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How Difficult Is It To Find An Aristotelian Friend?

What does it take to develop the fullest sort of friendship?

A thoughtful piece published some time ago in the Columbia Spectator, An Aristotelian Friend Is Hard To Find, brings up an issue about which I’ve often found myself engaged in not-entirely-satisfactory discussion: the nature of friendship and the types of relationships. I’ve taught Aristotle’s classic treatment of friendship from book eight of the Nicomachean Ethics more times than I can easily tally up. In my philosophical counseling practice — perhaps because so many people have encountered Aristotle’s distinction — my clients also bring it up occasionally.

What seems to be the most problematic feature of his account for most people — and for good reasons that I’ll explore below — is that the most primary and paradigmatic sort of friendship turns out to be quite rare, and requires a good bit of time and various factors coming together just right. The other sorts of friendship, not quite so much deserving of the name, are much more common and easier to find. So in terms of relationships, what is mediocre to decent to fairly good seems quite realizable, but what is really good to outstanding, while easy enough to imagine or conceive, appears extraordinarily difficult to realize.

The author of the piece is a young person, a college student, and she narrates and reflects upon the various kinds of relationships she has experienced amongst her fellow students in terms informed by Aristotle’s distinction. My own students have often been of the same age, as have some of the clients with whom I’ve worked through this distinction as they attempt to apply it within the framework of their own lives and relationships. I’ve been mulling over Aristotle’s theory of friendship since my own graduate school days — about two decades — and it seems like a fitting time to finally write out some of those ruminations here.

What Is Aristotle’s Distinction?

Given the likelihood that some readers have not yet encountered Aristotle’s treatment of friendship, or may by now have forgotten it, it is worthwhile to outline it briefly. I should point out from the start that, as with so many other topics he discusses, while one can indeed point towards a particular section of one of his works as most central — in this case, book eight of the Nicomachean Ethics — in reality, his fuller theory theory sprawls out over other portions of that text and into other Aristotelian works as well. If you really want to understand what his position is, it’s probably best — just as a minimum — to read on through into book nine of the Nicomachean Ethics.

In book eight, there are really several different but interconnected thematics concerning friendship that are woven together. Aristotle does, to be sure, make the tripartite distinction between different sorts of friendship that we’ll get to shortly. But he also takes pains to try to distinguish just what friendship in its fullest sense does entail. In addition to that, he discusses what he calls “unequal” friendships, how durable various sorts of friendship can be, and even starts to explore the matrix of relationships within the family. So all told, Aristotle’s theory of friendship is a good bit more complex than just pointing out that there are three main types.

What are those three main types? In developing his distinction, Aristotle brings up another distinction that he uses as the basis for the new one. There are different ways — not just one way — in which something can be good.

There is the “good” as useful or beneficial (to sumpheron, in the Greek, utile in Latin), that is, not good in itself, but because it leads to, produces, is a means to, or in some other way conduces to something that is more valuable, that is good on some other grounds. Medicine is a classic example. You take it because it conduces to health, not (unless you’ve gone a bit off!) just because you like taking medicine.

Then there is the “good” as pleasurable or pleasant (to hedon, delectible). Aristotle does not think that pleasure is The Good (or the highest good), and he does admit that some pleasures can in fact be bad in certain ways. But, he does think that pleasure, and being pleasure-producing or pleasant, is by itself something good, a sort or mode of goodness that we would be silly not to recognize.

A third kind of the “good” is what we can call the intrinsically good, the noble, the fine (to kalon, honestum). Here we attain a higher level of value than those of the other two levels. I should mention that Aristotle uses a wider range of vocabulary for this kind of good, and that this is not always reflected equally well in some of the many available translations. He will also talk about “to agathon”, that is, the good as such, and when we get to talking about persons, he’ll use the language of virtue (he arete)

What Aristotle tells us, and what people rightfully find so illuminating when they first encounter it, is that “friend” (philos) is a term that has multiple meanings, three main ones in fact. And these three main meanings align with — and derive from — those three modalities of goodness.

Corresponding to the useful good, we have the “friendship” of utility or usefulness. The two people in the relationship are in precisely because each is in some way of use to the other. They provide each other with certain benefits.

Corresponding to the pleasant good, we have then “friendship” of pleasure. The two people in that relationship derive pleasure, either from each other, or in engaging in some shared pleasurable activity. The pleasure that each member of the relationship derives is the reason why that relationship exists and endures.

Then finally, corresponding to the good as such, the noble good, we have something that Aristotle calls friendship based on virtue. This, he tells us, is friendship in its fullest sense, and strictly speaking it requires that both of the friends possess and exercise virtue. It involves a recognition and affective appreciation of the virtue of the other person. These kinds of friends love or feel affection towards each other for who they are, at their core, in their characters, not merely for their ongoing capacity to provide benefits or pleasure to oneself.

Why Are Friends Like This Hard To Find?

