“MY BEST FRIEND IS THE MAN WHO IN WISHING ME WELL WISHES IT FOR MY SAKE.” – ARISTOTLE
The Ethics Matters essay in the last issue of this magazine ended with the suggestion that human fulfillment depends in part on living with others in friendship. And, as the above quotation attests, it is something that many people seem to value highly. But, perhaps not surprisingly, friendship is yet another one of those words that is often used, but seldom defined. Let us explore its meaning by reflecting upon what these quotations seem to have in common.
Although we could turn to many thinkers for assistance, it is Aristotle who provides us some fundamental guidance on the matter. He begins by examining the three reasons why we might like someone: because he or she is pleasant, useful or good. Each of these reasons might be considered a basis for friendship. But, the most perfect and desirable of these is the one based on character, namely when each person recognizes that the other is a person of good character, possessing the fundamental virtues of courage, temperance, justice and prudence, among others.
But, there is a caution. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that “those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not insofar as the other is the person loved but insofar as he or she is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the person that he or she is that the loved person is loved, but only as providing some good or pleasure.” Accordingly, he concludes that relationships based on usefulness or pleasure are only incomplete approximations of true friendship.
“Perfect friendship,” on the other hand, “is the friendship of persons who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other as good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not just incidentally…and such a friendship is as might be expected permanent, since there meet in it all the qualities that friends should have.”
Perhaps, then, this is one of the key insights regarding genuine friendship: wanting for the other person not what is best for us, but what is best for them – loving the other for his/her own sake. In the deepest and most complete sense, people enjoy genuine friendship when they spend their time in shared activities. And, when this sort of mutual goodwill is present, we have a real friendship where both participants find themselves in a position to flourish. And that is why one of the key contributors to human fulfillment and happiness involves living with others in friendship.