Aristotle on Friendship

(This is an adaptation of a blog post I wrote in Swedish a couple of days ago.)

On Facebook one is “friends” with all one’s contacts – even those one has never met in real life, and even those one has not heard about before one gets a “friends request”. The new competitor to Facebook, Google+, on the other hand, makes a distinction between a circle of “friends” and a circle of “acquaintances”. This made me wonder about where one draws the line between an “acquaintance” and a “friend”; and I recalled that Aristotle discusses various types of friendship in The Nicomachean Ethics.

In fact, Aristotle devotes two whole books (book 8–9) in The Nicomachean Ethics to this subject. To make a long story short, he distinguishes between three types of friendships: friendship for the sake of utility, friendship for the sake of pleasure, and true friendship, where people like or love one another for what they are. An example of the first type would be a business acquaintance; and this kind of friendship ends when the utility ends. Or one might be friendly with one´s dentist, because he performs a useful service; but this is a friendship that ends when one leaves the dentist’s office and does not come back until one’s next visit to the dentist.

Friends for the sake of pleasure are those who like to talk to each other, to sometimes share a beer or a dinner on the town, to go to sports events or the theatre or the opera together, etcetera, etcetera. This is a more lasting kind of friendship; but it also comes to an end, when the pleasure comes to an end. If such friends are separated (if, for example, one of them moves to another town), the friendship will tend to evaporate.

The third, and best, kind of friendship can only occur between good people (nobody would like to be “bosom friends” with somebody bad). Such a friend is, in Aristotle’s words, “another self”, an “alter ego”; such friends rejoice and grieve together; they always wish one another well; the affection or love one feels for such a friend  is akin to the affection and love one feels for oneself.

This is a short summary, and I have left out a lot. For example, Aristotle also discusses friendship within a family; and he has the interesting observation that young people easily find “friends of pleasure”, but those friendships are also easily dissolved; while old and sour people (such as myself) have a hard time finding such friends.

So what does this have to do with Facebook and Google+? The question is, how many really true and good friends could one have? This is what Aristotle writes about this:

Should we, then, make as many friends as possible, or […] should a man neither be friendless nor have an excessive number of friends?

To friends made with a view to utility this saying would seem thoroughly applicable; for to do services to many people in return is a laborious task and life is not long enough for its performance. Therefore friends in excess of those who are sufficient for our own life are superfluous, and hindrances to the noble life; so that we have no need of them. Of friends made with a view to pleasure, also, few are enough, as a little seasoning in food is enough.

But as regards good friends, should we have as many as possible, or is there a limit to the number of one’s friends? […] [F]or friends […] there is a fixed number – perhaps the largest number with whom one can live together (for that, we found, is thought to be the very characteristic of friendship); and that one cannot live with many people and divide oneself up among them is plain. Further, they too must be friends of one another; and it is a hard business for this condition to be fulfilled with a large number. It is found difficult, too, to rejoice and to grieve in an intimate way with many people, for it may likely happen that one has at once to be happy with one friend and to mourn with another. Presumably, then, it is well not to seek to have as many friends as possible, but as many as are enough for the purpose of living together; for it would seem actually impossible to be a great friend to many people. This is why one cannot love several people; love is ideally a sort of excess of friendship, and that can only be felt towards one person; therefore great friendship too can only be felt towards a few people.

What, then, has Aristotle to say about those who have hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends?

Those who have many friends and mix intimately with them all are thought to be no one’s friend, except in the way proper to fellow citizens, and such people are also called obsequious. In the way proper to fellow citizens, indeed, it is possible to be the friend of many and yet not be obsequious but a genuinely good man; but one cannot have with many people the friendship based on virtue and on the character of our friends themselves, and we must be content if we find even a few such. (The Nicomachean Ethics. Book 9, Section 10; translated by David Ross.)

Well, I should not accuse those who have many Facebook friends of obsequiousness – it is Facebook that has defined “friend” in such a way that virtually anyone could be subsumed under the concept. But what about Google+? Well, I have quite a few “friends for pleasure” – people whose status updates and comments I like to read, and even some that I like to share a beer with. But friends that I would always rejoice and grieve with? With the possible exception of my lady-friend (and my mother, when she was still alive) I cannot even remember having had such a close friend. So I am content with having only acquaintances on Google+.

Update February 9, 2016: Aristotle’s point illustrated:

I found this on a Facebook group called Ik heb liever weinig echte vrienden dan veel schijnheilige vrienden (i.e. “I would rather have few genuine friends than many sanctimonious friends”).

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