For those who approach Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first time, they are often surprised by the fact that he devotes more pages, two whole books in fact, to the topic of friendship than to any other. From the modern viewpoint, this seems to be an unnecessary tangent that has little to do with ethics. That is, until we realize that for Aristotle and most Christian Philosophers up until the Middle Ages, ethics was not an abstract set of rules, but practical principles for living a full and happy life. So when Aristotle apportions such a large percentage of his book on ethics to friendship we realize that he sees it as one of the most important components of a life well lived. In fact he ranks it among one of the greatest of life’s goods saying that “friendship is especially necessary for living, to the extent that no one, even though he had all other goods would choose to live without friends.”
First, a disclaimer of sorts. Because Aristotle struck out in his physics and his views on women and slaves, he has fallen out of favor in modern times. But there is a certain timelessness to his writings, especially in his ethics, because he roots them in unchanging human nature. Therefore we ought to take what he says seriously, even if we find good reasons to disagree with him. In a culture undergoing a crisis in friendship his writings on the topic are like a hidden treasure whose mining promises to enrich our lives greatly.
Because everyone needs friends, everyone wants friends. This natural desire for friendship can lead us into unhealthy friendships. This is what makes his study of friendship so important—it enables us to see our relationships more clearly and to have the right expectations. There is not a single person among us who has not at some point experienced betrayal in one of their friendships. Like all the loves, friendship requires a certain level of vulnerability, but much pain can be avoided through a proper understanding of friendship in general and Aristotle’s three levels of friendship in particular.
For Aristotle, there are two factors of friendship. There is the good will that the two friends bear towards each other and there is the common good that brings them together. As a form of love, friendship is first and foremost about willing the good for another person. Friendship is not just a relationship, but a mutual relationship in which both parties actively will some good for the other person. Without this, no real friendship can be found.
CS Lewis in his book The Four Loves captures the second aspect well when he compares friendship with erotic love. He says that erotic lovers stand face to face while friends stand side by side looking at the thing that brings them together. He says that “friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” This is what Aristotle means by the common good that brings them together. Friendships are always based upon not just willing the good but willing a particular good. These goods fall into three broad categories, each one corresponding to the different levels of friendship.
The Categories of Friendship
His first category is friendship of pleasure. Because it is the lowest level of friendship, it is the most common, especially among younger people. This is based upon two people “having a good time together.” It might two “golfing buddies” who enjoy playing golf together simply for the pleasure of the game itself. What makes this friendship rather than simply mutual use is that they each will that the other plays well and has a good time, not so they will have someone to play with again, but because they truly desire that pleasure for them. They desire the particular good of pleasure for them, although not at the expense of their own pleasure. These types of friendships tend to dissolve when the pleasure that united the parties ceases. One of the golfers might stop playing golf for whatever reason and the two eventually lose touch with each other.
Aristotle’s second category is a friendship of utility. In these types of friendships there is a certain tradeoff between the two parties in which they somehow supply each other’s needs. They are brought together primarily for the love of the good they get from the other person. This type of friendship is most common in the adult years when “working your contacts” has become an art form. It is a mutual coincidence of wants that brings the two parties together, a transaction of sorts. The notion of mutual service or sacrifice is likely not a part of this type of this friendship. Once they cease being useful to each other, the friendship usually dies.
There is always a certain amount of use in these two types of friendships because the parties love the thing that unites them more than they love the person. This does not make them wrong per se, just incomplete. St. Thomas says they are not friendships essentially but incidentally because the person is loved more for what they can give than in themselves. This is why Aristotle thought only the third category of friendship, that is a friendship of virtue, was the only true friendship.
A virtuous friendship is one in which, to borrow from CS Lewis’ definition, the two parties are both looking at virtue. They desire true happiness for each other. Aristotle thought this the only true friendship because only a virtuous person is capable of loving the other for their own sake and because only a virtuous person can actually help another person be happy. It is not so much that the two people are perfect, but that they are both striving for perfection.
As a true friendship, it includes the other two friendships but in an authentic way. Rather than a friendship of pleasure, one derives pleasure simply from pleasure his friend receives in doing something. Rather than a friendship of utility, one receives payment simply by serving the other person. True friends look upon each other as an “other self.”
The Work of Friendship
These categories are important for two reasons. First because many of us lack true friendships. This lack may be simply because we lack the capacity, that is virtue, for true friendships. We prefer the superficial to the hard work of growing in virtue. It may also be that we are trying to form authentic friendships with people who are not capable of it because they lack the virtue or, at least, the desire for virtue that is always necessary. Remember Lewis’ definition—we will not find true friends until we decide virtue is important.
The second reason is that we often fail to properly “categorize” our friends, leaving us with unreal expectations. A person whom we only have a friendship of pleasure with is not someone we should be going to for personal advice in a time of crisis. We may develop a friendship of utility with our mailman, but this does not mean we should have him sit down with us to open our mail. Those types of friendship cannot bear the weight—either because one of the parties lacks the necessary virtue to truly will the good for the other person or because there is a lack of intimacy. True friendships are rare not only because virtue is rare, but because we simply do not have the time and emotional energy to maintain authentic friendships with that may people. Overcommitting ourselves to too many true friendships can be a mortal pitfall for our overall well-being.
Many people in today’s culture view friendship as an unnecessary luxury rather than an integral part of a truly happy life. By reflecting on friendship in the works of Aristotle, we can come to enjoy what the book of Sirach calls “the elixir of life” (Sir 6:16).