A man is happy if he has merely encountered the shadow of a friend. —Menander
Plato and Aristotle both give an important place to friendship in the good life; Plato devotes the major part of three books (the Lysis, Phaedrus, and Symposium) to friendship and to love, and in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle lavishes extravagant praise upon the Greek concept of friendship or philia, which includes not only voluntary relationships but also those relationships that hold between the members of a family. Friendship, says Aristotle, is a virtue which is ‘most necessary with a view to living … for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods’.
If friendship is so important to the good life, then it is important to ask the question, what is friendship? According to Aristotle, for a person to be friends with another ‘it is necessary that [they] bear good will to each other and wish good things for each other, without this escaping their notice’. A person may bear good will to another for one of three reasons, that he is good (that is, rational and virtuous), that he is pleasant, or that he is useful. While Aristotle leaves room for the idea that relationships based on advantage alone or pleasure alone can give rise to friendships, he believes that such relationships have a smaller claim to be called friendships than those that are based partly or wholly on virtue. ‘Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, not coincidentally.’ Friendships that are based partly or wholly on virtue are desirable not only because they are associated with a high degree of mutual benefit, but also because they are associated with companionship, dependability, and trust. More important still, to be in such a friendship and to seek out the good of one’s friend is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness.
For Aristotle, an act of friendship is undertaken both for the good of one’s friend and for the good of oneself, and there is no reason to think that the one precludes the other. In any case, to have a perfect friend is like to have ‘another self’, since perfect friends make the same choices as each other and each one’s happiness adds to that of the other. Unfortunately, the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for example, in young people, who are not yet wise enough to be virtuous), and, second, because a perfect friendship can only be created and sustained if a pair of friends spend a great deal of exclusive quality time together. Thus, even if one lived entirely surrounded by virtuous people, one would only ever have the time for at most a small handful of perfect friends.
The ideal of perfect friendship may strike the modern reader as being somewhat elitist, but Aristotle is surely right in holding that the best kinds of friendship are both rare and demanding. If the best kinds of friendship are those that are based on virtue, then this is above all because such friendships call upon the exercise of reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness. However, it could be that the distinctive function of human beings is not the exercise of reason and virtue, but the capacity to form loving and meaningful relationships. If this is the case, then friendships that are based on virtue are even more important to the good life than Aristotle thinks.
Despite the extravagant praise that he lavishes upon friendship, Aristotle is quite clear that the best and happiest life is not the life spent in friendship, but the life spent in the contemplation of those things that are most true and therefore most beautiful and most dependable. There is a contradiction here: if the best life is a life of contemplation, then friendship is either superfluous or inimical to the best life, and therefore undeserving of the high praise that Aristotle lavishes upon it. It may be, as Aristotle tentatively suggests, that friendship is needed because it leads to contemplation, or that contemplation is only possible some of the time and friendship is needed the rest of the time, or even that a life of friendship is just as good as a life of contemplation. So much for Aristotle, one might say. Plato also gives an important place to friendship in the good life…