According to Aristotle: 3 Levels of Friendship

What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.

When it comes to a complete education, the ancient Greek thinkers are irreplaceable. Just as important and equally refreshing, though, is when these giants turn their gaze to the matters that connect us throughout the ages– matters that are at the core of our human identity and warm our hearts daily. Such an insight is found when Aristotle writes of friendship in Book XIII of The Nichomachean Ethics. In his eyes, friendship is the very cement with which strong cities are established. But not all friendships are the same or even equal. He divides them into three categories, “equal in number to the things that are lovable”: friendships based on utility, friendships based on pleasure, and friendships based on common goodness.

Friendships of Utility

Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.

This first pair of friends, notably saturating business networks in our present day, is born through mutual usefulness. They are more than mere acquaintances, though shallow by all other measures, since the only end of their friendship is the satisfaction of some want/need/whim. The joy of this is in it’s practicality, but the tragedy is in it’s transience, as Aristotle points out, “the useful is not permanent but is always changing.” It is a relationship with a productive motive and purpose in mind– which of course removes those cumbersome characteristics of trust, honor, and mutual affection necessary for deeper human connections. Interestingly, Aristotle attributes this kind of friendship most frequently to experienced circles; those who have identified what they want and have refined their practice of using others to get it.

Friendships of Pleasure

On the other hand the friendship of young people seems to aim at pleasure; for they live under the guidance of emotion, and pursue above all what is pleasant to themselves and what is immediately before them…their friendship changes with the object that is found pleasant.

These are the witty, excitable, and perhaps markedly adventurous friendships. They occur when we seek out companions specifically for their humor or even good looks, since these things serve to make the passing time more pleasing. Although a source of fun, these relationships still lack real love, since, “those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant.” In other words, these companions are only concerned with the other’s happiness to the extent that it affects his own. It does not seek the Good but rather the relative, “what is good for myself.”

Friendships of Goodness

Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good- and goodness is an enduring thing.

It is here that we encounter Aristotle’s golden rule of true friendship, arising from philia, or brotherly love. The friends decide to love the other because it is good for the other to be loved, rather than receiving the love of the other for his personal pleasure and utility. It is noteworthy that he attributes the individual goodness and virtue of each character to the purity and success of their relationship. “Such friendship requires time and familiarity,” because it is gently and surely that the common character is revealed and the two are united as a “single soul”.

We can look at the first two pairs of friends, and see how they were loosely roped together by accidental and ephemeral circumstances, but here is a drastically different situation. It occurred because it was fitting. In a sense, any good found in the previous two friendships imitates the reality created in the friendship of goodness,

Friendship for the sake of pleasure bears a resemblance to this kind; for good people are pleasant to each other. So too does friendship for the sake of utility; for the good are also useful to each other

As it lasts, only this kind is the bedrock of society. Again, Aristotle insists,

Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue… Love and friendship therefore are found most and in their best form between such men.

To conclude, while Aristotle identifies three kinds of friendships, there is only one pair of friends that he believes truly loves each other, and that is friendship built by wishing for the true good of the other. It is also the only type that is unchanging in Aristotle’s view, since it is erected upon the sure footing of shared virtue, rather than the fleeting, lesser goods of usefulness or pleasure. These friendships not only uplift the particular participating souls, but the whole community as well, since they animate (as only love has the power to do) the citizens to aspire to excellence.

We leave you with this last, powerful passage, well worth pondering in the search for the truth:

Now it looks as if love were a feeling, friendship a state of character; for love may be felt just as much towards lifeless things, but mutual love involves choice and choice springs from a state of character; and men wish well to those whom they love, for their sake, not as a result of feeling but as a result of a state of character.


One comment on “According to Aristotle: 3 Levels of Friendship

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s