“it seems strange, when one assigns all good things to the happy man, not to assign friends, who are thought the greatest of external goods.”
What is a true friend? Why is friendship important?
Aristotle explores friendship in The Nicomachean Ethics to address such questions. In his exploration, he distinguishes three types of friendship and provides a unique argument for the role of friendship in an individual’s life.
Aristotle calls two types of friendship “incidental” because the love that binds the friendship is based on what one receives from the relationship. In these friendships, it is either utility or pleasure that binds the two parties in the relationship.
Aristotle’s incidental friendships are more or less acquaintances. A casual familiarity exists between the two individuals, and both get something (utility or pleasure) from the relationship.
Imagine, for example, the relationship between an individual who frequents a local coffee shop and the shop’s employee. The individual and the employee become familiar with each other over time, and each gets utility and/or pleasure from the relationship. The employee is useful to the individual because she gets service and her coffee, and the individual is useful to the employee because he gets her business that his job depends on.
In cases of incidental friendship, neither party is too concerned with the other for the sake of the other. The relationship is maintained because it is beneficial to each person to an extent that makes it worthwhile.
For instance, the relationship between the individual and the coffee shop employee might end if the customer begins frequenting another shop or if the employee finds a different job. In either case, the relationship ends because the individuals no longer receive the benefit that made the relationship worthwhile.
Aristotle identifies a third type of friendship and calls it “perfect friendship.” In a perfect friendship the love that binds the friendship is based on the good or on the goodness of the characters of the individuals involved.
Aristotle believed that perfect friends wish each other well simply because they love each other and want each other to do well, not because they expect something (utility or pleasure) from the other. So, unlike incidental friendships where some benefit begets the relationship, in perfect friendship the characters of the individuals engenders the relationship.
“Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends.”
Perfect friendships exist between two people who are good with respect to certain virtues or between individuals who share certain character traits or dispositions. In such friendships, the individuals truly care for each other.
These relationships are marked by a deep familiarity with the other and mutual betterment or self-development. Aristotle believes each individual gains a deeper understanding of himself and will be more likely to improve himself because he sees his friend as another self and benefits from his friend’s perspective regarding his own development.
The Happy Person Needs (Perfect) Friendship
Aristotle argues that the happy man needs (true) friends because such friendship makes it possible for him to “contemplate worthy [or virtuous] actions and actions that are his own” (Aristotle).
In a perfect friendship, a good individual befriends another good individual. Insofar as the perfect friendship is a reciprocal relationship, each wishes the other well for his own sake and, in a sense, views the other as another self. This affords the good individual the opportunity to contemplate worthy actions that are not his own (i.e., they are his friends), while still thinking of these actions as in some sense being his own because his friend is another self.
On Aristotle’s account, we see a true friend as another self because we are truly invested in our friend’s life.
“to a friend we say we ought to wish what is good for his sake.”
We experience our friend’s success and failure in a certain sense as our own success and failure. Perfect friendships, then, afford us opportunities to grow and develop, to better ourselves, that we do not get from other relationships.
“A certain training in virtue arises also from the company of the good.”
Aristotle thought that we are more likely to praise or criticize another’s action appropriately, because we can view the action from a distance. It is more difficult, however, to assess our own actions because we are involved and, for example, our own modesty or sense of pride might cloud our judgment.
In the case of (true) friends, we can assess their actions better than someone we are less familiar with because we are aware of our friend’s strengths and weaknesses with respect to virtue—we know our friend’s character.
In perfect friendship, our friend provides perspective that helps us in our development. As another self, the perfect friend also contributes to our happiness because we get to participate in and experience our friend’s happiness as our own.
“friends…the greatest of external goods.”
What do you think of Aristotle’s account? Are true friends necessary? Do you agree with Aristotle’s distinction between incidental and perfect friendships?
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