important? Friends are what make people happy, as they can share ideas with each other, reduce each other’s pain as during the death of a loved one, but also partake in lighter moments like weddings or a sports game on television. Friendship is valued very highly by most people and is to be preferred over things like honor. People looking for honor seek something else. They seek flattery and praise. As someone is bestowed with honor, it also implies that other people may receive less honor. With friendship, however, the relationship between two or more people can be enjoyed for their own sake, and the friendship among people does not mean that other people are reduced in their ability to have friends (though if the same people all want that one person as a friend, there is a direct competition for the person’s time and effort resources).

There are principally three types of friendships: that of utility, pleasure and virtue. Aristotle claims that the last type of friendship has the highest value and is the most durable, even though it is the most difficult to achieve. What are they? A friendship of utility is like a business partnership. Both sides befriend each other, so they can gain more connections and make more money. The relationship is fragile, because if one partner stops making money for the other, there is no more reason to maintain the relationship.

A friendship of pleasure might be two young lovers, who are following their sexual passions, and enjoy each other’s company while sexual relations are active. But as time goes on, the sexual excitement weakens, and the two lovers begin to grow apart. If the one partner no longer provides pleasure, there is no more reason to maintain the relationship, so a friendship of pleasure is also very fragile.

A friendship of virtue, however, is durable, because sympathy for the other person exists even without utility and pleasure. It becomes irrelevant whether the person earns a lot of money or has sexual prowess, but one still likes to spend time with a person for their own sake. Kant said with regard to his categorical imperative that in dealing with other people, they should be treated as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end. A virtuous friendship would mean that the other person is treated as an end, that there is no expectation other than being there for the other person and partake in his or her company. If there is no possibility of disappointing the other side because of the low expectation, there is also no strong reason to break up the relationship.

But we also know that avoiding disappointment by itself does not create friendship. The mutual sympathy factor among the two people needs to be strong, and both need to be filled with a certain amount of virtue. A famous example for that are the two people in the US serving in the highest political offices in the country. Vice President Biden’s son had died of a brain tumor, and Biden was struggling to maintain his son’s family, so he contemplated to sell his house. (I ask why? Is it not enough to live on a vice presidential salary?)

When President Obama had heard of it, he told his vice president that he should not sell his house, and that he would personally give the vice president as much money as he needed. Is this story true or not? It is according to Biden, so we don’t know for sure. But if it is true it would be a great example for a good friendship. One might anticipate that their relationship would be cordial and formal, because they meet each other regularly in the corridors of the White House, for briefings, dinners, meetings and so forth. When the job ends in 2017, both men would continue with their own private lives, and this might very well be the case. But it could also be that with the job and both of them staying in power, they got to know each other very well as close friends, and they would help out each other in times of personal trials, even though the president had no such obligation to help his subordinate. Maybe he was offering his help because if he didn’t do so it would undermine Biden’s effectiveness in office, and that would undermine his presidency, so it could have been a move of utility. But it can also be that they are just doing what good friends would do to each other. Biden and Obama are likely virtuous friends.

Now that I have laid out the three different types of friendships according to Aristotle, we have to analyze the importance of making clear choices with regard to making friends. You might have encountered people, who don’t necessarily intend to spend much time with you, and there is a lack of ability to connect. What is the best way to deal with these people? In the case of relatives, there are no real solutions, and we have to take them as they are. For strangers, it is perfectly acceptable to just move on and lose touch. Rejections are one of the most difficult things that we have to encounter. Our partner that we thought would want to marry us reject us. The job offer that we thought we would get, we don’t get. The university that we thought we could get into, we were not able to get into. The person that we thought were sympathetic does not want to maintain contact.

What to do? What often helps is to step back and take a look at the big picture: we might have been rejected by one person, but we have not been rejected by all people. With some people it is easy and evident to create good friendships, which are of the virtuous type. Wherever it works out, we should embrace these friendships, and we should leave by the wayside people who are not so sympathetic. It is somewhat of a mystery to try to understand why some people develop no strong mutual relations. It could be a lack of common interests, prejudice, suspicion or being too much of an introvert. It would also be quite troublesome if it was too easy to make too many friends, because we only have 7 days in a week and roughly 80 years of life. The amount of friends that we can make is time-limited, and the number of very good friends that we can make is even more limited, because they require the most time to nurture.

On the other hand, it is not true that most friendships are so time-intensive. The most important relationships of humans are the intimate ones: parents, siblings, spouse, children. They absorb absolutely the most amount of time, as they should. While they bring significant benefits of being integrated in a small community and being cared for, they also come with rather heavy strings attached.

