“Friend Me”: What would Aristotle say?
For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? — Aristotle – Nicomachean Ethics – 384-322 BCE
One might wonder, after a period of 2,000+ years, has there been any (what is called) “progress”.
Surely we can distinguish between “progress” in the area of technology and progress in other areas such as culture and society.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) lived more than 2000 years ago . Surely, if Aristotle were transported from ancient Greece to the modern world he would find the progress in science and technology absolutely astounding. But, if he were to look at our social relationships 2000 years distant from his own time what would he discover? Would Aristotle say that, after two millennium, we have made any progress in human relationships?
Perhaps he would say we have taken several steps back from the “golden age” of Greek culture.
Aristotle on Friendship
Aristotle wrote about friendship in Nicomachean Ethics. He divided friendship into three categories.
Friendship of young people seems to aim at pleasure; for they live under the guidance of emotion, and pursue above all what is pleasant to themselves and what is immediately before them.
Those who pursue utility . . . sometimes . . . do not even find each other pleasant; therefore they do not need such companionship unless they are useful to each other; for they are pleasant to each other only in so far as they rouse in each other hopes of something good to come.
What’s in it for me?
According to Aristotle, Pleasure and Utility friendship is partly motivated by a “what’s in it for me” attititude. The friendship exists only insofar as there is some benefit – pleasure or utility – that can be derived from the relationship. When the benefit erodes, so does the friendship
Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant.
And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.
Perfect (or True) Friendship
Finally, Aristotle defines Perfect Friendship:
Perfect friendship is the friendship… [of those] …who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good-and goodness is an enduring thing. And each is good without qualification and to his friend, for the good are both good without qualification and useful to each other.
Here is how Philosophy Professor Dean A. Kowaalski sums it up:
So, for Aristotle, the highest form of friendship occurs between persons of equally good moral character (virtue), which is enhanced due to their interactions. Such friendships are admittedly rare; when they do obtain, it is because the friends spend a great deal of time together, developing a secure mutual trust. Their relationship is fostered by participating in joint ventures and engaging in activities that exercise their own virtues for the betterment of the other and the friendship. All of this is done primarily for the sake of the other person (and not for selfish purposes), even though their interests have grown so close together that it is difficult to separate them. Consequently, complete friendship results in a sort of second self, a true partner.
There may be a Myth of Progress. In some contexts, progress seems obvious perhaps because of the selection or limitation of what one considers. Surely, “progress” is an in-your-face fact when one looks only at technology and our understanding of how the world works – science in general and physics in particular.
But has there been any progress in social relationships? Or perhaps there been a degradation brought about by the progress in technology. Perhaps the more technology we have the greater distance we can put between ourselves and other people and still call them “friends”… to the point that they are no friends at all… merely markers or counts on a Facebook page or the number of Twitter followers.
Technology is “enabling”. Enabling to make True Friends as Aristotle would define it? Technology may simply enable those who have a “what’s in it for me” motive of finding merely pleasure or utility in others. “Friends for pleasure” is now easy to find on the Internet. Friends to scam and friends for transactional relationships are easy to find as well. Have your “friended” or “liked” Starbucks or other organization or business? Why are they your friends?
So, if Aristotle were to step into the 21’st century world of technology there would not be much he would understand. We have made fantastic progress. And, I think he would agree based on his writings of Universal Physics, Human Physics, Animal Physics, and Metaphysics of this time. But Politics and (Nicomachean) Ethics where the above quotes on friendship came from? Any progress here in two millennium?
What Aristotle wrote 2,000+ years ago about friendships being only for utility and only for pleasure and easily dissolved is as relevant for today as it was in ancient Greece.
It might be a revelation to you if you examine your friendships within Aristotle’s framework – friends of pleasure; friends of utility; and perfect friends.
How many perfect friendships do you really have? Has technology been a benefit or a liability? And have we made any progress in two millennium in answering Aristotle’s basic question, “how should men best live”?
Read about Dunbar’s number – If You’ve Got More Than 150 Facebook Friends, They’re No Friends at All
Alone Together. Why we expect more from technology and less from each other