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Aristotle’s Timeless Advice on Friendship
Friendship is an essential aspect of our lives. But what does it really mean to be a friend?
Let’s explore the topic of friendship with Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers of all time.
(The following is a historically accurate conversation with Aristotle based on his “Nicomachean Ethics”. Citations are included so you can see the original context for each reply.)
DKB: People are lonelier than ever these days. Do you have any advice on making friends?
Aristotle: Well, there are different kinds of friendship.
There are friendships of utility where the main focus is on practical benefits to the people involved. And there are friendships of pleasure where the focus is on feeling good.
Neither of these are complete friendships, because you don’t love the person for who they are.
These friendships are fragile. Whenever one of you stops providing utility or pleasure, they fall apart.
DKB: I’ve had that experience before, where I’m friends with someone because we have a shared hobby, but we have no connection outside of that. As soon as I stop doing the hobby, the friendship begins to fade.
We were only friends for the fun of that experience, so that kind of falls under the “friendship of pleasure” category.
Aristotle: In contrast, a complete friendship is when you want the best for another person for their own sake, and not for your benefit. These friendships are unconditional and last a lifetime.
The starting point of friendship is goodwill, in the same way that the starting point of love is physical attraction.
Goodwill comes about when a person appears to be brave, noble, or virtuous in some way. It happens when someone has traits that you admire and want to emulate for yourself.
DKB: Presumably in a complete friendship you also get pleasure and utility.
Aristotle: Of course. Complete friends are helpful to each other, so there is utility. And they’re enjoyable to be around, so they provide pleasure.
But there’s something more to these friendships, because you also love that person for who they are.
DKB: Okay but how am I supposed to find friendships like that? It feels like quite a struggle.
Aristotle: You won’t be able to make complete friends unless you love yourself first. Your friendship with someone else is a reflection of your friendship with yourself.
And to be clear when I talk about loving yourself, I’m talking about living with virtue. I’m not talking about being selfish or self absorbed, and trying to get the most money or pleasure for yourself.
Loving yourself is focusing on doing good, just, and noble actions in accordance with the virtues. If you really love yourself, then you strive to be the best version of yourself.
And I think a complete friendship can only occur between good people who are alike in virtue. Only these people are capable of being unconditionally good to each other.
DKB: That reminds me of something my friendtold me. If you’re trying to solve a personal problem, imagine the advice you would give yourself if you were your own best friend. Like if your best friend in the world had that problem, what would you tell them?
Ideally we should want the best for ourselves, and that means living a happy and virtuous life.
Aristotle: On the flip side, some people are filled with internal conflict. Instead of doing what they think is good, they pursue pleasurable things that are actually harmful.
They shrink away from doing the actions they think are best for themselves, because they’re too scared or lazy. These people end up hating life, and hating themselves.
People like this seek external friendship to escape their inner problems.
DKB: So people in a bad state seek friendship as an escape, but now I’m wondering why a perfectly happy person needs friends.
If you have your life completely together, then it feels like you wouldn’t need to rely on other people anymore.
Aristotle: This line of thinking stems from the idea that there are only friendships of utility and pleasure. It’s true that a happy person doesn’t need these kinds of friends.
But if we’re talking about complete friendship, then a happy person still needs those.
Humans are social animals, so it would be contrary to our nature to live a solitary life. Our nature is to live with others, and this applies to happy people all the same. They have to spend their time with someone to be functional humans, so it’s better to spend that time with complete friends than random strangers.
If you’re stuck in poverty or misfortune, you want friends to support you through it. And if you’re prosperous, you want someone to share your prosperity with.
The presence of friends is beneficial in both good and bad times. When things are going well for you, the presence of friends gives you a pleasant way to pass time.
DKB: I guess no matter what your circumstances are, it’s better with a true friend by your side.
Do you think there’s a limit to the number of friends that a person can have? Should I try to get as many as I can?
Aristotle: For friendships of utility, reciprocating many people’s services would be a difficult task. Too many of those are a hindrance to a good life.
For friendships of pleasure, a few are sufficient, like seasoning on food.
But for complete friendships it’s hard to say. Probably somewhere in the range of the number of people you could reasonably live with. Because complete friendships and living together go hand in hand.
