Friendship According to Aristotle
What the Greek wrote thousands of years ago continues to be echoed with great force today.
In the social landscape we are currently experiencing, where we refer to a group of people we stay in touch with through social networks and virtual platforms as “friends”, it is important to consider what the concept of “friendship” actually implies. The way in which friendship highlights our wellbeing has nothing to do with quantity and everything to do with quality. Francis Bacon described it as “the ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart”, while Henry David Thoreau believed it to be “one of the greatest rewards in life”, and it is also known that neither of them had more than seven or eight friends in life. “Prosperity makes friends,” expresses the popular saying “adversity tries them.” But perhaps it is worthwhile to go back to what was said, before everybody else, by Aristotle.
It is precisely this that Massimo Pigliucci, professor at CUNY, explores in Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life. First of all, he reminds us that Aristotle recognised three types of love –Agape, Eros and Philia—, which survived as a profound model that enlightens the nature of relationships. Pigliucci describes the taxonomy as follows:
Agape is a broad kind of love, the kind that religious people feel that God has for us, or that a secular person may have for humanity at large. Eros, naturally, is more concerned with the type of love we have for sexual partners, though the Greeks meant it more broadly than we do. Philia is the type of love that concerns us here because it includes the sort of feelings we have for friends, family, and even business partners.
To embody his true love for lists and taxonomies, Aristotle subsequently classifies friendships in three different categories: pleasure, utility and virtue:
In friendships of pleasure, you and another person are friends because of the direct pleasure your friendship brings — for instance, you like and befriend people who are good conversationalists, or with whom you can go to concerts, and so on. Friendships of utility are those in which you gain a tangible benefit, either economic or political, from the relationship. Exploitation of other people is not necessarily implied by the idea of utility friendships — first, because the advantage can be reciprocal, and second, because a business or political relation doesn’t preclude having genuine feelings of affection for each other. For Aristotle, however, the highest kind of friendship was one of virtue: you are friends with someone because of the kind of person he is, that is, because of his virtues (understood in the ancient Greek sense of virtue ethics [and] not in the much more narrow modern sense, which is largely derived from the influence of Christianity.
The latter stresses that friendship allows us to have a more dimensional point of view when it comes to seeing ourselves and the world that surrounds us; thus, helping us to discern some clues on the meaning of life. Next, Pigliucci takes us back to Aristotle once again, sharing two concepts that are, above all else, charming: mirrors and eudaimonia. The first are the perfect metaphor for the relationships that humans hold with the world, while the second eudaimonia, is a Greek concept that defines “joy” as a demon that possesses us, and it implies in its definition that happiness is always a visitor, never permanent; an idea that clearly speaks of friendship as an intermittent and trustworthy medium to be “possessed” by this beautiful demon.
Aristotle’s opinion was that friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons. Friends, then, share a similar concept of eudaimonia [Greek for “having a good demon,” often translated as “happiness”] and help each other achieve it. So it is not just that friends are instrumentally good because they enrich our lives, but that they are an integral part of what it means to live the good life, according to Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers (like Epicurus). Of course, another reason to value the idea of friendship is its social dimension. In the words of philosopher Elizabeth Telfer, friendship provides “a degree and kind of consideration for others’ welfare which cannot exist outside.
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