Does Aristotle’s View of Friendship Prevail?

by Anjali Gaur.

Aristotle was one of the ancient Greek philosophers responsible for laying the foundations of the Western civilization. After twenty-four centuries, he is still very much alive in us, in ways, which we aren’t precisely aware of.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, three types of friendships are clearly defined, which were based on the idea that human beings are political by nature.

So, let’s look at the three types of friendships as defined by Aristotle.

First, the ‘friendship of utility’, suggests that associations are created purely on the expectation that there will be gain or advantage. Second, ‘friendship based on pleasure’, which are relationships that are formed with others, because of enjoying their company or because of their charm. The third and last, is ‘friendship based on virtue’, which is defined as friendships formed because of loving the other for who that person is. Aristotle described this as the “perfect” friendship.

So, lets put these into context. The first two friendships are based on the products of the relationship, the association formed between two people. According to Aristotle they don’t lead to a complete friendship because they are easily dissolved.

While, the third form of friendship is the rarest form, believed to be the ultimate and purest relationship as it is purely based on love for one another. Such friendships are said to last long, and occur only between people with a certain moral character.

Aristotle’s most prevalent argument was that ‘love’ should be valued higher than honour and justice, and such a love is the product of virtuous friendships. But since this type of friendship occurs rarely (even centuries ago), the other two forms of friendships may exist as a more practical approach, to keep people, cities or even systems bound together.

So, have you ever considered which category our friendships in the 21st century fall under? Let’s have a recap on how friendships have evolved over the years and how we perceive ‘close’ relationships twenty-four centuries after Aristotle.

For starters, social media has indefinitely changed the way we live and perceive our friendships. The Lonely Society published by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK states that half of the British population feel lonely. With hundreds of people on our friend list, we appear to have a full circle of people we know. RSVPs to social gatherings are just a click away, and though we are surrounded by acquaintances, there are not so many people we can share our deep intimacies with. The entire concept of friendship seems to be somewhat in a crisis.

In our lives, our formative years are when we learn how to make friends. Such friendships are formed when we spend time just ‘hanging out’ without any agenda. Whether it’s playing outdoors as children or wandering down the street for the mere pleasure and fun of it.

William Rawlins, a professor of Interpersonal Communications in Ohio University, states that young adulthood is the golden age for the formation of friendships. At this stage friendships become meaningful, as significant time of self-disclosure is common among adolescents still discovering their identity.

The Encyclopaedia of Human Relationships states that young adults spend 10­25 hours with friends on a weekly basis. Such friendships are by choice and not at the mercy of obligations like romantic partners, part-time jobs and family. Emily Langan, an associate professor of Communication at Wheaton College, adds that friendships are unique relationships, as one chooses to enter them without having to stay involuntarily, unlike the relationships with family members.

Here we see that Aristotle’s first two forms of friendship also play a vital role. It goes without saying that people move on with their lives, and make new friends or acquaintances while keeping in touch with old friends. As we get older this puts more demands on a person’s time. It is easier to cancel a catch-up with a friend than miss a child’s football game. This is the stage when people become friends with co­workers and parents of their children’s friends. It makes perfect sense to form associations when they already have an excuse to spend time with each other.

In looking at how friendships evolve as people move throughout their lives appears like a compendium of experience of different types of friendships as defined by Aristotle. We see friendship based on pleasure when we are children: spending time with anyone who is fun to play with. Then friendship is established on virtue: during young adulthood where we are discovering our own identities. This leads to making close friends at a point in life which provides a lot of support by self-revelation. And then finally, friendship based on utility, this is more commonly experienced by mature adults who have already experienced intimate relationships to a satisfactory level.

At this point of life associations, which are convenient and beneficial, are more likely to be formed, such as spending time with the parent of their children’s friends at parties or social outings.

Therefore, without us realising, centuries later, there is still an Aristotle in each one of us helping us grow up and experience a myriad of relationships.

Anjali Gaur is a Researcher living in Pavia, Italy. She studied biomedical sciences in Australia and the UK. Her current work involves research on ‘Red Blood Cell Ageing” funded by the European Commission. Prior to this she worked in Hong Kong and Sweden, where she developed ‘Phage Display Antibodies’.

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