Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Zite Ezeh: The Duty of Friendship

Friendship, as both a social and political concept, plays a vital role in the theories of philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. In his book, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle spends two chapters examining the different ways in which friendship can manifest between two people. He defines friendship as mutually understood “reciprocated goodwill,” stating that for two people to be friends, they “must have goodwill to each other, wish goods and be aware of it, from [pleasure, utility, or virtue].”[1] This definition implies not only that friendship is something occurring between people who regard each other as equals, but also that it is not just a random happening – rather, it is the outcome of actions taken with specific intentions.

Although Aristotle spent considerably more time than Plato exploring the idea of friendship in his work, the two still had fairly similar notions on the concept. In their works, they repeatedly refer to friendship as a ‘love for…’, prefacing the concept with the assertion that any action taken by a friend is not only taken with specific intentions, but is rooted in love. Knowing this, the question then lies in whether that love itself is based on something virtuous, or something unethical.

According to both Plato and Aristotle, there are three different kinds of friendships. Aristotle classifies them as “those who love for pleasure, utility, [and] the friendship of  good people similar in virtue.”[2] Aristotle describes friendships of pleasure and utility in virtually the same way, making the point that both of these forms of friendship are comprised of people only loving others because of what they can do for oneself (i.e. providing some form of enjoyment or usefulness) rather than loving others because of who those other people are as individuals. These types of friendship are conditional – contingent on the immediate wants of each party being met. Friendship of virtue though, is the concept of a friendship where two people who are both morally ‘good’ choose to love each other because of that goodness and because they find good things loveable, they will, therefore, continue to love each other so long as they both are good.[3] Plato, on the other hand, categorizes the three forms of friendship as “(1) friendship from resemblance, (2) friendship from opposites, and (3) a mixed friendship.”[4] He explains friendship from opposites as being a friendship rooted in one’s need for a connection with someone different from themselves, whereas friendship from resemblance is built on the appreciation of the similarities between two people and the mutual desire for the other to grow more virtuous. Then there is the mixed form of friendship, which can be explained as a struggle between one’s desire for the other to become more ethical and virtuous and the want for the other to provide one with personal satisfaction.[5]

The conceptions of Aristotle and Plato, while expressed in differing terms, are more alike than they are contrasting. They both break friendship down into three categories that, when examined closely, are, in essence, almost identical. Friendship of utility is akin to friendship from opposites – both examining a form of friendship where two people are friends because of what they can provide to each other. Whether that be a specific service, or just the act of being different and diversifying one’s life, the nature of the relationship remains the same. Friendship of pleasure is, in turn, similar to mixed friendship in that they both describe a friendship that not only involves, but is by definition, based on gaining some form of personal gratification. And friendship of virtue is analogous to friendship from resemblance by way of them both placing the greatest importance on the issue of each friend’s virtue.

Friendship, in philosophies such as these, seems to be an unattainable ideal that we as humans undoubtedly fail to achieve. The perfect, virtuous friendship that they describe seems to be quite impossible when applied in real world situations, for humans are flawed and inconsistent – and we always will be. Is it really possible for people to start friendships without some form of utility or pleasure being involved? I, for one, do not think so. I believe that friendships can morph into something that is based on virtue, but not that they can start that way, for how would one make that split-second decision and just choose to make themselves love a person? And how would one even know if the other person is ‘good’? Is it not implied that two people would have to interact with each other in some capacity first in order to know? And during such an interaction, one would then gain pleasure from the interaction and then conclude that the other is good. If that is the case, then that would become a friendship of pleasure. Do such friendships cease to be virtuous? Ideally, we would all want to be involved in only good and virtuous friendships, but these philosophies somewhat fail to realize the unreliability that we as humans will always bring to the equation.

Nevertheless, framing it in the way Plato and Aristotle did implies that friendship is something we as humans have duties to in order to uphold, rather than as something we have the right to gain from. If we want a good and virtuous friendship, then we must actively be virtuous ourselves. Having duty as a standard is beneficial because being able to think of relationships from such a framework will allow for people to shift their focus and become more interested in what they can do for others, as opposed to what others can do for them.

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), p. 121.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, p. 122.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, p. 124.

[4] Dimitri El Murr, “Philia in Plato,” In Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, ed. Suzanne Stern-Gillet and Gary M. Gurtler (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), p. 9.

[5] Dimitri El Murr, “Philia in Plato,” p. 9–13.

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