Friendship, Part 1

I have totally ditched this blog for my master’s thesis.

My silence over the last few weeks has been a sign of a very good thing, though: I am un-stuck with the Metaphysics and did complete a basic draft on Sunday! I have a lot of re-writing/editing to do, but I think I will be able to do that in a manageable fashion over the next three weeks until it’s due.

I’ve also been reading Aristotle’s Ethics for class and the two texts have illuminated one another for me in certain interesting ways. In the Metaphysics, he says that beings, like human beings and even the divine being, are defined in a certain way by their activity—what it is they do that makes them the things that they are. In the Metaphysics, he doesn’t give many examples of the “activity” of specific things, so I’ve found it hard to make that idea concrete.

In the Ethics, however, which is about human life and politics, he does give the “activity” of a specific thing–of a human person!  Focusing on what makes a human life “blessed” or happy (the end of politics), he argues that the human being’s proper function is “activity of the soul in accord with reason” and doing each thing well in accord with reason would mean doing it virtuously. Thus, the happy life is marked by intellectual and moral virtues—e.g. wisdom, prudence, justice, moderation—and by a kind of self-sufficiency: one does not really need anything from anyone, or owe anything to anyone. Except we need other people for their own sakes–we need friendship.

Aristotle devotes two books of the Ethics to friendship, and says that blessedly happy people, who want for little, desire friendship most of all. (Just for clarification, Aristotle considers marriage and family relationships as friendships, too)

Hopefully these two will be good friends.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to do a series of posts about friendship and what we can take away from this  ancient philosopher’s ideas–I myself need to work out what I actually think about it all!

Today, I’d like to look at his definition of friendship and his description of its three kinds. His basic definition of friendship is reciprocated goodwill, and he sketches the following kinds: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and complete friendship. The first two are the most common, characterized by friendships that last as long as mutual usefulness or pleasantness endures.

It is useful, for example, to be friendly with a neighbor. You both have a mutual interest in maintaining goodwill in close proximity–for safety, convenience, favors, etc. It’s possible to have that kind of goodwill without actually desiring one another’s company all that much, and it requires a relative minimum of friendly interaction: waving at one another, brief chats on the sidewalk. If you had a neighbor who was really funny and kind, you might seek out their company more often, going for walks, having meals together, etc. At this point the neighbor is more a friend of pleasure.

Aristotle thinks that many of us have good friends who are basically friends of pleasure. We delight in being with the other because of their good qualities and feel flattered that the other person delights in us: the relationship makes us feel good. And that’s not necessarily bad, by the way. If you are a good person, you will find pleasure in good people and good things. Pleasure itself is good.

In the complete friendship, which is possible between two very virtuous people, the friends still find pleasure in one another, but it’s different than that of the friendship motivated by pleasure. A complete friendship is not founded on the pleasurable feelings and the things about the friend that are pleasurable, but on the recognition of the friend as an unqualified good. For this reason, the two friends love each other for the other’s own sake, and wish goods for one another…not because they want to feel the pleasure of being seen as a benefactor or giver, but because they really desire the good for the friend.

Aristotle’s complete friendship assumes that the two friends will both understand what’s good for each himself and for one another to be the same things. That is, there won’t be a conflict when one friend thinks the other ought to do x in order to be virtuous and happy, but the other doesn’t think that x will be good for him. They have a true harmony in what they value and how they understand what’s good.

He also thinks that the complete friendship is marked by spending life together. He says literally “living together” but mostly means spending time regularly in conversation and in those activities, in accord with wisdom and virtue, which he thinks characterizes a flourishing human person.

More on this next time. What do you think, though? Do these ideas of friendship resonate with your understanding of what it means to be friends with someone? Why are friends so important to everyone, including the happiest people?

Also, I know I went through this rather quickly. If you have clarifying questions about what I wrote today, please send them along and I will try to address them next time.


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