Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Daniel Weintraub: The Role of Friendship in Plato and Aristotle



Classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle have contributed indelibly to political philosophy. To dissect the political values of these great thinkers, one must first look at the context with which they lived. Society in Hellenic Greece was heavily based on friendship. As a matter of fact, no other historical period emphasized friendship quite as much. It is clear to see that friendship had a significant impact on both Plato and Aristotle as well. Both philosophers thought society could not function properly without friendship. More specifically, they believed that in order for society not just to function, but to thrive, friendship needed to be one of the most important values.

What is the nature of friendship? Can any two people be friends? Or does their relationship need to match certain criteria in order to be called a true friendship. Plato recognized three forms of friendship. As elaborated by El Murr, Plato defines each type of friendship as “Obeying a specific law of attraction” (El Murr 7). And though Plato referenced three forms of friendship, for our sake I will focus solely on resemblance and opposite-based friendship. When El Murr speaks of the “Law of attraction,” he is saying that the actors in this social drama have no choice in the matter. They simply obey the “Law of attraction;” as this is their inclination. Humans are social creatures. They have a natural propensity towards friendship, rather than individualism. This ideal is consistent with Mahallati, who stated that while “Individualism really seeks to seperate {…} Friendship helps us get away from ourselves and pay attention to others.” Mahallati went on to say that “If you memorize one phrase, make it this one; friendship is more than a virtue. It is a mode of life” (Mahallati 2/7/19, 2/14/19).

Having fleshed out our natural inclination towards friendship, I will now turn to the role that friendship plays within Plato’s political philosophy. Plato first defined “Friendship from resemblance,” as the most virtuous kind of friendship” (El Murr 9). “Resemblance” does not mean two people have to be the same. In a political system, people are generally not the same. You love baseball; I hate baseball. You love pizza; I’m lactose intolerant. This does not mean I should hope and pray that you develop lactose intolerance so we can finally go out to eat together. Such a hope would be antithetical to your health, and therefore nefarious. Rather, I should thank G-d every single day that you find such joy in eating a food you love so much, even if I cannot share that joy with you. This may be a trivial example, but it applies to greater society as well.

In this same way, members of a political system need to support one another. “Friendship from resemblance” means that both friends aspire virtuous lives for themselves, and those around them. As stated by Carr, “Friends are in a very real sense not for anything, even though we can expect an awful lot from our friends” (Carr 14). Here we find a parallel with Aristotle, who stated that “Friendships {…} involve equality, since both friends get the same and wish the same to each other.” (Aristotle 126). Within a political system, absolute equality is impossible. Never before has a completely communist society succeed in feeding the masses. However, equality is very much achievable in a general sense. Within friendship-based society, resources would be distributed more evenly. Everybody would eat, everybody would have shelter, and all would get their share. How this would be done I don’t know, nor is it my job to come up with a remedy for society’s ills. But if society were based on friendship, the divide between haves and have-nots would lessen. How? Citizens will look out for one another. And all will have.

Carr went on to say that when two people become friends it is “Mutually recognised. When a and b become friends, then a and b not only notice each other, but they recognise this fact about themselves. This is a vitally important feature in friendship which, in more detail, involves such things as a sharing of trust, a sharing, of understanding, and a sharing of support. {…} I will call this mutuality of recognition, for short, the ‘reciprocity’ of friendship” (Carr 15). Trust, sharing, understanding, support. So too, reciprocity. I know that all my hard work will be reciprocated. If you work; you will be reciprocated. Everybody will have a role, and virtue will be present in all hearts. All problems that exist because people feel left behind will mediated at the source, and all those will feel left behind no longer.

Taking friendship from resemblance to mean “Like loves like,” then friendship from opposites can be thought of as unlike needs like (El Murr 10). However, I don’t think it’s that simple. Unlike is not bad per se. In a political sense, they are on the fringe. And as previously stated, they have been left behind. They no longer have. Oftentimes, they never had in the first place. And as a result, unlike is often forced to resort to crime. So yes, unlike needs like. Let us take the following example. Unlike (a thief) needs like (a wealthy politician) to subsidize housing. Unlike needs food, water, and shelter, but can scarcely afford it. Like needs votes for the upcoming election. How would one solve this dilemna….?

Aristotle stated that “Friendship would seem to hold cities together” (Aristotle 119). This may then seem ironic given that Aristotle had an elitist view of friendship. Needless to say, I disagree with Aristotle wholeheartedly on this–still, his sentiment is relevant even today. So many have been left behind. Look at our example, and then think about how Aristotle’s quote applies. Does our petty thief want to steal? Is that really what he wants to spend the rest of his life doing? Surely not, he simply needs to support himself and, if applicable, his family. And yes, our politician may want to be successful. He may want to have a long and illustrious career. But in a very real sense, he just wants to better society.

If society were based on friendship, our thief would be helped in such a way that he would no longer need to steal. And for the politician, the benefit is twofold. Firstly, our thief (now no longer a thief) would support our politician, adding to here. More importantly however, she would actually be making a difference! One of the problems with contemporary politics in general is how self-aggrandizing everything has become. In contemporary America, how would we deal with our thief? Justice. But does justice deal with the problem at its source?  A year in jail? Five years in jail? Will sufficient help be available to assist our prisoner upon release so that he doesn’t have to steal again? Today, justice is not justice– justice is punishment. It does not remedy the issues of inequality and lack of opportunity that cause people to commit crime. Rather, it perpetrates the cycle of crime by throwing small-time offenders in jail again, and again, and again. Even today, the “Ever-relevant” (Mahalatti 2/14/19) Aristotle was quite correct in saying “Equality, however, does not appear to be the same in friendship as justice” (Aristotle 127).

According to Plato, Opposite-based friendships are utility-based, while resemblance-based friendships are not. However, having now fleshed out the nature of friendship, I disagree. Friends need each other. In political philosophy, people need each other. In friendship-based society, there is no difference. When two people are friends, they simply know. Despite the fact that friendship may not be “for anything”, friends need each other. They need each other to escape loneliness, to help oneself and each other. For Plato and Aristotle, while justice divides; friendship unifies. Most importantly, friendship supports.


[Dimitri El Murr, Philia in Plato, in Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendships, 2016]

[Brian Carr, Friendship in Plato’s Lysis, in Friendship East and West, 1996]

[Aristotle, Nichomachean ethics, 340 BC]

[Mahallati, Class Lectures, 2/7/19, 2/12/19, 2/14/19]

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