In the same way that we can’t be in love with more than one person at a time, intense friendship can only be towards a few people. You have to acquire experience with someone, and become intimate with them, which is very difficult.
DKB: But I’ve seen some people who have a ton of friends. They seem to be friends with everyone.
Aristotle: People who have a ton of friends seem to be friends with no one, except in a political way. It is certainly possible to be a friend to many people in a political way. But I don’t think it’s possible to be a complete friend to many people.
We should be happy to find even a few complete friends, because they are very hard to find.
Complete friendships are likely to be rare, because there are few people who would be a good fit for you. And once you find them, you still need time and intimacy. People can’t accept each other as friends until each appears lovable to the other, and gains the trust of the other.
The wish for friendship comes about quickly, but friendship does not.
“But these things differ in form from each other, hence so do the ways of loving and the friendships. There are, then, three forms of friendship, equal in number to the proper objects of love, since in the case of each proper object of love there is a corresponding way of reciprocal loving that does not go unawares, and those who love each other wish good things to the other in the way in which they love. Now, those who love another person because of his utility do not love each other for themselves but only insofar as some good comes to them from each other. Similarly with those who love because of pleasure, since they like witty people not for having a character of a certain sort but because they find them pleasant.”
“These friendships are in fact coincidentally friendships, then, since a person who is beloved in that way is loved not insofar as he is precisely who he is but insofar as he provides some good, in the one case, or some pleasure, in the other. Such friendships are prone to dissolve easily, then, because of the friends not remaining the same, since when they are no longer pleasant or useful to each other they stop loving.”
“Complete friendship, however, is the friendship of good people who are alike in virtue. For each alike wishes good things to the other insofar as he is good, and each is intrinsically good. And those who wish good things to their friends for the friends’ own sake are friends most of all, since it is because of themselves and not coincidentally that they are disposed in this way. So their friendship lasts as long as they are good—and virtue is something steadfast.”
“Goodwill seems, then, to be a starting-point of friendship, just as the pleasure from sight is the starting-point of erotic love. For without first being pleased by the appearance of the other, no one falls in love, but someone who does enjoy another’s appearance is none the more in love unless he also longs for the other when he is absent and has an appetite for his presence. In the same way too, then, it is not possible for people to be friends without first having goodwill, but those who have goodwill are none the more friends. For they only wish good things to those for whom they have goodwill but would never join in their actions or go to any trouble on their behalf. Hence by transference of the term we might say that goodwill is inactive friendship, which—if it lasts through time and arrives at intimacy—becomes friendship.”
“Goodwill arises, on the whole, because of virtue and some sort of decency, when one person appears to another to be noble, brave, or something like that, just as in the case of the contestants we mentioned.”
“The friendship that exists because of pleasure bears a similarity to the complete sort of friendship, since good people are also pleasant to each other. Similarly with the sort that exists because of utility, since good people are also useful to each other.”
“For the results say that we should love most the one who is most a friend, and the one who is most a friend is the one who wishes good things to the person he wishes them to for that person’s own sake, even if no one will know. But these features are found most in a person’s relations to himself, as of course are all the others by which a friend is defined. For, as we said, it is from oneself that all the features fitted to friendship also extend to others. All the proverbs are of one mind about this as well—for example, “one soul,” and “what friends have they have in common,” and “equality is friendship,” and “knee is closer than shin.” For all these things are found most in a person’s relations to himself. For he is a friend to himself most of all, and should, then, love himself most.”
“That it is those who allocate goods of this sort to themselves that most people are used to calling “self-lovers” is clear enough. For if someone were always taking more seriously than anything else the doing of just actions or temperate ones or whatever else might be in accord with the virtues, and in general were always keeping for himself what was noble, no one would call this person a “self-lover” or blame him. A person of this sort, though, would seem to be more of a self-lover. At any rate, he allocates to himself the good things that are noblest and the ones that are best of all and gratifies the element in himself that has most control, obeying it in everything.”
