Who Needs Friends?

An unexpected lesson from Aristotle

What is friendship? And what is the value of friends? Two famous ancient Greek philosophers gave very different answers to these questions. 

Epicurus, the often misunderstood ascetic, says this:

“27. Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.”

Note the word “means” here. Our friends, for Epicurus, are nothing more than means that help us achieve happiness throughout our lives. And how do they do that? By providing safety to us, by being there when life gets tough, by protecting our interests and giving us a helping hand when we need it. Epicurean friendship is a one-way street, mostly, and it’s a matter of direct benefit.

The value of friendship is very much different for Aristotle. Aristotle calls friendship with the Greek word “philia,” and for him this includes a whole array of different emotional states and social relationships. In general, he says, we can choose to be friends with people who are either useful to us, or pleasant, or good.

Think of your colleagues at work. Perhaps you wouldn’t like to spend a weekend with them in an isolated forest cabin, but still you’re kind of friendly to them. They are useful as colleagues, and you rely on them when you need to complete some work that needs their contributions. In the same way, a customer in your shop might be an Aristotelian “friend”: Someone you generally are on friendly terms with, someone who trusts you to sell them a product they want, and who then will pay you the price you ask. When you part ways, you will have both benefited each other. And this is, after all, Aristotle’s definition of what a virtue is all about: benefiting each other.

But that’s not the only kind of friendship, Aristotle thinks. There’s that other kind, where someone’s presence gives us pleasure: a colleague who can tell good jokes. Someone who is a good listener. An acquaintance who can beautifully play the piano. These are people we don’t really care about, except that they cause us to feel good when we’re around them. But in a sense, of course, that’s also a kind of benefiting, and a relationship like that is still not “true” friendship. We consume these relationships, we take whatever pleasure they can provide, and perhaps we provide something similar in return. But then, the potential of that relationship is exhausted and it doesn’t go any further.

This is why Aristotle insists that only the third kind of friendship is truly valuable: a relationship based on the common pursuit of “the good.” What “the good” is, Aristotle is very clear about. He calls it Eudaimonia, a life that’s charmed, that is, at the same time, happy and successful and morally good. A life like that is the ultimate goal of human life, and everyone must try to achieve that magical state, in which everything in one’s life goes well, in which we are, with every one of our actions, benefiting others, causing them to be good to us in return. It is also a life in which we can flourish, in which every one of us can practice and develop their talents, use their gifts, make use of their rationality and their emotions in order to reach the highest state of human development that they’re capable of.

Of course, reaching a state like that in our lives is not easy. It means that we need to develop our gifts, acquire knowledge and wisdom over many decades, have good and bad experiences, learn the ways of the world, perhaps make horrible mistakes and learn from them, and generally live our lives as fully as possible, until we finally feel that we start to gain access to whatever it is that makes human beings wise.

And friendships? Well, they’re part of that process.

There are essentially three possible kinds of friends for Aristotle. First, there are those who are higher than oneself on the scale of human development and self-realisation. These are valuable as teachers for oneself. Befriending them makes it possible for us to improve further, to listen to their advice and to grow, to become better human beings, more capable, freer, more rational, more knowledgeable and experienced. Of course, our relationship to them will not stay like that forever: by learning from them, we become more like them, we approach their own wisdom, until one day we find ourselves very close to where they had been when we first met them. And if they have themselves not developed further, they now cease to be role models and teachers, and they become peers in our quest for wisdom.

The second kind of friend, then, is this: the peer. Someone we share experiences with on roughly the same level. Someone who is like us, but not entirely. For if they were too much like us, we wouldn’t learn anything from them. Learning means that the other person has something to give me that I don’t have. So you might have a friend of roughly the same age as you, and roughly the same level of experience, but they might have lived abroad, in another country, and therefore have a different view of life. Or they might have had the experience of a complex love affair, from which you can learn something. You, in return, might have other experiences that you can tell them about. This kind of exchange is also valuable because it enables us to grow without necessarily requiring us to expose ourselves to all kinds of dangerous situations: crazy love affairs, perilous travels, or costly business failures.

The last kind of friend is that one who is lower than oneself on the scale of human wisdom. Someone who needs us as teachers in order to develop their own thoughts and feelings, their own abilities and talents, and whom we can encourage and nudge along on the way to their own perfection as human beings. There’s a beautiful symmetry there, in this idea of Aristotle’s, where we all are, with different people, pupils and teachers, disciples and gurus, learning and teaching, taking and giving at the same time, fulfilling our unique role in that economy of ever-growing human wisdom and perfection.

And this is, then, the highest form of friendship: the friendship of the good, the companionship of people who help each other become the best they can in life.

It’s good perhaps to stop from time to time in our lives, to pause for a moment and take the time to look around at ourselves and our friends with Aristotle’s eyes. What would he think of our friendships?

If I look at my life, honestly, unflinchingly, if I look at my friends: how many of them are better than me, teaching me their wisdom, helping me grow and develop my own abilities toward the better self that I might perhaps one day become? And how many are on the same journey as I am, helping me grow by sharing their own experiences and failures, and listening to mine? And, finally, how many friends am I helping along their own path, how many am I serving with my advice, my patience, my knowledge, my past experience? How many true friends do I have?

Too often, we find ourselves in the middle of our lives surrounded by people we wish would disappear, meaningless, superficial relations: colleagues whom we avoid, friends who just steal our time, or who fill it up with chatter and busyness, with shopping, with meaningless distractions, pictures of cats and the pursuit of empty ideals of beauty or coolness. If that happens, it is good to remember the words of Aristotle, written down so long ago: his advice to choose our friends wisely, because they are our companions on the hard road of life, our best shot at gaining wisdom and happiness, and our only chance to become the best human beings, the happiest, most successful and good that we can possibly be.


Thanks for reading! Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash.