Aristotle’s Analysis of Friendship, Crystallized

There are three types of people whom we commonly call friends, namely those who have proved useful to us in our practical lives, those who share pleasant activities with us, and those who mirror our virtues. Accordingly, the three types of relationships may be referred to, by way of analyzing the general notion into its constituent parts, as friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of the good.

Each type offers its own specific benefit: friendships of utility offer practical advantage and alliance; friendships of pleasure, respite, recreation, and emotional stimulation; friendships of virtue, the recognition and reinforcement of one’s own best traits in an externalized form — “a second self,” as it is sometimes phrased.

It may be said as a general rule that friendships of utility are more like the implicit agreements one ought to find between fellow citizens or trading partners, in which a sense of justice and good faith undergird practical interaction, than like the love one would normally associate with friendship proper — normally as well as nominally, “friendship” (philia), after all, being one of the standard words for love. On the other hand, friendships of pleasure, depending as they do on the freshness of the feelings of amusement or stimulation that engendered the relationship, inherently lack the trajectory toward permanence that we associate with the prototypical examples of friendship found in both fictional and historical accounts: the friends who risk their lives or worldly goods for one another, not out of duty or honor but out of personal devotion, or those lifelong companions we sometimes call soulmates, who understand each other implicitly and without reservation. Meanwhile, friendships of the good are typified by a more genuine love than friendships of utility, since each friend feels an attachment to the other that approaches or approximates the attachment he feels toward himself, and every man is in a sense his own closest and most beloved friend, such that the love of “another self” is necessarily most akin to the natural love of oneself. In addition, just as the good man’s attachment to himself, being grounded in his virtues and his natural concern for his own soul’s well-being, which abide, rather than in amusements, which fade, never gives way to boredom or new enthusiasms, so the friendship of virtue, being most akin to self-love, is far less likely to have temporal limits, since it too is grounded in the attachment to permanent traits and to the friend’s well-being in itself.

From the above, it follows that only friendships of the good ought to be called friendship at all, in the strictest sense of the word. Utility is a practical necessity for humans as material beings, while pleasure is an adornment or materially unnecessary benefit of life suited to the sentimental and desiring elements of the soul. Thus friendship of pleasure, having more of the nature of genuine feeling and enthusiasm, rather than mere vulgar need, appears at first glance more similar to true friendship; but in being more focused on specific gratifications gained than on appreciating the being of the other for its own sake, these relationships will necessarily involve a more superficial attachment, and they are therefore most typical among those whose souls are still dominated by physical passion and excitement rather than by thinking and serious purpose, i.e., the young or at least emotionally immature.

Let us note a few special cases or questions naturally arising from this analysis. 

Where do family relations sort themselves out in the above categorizations? For family attachment would seem to be akin to friendship, inasmuch as it is an affectionate relation bringing mutual benefits. On the other hand, by virtue of being involuntary, in the sense that one’s family relations are inherited rather than chosen, family attachment differs from friendship, which would seem, by definition, to be a deliberately and freely chosen connection. Hence, the key difference between the two seems to be that family, as inherited, always entails, at least at its foundations, a sense of duty or obligation, whereas friendship exists from its inception within a realm of freedom, perhaps the nearest thing to an experience of true freedom that is achievable in the human social world, and therefore a model or standard for all other, lesser forms.

Are these three forms of friendship merely accidentally related by virtue of sharing the same general name, or is the relationship among them more essential or significant? A quick review of the three types, seen hierarchically (i.e., ranked in terms of levels of authority, comprehensiveness, or completion), reveals a noteworthy difference and gradation. Friendships of utility, the lowest type, deal fundamentally with matters of physical well-being and practical efficacy, which is to say that they are rooted in bodily needs, from self-preservation to material advancement. Friendships of pleasure serve that element of life that seems to straddle the divide between body and soul. That is to say, pleasure, unlike security and practical advantage, pertains to the realm of desire and the feelings, and hence indicates the non-utilitarian quest for the beautiful, delicate, or exciting. Friendships of virtue, meanwhile, find their source utterly in the realm of the soul — character, temperament, reason — and hence represent, we might say, an ennoblement or spiritualization of those non-utilitarian desires characteristic of friendships of pleasure, directed to objects inherently more permanent and substantial than the charming and attractive sights, flavors, and sounds that bring material delight. The three forms of friendship, then, may be viewed as one manifestation of the developmental process of man, from physical needs to spiritual actualizations, by way of the bridge of (properly guided) pleasures.

We might note that this three-stage process corresponds quite closely with Plato’s development of the “city in speech” in The Republic: from the healthy and efficient city grounded in a peaceful division of labor, to the introduction of “spices” and other unnecessary but desirable niceties compelled by the spirited young Glaucon (who disdainfully dubs the first, utilitarian arrangement the “city of pigs”), to the rational and just city, in which reason tempers and guides the passions and nobler desires, and these two together manage the proper maintenance of the materialist and productive majority.

From this understanding of the hierarchy, we may derive another implication which reinforces the supremacy of the rarest but most definitive type of friendship, the friendship of good souls who love in one another what is best in themselves. The person whose social experience is limited to friendships of utility finds companionship only in the realm of material well-being and practical achievement, thus appreciating none of the more elevated human pleasures (the beautiful and the sublime, art and amusement, Eros and enjoyment), let alone the satisfaction of recognizing a “second self.” The friendship of pleasure, meanwhile, though representing an advance beyond viewing social interaction as a mere matter of “networking” and instrumental self-maintenance, lacks an appreciation for the higher and less immediate attractions of abiding virtue and the shared quest for the truth. The friendship of good souls, then, is the only type capable of the highest human social fulfillments. Moreover, this third type, being by definition the perfection or transcendence of the first two types, is also in a sense the highest fulfillment of those. That is to say, the true friendship of souls, born of a mutual recognition of virtue and (in the profoundest sense) likemindedness, is also the most trustworthy and unwavering source of mutual support, sustenance, and practical benefit, as well as being the wellspring of the most permanent and ultimately satisfying pleasures that may be afforded by human interaction, namely the pleasures of thinking together and having one’s essential nature and one’s highest ideas and sentiments understood.

In short, then, although they are by far the more common forms of friendship, the reason it is correct to call the lower two types friendships at all, if indeed it is correct, is because each of these represents an immature or incomplete manifestation of fulfillments that are most nobly instantiated only in the least common, but truest, form of friendship, the definitive form. The friendship of the good, being the highest possible human connection, and as such the closest point of contact between our existence as social animals and the private philosophic activity that exemplifies our hint of divinity, is also necessarily the most useful and pleasant of all connections.

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