Friends in High Places From Aristotle's View

What can we learn about friendships from how President Trump handles his?

Posted Apr 18, 2017

It is always difficult to consider another person's friendships from afar, even when much has been written about him or her. One way to understand friendships is to look at how well-known people might frame them even though we are often left with an unfinished portrait. Knowing more about and observing others allows us insight into ourselves. A few years ago I described what was known about President Obama and a small group of his old friends with whom he communed annually in Hawaii. Now I turn to President Trump and his male friendships. The lenses I will use to reflect on his friendships will first be some of the research findings from my book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. That will help to see how typical President Trump's friendships may be. I will then provide what Aristotle wrote about friendships to offer a different perspective. It is hard to observe a president at leisure with others and to not reflect on what type of friendships we would have in the presidency. 

In Buddy System, 386 men were asked what friendship means to them:

1. Over half (57%) replied that it meant being understood (communicating, sharing, caring, not being judged)

2. Trust and loyalty were mentioned by 50%

3. Dependability was mentioned by 42%

4. Doing things with/hanging out with by 24%

5. Having things in common with someone by 18%

When asked how they made friends, 60% said they found things in common with others and when asked what they did with friends, 80% said they engaged in sports. Men were characterized as enjoying getting together and doing things shoulder to shoulder, such as engaging in sports or watching sports. This is in contrast to women (120 were interviewed for the book) who prefer more face-to-face activities that involve more verbal communication.

One final finding: Three-quarters of the men reported they had platonic, non-sexual friendships with women.

Aristotle, in Nichomachean Ethics, wrote that true friendships were difficult to achieve and maintain because they required complete devotion from another. Someone cannot have more than a few friends because of the investment that is needed in a friendship. Aristotle also wrote that one had to:

a. Know someone for many years to consider that person a friend

b. "Share salt" with someone, i.e., go through a difficult experience with them (like combat), in order to become a friend.

c. Be a peer to be a friend. To this last point, if there is an inequality between two people in terms of power (consider a boss and an employee) than there cannot be a true friendship as one has something to gain from the other.

In a number of ways, and based on news reports (which are, admittedly, not always accurate and, when it comes to friendships, may be a projection of the writer—myself included), President Trump seems typical of many men in how he makes and maintains his friendships.

Trump, like 50% of the men in Buddy System, could be described as loyal to his friends; he tweeted support for Michael Flynn and for Bill O'Reilly.

Trump likes doing things with other people (as 24% did). Golf is the most obvious activity.

Trump appears to spend time with people with whom he has things in common; Trump has many interests, ranging from television production and entertainment, to business, to sports. He has called upon many people in business to join his cabinet. From news reports, he does not appear to have close friends in the arts, literature, science, and academia.

He is, like many men, a shoulder-to-shoulder guy when it comes to spending time with friends. He seems to be a "doer," not someone who enjoys face-to-face activities.

It is dangerous to speculate on the number of female platonic friends he has, given the high profile some of his behavior towards women has garnered. It is probably safe to wonder, and considering the few women (four) in his cabinet, if he has many female platonic friends. It needs to be noted though that he, perhaps like other men who answered the survey, may have responded to that question that he did have platonic women friends.

As for an Aristotelian view of his friendships, I believe the two would diverge on a few points and converge on others. Trump would probably say that he has many close friends, not a few as Aristotle suggests. He might, as Aristotle suggests one should do, value his long-standing friends over newly acquired friends. President Trump may also agree that being in business during difficult times (the sharing of salt) may help to forge closer friendships. But I believe President Trump and Aristotle would disagree about the last point related to peer-to-peer friendships. The President has described himself as a man of the people and as having friends from a range of backgrounds and classes. Aristotle would probably not agree with Trump's definition of friendship, he would say it is impossible to be friends with people who worked for him in his businesses.

This exercise is meant to have us all reflect on how we make and maintain friends and what we learn from observing others in the process. It is also to point out that friendships are dynamic. I do not know what Aristotle would say about the conflicting tropes he offers: What happens to the long-time childhood friendships where salt has been shared and so much has been given to the relationship when one friend achieves great power? Which of the variables trumps the other?