Aristotle, with his common sense approach to problems, frequently states the seemingly obvious. He makes points which on the surface don’t seem revolutionary, but they are shrewd and insightful enough to crystalize truths that, otherwise, would be difficult to articulate. Part of our lack of surprise at his approaches and conclusions derives from our living in a post-Aristotelian world. So, if what follows doesn’t surprise you, give yourself a high-five and consider yourself an Aristotelian.
Man is by nature a social animal whose inclination it is to live in the company of others. Such is Aristotle’s premise in Book I of the Politics.
Something within us compels us to live in society with others. We are naturally bound to form relationships with other people.
What can we say about the social associations we make? What does their nature say about us? Aristotle addresses these questions on Friendship in Books 8 and 9 of his Nicomachean Ethics.
According to Aristotle, there are three types of friendships: those based on utility, those based on pleasure or delight, and those grounded in virtue.
Types of Friendship.
The Nicomachean Ethics of Friendship based on Utility: In this first level of friendship, people expect to derive some benefit from each other. According to Aristotle, these are “shallow” and “easily dissolved” because individuals are seeking to essentially barter and trade a product, service, connection, or other useful thing. Or, rather, it just seems important and essential at the time. But, our desires change and, thus, these first-level friendships ultimately do not last.
The Nicomachean Ethics of Friendship based on pleasure: Relationships where people are attracted to one another because of their appearance, humor, or other extrinsic and “pleasant” quality. When we are young, we think we “want” to be with another person because they are fun, or popular or a good athlete. My daughter is on a school basketball team and so many of the girls are “friends” as they spend a large amount of time together in practice, traveling to games, and during and after the games. The joint activity and like-mindedness leads to simple friendships based on pleasure. But, these second-level friendships also can easily end when the activity or specific quality no longer is attractive or gives that same pleasure at it used to.
The Nicomachean Ethics of Friendship based on goodness: This type of friendship emerges when both people see the good in each other. As we get older, we learn about each other’s foundational beliefs, moral compass, dedication to issues, commitment to family, social and political outlooks, and desire to help others. We learn about the other person’s character. This type of friendship is considered to the highest level of “brotherly love” according to Aristotle. In this highest level of friendship, there is no desire to get anything or seek any response from the other. Rather, the focus is on what can one do to help the other person and make the other happy.