“Complete friendship, however, is the friendship of good people who are alike in virtue. For each alike wishes good things to the other insofar as he is good, and each is intrinsically good. And those who wish good things to their friends for the friends’ own sake are friends most of all, since it is because of themselves and not coincidentally that they are disposed in this way. So their friendship lasts as long as they are good—and virtue is something steadfast. Also, each of them is unconditionally good and is so to his friend, since good people are both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other.”
“It is pretty much the case indeed that base people do not have them either, since they are at odds with themselves and, having an appetite for one set of things, wish for another, the way people who lack self-control do. For instead of the things they themselves think to be good, they choose pleasant ones that are actually harmful, whereas others again, because of cowardice or idleness, shrink from doing the actions they think best for themselves. Those who have done many terrible actions because of their depravity hate and even flee from living, and ruin themselves. Besides, depraved people seek others with whom to spend their days but flee from themselves, since when they are by themselves they remember many repellant things and expect others like them in the future, whereas when they are with others they forget these. And since they have nothing lovable, they feel none of the things that are fitted to friendship toward themselves.”
“What, then, are the first lot claiming and in what way are they grasping the truth? Or is it that ordinary people think friends are those who are useful? Well, of friends of this sort, a blessed person will have no need, since he already has the things that are good. Nor, then, will he need (or only to a small extent) the ones who are friends because of pleasure )for his life, being pleasant, has no need of adventitious pleasure). So since they do not need friends of these sorts, they seem not to need friends at all.”
“It is presumably strange too to make a blessed person live a solitary life, since no one would choose to have every good thing yet be by himself, since a human being is a political being and one whose nature is to live with others. To one who is happy, then, this also applies, since he has the natural goods. But clearly it is better to spend his days with friends and decent people than with strangers and random ones. Hence a happy person does need friends.”
“Do we need friends more in good fortune or in bad? For they are sought after in both, since the unfortunate need assistance and the fortunate need people to share a life with and to benefit, since they wish to do well. Friendship is more necessary, then, in bad fortune, which is why useful friends are needed there. But it is more noble in good fortune, which is why we also seek decent friends, since it is more choiceworthy to confer benefactions on them and pass the time with them.”
“In good fortune, by contrast, the presence of friends brings with it both a pleasant way of passing the time and the pleasant thought that they are pleased at the good things that are ours.”
“With friends made with a view to utility, then, the saying would seem to be entirely appropriate, since to reciprocate many people’s services is a laborious task and a lifetime is not enough to do so. More of them, then, than are enough for our own life are superfluous and a hindrance to living in a noble way. So we have no need of them. As for friends made with a view to pleasure, a few are sufficient, just like seasoning in food.”
“But what about excellent people? Should we have as many as possible as friends or is there some measure for the number of friends, as there is for the number of people in a city? (For a city cannot come about from ten people, and if there are ten times ten thousand, it is a city no longer.) Presumably, though, the number is not a single number, but, rather, anything between certain determinate limits. Of friends too, then, there is a determinate number—perhaps the largest number a person could be living together with (since living together, we found, is most fitted to friendship).”
“To be a friend to many people, however, in a way that accords with complete friendship, is not possible, just as it is not possible to be in love with many people at the same time. For erotic love is like an excess, and something of that sort naturally comes about in relation to a single person. And it is not easy for many people to please the same person intensely at the same time, nor, presumably, for them to be good. But he must actually acquire experience of them and become intimate with them, which is very difficult.”
“This also seems to be confirmed by the things themselves. For it just does not happen that many people become friends in accord with companionate friendship, and the ones that are celebrated in song are between two people. Those who are many-friended, and treat everyone they meet as if they were their own kin, seem to be friends with no one, except in a political way—in fact, people call them “ingratiating.” In a political way, certainly, it is possible to be a friend to many people and yet not be ingratiating but, rather, truly decent. But to be a friend to many people because of virtue and because of the people themselves, is not possible, and it should content us to find even a few friends like that.”
“Friendships like these are likely to be rare, however, since there are few such people. Furthermore, time and intimacy are needed in addition. For as the proverb says people cannot know each other until they have “eaten the canonical amount of salt together.” They cannot accept each other, then, or be friends either until each appears lovable to the other and gains his trust.
Those who quickly do for each other things fitted to friendship, on the other hand, wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they are also lovable and know this. For though the wish for friendship comes about quickly, friendship does not.”