Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alex Blosser – Friendship in Hellenic Philosophy

What, in your view, is the role of friendship in the political philosophy of the major classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle?

Friendship was seen as something of the utmost importance in Hellenic times, as both a virtue and a necessity for the wellbeing of society. However, throughout the major works of these philosophers (the Lysis and Nicomachean Ethics, as examples), there doesn’t seem to be a definitive explanation for why people decided to become friends, only that it happens in certain ways, and should happen in certain ways as well.

Plato wrote about friendship (or Philia, brotherly love) in the dialogue of Lysis. There, he noted three basic kinds — friendship through similarity, friendship through difference, and a mix of the two. He found that true friendships are both reciprocal and equal: there is no serious inequality in the sense that one person is the “giver” and the other is the “taker,” and that there was a sort of mutual understanding of each other’s humanity. Essentially, a recognition of the “personhood” of the other.

Brian Carr describes Plato’s position as a friend being “more than a distant admirer, a well-wisher…this mutuality is mutually recognized.” In my personal view, each facet of what makes a good friendship according to Plato is related to this core belief of reciprocity. 

Aristotle sees things in a similar light. In Nicomachean Ethics, he describes the three kinds of friendships as friendships for utility, pleasure, or virtue, defined more by what he sees as the ultimate goal rather than the inherent relationship between the two individuals present.

Friendships for utility and pleasure are seen on a lower step: there is something fundamentally that is traded or given (whether it be tangible or intangible), and once either person no longer needs it, the friendship dissipates relatively quickly. Friendships based on virtue, on the other hand, are Aristotle’s (in my opinion) pretty thoughtless attempt to create a kind of friendship that was “acceptable”. He writes that “their friendship also has… what is good without qualification and what is pleasant without qualification; and these are lovable most of all.” This idea of “virtue” and “good” in philosophy offers a sort of cheap cop-out for defining the ideal kind of person, and Aristotle uses it here.

Aristotle also says that “Clearly, however, only good people can be friends to each other because of the other person himself; for bad people find no enjoyment in one another if they get no benefit.” Though his reasoning is simple and clear-cut, it suffers from this simplicity. Maybe Plato had the right idea when he minimized aspects of his musings on the roots of friendship. It’s a confusing, human, and essential aspect of our daily lives that defies easy explanation.

What is all this friendship for, then? Why is all this important? Plato saw friendship’s applications in two ways. First, to help maintain order in society. He proposed that friendship is essential for harmony, especially in Hellenic society. Friendship led to happiness, stability, and prosperity, even across empire lines: a mutual friendship between Greece and Persia, Plato argued, would lead to great things.

Secondly, and in tandem with the first, friendship is ultimately a means to an end. Plato’s position is that we as humans are searching for an ultimate beauty and ultimate harmony with existence; friendship is a means by which we can attempt to reach these ideals.

Aristotle, for the most part, would agree. He saw friendship as a way to better society as well. “Further, if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and that the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship.” He notes that a good friendship really doesn’t need justice, as all the important aspects of justice are already present: reciprocation and and understanding. Friends have the ability to settle disputes and disagreements without fighting, and the hope is that it could happen at the state level. Friendship was the “glue” that solidified groups together. 

Aristotle also saw friendship as a method for attaining self-knowledge. In the way that fish cannot understand the water until they are pulled out, friendships “pull us out” of our preconceived notions about ourselves. He is famously quoted as saying that without friends we cannot know ourselves; they offer us a mirror of self-reflection. Friendship offers us an awareness that allows for a positive circular relationship to occur: we become happier and more open because of our friends, which leads us to find more people to be friends with. Aristotle views friendship not necessarily as the means to an end, but as the end in and of itself. Truly, an element that makes us fully human.

Ultimately, though presented in different ways, both Plato and Aristotle can agree on a truth: the virtue of friendship is absolutely essential to nearly all aspects of our daily lives. It creates happy and prosperous societies, it betters us, and it enables self-perception and self-reflection. In an odd twist, however, the value society places on friendship has decreased since Hellenic times. The amount of close friends the average American has dropped from 3 in 1985 to 2 in 2011. 46% of all Americans feel lonely “regularly,” according to a study done in 2018. Though the importance of friendship has not lessened, our view of its importance has.

In this technologically advanced world, we have the ability to connect with others at a speed and rate unknown to any generation before us. In a society such as ours today, with access not only to the best but to the worst of humanity at our fingertips, having friends to console with and confide in is imperative. Friendship is an activity; It requires active commitment to another person. But, that commitment pays off. Adults with close friends and a social support group live longer, have a higher BMI, and reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels than those without. In an age of looking to the future, maybe it’s best to look to the past and realize the importance of something so fundamental to human life.

Leave a Reply