According To Aristotle, There's A Good Chance You've Never Had Real Friends

by Courtney Newell

Do you ever wonder what the perfect friendship or relationship looks like, or if you could ever achieve it? Aristotle thinks he knows what the perfect friendship takes, but you may or may not be capable of ever achieving it.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, true friends “wish well to their friends for their sake.” To describe what this means, Aristotle uses an example about wine.

If we put the fact that wine is an inanimate object aside, we still can’t really “wish wine well” for its own sake. This is because the wine may give us a feeling of drunkenness that we like, or maybe we like the taste of it, but it is only because of what it does for us that we like it. We don’t like it for its own sake.

We also have to be aware of the well-wishing going on. Wine can’t be aware of what it does for us, sadly (but, like, thanks anyway, wine). If it is not apparent or communicated that we wish someone well, then it can’t be a real friendship, according to Aristotle.

The well-wishing must be mutual. It isn’t a friendship if I wish another well, but she does not wish me well in return. Now that we know the criteria of what a true friend looks like, we can analyze the three types of friendships Aristotle believes we can have:

1. The Utility Friendship

In this kind of friendship, both parties like each other for what the other does for him or her.

Let's take your club promoter, for example. With your club promoter, you maintain your friendly relationship with him so you can get into clubs for free, be seated at an exclusive table and get free alcohol for the evening. The promoter is friends with you because it's his job to get as many attractive women as possible to come to the club and make it look like a popular, fun place.

Each of you gets a mutual benefit from this relationship, and you are friends because of this mutual benefit. The same thing goes for your weed dealer. He sells weed and gets money, and the buyer gets high. Everyone is still friendly with each other and probably "wishes the other well" in the simplest way.

2. The Pleasure Friendship

This could be your drunk party friend, as well as all of your other friends. This is the friendship that characterizes almost all of our friendships right now.

In this kind of relationship, we're friends because we find the other person to have pleasant qualities we want to surround ourselves with. The person might be physically attractive, or we may love his or her personality and really enjoy his or her company.

This could be our drunk party friend we love to hang out with on a Saturday night. We might not want to move in with this person since we don't have a wide knowledge of his or her depth and character, but we definitely consider the person a friend because being with him or her makes us happy.

The most important factor to note about these two types of friendships is they are both short-term compared to the perfect friendship. You could have a friend that is both a utility friend and a pleasure friend. These two are short-term relationships because as human beings, our needs and personalities change.

Ten years from now, I’m (probably) not going to want to go to clubs on a Friday night, and my friendship with my club promoter will be over. After your freshman year of college, you won’t need the security and pleasantness of your pleasure friend, and the friendship will end when you meet new people whom you want to get to know on a deeper level.

3. The Perfect Friendship

This is the friend you love for his or her moral goodness and character. This type of friendship is different from the above two, seeing as it is long-term. It takes time to develop a deep connection that will withstand time and the changing of our lives and personalities.

This friendship gets harder to achieve because its foundation is a love for the other person's character and a love for their virtuousness and goodness. It is difficult — if not impossible — to think about people in our lives whom we love for their characters and goodness above all else.

We might say we love someone's intelligence, outgoing nature or even his or her compassion toward other people, but it takes time to truly get to know someone's character. And you don’t really know it until you’ve gone through a lot together.

To Aristotle, loving someone for his or her character requires that you are also a good, moral person. Both people in this perfect friendship must be alike in their virtues and strive for goodness together. Their friendship is perfect because they continuously make each other better in each of their virtuousness.

There is a sense of harmony in their alikeness of virtues. Since friendships require a kind of equality to Aristotle, it makes sense that equal virtuousness and striving for the betterment of each other would make for the most perfect friendship.

This is why Aristotle also adds that a good, virtuous person can be friends with a bad person, but it could never be a perfect friendship. It's hard for a good person to be friends with a bad person because the bad person is always dragging the good one down. The equality is way off balance, and not enough commonalities exist between the two of them for them to be ever be perfect friends.

Aristotle gives us a way to analyze our own relationships when he presents criteria for what a friend is, and the three types of friendships that can form. Utility and pleasure friendships are short-term and characterized by our changing wants and needs.

The perfect friendship takes time to develop, and lots of us will never have it. It requires two morally good people to be in a perfect friendship, and they are most harmonious due to the love they have of each other's character and their inevitable betterment of each other.

Even though I can't have Aristotle's version of a perfect friendship right now, I'm sure as hell going to enjoy my utility and pleasure friends.