One of my favorite books is Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and it is second only to the Holy Bible as my most often used reference for how to live an excellent life. Awhile ago the weather was particularly nasty, so I spent the afternoon thumbing through Book VIII, which is Aristotle’s treatise on friendship, and I jotted down a few notes. Recently a friend remarked on Facebook he is doing a study on friendship and he was soliciting for some resources, so I sent him the following.
Aristotle believed that friendships could be broken into three different types: (1) friendships of pleasure; (2) friendships of utility; and (3) friendships of virtue. While each type of friendship involves individuals displaying goodwill and decency towards each other, the reason why each type exists differs greatly. Aristotle suggests that understanding what a friendship of virtue is and how to experience one is an important element of a life well lived.
The first type of friendship is that of pleasure. The friendship of pleasure is based on the foundation that some individuals simply enjoy each other’s company. As children, it is much more fun to play in the sandbox with someone else that it is by yourself. Adolescents and young adults enjoy spending time with one another, and mutual interests are often the magnets that draw them into a relationship. Sometimes it is a sports activity, a school club, a particular genre of music, or simply two individuals who feel better in each other’s company that draws two people together. The single purpose of friendships of pleasure is the enjoyment each party takes from the relationship. Because this type of friendship requires both parties to experience satisfaction, friendships of pleasure usually end when the pleasure diminishes. Aristotle suggested that friendships of pleasure are often found in adolescents, but I believe many adult friendships are centered on pleasure alone. This is a major reason why so many American marriages end in divorce.
Aristotle called the second type the friendship of utility, but I will call it the friendship of “usefulness.” The friendship of usefulness is based on the mutual profit both individuals gain from the relationship. This is the type of friendship we often experience in the marketplace, where we are gracious with the city clerk because we believe civility will encourage the clerk to help us, and the clerk is pleasant in return so we won’t complain to her superior. We also practice friendships of usefulness with our co-workers, believing it is better for all parties when we act decently towards one another. While we may actually enjoy each other’s company, friendships of usefulness only last as long as the need for mutual gain. If the city clerk retires and no longer provides us service, we don’t go out of our way to maintain the relationship. Likewise, while many of us like our co-workers, we don’t usually spend our leisure time with them in addition to our work hours. Aristotle believed friendships of usefulness were demonstrated most often by older adults such as, individuals entwined in a business deal, neighbors sharing a common property line, or the relationships between supervisors and employees. Like that of pleasure, friendships of usefulness are based on what individuals take from the relationship.
The last type of friendship Aristotle describes is the friendship of virtue. Friendships of virtue are experienced when two individuals enter into a relationship for the single purpose of bringing good to one another. Unlike friendships of pleasure, where the goal is to experience enjoyment, or friendships of usefulness, where the goal is to achieve mutual profit or peace, friendships of virtue focus on the well-being of the other person. Pleasure and usefulness are often experienced in friendships of virtue, but they are merely incidental. Friendships of virtue are focused on what the parties bring, rather than take, from the friendship.
Aristotle explained that friendships of virtue can only be practiced by people of excellent character. He believed that at least one person in the relationship had to be habitually virtuous and the other person must possess the potential and willingness to be virtuous. Even in friendships where the virtue of the parties is unequal, the willingness of the more virtuous to teach and share with the less virtuous results in the increased happiness of both. Like parents who love their children, or mentors who guide their protégés, the givers profit from the relationship as much as the receivers.
Friendships of virtue are the highest form of friendship. When two individuals covenant to help one another towards excellence, the benefits are extraordinary. While friendships of virtue are certainly magnificent, Aristotle laments that they are also extremely rare. People are lucky in their lifetimes to experience even one friendship of virtue. This is due in part because most people regrettably are not virtuous.
Although rare, friendships of virtue are not nonexistent. In my community I am surrounded by excellent people who are engaging in friendships of virtue. There are husbands and wives striving to out-serve one another. I know mentors who selflessly teach their charges to be excellent, and I worship with people who give more than they take from their relationships. While it appears at first glance that such relationships are drudgery, the result is the exact opposite. Excellent people engaging in friendships of virtue are happier and more content. I consider myself fortunate to have so many examples of friendships of virtue to observe and emulate.
Years ago I had a pastor who regularly taught us that:
“Love is the demonstrated preference for the well- being of another, above ourselves, even at great personal expense, with the help of the Holy Spirit.”
This definition of love I believe is the quintessence of the friendship of virtue, and I believe Aristotle would approve.