It is fair to say Aristotle’s treatment of friendship (philia) has received relatively little attention, and yet there is little doubt that Aristotle provides in books VIII and IX what remains one of the richest and most enduringly useful accounts of friendship in Western philosophy. Its lasting value is evidenced by the fact that his threefold distinction between the types of friendships – friendships of Goodness, Pleasure, or Utility – is still used in many contemporary works on friendship as something of a starting point, to be either built upon or criticised. Notwithstanding its many merits, Aristotle’s account of friendships, so i will argue in this essay, fails to capture much of what we commonly regard as being essential to friendship, and is at times self-contradictory and lacking in internal consistency.
Aristotle’s theory of friendship occupies an important place in his larger theory of ethics. His theory of friendship addresses the role the human relationships in the excellent life. To Aristotle, friendship is not merely an additional external good, or an extra flourish to already perfect and self-sufficient life. Friendship is a basic constituent element of happiness. It is also a condition of happiness, for Aristotle repeatedly states how the life of solitude is difficult and that one would not choose “even if he were to have all the other goods”. He also speaks of people who are hideously ugly or of low birth as being almost necessarily unhappy, providing no caveat that a virtuous life could make them happy.
Thus, friendship is one of the many goods that are necessary for happiness. It’s worth noting that Aristotle’s view here has the merit of being realistic and taking into account the reality that things such as personal looks, socioeconomic conditions, and presence or lack of friendship really do influence the quality of our lives.
A tension that Aristotle inherited from Plato was the one between the idea of self-sufficiency and the idea of needing friends. Aristotle routinely describes the excellent human being as self-sufficient, and therefore he bears the burden of explaining why such a person needs friends. For if friendship provides certain psychological goods that the eudaimon needs and cannot acquire elsewhere, then there is a sense in which such a person is not strictly self-sufficient, for they are dependent on friends.
We find in Aristotle’s account of friendship two main arguments as to why friendship is part of the excellent life. Firstly, part of the flourishing life is knowing that one’s life is good. And since we largely come to understand ourselves and our lives through encountering others in the world, one requires close relationships – friendships – with people whose lives are similarly good, so that one can better and more securely estimate the goodness of their life. The second argument begins with the premise that the life of solitude is hard and that solitary people fail to sustain long-term interest and commitment in life’s activities, unlike people who have friends, who, provided their friends are similarly engaged in living an active life, have their passion for virtuous activity constantly renewed.
What is specifically involved in friendship, according to Aristotle, are three things: mutual affection, goodwill and acknowledgement of that affection and goodwill. Aristotle also distinguishes between three kinds of friendship: friendship of goodness, friendship of pleasure, and friendship of utility. Friendship of goodness is the highest form of friendship, and such friends are friends unconditionally and without qualification, and such friends are both excellent human beings. Aristotle defines the highest form of friendship as one which is based upon natural affection for the other’s sake. And this can only be the case when the binding force of the friendship is mutual recognition of one another’s virtues, which are essential characteristics. In contrast, friendships of utility and pleasure are based on the ‘incidental’ qualities of pleasure and utility, and are therefore inferior, selfish friendships. Aristotle even says that in the latter two friendships one is a ‘friend to the pleasure’ or a ‘friend to the advantage’, not the individuals.
Thus, we are met with the unwelcome idea that ordinary individuals, who aren’t morally perfect, cannot engage is the truest or highest form of friendship, that of goodness. In this way, Aristotle’s theory is restrictive and doesn’t map onto our common picture of what friendship involves. However, John M. Cooper has skilfully argued that the highest friendship (of goodness) are bound by love based on the other’s good qualities, even if the other is not perfect. Ferdinand Schoeman and Gregory Vlastos have noted the brilliance of the argument but nonetheless dismiss it as lacking full textual support and for being in conflict with Aristotle’s views about affection.
In his view of true friendship as being available only to moral saints, Aristotle has an imposed a standard for friendship that the overwhelming majority of people cannot meet. It is restrictive in a way that lacks real-world applicability or usefulness. Aristotle misses the idiosyncratic element of friendship, the aspect of acceptance of another’s shortcomings, matters of moral vulnerability, recognition of another’s independence and awareness of conflicts of interests, among other things. Picture two people, one quite morally impressive, the other with a great many moral shortcomings. They have genuine goodwill for each other based on their wish for the other to have what is good. Now, is such a friendship improved by one of those individuals improving morally. While the reformed individual might be improved, it is far from clear that the friendship has. When we think of what friendship is about, do we really think of excellence of character? Many have pointed out that the relation Aristotle seems to be describing here is more like respect, or admiration. Excellence of character may be part friendship, but i would submit that there are other aspects which are, if not more important, then equally important, such as the ones mentioned above, for example acceptance of someone for who they are. By insisting on moral perfection, Aristotle leaves out of the account matters that relate to moral failing, moral support, and vulnerability.
But Aristotle seems to make a persistent error in that he conflates what we like about someone and for whose sake one is motivated to be friends with them. Aristotle seems to conflate the two separate concepts and to use them interchangeably, which makes the argument fit better than it otherwise would if he used them strictly separately.
Another similarly intricate criticism runs much deeper. Aristotle mistakes admiration for a person’s virtues for liking that person. One has to be careful here. Surely, a person’s virtues are part of who they are and may constitute one among several reasons for liking them.
Another issue is that when Aristotle claims that only friendships based on admiration of virtue involve mutual well-wishing for each other’s sake, whereas friendships based on more incidental qualities like pleasure or utility cannot involve such a thing, he provides very little in the way of argument. For this claim to stand, he would have had to have shown that only essential, good qualities can inspire someone to like them for their own sake. No such thing is demonstrated. Furthermore, one can easily conceive of friendships based upon neutral or even bad qualities, which, once formed, are based upon genuine mutual goodwill for each other’s sake.