Aristotle on Friendship

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

With the first three posts in this series, we discussed that we become virtuous by exercising virtue, that the virtues of character are a mean between the vices of excess and deficiency, and Aristotle’s views on happiness. Now we set our sights on what Aristotle’s take on friendship.

Aristotle devoted a sizable portion of the Nicomachean Ethics to friendship, believing that friendships play an irreplaceable role in the construction of the good life. When concerned with whether or not the happy person would need friends, Aristotle settles the matter definitively, describing a friend as “another self” and proclaims:

“..having friends seems to be the greatest external good.”

Aristotle believed that the good life is one of virtuous action, virtues being the golden mean between the vices of deficiency and excess. He shows that only virtuous people are capable of real friendship, and that those relationships last only as long as each is good and their virtue enduring. It is only those living with virtue who are capable of providing the genuine concern for another that is the foundation of a meaningful relationship:

“To a friend, however, it is said, you must wish goods for his own sake. If you wish good things in this way, but the same wish is not returned by the other, you would be said to have [only] goodwill for the other. For friendship is said to be reciprocated goodwill.”

In order to exercise friendship one must have capacity for friendship, the ability to invest in the well-being of another as your own. This is no small task. Our own lives consist of so many pressing matters, all vying for our finite attention, it becomes easy to lose track of relationships.

We let atrophy the vine which sustains us. It is our friendships which provide much of life’s meaning, making our joys more wonderful and our failures endurable.

“But friendship seems to consist more in loving than in being loved.”

Friendship is a “reciprocated goodwill,” but the need for reciprocation becomes an obstacle to love. When we are too busy doing the loving ourselves, focused on giving rather than receiving, we live with virtue and become capable of receiving another’s love.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus devoted his study to happiness and found that happiness is most readily found among friends. He created the first Epicurean compound, which Christianity later adopted as communes, where he and his friends lived together in a big house, simple and free, in a life devoted to quiet solitude, joyous companionship, and the cultivation of their respective talents. My friends and I have already begun this process and the daily access to my closest companions has consistently filled my days with joy.

With work, family life, and personal pursuits, we all find it difficult to make time for our friends. It seems a natural progression that as we age those old ties weaken and eventually sever. We must make the conscious choice to nurture these relationships, carving time out of our busy schedules to deepen our connection with our loved ones.

A true friendship is a rarity in this world. It takes two to tango and each must know the dance well.

When we are on our deathbeds, it is the people we will remember, not our achievements or the things they purchased. The day will come when we value our friends above all else, so why not live for them now? True friendship takes a lifetime of cultivation, and we have done much of the groundwork already. Now, we simply must make daily efforts to preserve what we have built. After all,

“For though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not.”

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