Friendships, however, even if they are of the virtuous kind, do not have so many strings attached. Take say a friend, who is constantly busy, and puts his friend at a low level of priority given work and family obligation. Because the passed over friend probably has the same kind of commitments, there is no resentment, and he or she accepts that if there is any opening in their mutual schedules they will eventually meet. (It is more troublesome if one of the friends is for instance unemployed and has much time to spare, which creates an asymmetry that can lead to tension.) The level of freedom and flexibility that exists even among good friends reinforces the impression that we have on our own volition decided to create these bonds. Whenever relations are made voluntarily, there is a greater contentment within it, while forced relations can be quite artificial. Family relations are closer than friend relations and can generate more contentment than the latter, but even for all family members there is a substantial craving to break outside the confines of the family and create free relations with outside friends.

I conclude on the note that we should carefully and strategically think about which person we want to enter into a friendship with, and how we should categorize each individual. Are they friends of utility, pleasure or virtue?  There might be significant overlap between the first two types of friendship, but there is no real overlap between the first two and the third unless people who first thought they had a utility or pleasure driven friendship develop a virtuous friendship. Greater preference in terms of commitment in time and effort accords to virtuous friendships, but the first two should also be cultivated out of necessity or current need. For unsympathetic people falling outside the category, we should reconsider whether it is worth building up good relations with them or whether it is just a waste of time, such that it is better to focus on people, who are easily becoming friends.

There is no rocket science behind it, because we humans are political animals, and we decide to form friends and foe spontaneously with every interaction that we have. Traditional concepts of friend and foe are constantly overthrown by the simple reality that the world is becoming more interconnected with globalization, communication technology and affordable airfare. As Aristotle says, friends are good to have around, whether you are rich or poor, male or female, strong or weak, sad or happy, young or old.

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One Response to Aristotelian Friendship and the Importance of Making Clear Choices

  1. AsianProle says:

    I’m going to leave something here that someone else wrote that you might like:

    “Could it be that many of the people we describe as friends rarely exhibit the qualities of true friendship, but rather maintain their esteemed position in our social circle through the rather selfish method of simply avoiding saying anything that might offend us? If we ask certain questions about how a friend ought to behave in given situations, we might easily find that the answers we come up with are rather different from how people described as “friends” actually behave.

    For example, we sometimes need to be told when we are wrong about something or when we have behaved badly. A true friend would be prepared to tell us when we are wrong, even if they risk making themselves unpopular by doing so. A true friend would not let their own selfish desire to be popular get in the way of being honest and telling us what we need to be told. Yet most “friends” would not behave in such a principled fashion. They would be more likely to tell us what we want to hear, agreeing with us even when we are wrong, simply in order to make things easy for themselves. Yet if a person will not oppose us on principle, then they will probably not support us on principle either!

    They may “support” us so long as it suits them to do so, but may equally be prepared to betray us whenever supporting us or upholding principle does not coincide with their own selfish interests. We may go through the pretence of assuming that they are our friends and that they will remain so under all circumstances – cosy lives and convenient situations may allow this pretence to continue – but the truth is that, when push comes to shove, they will do nothing other than weigh up their own interests.

    Humans naturally tend to become friendly with people who agree with them and who say things which help them to feel good about themselves – but a true friend will be honest and thus may frequently disagree with you or tell you things you don’t necessarily want to hear. If you shun people for being honest enough to tell you when they think you are wrong about something, then you are an idiot, regardless of how many superficial, arse-licking, social-climbing “friends” you might have! If your only “friends” are people who always agree with you, then, in all probability, you have no true friends at all. Sometimes people behave in what appears to be a friendly fashion, but are in actual fact acting out of selfish motivations. If someone does you a favour only because they want something in return, then that is hardly true friendship. A true friend does not pursue his own welfare with scant regard to the welfare of others. A true friend will remain true to their principles through thick and thin.

    A true friend sticks to promises they made even when it no longer suits them to do so. Yet in real life, many people simply weigh up their own interests rather than act on principle. The value of their friendship with you will be weighed against the value of other friendships. In a dispute where they are forced to decide upon their loyalties, they simply come down on the side of the person whose friendship is most important for their own social or material ambitions. The essence of true friendship is unselfishness. This ought to be a very obvious fact, but perhaps we need to reaffirm it in our minds. And perhaps we should be a little more sceptical of people who never disagree with us and never risk causing offence, and more willing to appreciate the qualities of those who do.”

    Robert Jameson

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