As Luciana Siracusano, the author of the article, points out early on, quite a few people seem very comfortable throwing the term “friend” around rather indiscriminately. They’re ready to use that word to describe relationships that have practically just begun. Why is that? One might be tempted to blame social media, Facebook in particular, for shunting all sorts of online relationships under the single rubric of “friendship”. No wonder the kids have no real concept of what genuine friendship is, or how to distinguish real friends from those who only bear the name! That’s what a canterkerous older person might say. And they’d be totally off-base in making that complaint and inference!

The fact that Facebook and other social media tends to blur together distinct types of relationships might be better seen as simply a reflection of a longstanding confusion about what friendship is and what it means. How longstanding a confusion? It’s one going back to the days of the ancient Greeks, and not just back to Aristotle — he rattles off a number of already generations-old puzzles and confusions bearing precisely upon friendship in his own day at the beginning of book eight! It’s also a confusion that keeps on arising perennially — and perhaps even perpetually, one is tempted to add.

That’s exactly why we keep coming back to Aristotle’s distinction, generation after generation, and still finding it useful. I’d like to stress that it is more useful as a set of starting points, however, than as the final word on the issue — for reasons I’ll discuss in the next section. The distinction does seem to capture and articulate something that keeps on showing up, despite significant shifts and differences in culture from antiquity to our late modern present.

If we’re very rigid in sticking with just what Aristotle himself says, then we have to acknowledge that friendships based upon virtue — a high level of well-developed moral excellence possessed by both members of the friendship — will turn out to be rather rare. After all, virtue itself (at least in its fully developed form) is fairly uncommon. And what we’re talking about here is not just two people who happen to possess virtue, but two people who also live and engage within the framework of a relationship with each other. That relationship, for Aristotle, must develop organically over time. Two people might be superlatively virtuous, but not be able to spend the requisite time together for a full friendship to grow between them. They bear good will towards each other, in that case, but aren’t “friends”, Aristotle says.

There’s another set of difficulties involved, of course — at least for most of us — which is that not only is it likely going to be difficult to find someone who has developed virtue, but we also might (or in my case, do!) fall short of that mark. In retrospect, Aristotle’s insistence that people, not fully developed in their own characters and driven by desires and passions, will largely form friendships based on pleasure — an insight that I rejected as a young person myself! — is probably in the main correct. It’s quite common for younger people — though by no means is this restricted only to them — to get rather mixed up about actual friendships, taking relationships to be genuine friendships in the fullest sense when they are really based on usefulness or pleasure. With age and experience comes at least the possibility — unfortunately in many cases not the actuality — of better telling these apart.

Are Good Friends Really That Hard To Find?

What I’ve presented so far of Aristotle’s position seems rather pessimistic. How does this prospect appear to you? A lifetime comprised largely of relationships that are more or less tangential, where are you and the others in those relationships are motivated primarily by the usefulness or the pleasure you take from those relationships — how does that sound? On the other side the rarity, the difficulty, the sheer contingency of finding somebody with whom you can enjoy the fullest, deepest form of relationship. Between them, there seems to be a massive divide. What’s kind of good, Easy to find, but not as satisfying, lies on one side. What is truly satisfying, an incomparably higher good, is something that you certainly can imagine, but may not enjoy during your life.

That is one way to read Aristotle’s distinction, but it’s not a particularly good way. It is faithful to a portion of the text, but not to the entirety of Aristotle’s writing, let alone to the animating spirit running through it. How else, how better, can it be understood? You can see something like this appealed to in Siracusano’s article. She writes:

The friendship of the good, however, is not predicated on profiting off each other, nor on simply passing time by having fun. Instead, your friend respects you for both who you are as a person and the way that you live. It is a mutual respect — one in which you do not deprive, condemn, or belittle one another. Rather, you push each other to be your best selves not for personal gain but for your friend’s sake. This friendship is not selfish, or clingy, or exploitative; it is a friendship of equals. You don’t just accept who they are, you celebrate it.

Aristotle does go back and forth in talking about this highest form of friendship. On the one hand he does bring up virtue quite a bit. And we might read “the good” (in friendship of the good) as consisting solely in this, in the possession, exercise, and recognition of virtue on the part of both members of the friendship. On the other hand, Aristotle does talk about this higher form of friendship in terms of being friends with the other for the sake of the other. And while this would be easier if one were to be virtuous, and perhaps also would be easier when the object of one’s affection is virtuous, it seems strange and contrary to our common human experience to think that virtue would be a precondition for being able to care about another for his or her own sake.

Cicero, who wrote a dialogue on friendship significantly indebted to the Aristotelian point of view, found this insistence upon virtue troubling himself. One of the ways in which she addressed that was to say that what would be required for friendship is not virtue in its most fully, exemplarily developed form, but the kinds of virtue that we can actually see in people we know existing in the world. This is an interesting approach to the problem, and it is one that Aristotle himself could probably get behind. After all Aristotle thinks that virtue does have degrees. And we can talk about virtue in multiple sentences, So that for example the virtue of the citizen, discussed in the politics, is not quite the same thing as virtue Aristotle has in mind when analyzing it in his ethics. There’s more to say about this, but I’d like to reserve that for a future blog post.

