Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Giselle Glaspie: Friendship According to Plato and Aristotle

If I understand the assignment correctly, this response paper is an opportunity for me to share my reactions to the class readings and discussions. I must admit, therefore, that the prompt for this paper is somewhat confusing to me. Can I consider the assigned readings on Plato and Aristotle to be their political philosophies? Are their discussions of friendship necessarily political? Should I be expanding beyond Plato and Aristotle? I will attempt to answer the prompt as best I can without answers to these questions.

Both Plato and Aristotle devoted a significant amount of time to understanding the meanings and manifestations of friendship. Because of the narrow scope of this assignment, I am going to focus on only a sample of each philosopher’s ideas from our class readings: Carr’s analysis of friendship in Plato’s Lysis and Book 8 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. While these samples differ greatly from one another, one important commonality is that they are both concerned with philia as opposed to eros. According to our class discussion, the latter refers to selfish love, or the desire to possess another person, and is most often associated with erotic love. The former has more to do with the typical understanding of friendship – philia is love that’s based on mutuality and equality. I will come back to this idea later, after discussing the features of both texts.

I found Aristotle’s writings much more accessible than Plato’s, though that could be due to a number of factors. First of all, having had limited exposure to Plato, I was surprised to read such an out-of-touch and confusing exploration of friendship. Secondly, Plato’s writings were hard to understand – he used roundabout explanations that required multiple readings. Indeed, Oliver Leaman writes in the introduction to Friendship East and West that “Aristotle was able to reach a much more accurate and profound view of friendship through trying to interpret and understand the very different account tentatively offered by Plato” (Leaman 3). It seems to me that in Lysis, Plato was approaching friendship in a transactional, anatomical way that didn’t acknowledge human emotion or unpredictability.

As Carr writes, Lysis understands friendship as nonsymmetrical and utility, whereas “real” friendship is symmetrical and not utility. Symmetry in this case refers to the idea that if person A is a friend of person B, then person B is a friend of person A. Plato didn’t think of it that way, at least not in Lysis. He considered friendship to be a one-way street, asking (through Socrates), “When a man loves someone, which is the friend of which? Is it the one who loves who is the friend of the one who is loved? Or is it the one who is loved who is the friend of the one who loves?” (Leaman 20). I had to read these lines three times and draw a diagram in my head to fully understand what Socrates was asking here. Not only does this present an asymmetrical and non-reciprocal view of friendship, but it also suggests that friendship is a means to an end – in other words, a utility. So, despite the fact that Plato was writing about philia, the one-sidedness of his descriptions lends itself more to eros.

Aristotle’s analysis is almost completely opposite – the closest he gets to suggesting friendship is utility is saying “[Friendship] is most necessary for our life” (Aristotle 119). This statement gets at the heart of Aristotle’s views on the subject, though he distinguishes between three types of friendship and seems to have a comprehensive understanding of the many manifestations of friendship. Unlike Plato, Aristotle believes in the reciprocity and symmetry of friendship, both of which are necessary for a fulfilling life. Friendship is the end in itself, not a means to another end.

From these writings, it is clear to me that Plato’s interest in friendship, at least in terms of his political philosophy, was centered around its use as a political tool. Aristotle, however, saw it as something inherent to the human experience; without it, we wouldn’t know ourselves. Out of the two of them, Aristotle’s ideas on friendship are most relevant today. He wrote that “justice … naturally increases with friendship” (129 Aristotle), so if we want a more just society, we should be promoting friendship. Let us not forget that “friendship is more than a virtue, it is a mode of life” (from class discussion).

Another idea from class last week that has stuck with me is that of Plato’s significance in Abrahamic religions: “Loving someone is the prelude to loving God.” I am unsure as to how this was derived from Plato’s writings. Does it have to do with friendship as utility with regard to religion? The reason we love others is simply to get practice for loving God? This brings me to another question: Is loving God symmetrical or asymmetrical? I’m inclined to say symmetrical, but God is so much bigger than us, so he/she/they must love humans more powerfully and unconditionally than we ever could.

This has already been a rather scattered flow of ideas, and I’m giving up on smooth transitions. That said, after reading about the Ancient Greek philosophers’ conceptions of friendship, I became interested in those of other ancient cultures, particularly the Chinese. After a bit of research, I came across an article called, appropriately, “Friendship in Ancient China.” I haven’t read the whole article, but something caught my interest on first glance: One of the guiding principles in Ancient China was the belief in the Five Relationships, which separated friendship from all other types of relationships. As noted in the Doctrine of the Mean, “‘the universal way of the world has five aspects: [the relationships between] ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and the interaction between friends’” (Vervoorn 3). This concept seems to directly contrast both Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas of friendship, which included the other four relationships as types of friendship. I think it’s worth discussing that in class; I am especially interested in the implications of referring to parent-child relationships as friendships.





Aristotle, and Terence Irwin. “Book 8.” The Nicomachean Ethics, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999.

Leaman, Oliver. “Friendship in Plato’s Lysis.” Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives, Routledge, 2014.

Vervoorn, Aat. “Friendship in Ancient China.” East Asian History, vol. 27, June 2004, pp. 1-32.



I affirm that I have adhered to the honor code in this assignment.

Giselle Glaspie

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