Befriending at the Right Pace

Some friendships are instantaneous and others take a life time

Posted Oct 05, 2014

Can you be friends in an instant? Can you befriend at first sight? The always disappointing answer is, “It depends.” It depends on the type of friendship

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) is the first philosopher to offer categories of friendship. He does this in the context of trying to identify the sort of friendship that is necessary for living the happiest and most virtuous life. Aristotle wants to demonstrate the right kind of friendship is the most important relationship one person (Aristotle really means a subset of citizen men) can have with another. This relationship trumps both marriage and parenting, which may seem heretical to married people or people with children. 

Many of Aristotle’s claims about friendship are based on seriously problematic assumptions about who has full rational capacity and hence who can be the right sort of friend. It is important to acknowledge this. However, with some repair and rehabilitation, much of what Aristotle says is applicable today. 

Aristotle offers three types of friendship that differ from one another based on what each person likes about the relationship or aims to get in the relationship. His categories of friendship are: 

  • Pleasure
  • Utility
  • Virtue/Complete 

Aristotle’s language may seem a little alien or off-putting to us, but the distinctions he draws will be familiar. He would agree that many friendships are situational; they are products of the circumstances in which one finds herself. The first two kinds—pleasure and utility—are both quite common and can be understood as involving people who are friends for a reason or friends for a season. The third type—virtue/complete friendship—is very rare and it is the one that contributes most profoundly to a person’s happiness

Pleasure friendship is based on the enjoyment that each person experiences in the relationship. This kind of friendship can be instantaneous. One can walk into a social gathering and see a person across the room who just looks like she is having fun. Or is fun. We can be drawn to that fun and want to participate. We may not see this person in other settings. This person may be the other parent who has been sitting with you during seasons of junior hockey.  She’s witty, kind, and smart. She’s smart enough to bring an extra blanket for those long days on sitting in a hockey arena. 

Aristotle says that the young tend to favor these sorts of friendships. They incline toward having fun and feeling good because they are governed more by their feelings. There may be something accurate about this, but as people get older most of us develop a better sense of what pleases us. We can be a little more intentional in striking up these sorts of friendships and appreciating the pleasure and good feelings they bring to us. 

Pleasures can be fleeting and fickle though. As quickly as a pleasure friendship can be formed, it can be dissolved, according to Aristotle. Here, too, he is making reference to the fact that what young people find pleasurable can change quickly. 

Utility friendship is a friendship that is based on the usefulness or benefit that each person experiences in the relationship. This may sound as if it is really a relationship of two people using each other, and there may be an element of truth in that. A utility friendship often is a matter of a shared situation and a shared need. Two employees who might not otherwise have much interest in each other may find themselves working together because they possess complementary skills. 

Needs can change quickly. Needs can also be met and addressed and no longer hold, so the basis for the relationship changes.  When this happens, the utility friendship may dissolve. 

Pleasure and utility friendships are incomplete, according to Aristotle. They are incomplete in part because their focus or point is what each person “gets” from the other. Putting it in the least charitable way, each person likes the friend or the relationship because of how it makes her feel (some sort of pleasure) or how it meets her need or want (some utility). It isn’t that there isn’t good will for the other person; there must be some reciprocal good will for the relationship to be a friendship. But the good will is limited in how far it goes. It might not extend beyond the confines of the particular reasons or seasons that one befriends another. 

Pleasure and utility friendships are not bad. The play important roles in all of our lives. All is well so long as each person has the same set of expectations for the relationship. Trouble may follow when one person understands the relationship to be deeper or more serious than it is. When one person derives too much benefit at the expense of the other, this may also be a problem. Good will can devolve into resentment when expectations change or are unmet. 

Aristotle sets the bar very high for complete/virtue friendship. This is the type of friendship that makes the most important contribution to a happy and virtuous life. Happiness and virtue are inseparable for Aristotle in a way that may puzzle many contemporary readers.  But he is making two simple and perhaps obvious points. First, we become who we are by what we do. Doing good virtuous acts makes us have a character that appreciates the relationship between doing good things and being happy. The second point is that we do many things with our friends. The right friends uplift us, making us into better people. The wrong friends will be along for the ride that may end in a disastrous crash

The people in the virtue/complete friendship must have the same sort of concern for their virtue and character.  A good decent person cannot have a complete friendship with someone who shows little decency to others. The person who is capable of a complete friendship is one who is concerned to always be improving his character in order to become a more virtuous person. This may sound self-absorbed, but for Aristotle it is quite the opposite. The person of good character loves his virtue friend for the kind of person he is and not for what he can get from that person. This is what makes the friendship complete. 

Friendships that are based on virtue are rare. One cannot have many virtue friends, Aristotle rightly claims. Such friendships require intention, careful cultivation, and hard work over a significant period of time. Friendship, Aristotle reminds us, is an activity and not an emotion or disposition.   

To be capable of this virtue friendship, one must first know herself and her character. She also must learn to identify other people who possess the right sort of character. This takes a certain amount of maturity and wisdom, which is part of the reason that Aristotle would say that the young are not yet capable of having complete friends. As odd as it may sound, we need to learn how to be friends. It isn’t something that we intuitively know.  

How do we meet people who may become complete friends to us? In many instances, a person who is a virtue friend to another has started out as a pleasure or utility friend. People who go on to play prominent roles in our lives—as virtue friends most surely do—often come into our lives based on coincidence or circumstance.  We may not know at first or even tenth meeting that a person may develop into one of the most important to us. It may even surprise us.

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