Returning to the point about one’s motivation in the highest form of friendship, the care, the sympathy, the enjoyment, and the affection felt or exhibited towards the friend has its basis at least in part in who that person is. But we don’t know people entirely when we first become involved with them, and sometimes not even after a lifetime. We can also say the same about ourselves, by the way. But given what we do happen to know — or even just think that we know (since we can’t be mistaken, learn that to be the case, and remedy that through further interaction) — about the person, we can value them for their own sake on that basis, rather than simply and solely for the pleasure they provider share, or the usefulness they turn out (or at least appear) to possess.

Perhaps what it is that we glimpse in them, and respond positively to, is not virtue as such, or even a virtue, but rather its appearance, its possibilities, its outlines. We sense in the other, Rightly or wrongly, something that transcends the Domain of the merely useful or pleasurable, something of intrinsic value. And since friendship is a reciprocal relation, they also exhibit something similar towards us. So long as those glimmerings of what might grow into a full virtue are not eclipsed by bad behavior, by attitudes, words, and actions inconsistent with moral goodness, that might in fact be enough for the higher form of friendship — or at least an approximation to it.

A Continuum Rather Than Categories

Understanding “virtue” in this broader sense, where in place of moral excellence we would substitute a less demanding, and more commonly found moral decency offers one way to deal with what otherwise appears to be a paradox raised by Aristotle’s distinction. There is another approach, which of course is not exclusive of this first remedy that one could also take. This is in fact something that I’ve suggested to my students and clients who found themselves puzzled and dismayed once they started thinking through the implications of the three types of friendship.

I’ve suggested this interpretation, precisely because I wanted to apply Aristotle’s insights about friendship to — and within the framework — of my own experience with actual relationships. I found that if I tried to rigidly impose his tripartite distinction upon the friendships I had — putting aside familial relationships and “unequal” friendships, which he discusses as still other types — quite a few of my relationships didn’t neatly fit into the categories central to his classification.

In some cases it could be because a relationship had changed its basis over time. One that started out as a friendship of pure convenience, what Aristotle would call a friendship of usefulness, might have evolved into a friendship in which both of us had discovered pleasures binding us more closely together. Sometimes the reverse was true come out where a friendship based on pleasure eventually became one of mere usefulness.

The ones that were the most interesting however were where I had begun to care, at least to some extent, about that person for his or her own sake — and they presumably for me in a similar way. Or those in which, after some time, I had become cognizant of the good qualities, the character of the other person, and found something attractive, desirable, worthy of emulation or even affection, residing at the core of his or her personality. And again — if such a relationship was indeed to assume the form of a genuine friendship — that response, or appreciation, or sentiment on my part would have to meet with a reciprocal attitude towards me on the part of the other person.

In those sorts of cases, what is going on is clearly something like Aristotle’s friendship of the good, but it doesn’t require that either of us involved in the friendship be totally virtuous. Or even all that virtuous. . . .What I think is required, though, is some sort of shared orientation towards virtue and the virtues, at least a recognition of the value of virtue that sets it above other rival goods, and evinces a desire to develop virtue — even if that desire is not always effective. And of course the word virtue main never come up at all in such a relationship, but something occupying at least part of that conceptual space will play some role — perhaps a quite muddled and inchoate one — in the conversations comprised within that friendship. Put another terms, the two friends need to be at least on their way towards virtue.

Understood in this light, the transition from the other two types of friendship — those of usefulness and pleasure — to a friendship based in the good, recognizing the value of the persons themselves, and geared towards virtue becomes less a matter of elite from one category into another totally transcending it, and more something like a movement along a gradation, perhaps imperceptible for a portion of that movement. When we transition from a friendship primarily based on pleasure to a deeper, fuller friendship based on the genuine good, it doesn’t happen all at once.

That’s actually quite good news, I think, in several respects. For it means that this very useful classification deriving from Aristotle’s text possesses a greater flexibility than it might at first appeared to have, rendering it more adequate to make sense of our everyday experiences — and that is really what we want such philosophical insights to be able to do, isn’t it? We don’t have to worry then — as one person I know expressed the problem — about whether or not it will be possible to make that transition from a friendship based on pleasure to a friendship based on something better and more substantive. It is indeed possible to move in the direction of an ideal friendship that would be based on virtue, leaving behind (or better yet, integrating and transforming) motivations based solely on lesser goods, without the two friends in fact possessing, attaining, or even developing virtue while that friendship exists.

If they do become virtuous, that condition is indeed something better than merely being “on the way to virtue”. And, virtue’s influence, seeping into the very fabric of the shared lives, will render that friendship more durable, deeper, and ultimately more satisfying. But that’s something to work towards, a project one continues to work at within the scope — and with the support and security provided by — a good friendship.

This post appeared originally in my author blog, Orexis Dianoētikē

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